With Sean Baker’s microbudget trans feature Tangerine, executive producers Mark and Jay Duplass have had more success than they anticipated in terms of the indie’s reception by viewers and tastemakers. Shot on an iPhone 5S, candid-camera-style—with the actors and crew running around Hollywood shooting on the fly—Tangerine tells the story of two trans prostitutes, often based at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue, who are in pursuit of one of the girl’s pimp and fiancé. Newly inducted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last year, the Duplass brothers have decided to mount an Oscar campaign for the film, pushing for the first-ever nomination of a transgender actress, Mya Taylor, who recently received an Indie Spirit Award nom. Distributor Magnolia Pictures has backed them all the way. Below, writer-director-actor Mark Duplass (Togetherness, The One I Love) discusses his involvement with the project, his varying role as a mentor to budding filmmakers, and the way Tangerine captures a very famous part of Los Angeles.
I’d imagine Sean Baker is a director after your own heart, for the way in which he is able to craft compelling stories with large budgetary constraints. When did you first learn about Sean, and what made you want to get involved with Tangerine?
I saw his second feature, Prince of Broadway, when I was on a jury at the Woodstock Film Festival, and I got on the phone for the jury. I said, “I don’t give a shit what any of you say. This movie is winning the Grand Jury Prize. This is the greatest filmmaker I’ve met in the last ten years.” It was that combination of him being such an empathetic, non-exploitative seeker of subjects, who are real people that he casts the narrative around, playing versions of themselves onscreen, and it was just so unique. He and I do share a similar passion of trying to do more with less and almost getting excited by that, so when he came to me with the idea of Tangerine, Jay (Duplass) and I greenlit the movie in about 30 seconds.
You and Jay are credited as executive producers on the project. How would you describe your involvement?
Sean and I became friends almost 10 years ago and he brought me this concept because I told him, “Look man, if you ever need a little bit of money to do a movie that is hard to get financed, come to me.” So he pitched me the initial idea and how he had developed a relationship with Mya Taylor and Kiki Rodriguez, and sort of built this movie around them. He used his unique screenwriting process, which is to work with actors to build a very detailed treatment. It’s a little bit like the Mike Leigh process, where they use some improvisation to build a detailed treatment from which they shoot the movie, and he does that to illuminate characters who are just a little bit more on the fringe.
In addition to your busy life as a writer, director and actor, you’ve mentored many budding filmmakers. Do your contributions vary greatly from project to project?
They vary a ton, and in the case of Sean, he’s such a fully formed creative person. This is his fourth feature film. A lot of the work that we had done was giving him the funds to get up and get going, helping him finish and sell the movie. Realizing that this is a movie that people are responding to more than we ever thought they would, organically, we started to run this Academy campaign, which was never a plan at all and something I am completely inexperienced with. I just became a member of the Academy last year, so we just blindly went into this thing. We were like, “OK, we have about 1/50 the budget of the average Academy campaigner, but people are responding to the movie.” So we started sending out links to the movie and I started hosting screenings. I knew that people like Steven Soderbergh and members of the Academy who are more my generation would respond to the film, but when Mel Brooks saw the movie, he was like, “I love this. This is a classic Christmas screwball comedy.” We were like, “Shit, there might be a bigger audience for this movie than we thought.” That’s been the fun part of it.
The project was shot on an iPhone 5s. Are you excited by the possibility of working in different ways with new technology and trying to push the limits in that fashion?
Yeah. I think what was exciting about the iPhone for this movie was not just to be like, “Hey, we shot it on an iPhone, look how cool and new we are.” There was a very specific function of that, which is that we were shooting on the streets—it’s a very urban film—and we needed to be able to move quickly and shoot in a way where the camera was not enormous and bulky and in everybody’s faces, so that we could capture that naturalism the way we wanted to. The iPhone happened to capture that perfectly.
On a microbudget project like this, where you’re shooting on the fly with an iPhone and natural lighting, where does the budgeted money typically end up?
Jay and I don’t believe in the whole “slave labor” aspect of filmmaking. We don’t believe that people should work for free, so anybody that shows up on any of our sets, at the very minimum, is going to be making $100 a day. This is a movie that took us a while to shoot, and we paid people well so that they could survive. Beyond that, once you go to Sundance with a movie and premiere it there, that’s already $20,000 right there. Magnolia pitched in with us and we decided to try and run a bigger campaign. I guess we felt a little emboldened by the Indie Spirit Award nominations. We got Gothams. We ended up on all these Top 10 lists, all three New York critics gave us their Top 10 list. It was bananas. I guess we chased the success to a certain degree.
Like many of your films, Tangerine premiered at Sundance to rave reviews. What’s the current state of your relationship with Sundance programmers, and is it still sometimes a surprise when one of your films gets accepted?
I think it’s really a more and more competitive environment to get your movies into Sundance, and a lot people make snarky comments to us sometimes. They’re like, “Oh, you’re a Duplass. You’ve been there for 10 years. They’re going to take all your movies.” They reject a ton of our movies, just to be clear, and they have no problem doing that. In fact, there have been movies that they’ve told me specifically, “Listen, if this was a new filmmaker I would take it. I’m not going to take this from you because you’ve already done this before, and I need to save a slot for a new filmmaker.” So it can work for me as much as it works against me. In the case of Tangerine, in particular, I really do view this as a Sean Baker film and not a Duplass Brothers film in any way. We executive produced it. We have been here to use our connections in the industry to bring it out wider, but Sean Baker made every inch of this film.
How do you feel about the way the film captures life in L.A., and Hollywood, specifically?
This is a specific little pocket in Hollywood that everyone who lives in L.A. knows, and it’s a very small neighborhood. Donut Time is infamous. The things you see when you pass it are things that people have had stories about for years, and I think it’s very possible that in 10 years it won’t be there, and there will be a large condo complex with storefronts at the bottom. That’s not necessarily the worst thing in the world—these things develop and it happens—but I’m really glad we’re going to have this as a little time capsule of what that area looked like in 2015.
As you previously mentioned, it seems that with the success of this film, there’s a likelihood that it will have a longer life than you anticipated. How do you feel about that?
It’s been really interesting how you look at the cover of a movie like Tangerine and your first instinct is, “This is going to be a hard-hitting issues drama about how tough it is to be a trans sex worker in Hollywood in 2015.” That is very much in the movie, but the takeaway for us has been that this movie is, in many ways, a traditional screwball comedy, and it works on that front so well. That came from Mya and Kiki when they were meeting with Sean about making the movie. They said, “Look, we want to make this movie with you, but our two criteria are that it has to be real and it has to be funny,” and the funny element of the film is what has made it sing so much for us. My favorite Christmas movie of all time is Die Hard because it’s the anti-Christmas movie, and I think that Tangerine has a spot to live up to as that anti-Christmas kind of movie.
Carol screenwriter Phyllis Nagy recently expressed skepticism to AwardsLine about the current state of LGBT narratives in the mainstream media, which she believed to be merely a trend. How do you feel about that, and about the way in which Tangerine fits into that narrative?
It’s interesting because my brother is on Transparent, and in a lot of ways, he entered that community before I did. Then we were a part of Tangerine, which has that side to it, and now we’ve realized it’s an incredibly supportive group, and there’s much less issue-taking than you’d imagine. Laverne Cox came out and hosted a screening for us and Caitlyn Jenner’s going to come out and host a screening for us because they love the movie. I think in large part, a lot of that is about the trans movement and trans equality. They’re all pitching in together and they’re a part of a community, and while I’m not directly a part of that, it’s been really awesome to see that from the sidelines.
What have you learned from being inducted into the Academy and mounting your first campaign for a film?
For us, it was never about getting the Oscar nominations. Jay and I are two of the youngest directors in the Academy and we wanted to see what it was all about there. There’s this feeling and this prejudice that the Academy is just old people who are out of touch, but that actually has proven to be a little bit of bullshit. There’s another theory that you have to buy everything, that money has to be everything, and certainly we would’ve liked one of the enormous budgets that one of the major Academy players has. But with very, very little money we’ve reached a ton of extremely traditional and, frankly, just older voters who have really responded to the movie. So whether we end up on the nomination list for the things that I think are really important, like the film itself, Mya in the supporting actress category, and in particular, Sean in the screenwriting category, it’s a little bit neither here nor there. We’ve laid so much track. We’ve shown so many people that with elbow grease and not a lot of money and a really interesting film, we’ve come so far. If we ended now I would still count this as a victory.
To see a behind-the-scenes featurette on Tangerine, click play below: