A Director Follows Acclaim for ‘Tangerine’ With a Film for Kenzo
By MATTHEW SCHNEIER JAN. 27, 2016
“Tangerine,” his microbudget Los Angeles picaresque tale about two transgender women of color working an unbecoming strip of Santa Monica Boulevard near Highland Avenue, found its way onto year-end best-of lists and has been steadily collecting awards and nominations.
Next month, it competes in the best feature, director, female lead and supporting female categories at the Independent Spirit Awards.
How to follow that? With a fashion film.
Mr. Baker’s latest film is “Snowbird,” an 11-minute short that was shot, like “Tangerine,” on iPhones. And, again like “Tangerine,” it has a mixed cast of professional and nonprofessional actors. It is a dreamy, surreal parable set in Slab City, Calif., a desert campsite that looks like something between a trailer park and a Martian utopia.
It also happens to have been commissioned by Kenzo, the LVMH-owned fashion label.
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“I don’t see myself as a short-film director, and I’m not a commercial director,” Mr. Baker, 44, said by phone from Los Angeles. “But there was something about fashion films: Because there would be a narrative and because I would be able to experiment, it was so appealing. This was the first time I was actually excited by a project I was being commissioned for.”
Mya Taylor as Alexandra and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez as Sin-Dee in “Tangerine,” a film directed by Mr. Baker. Credit Augusta Quirk/Magnolia Pictures
It is the second film commissioned by Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, Kenzo’s creative directors, in lieu of a traditional ad campaign. Images shot on site at Slab City will run in magazines, and for two weeks in February the film will be shown before feature films in theaters across France.
“We have our fashion shows as one outlet and one expression of the season,” Mr. Leon said. “The campaigns and the movies are the next stage.”
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Mr. Leon and Ms. Lim had seen one of Mr. Baker’s earlier features, “Starlet,” which starred their friend Dree Hemingway, and approached Mr. Baker after “Tangerine” had its premiere at Sundance in January 2015. He pitched them on Slab City; by coincidence or serendipity, photos from the site had been on their mood board.
So in November, Mr. Baker and a motley crew of actors set off: Abbey Lee, the Australian runway model who appeared in “Mad Max: Fury Road”; Mary Woronov, the former Warhol superstar; and Clarence Williams III, best known for “The Mod Squad.” A selection of Slab City’s sun-dried denizens rounded out the cast.
Mr. Baker said that the mix was essential.
“I really feel there’s almost a new wave of filmmaking, this hybrid thing going on,” he said. “It takes from real life. There’s so much that we wouldn’t be able to orchestrate. These individuals, you’re not going to find them at central casting.”
The iPhone in particular helps bridge the professional-nonprofessional gap. “It removes all the intimidation,” he said. “It feels like we’re shooting a home movie or a selfie.”
That said, Mr. Baker added: “You have to consider this iPhone just as important as a 35-millimeter camera, or we lose from Day 1. You have to take it even more seriously.”
“Tangerine” was both made and received as a serious film, and its producers staged an Oscar campaign for it.
Many prominent critics, including this newspaper’s, advocated nominations for Mya Taylor, one of its stars, and Mr. Baker and his co-screenwriter, Chris Bergoch. It came away with no nominations, an omission especially glaring in a year where every acting nominee is white.
“Of course I was hopeful,” Mr. Baker said. “But at the same time, I guess I’m a little cynical. It just seems like we’re dealing with an incredible amount of racism and bigotry and shortsightedness. To make a film in which my two leads are good enough to go up against Cate Blanchett at the Spirits but then get completely ignored by the academy? Forgetting about Michael B. Jordan for ‘Creed’ while giving it to Stallone? It makes no sense to me. It disgusts me to the level where I discredit the whole thing.”
Even if Oscar hasn’t come calling, others in the industry have.
“There’s been some talk,” Mr. Baker said. “Everyone’s asking if I’ve been offered a superhero movie, and no, I definitely have not. I’m seen as a little risky to the industry, I think.”
Happily so, he added.
“All my favorite directors are,” he said. The downside, he conceded, is that “you worry about how you’re going to pay rent.”
For that, there’s always fashion.