In “Starlet,” Baker spun an unlikely friendship between a budding porn actress and a bingo-playing old lady in the sun-baked San Fernando Valley. In “Prince of Broadway,” he watched how a hustler working in New York’s wholesale district handled fatherhood. Though Baker’s sincere curiosity about marginal characters sets him apart, the filmmaker insists it’s neither the exceptional personalities nor their unique subcultures that have motivated his five tiny indies to date.
If there’s a pattern, Baker says, “It has less to do with me trying to explore a different culture or different people’s lives. All of the films stemmed from me falling in love with a location and then trying to find a story that takes place within that location.”
The same goes for his latest, the Sundance-bound “Tangerine,” centered on a colorful group of L.A. working girls turning tricks on Christmas Eve at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue. Once he’d picked the spot, knowing he wanted two characters to converge at the intersection’s Donut Time shop, Baker delved into researching the milieu, which involved talking to transgendered women at the neighborhood LGBT center and working with them to shape a story that was both irreverent toward that demimonde and respectful of those who inhabit it.
Unsurprisingly, “Tangerine” was not the sort of story Baker imagined himself telling when he enrolled in film school back in the ’90s: “I went to NYU thinking I was going to make a ‘Die Hard’ sequel, or maybe action and genre films for the studios, but I ended up falling in love with personal cinema.”
And then, in the days before YouTube, Baker had a lucky break: He and friends Dan Milano and Spencer Chinoy picked up a puppet one afternoon, went over to Tompkins Square Park and shot what became “Greg the Bunny” — a cult oddity that aired first on Fox, then IFC.
“Suddenly I had this alternate career,” Baker says. “We weren’t getting rich, but it allowed me to pay the rent and try to make indies on the side.” Adapting fast to new technology — including social media, which motivated him to cast several parts in “Tangerine” from Vine — has bought him the freedom to tell the stories he wants. “You could probably add up the budgets of all my films together, and I’m still below half a million.”