Sarah Gertrude Shapiro (UnREAL) Talks Sean Baker’s Tangerine

The emerging showrunner, who voted seven times for Baker's movie in Talkhouse Film's year-end poll explains why she loves it so much.
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Over the first half of January, Talkhouse Film is running the “What We Missed” series, comprising pieces on notable movies from 2015 which were not previously covered. — N.D.

When I voted in Talkhouse Film’s end-of year poll, the ballot listing my favorite films of 2015 looked like this:

Tangerine
Tangerine
Tangerine
Tangerine
Tangerine
Tangerine
Tangerine

For anyone who knows me, the fact that I’m raving about a movie is a big deal. I’m the person who over the past couple years has kept saying the cinematic medium is dead and there’s no reason to make movies. This is much to the chagrin of my friends who work in film, a bunch of whom go with me every month to see movies at the Arclight in Los Angeles. Last summer, with the five movies we had been to previously, I’d walked out wishing I could get the past two hours of my life back. I was angry, I didn’t know why I was still going to see movies, and I felt like I never wanted to see another one.

I’d heard good things about Tangerine, but hadn’t seen a trailer and didn’t really know anything about it. When I saw it, it just blew my mind out of my head. It totally reminded me what loving cinema is about and why the two-hour format exists and matters. It just became everything for me. It’s one of the most important things I’ve seen in years, and seeing it and being electrified by it at the Arclight – where I’d seen all those other movies – was particularly special.

I started in independent film but, like a lot of indie film people, migrated to TV. My disillusionment with cinema stemmed from so many movies feeling to me like creative masturbation. I couldn’t find the purpose in a lot of them; there seemed to me no real urgency for these stories to be told, and the impetus often felt narcissistic. Movies were creative exercises, but there was not a burning need for that creativity to exist. Tangerine, however, ripped through the screen. It was burning to be alive. It had to be alive, it had to exist. It presented a point of view we’d never heard; it was fresh and with its own tone. While so many films told stories that all came from the same place and felt like they just didn’t matter, Tangerine was completely undeniable. It was pulsing. Films like Tangerine are the reason I got into filmmaking. I felt like, “This is what people should be making! There aren’t enough voices in cinema – we have to hear other stories!”

The two lead performances from Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor are – and I come back to this word – electrifying. They feel grounded and totally lived-in. They have a cadence and rhythm I’ve never seen, because they are so attached to who those people really are in their own lives. (Their improvisations and story contributions very much shaped what the film would become.) I think Kitana and Mya’s chemistry as actors is phenomenal, and it all feels really effortless. Mya’s comic timing is also amazing; the incident with the police and the john is one of the best, most believable comedic scenes I’ve ever seen.

I’ve had difficulty getting people to watch Tangerine because of its logline, but please don’t be put off by it. Yes, it’s about transgender sex workers on Santa Monica Boulevard, but really it’s a wonderful buddy comedy, a film about friendship that’s well-structured and smart and unexpected. It was apparently Mya who insisted it be funny and helped find the tone (and thus its uniqueness), because she knew a person’s perspective on their own life has humor. An outsider’s gaze on her experience could so easily have turned it into poverty porn or sadness porn – which I think is what people expect to see when they hear the logline.

To me, the story is so relatable because we all have those friends that tell us everything is going to be fine, but then can’t help but stir up drama. You’re loyal to them to the point that it burns you. The most heartbreaking scene in the movie is when Alexandra (Taylor) is singing at an open mic night at a local bar, and is trying to get people to come. Except everybody’s smoking crack and beating each other up and so they forget to come, until her friend Sin-Dee (Rodriguez) finally turns up – dragging along the girl her pimp/boyfriend has been cheating on her with. Those two continue to smoke crack in the bathroom at the club, but in a very genuine, bonding way. Alexandra’s performance on stage is stunning, and Sin-Dee’s support for her so tender and loving. It’s the sweetest thing, and gets to the heart of what the film is actually about. Friendship. Loyalty. For better or worse, but always.

I grew up hating L.A. and never wanting to be here. I’m happy to be back here making UnREAL, but I still think L.A. is ugly and depressing and gnarly and terrible, and so finding that much beauty in those stretches of the city which make me so depressed was a revelation. Like almost everybody else in L.A., I drive a lot, and that’s a big reason why what the film shows was so revelatory. Going past those subway stops, bus stops, donut shops and mini-malls all the time as I drove back and forth from the east side to the west side, I never understood what the texture and feel and the humanity of the little societies that exist in those neighborhoods really were.

Tangerine is perfectly contained in the package it comes in and made me understand what stories work well in the two-hour format. And although everything before made me feel like I didn’t really care about making features, Tangerine reengaged me in that process and made me excited all over again about the form.

Sarah Gertrude Shapiro is the co-creator, writer and supervising producer of Lifetime’s hit drama series UnREAL, based on her SXSW award-winning short film Sequin Raze. UnREAL won the Critics’ Choice Award for Most Exciting New Series, and was called “summer’s best TV show” by The Daily Beast and “one of the most interesting dramas in recent memory” by Vulture. In 2013, Shapiro was one of eight women chosen for the AFI Directing Workshop for Women.