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Tangerine: All You Need is a Want and an iPhone!
By Jacob Krueger
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Tangerine is a brilliant illustration of just how little you need to actually succeed as a screenwriter or a filmmaker. To make a successful film you do not need millions of dollars. To make a successful film you do not need years and years and years of experience. To make a successful film you do not need to follow the rules or follow a formula. To make a successful film there are really only two things you need: You need a Want, and you need an iPhone.
Tangerine was shot entirely on an iPhone 5s. And not only does it look beautiful, but it also tells a compelling story, taking two characters on a profound journey of change. And, though it doesn’t have the most complicated plot in the world, the simplicity and the drive of its main characters’ wants provide it with a rock solid structure.
In a way (and this is a funny thing to say) Tangerine is the Indie film version of Mad Max: Fury Road. For those of you who’ve listened to my Mad Max: Fury Road Podcast, you understand that the plot of Fury Road is essentially “they drive East, and then they drive West.”
But the structure of Mad Max: Fury Road is about a character who is trying to find an escape, who finally learns that she has to go back and confront where she came from. In a similar way, Tangerine is built on that simple, primal want of its main character Sin-Dee.
Essentially Sin-Dee’s journey in the movie is to head East and then to go back West. She starts out at Donut Time and she ends back at Donut Time. And her journey is also compelled by a very simple want: to find her boyfriend’s mistress, and to beat the crap out of her.
That simple want provides the foundation of the entire structure of this beautiful little film.
Sin-Dee, like many of the characters in this movie, is a transgendered prostitute working the streets of Hollywood. Sin-Dee has just spent the last couple of months in prison, and now that she is out, she has learned that her pimp boyfriend is shacking up with another girl. And even worse, the girl isn’t even transgendered!
The structure of Sin-Dee’s journey grows from the hunt to go find this girl and, like the Charlize Theron character, Furiosa, in Fury Road, at each step, Sin-Dee is assaulted by obstacles, events and characters that stand in the way of her quest to find that girl.
And much like Furiosa, in situations where any other human being would have given up, Sin-Dee keeps on going, driven by the strength of her want. This makes it easy to root for Sin-Dee even though she lives in a world on the Hollywood streets that many of us have never experienced, and even though she’s taking actions as she pursues her want (drugs, prostitution, violence) that many of us would not take in our own lives.
Don’t Judge Your Characters
One of the beautiful things about Tangerine, and one of the daring and brilliant things this script by Sean Baker and Chris Burgoch, is that it looks at the world and the lives of these characters without judgment.
This is a movie with transgendered characters, but it’s not an issue movie. It’s not a political movie. It’s not an anti-hate-crimes movie. It is not an anti-prostitution movie.
This movie tells the story of two characters who happen to be prostitutes. But rather than defining them as victims of an oppressive society, rather than judging their drug addictions and their prostitution and their choices or manipulating the audience into taking a stand against these obvious social issues the film portrays, Tangerine looks at their lives of these transgendered characters with a non judgmental eye.
This movie steps into their world and allows you in that way to draw your own political and sociological conclusions, to witness the characters as they are rather than trying to tell you how to think about them.
They’re not characters who are up on a soap box about what it means to be transgendered, they are characters who are living their lives and who happen to be transgendered, who just like me or you or anybody else are driven by their wants. And in depicting these characters in this way these writers humanize them. They stop them from being the “other” and they allow us to empathize with them, to root for them, to connect with them, to care about them, to see them as people rather than as prostitutes.
The writers allow us to recognize them as people dealing with the same problems that we deal with, just in a different world. People dealing with love, and betrayal, and selfishness. People dealing with addiction.
Their world is highly amplified and much different than yours or mine, but their world is driven by those same simple, primal wants that we can all understand. Though most of us would never take the steps that Sin-Dee is willing to take to get revenge, we’ve all known the feeling of rage at a betrayal. We’ve all know what it’s like to feel like our hopes were set up and then destroyed.
Of course we’re not going to stalk the streets of Hollywood, track down and beat the crap out of the girl who cheated with our boyfriend, girlfriend, husband or wife. But we can all empathize with the desire to do so.
In this way, the only difference between us and Sin-Dee is that Sin-Dee happens to be a transgender prostitute and Sin-Dee happens to actually take those actions that we probably wouldn’t.
Obstacles Reveal The Want
The structure of the movie is driven by Sin-Dee’s want. All Sin-Dee wants in the world is to find this girl. And she heads out East on the hunt for this her, confronting obstacles at every turn and when she finally finds the girl she grabs her, beats the crap out of her just as she planned, and drags her back West: back to Donut Time where she can confront her pimp boyfriend with his betrayal.
To write a character, to create a structure, to write a screenplay, the only thing that you need is a want. Structure grows from primal wants and creates accessibility for an audience. Structure allows us to feel the journey and change of the character, and root for them when they take actions in pursuit of their want that we wish we could but can’t, against obstacles that would have been daunting to anybody else. Structure allows us to feel what it would be like to make the decision that we fear we might make in real life, but actually won’t.
If you want a character all you need is a want. That’s one of the reasons that these young actresses with very little experience are so completely successful in playing these roles. Of course a lot of that has to do with their talent, but it also has to do with the writing of these characters. When you give an actor a strong want that they can pursue against strong obstacles it allows the actor to inhabit the role. When you make the obstacles big enough it also allows you to reveal another aspect of character which I like to call ‘the how.’
The How Defines The Character
Sin-Dee is not the only character in movie history who’s ever wanted to beat the crap out of her boyfriend’s mistress. But Sin-Dee’s unique How: the way that Sin-Dee acts out this want is truly different than anything we’ve ever seen.
And this is the next thing that makes us fall in love with Sin-Dee.
Rather than treating Sin-Dee as just another or victim or product of a corrupt society, this actor treats Sin-Dee, and this writer treats Sin-Dee, simply as a person with a strong want and a unique how.
When characters are confronted with obstacles to getting what they want, they are forced to reveal their ‘how.’
If I want to open a door and the door opens, I never have to reveal my How because there was no obstacle. It was too easy. But if I try to open a door and the door doesn’t open, my next choice is going to start to reveal the How.
If I’m one kind of character, then I’m going to kick the door. If I’m another kind, I might ask for help. And if those choices lead to more obstacles, I’m going to make more choices to reveal the How. And that How is the thing that lets us connect to and care about characters. We don’t love characters because the character is nice or because they saved a cat that got stuck in a tree.
We love characters because they pursue the things they want with everything they’ve got, in a way that is just slightly different than any other character.
If you’ve seen Sin-Dee, if you’ve seen Tangerine, you already know exactly what I mean when I talk about Sin-Dee’s How. But importantly, Sin-Dee’s not the only character with a Want or a How in this movie.
In fact every character is driven by a really strong Want and a really strong How. And every single one of these characters is written without judgment by its creators.
For example, Alexandra, Sin-Dee’s friend, also has a really strong want. The only thing Alexandra wants is for people to attend her performance.
Writing a character like Alexandra is easy when you know the only thing she wants is for people to attend her performance, because it lets you realize that at every step, no matter what else is going on in her mind or in her heart, at every step, Alexandra is going to be doing something to try to get people to show up.
It allows you to understand how to attack Alexandra, because when no one shows up for that event it is devastating. When Sin-Dee makes that turn and drags her drug-addled, prostitute hostage to her friend’s show, we understand what that means to Alexandra. We understand what that means about their friendship.
By understanding Alexandra’s wants, we’re actually able to understand the structure of her relationship with Sin-Dee. In the same way that by understanding Sin-Dee’s wants we’re able to understand the structure of her relationship with Dinah (the other girl).
Alexandra and Sin-Dee both have really strong wants. But they have completely different Hows. Sin-Dee’s how is impulsive, and violent, and out of control and drug-addled and hysterical and desperate. Alexandra’s how is noble, and quiet. And that’s why we’re able to appreciate not only the difference between these characters, but also the depth of their friendship and what they give to each other.
It’s Alexandra’s quiet nobility that makes that moment when it’s revealed that she pays to sing so utterly devastating for her. When we combine these Wants and these Hows what we end up with is compelling characters.
The Three Elements of Structure
So these are the three elements we need to create a character and the three elements we need to create a structure.
- We need a Want. Sin-Dee wants to kick the ass of the girl who cheated with her boyfriend. Alexandra wants people to show up for her show.
- We need an Obstacle to reveal the Want. Sin-Dee confronts obstacle after obstacle: nobody wants to help her track down this prostitute because everybody knows that her pimp is going be pissed off when whatever drama she’s planning happens! Similarly, nobody wants to attend Alexandra’s show. Even Sin-Dee, who does want to go and support her friend, loses track of time as she gets caught up in her own Wants. Ultimately, she is forced to make the decision to break away from her quest of getting back to her pimp boyfriend, and drag her hostage to the show: a choice that matters to this character and shows how important this friendship actually is.
- We need a How. The way that this character pursues the want that’s completely different than any other character. You know darn well if it was Alexandra who’d been cheated on, her approach would be completely different than Sin-Dee’s. And you know that if Sin-Dee was singing, the way she’d get people to show up would be completely different than how Alexandra pursues it.
These are the elements that allows us to fall in love with these characters: want, obstacle, how. These three elements are the primary elements of character and of structure.
Without these elements there is no structure.
If your character doesn’t have a Want you don’t have a character. If your character doesn’t have an Obstacle, we can’t see the want, and you’re not going to end up with a structure. If a character isn’t pursuing the want and making choices in their attempts to get it, that want isn’t going to lead to the structure. If the character isn’t going to pursue the want in a way that’s unique to them, with their own unique How, then you’re not going to have a character that we believe in and care about. You’re not going to have Tangerine or Mad Max: Fury Road.
You’re going to have those two boys in Jurassic World with their strong Wants and strong Obstacles, but Hows that are completely normal, completely undifferentiated from any other character.
Want, Obstacle, How. Out of these Wants, these Obstacles, and these Hows grow relationships, and great structure.
Structure Is About Relationships
In Tangerine, structure is built around the profound relationship between Sin-Dee and Alexandra, and ironically through the unexpected relationship between Sin-Dee and Dinah.
And this little relationship between Sin-Dee and Dinah, these two prostitutes, one female, one transgendered, one believing in the fantasy of love, and the other so beaten down by life that even getting her ass kicked, even being abused by literally everybody in the movie doesn’t phase her at all.
You can see that Dinah has her unique How. That Dinah is such a product of abuse that she is able to form a friendship with Sin-Dee, a woman who’s taken her hostage and beaten the crap out of her. We see that Dinah is so addicted to drugs that she’ll smoke crack or meth or whatever the two of them are smoking in that glass pipe with the woman who’s taken her captive. We see that Sin-Dee and Dinah have one thing in common: they’re both such victims of their own addictions that they’re not even able to fully follow through with their own wants: Sin-Dee’s to confront her pimp and support her friend, and Dinah’s to escape, once that pipe comes out of Sin-Dee’s bag.
So you’ve got three characters with three unique Hows and you have an ironic relationship developing where captive and capture are becoming friends. And all of these elements build to one moment on the bus where the whole power dynamic changes.
You see, at first all that Dinah wants is to escape from this crazy woman who’s taken her captive. But something really interesting happens on the bus. Dinah realizes that Sin-Dee thinks that the pimp is in love with her. She thinks he’s going to marry her. She thinks that he’s actually her boyfriend.
Suddenly, what happens is that the entire power game shifts. Suddenly Dinah has a little bit of power, and suddenly Dinah’s goal is no longer to escape. Suddenly Dinah’s goal is to take power back. You can see how these Wants and these Obstacles and these Hows end up shaping the journey for these characters that bring them all together. You can see how these Wants and Obstacles and Hows and the choices that grow out of them give these characters an archetypal value, actually allow us to connect to them just like we connect to our own friends and to parts of ourselves.
Even Subplots Are Driven By Wants, Obstacles & Hows
Even Razmik, the Armenian john we follow in the subplot, has a strong want: to keep his life hidden from his family, to find Alexandra and have the kind of experience he wants without having to pay the consequences in his life. Similarly his Mother-in-Law, has a strong want, which is to pull off Razmik’s mask, to force her daughter to see the truth. And like the other characters, Razmik, though he may be a john, is also depicted without judgement.
There is no moralizing or proselytizing on the part of the writers or on the part of the director. Razmik may be a married man and father who pays trangendered prostitues for sex, but the truth is he has a profound relationship with Alexandra, a relationship starkly in contrast to the other johns who we can see in all their ugliness.
By refusing to cast judgment on these characters Sean Baker and Chris Burgoh allow these characters to take on a full life, to present a full portrait of a society that is blighted by drugs and prostitution, not by judging the people inside of it but by humanizing them. In this way these, what these writers and this director and these wonderful actors actually manage to do is take their characters, and their audience, on a journey that parallels Razmik’s. To take us on a journey where each characters’ mask gets removed.
A journey in which the noble Alexandra who seems so concerned for her friend Sin-Dee, is revealed to have had her own motives and her own little betrayals.
A journey in which the passionate, hyperbolic and romantic Sin-Dee is literally and metaphorically stripped of her facade and of her fantasies.
A journey in which Razmik is laid bare before his family, whether they want to look at him or not.
An ultimately a journey that culminates in that beautiful moment between Sin-Dee and Alexandra where Alexandra takes her wig off and allows Sin-Dee to wear it.
To Make Your Own Film, All You Need Is a Want & an iPhone
To write a film, to create a structure, to tell an amazing story, you only need two things: You need a Want and you need an iPhone. And just like your characters, you need to pursue your Want in your unique way and with your unique How.
You don’t get to make a great movie as a new filmmaker by following a bunch of rules and doing what you’re told. You get to make a great movie by pursuing your Wants against the obstacles of production, and solving them with your unique How.
Sean Baker didn’t come up with the idea of directing this movie on an iPhone because he thought it was cute, or because somebody told him to do it. Sean Baker came up with the idea of directing this movie on an iPhone based on obstacles that he was having with budget and where he wanted to spend his money. And though his solution for how to get the most value for every dollar in the might be different than your solution, by running straight at the obstacle Sean Baker revealed his own how.
So whether you’re a student at my studio or you’re listening to my podcast for the first time, this is what I want to encourage you to do:
I want to encourage you to write the movie that you want to write. To make the movie that you want to make.
I want you to recognize that the obstacles that stand in your way, that make it seem impossible to do this, are actually opportunities to learn how much you want this and to come to discover the voice of your own unique How.
I want you to understand that creating a movie, and writing a screenplay is actually a process not of manipulation, formula, or replication, but a process of removing our own masks and revealing something about ourselves, not only to our audience, but also to ourselves.
I hope that you’ve enjoyed this podcast. If you would like to learn more about developing a screenplay organically, based on the Wants and Obstacles and unique Hows that you share with your characters, I hope that you will come study me at Jacob Krueger Studio. We offer classes in New York City, Live Online and a unique Protrack Mentorship Program, which pairs you one-on-one with a professional writer to mentor you through every step of telling the story you want to tell in the way you want to tell it.