Taking It to the Street

Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch forgo the old adage about writing what you know to script Tangerine, the iPhone-shot indie comedy about transgender sex workers seeking revenge and love in the heart of Hollywood.

©2015 Magnolia Pictures
Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, James Ransone, and Mya Taylor in Tangerine.
July 10, 2015 Written by Dylan Callaghan
Sean Baker
Chris Bergoch

It’s not writing what you know. A lot of times that’s a great philosophy, but it’s also fun sometimes to actually dive into something that you don’t know.

– Chris Bergoch

“Hollywood” script development meetings typically happen at places like The Ivy or, for so many unproduced writers, maybe Starbucks. But Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch (Starlet, Prince of Broadway and the many brilliant iterations of Greg the Bunny), developed the script for their new indie comedy Tangerine in the greasy fluorescence of a Jack in the Box in the city of Hollywood, right in the midst of the frightening and fabulous freak menagerie that defines Tinseltown’s real core.

More importantly, rather than sitting across a fancy glass table with some development exec, Bergoch and Baker sat across Formica with Mya Taylor and Kiki Rodriquez – a real-life dynamic pair of transgender pals that know life on the Hollywood streets first hand.

At the outset, all the writing duo knew was they wanted to do a film about transgender sex workers that involved love and possibly revenge that took place during the course of one day. Taylor and Rodriquez, who is a mentor and advocate for the trans community and was introduced to the screenwriter by Taylor at the Hollywood LGBT center, had knowledge of the life, particularly around Highland and Santa Monica, where prostitution and drugs are ubiquitous.

Over nearly a half year of meetings, Taylor and Rodriquez’s dynamism and whip-smart humor revealed not just a world and perspective, but the natural stars of the film. After Baker and Bergoch had convinced the two that they were trustworthy guardians of their stories, Rodriquez told them about a trans friend who had been jilted by her lover with a “fish” – a street term for female by birth – and who imagined revenge. That tale became the core of the Tangerine script, which is told not only with the authenticity of Taylor and Rodriquez’s performances and insight, but which was shot entirely on an iPhone 5s with anamorphic adaptors that give it both jarring immediacy and a singular cinematic glow.

Baker and Bergoch spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about the impetus for the film, the magic chemistry of the film’s stars, and how their own differing tastes, when applied to a shared story, make the writing better.

This script is definitely not a case of writing what you know. I’ve read that during your research for this script you guys went down to Hollywood, hung out at Donut Time and eventually wound out at the LGBT center, where you met Mya who ultimately introduced you to Kiki. Tell me a little bit about that.

Chris Bergoch: You hit it right on the head when you said it’s not writing what you know. A lot of times that’s a great philosophy, but it’s also fun sometimes to actually dive into something that you don’t know. Sean and I love to dive into these stories from worlds that we’re not 100 percent – or really any percent – familiar with. We do a lot of research, leading up to something to see if we could even craft a story about it. That was part of the fun for us.

One of the fascinating things that seems to happen when you go so far out of your own box, or comfort zone, is you draw out connecting, universal themes in an unexpected place. Is that one of the things you experienced?

Chris Bergoch: Yeah, absolutely.

Sean Baker: You apply universal themes to the world that you don’t know about because that’s the way in which you can have an audience identify with the characters on a very human level. In this case, we were focusing on the themes of friendship and fidelity. Those are two themes that are universal so it was just about applying it to that world.

Not only do these universal themes seem to come forward, but it also unmasks all the fear, potential bigotry, or otherness about something…To what extent is removing that sort of scary or bigoted [aspect] of a subject matter to reveal human stories part of what you’re trying to do?

Sean Baker: I believe it is, actually. We started down that road with Starlet. That was the intention because it was about presenting this young woman to an audience who has a profession that is harshly judged. We didn’t want to focus on her profession, but on the other aspects of her life…Basically we didn’t get it out of our system. That’s why we decided to continue along that road and focus on yet another aspect of sex work.

With the added transgender aspect?

Sean Baker: Right.

Chris Bergoch: But the thing is, what Sean was saying before – it’s all good stuff – but when we were putting together the story, we were looking for collaborators, looking for consultants to make it true to the world. You can have all these great crazy things Sin-Dee does in the film. But if there’s no way for the audience to connect emotionally somehow, who’s going to click with that? So a broken heart is something everyone can relate to, and that was our way in.

I read a couple interviews about that meeting at the LGBT center where you initially met Mya and Mya then brought you Kiki. Is it true Kiki eventually told you a story that spawned this plot?

Sean Baker: Yes, that’s exactly what happened. We didn’t want to impose any sort of script or plot. We wanted to collaborate with them. I remember when we first went in there, after having known Mya over the course of a few weeks, we said to her, “We really don’t know where we want to go here. We just know that we think it will take place in one day.” We had to do that for budgetary reasons, so that we don’t have costume changes and continuity is easier, number one. Number two, we’re going to follow two people trying to find each other, whether that’s a love story or a revenge story or something. And number three; I want all the characters to converge at the end of the film in a very Mike Leigh-esque confrontation. And that was absolutely it.

So when Kiki came into the picture, and we continued to brainstorm…and about three weeks in, Kiki goes, “Well, you want a story? I’ll tell you a story.” It was actually something that never played out in real life, but it was something that was contemplated by one of the girls. It was about this tracking down, this manhunt for this “fish.” We were intrigued by the story because of the fact that there’s just so many layers to it – it had aspects of gender roles, [and] it also takes our characters on a journey, we get to know them along the way. It can take place in one day. There were just so many things that we loved about it. The next morning I called Chris, and we were saying that was another one of these amazing anecdotes that we heard, another great story. Then Chris said, “Let’s make that our A plot, and we’ll take all the other anecdotes and stories that we heard over the last few weeks or months and sprinkle those throughout to make our B plots.

Chris Bergoch: We weren’t sure if that would have been enough. With Starlet, we started with some very, very loose plots. It was originally just a cinema vérité tale of a girl who happened to be an adult film star, but on a day off, that had nothing to do with her working in porn. It would simply be her looking for a lost dog for an hour and a half. That never left our systems, I don’t think. We always wanted to tell a story in a day, an A to B story. That’s why I thought, Let’s apply it here. It can be kind of a fun journey through parts of L.A. that are rarely seen on film. We tried to stay away from the typical Chinese Theater and landmarks we see over and over.

They’re still all classic though to me though, because I live here.

Sean Baker: That’s another point and you’ll get it – how many times have you passed Donut Time? Not so much any more, but in the last decade? I remember driving past and out of the car window there’s like this silent movie, there’s always some illicit activity going down there. We wanted to try and find what stories we could we try tell in that backdrop.

So when you decide to go with Kiki’s story as an A plot, what happened then? Did you go away and write the script?

Chris Bergoch: Yeah, we met with them a lot for the research – to hear their stories. I don’t think there’s any one story that’s in the story verbatim. We just combined moments, like, “Okay, that needs to be in the movie.” Plus we wanted to do right by them…Sean, what were Mya’s three rules when she agreed to open up to us?

Sean Baker: I had given her and Kiki my films. It was very interesting to see that Mya really connected with Starlet, while Kiki really connected Prince of Broadway. So I knew that the sensibilities were there and they understood what we were going to attempt to do. At one point she said, “Okay, I will make this film with you, and I want to make this film with you. But you have to promise me two things. You have to promise me number one; you will show the brutal reality of what these women go through out here. Even if it’s un-PC or hard to look at, I want you to show that stuff on camera. And number two; I want this to be funny. And I want this to be entertaining.” I was like, “Oh my god, that’s asking for quite a lot there! It’s going to be quite a balancing act.” But then I understood what she was going for, because these women use humor to cope, to get through their hardships.

I remember when Chris and I spent all those hours at that Jack in a Box where we were meeting them [on Highland and Fountain in Hollywood]…it was like watching standup. I mean they are so funny, so witty. There was this constant back and forth, they would complete each other’s lines, they would give each other punch lines, they would set each other’s jokes up. I saw that they had this incredible amount of humor and if we didn’t go for that, if we didn’t try to capture that stuff…I thought how condescending would that be? So that was really what got us to the point where we’re like, “We’re going to make almost a comedy here. This is not a dramedy like my other films, this is a comedy.”

Roughly how long were you meeting them at the Jack in the Box? What are we talking, three weeks?

Sean Baker: Oh no, more. Six months…

Six months?!

Chris Bergoch: It was about five months. Not every day, of course. It was spread out, maybe sometimes once a week. Sometimes not both of them, sometimes one or the other.

So just to understand then, you were meeting with them during the entire drafting of the script?

Chris Bergoch: No. This is a very evolutionary – the way Sean Baker works – if you don’t mind me saying this Sean – I always equate it with the stories I hear about Saturday Night Live. It’s not the typical, write a script and then the writer goes away, and then they shoot the movie. This is constantly evolving, even as we’re shooting. We’ll both be there feeding them lines, throwing things at them just to try. It’s very back and forth. After we met with them, the script was still evolving between Sean and I. It was frustrating in a funny way – we had a perfect script and then Sean would get an idea, “No we’re going to switch this scene with that scene,” and I would go back and update the draft.

Sean Baker: Yeah.

Chris Bergoch: And the same thing would happen with me, where it’s like, “Wait a minute, I want to have something happen.” There’s a makeshift brothel scene in the movie, we were always coming up with ideas how could we plus it, how could we make it even crazier? A lot of it ties in with the actors we want to work with. So a lot of times we’ll get access to somebody we didn’t know could do it, and they’ll enhance the scene. Alright, if John Gulager, director of the Feast trilogy, is available for this day, then we got to make him do this. It’s always evolving.

Sean Baker: Chris likened it to SNL, I usually reference Mike Leigh and his workshopping. We didn’t work to that extreme with this film, but there is a workshop period as well in which we give them sides. In the rehearsal room, they can riff on those sides, they can go off page, they can bring their own stuff to the table. We transcribe that stuff later if it’s good. So there are workshop sessions, and then on top of that, as Chris has said, “The evolution thing is very important.” At the very end, we went in there with a solid script. But Chris was the one who – actually while shooting, probably three weeks into the shooting – came up with a second twist in the third act. It was a very significant third act twist that was created during shooting based on what we had captured and knowing the pacing of the film and Chris understanding that we needed one more little oomph at the end. We needed that little extra thing.

A little more plussing?

Sean Baker: Yes, exactly. Chris brought that to the table about three weeks in.

Why do you guys like writing as a team versus solo?

Sean Baker: What I found was very interesting with Starlet was that the two of us, even though that we have very similar sensibilities, our influences are different. Chris – and correct me if I’m wrong, Chris – you’re way more influenced by mainstream Hollywood, especially Hollywood of the ‘80s, you know the heyday of Spielberg and Disney. I’m more coming from a British social realism, French new wave, and Italian realism. Sometimes those films don’t have traditional acts, they might not even have a character arc. We meet somewhere in the middle, and that’s very interesting to me. There’s a way of retaining what I want to do in terms of a character study and sort of fly-on-the-wall, but then, at the same time, having the disciplined structure of Hollywood mainstream films.

Chris Bergoch: One of Sean’s favorite films –and I love the film as well – is Harold and Maude. So Starlet is about an unlikely relationship between a 21-year-old and an 85-year-old woman. With me, I was coming fresh off watching Up, which again, if you think about it, is a tale of an old man and a little boy scout. So I have Up in my head, he has Harold and Maude in his.

Sean Baker: That so sums it up.

Chris Bergoch: The same and yet different.

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