Boots Riley Talks 'Sorry to Bother You' and His Ambitious Directorial Debut

Boots Riley Talks 'Sorry to Bother You' and His Ambitious Directorial Debut

Sorry to Bother You is the ambitious feature film directorial debut for Boots Riley, who originally made a name for himself in the music industry in the 90s as the lead vocalist of the hip-hop band The Coup. The story comes from a script also written by Riley and follows newly appointed telemarketer Cassius Green, played by Lakeith Stanfield, as he rises in the ranks of his company using his “white voice.” Shakefire sat down with Boots Riley to discuss the writing of the film, jumping into the director’s chair, and working on set with some of the best working actors today.


Can you tell me about writing this film? I saw that you’ve been talking about making this film way back in 2011. It’s been a long process and now your film is finally here.


Boots Riley: It’s hard to think about it in those terms, because it’s not like I left the project. Every day, every month, it was like moving it forward an inch so you don’t really see the development. You just know you’ve been doing it and then after a while you do it for so long that you can’t really give up on it because then you’ve just wasted a whole bunch of time, especially with music at a certain point, I was not touring and I had gotten a couple grants so I could not tour and work on the movie, getting the movie funded, and working on the script, and stuff like that. So it was like after you wait a couple years and you’re not touring then your fees go down and with me going with the band it goes down to a point where you can’t fund a tour anymore.


So basically it was my version of, I had a friend whose brother got tattoos all over their face and he was like, “What are you doing!?” Now you’re gonna be unemployed.” And he was like, “Don’t you know? The point is not that I’m unemployed. The point is to be unemployable.” And so that was my version of making sure I don’t get a bank job. I put all this stuff into it and either it was going to happen or everything was going to go bust. It feels good to see people’s reaction to it and appreciation and critique of it. The interaction with the film, with the ideas, and with the narrative structure, and things like that; it’s really satisfying.


What motivated you to go in the direction that you did with the film, with it being set in Oakland and the way the plot went?


Riley: As far as it being set in Oakland, I think maybe all my songs are set in Oakland. It’s just where I know. I lived there and I’ve grown up there. But when I wrote this thing, I took the journey with Cassius. I knew a few things that I wanted it to do, but I think the strike was always something that was going to be in the movie no matter what, but I didn’t want it to just be about that. So I kinda set him on his way in every scene. I was going with him, and needed him to go through a certain emotional journey while I wanted to also take the viewer on a ride that simulated what it feels like when you discover new ideas. I didn’t want to just say look at him finding out these new ideas. I wanted the viewer to have feelings that were similar to what he was feeling and what his changes in his life were, so that called for having the story also be not predictable so that you engaged with it maybe the same way that life happens.


This is your first feature to direct. You’re known mostly in the music scene.


Riley: I’ve co-directed one music video. I went to film school. Honestly, that music video was in 1999, and film school was in 1992 was the last year so I don’t remember any of that, hahaha. The things that I know about film are probably just from other stuff.


Was this harder than you thought it was going to be?


Riley: It depends on what part you’re talking about. We had 61 locations in the movie, and we shot in 28 days. We had a lot of split days and that kinda stuff. Honestly, I guess it was. I was thinking about it the other day that if I knew how crazy that was then I would have cut down the locations. I would have been like, “let’s make this production design simpler.” Luckily I didn’t because I think those are the things that give the movie its character. I knew that I wanted it to be more complicated than an indie film would normally be. I wanted it to have more scale than an indie film would normally be because although parameters are good for creativity often indie films have the same financial parameters and use the same ways around them as each other so what is an exciting movie becomes a movie where two people are on a couch, breaking up, they see each other later at a bar, and then they walk away from each other again in the middle of the street.


Independent has the connotation of being more free. We talk about that, how independent films do what Hollywood films don’t. And they do some things that Hollywood films don’t, but they also have their own set of rules that come from sometimes producers of indie films having cookie-cutter ways of getting things done for the budget. Us being in Oakland, and because I know so many people there, allowed us to get certain locations for free. Even sometimes when people have the budget to pay extras to show up for a crowd scene they can’t get that many people to come out. But in the Bay Area I can. There are certain things that were harder, like how many hours we’re going to have to shoot in order to do it. But I’m used to living my life tired so that part wasn’t hard. Luckily we had great actors because sometimes we didn’t have time to get, like if we would have really needed to keep going and get the right take would have suffered from what also indie films sometimes suffer from is bad performances that sometimes has to do with the environment that they’re shooting in and the situation. We didn’t have to deal with any bad performances.


How did you pitch this to your actors because the movie itself is very out there. There is a lot of stuff you don’t expect and don’t see from indie films or even Hollywood films.


Riley: By the time I met with Lakeith he was already interested. I had been through the Sundance Labs. We had drummed up a lot of buzz around it. People didn’t necessarily believe I was going to get it funded, but there were things happening. The main thing I would say is for me that I know a lot of what I do is to take big ideas and put them down in small, bite-sized portions. What I would start out with saying is that this is an absurdist, dark, comedy with magical realism and science fiction inspired by the world of telemarketing. It’s called Sorry to Bother You. People are already ready to hear more at that point.


And for Lakeith, I’m sure there was a certain amount of allure in the fact that you will be playing the lead, you know, and by the time I met with him he had already read the script so he knew what it was. I think the dynamic role that it was attracted people to it. When I first met him there was a part in the script that was a full-frontal nude scene for Cassius that was a non-sexual scene. I was like, “look this is a part of this thing. This is non-negotiable. You have to do this part because I feel at this point we need Cassius to be at his most vulnerable. We need to feel that vulnerability.” And he stopped me from explaining. He interrupted me and was like, “I’ve been waiting for a role with full-frontal nudity.” And so just from meeting him I knew he was crazy enough to do the things that we needed to do. That part ended up getting cut, because I think we originally had 63 locations and that was one that got cut. I was able to be okay with cutting it because the vulnerability in his face, you do a close up on him and he is naked already. It’s hard for even great actors to achieve that sometimes, and he’s got that.


But I think what brought people in was the audacity of the vision and the idea that it was trying to say something when so many times there’s a lot of films that are just trying to be and trying to just do something that some other film did or things like that. They were at point in their careers where they needed something different in their lives just to be happy. They all did it for scale, and they all sacrificed a lot of other stuff to do it. Like Lakeith had just had his baby when we started filming. Jermaine [Fowler] had his baby while we were filming. I almost didn’t let him be in the movie because I knew his wife was going to have a child during shooting. I was like, 1. I don’t want to feel bad because I will keep you. I don’t want to feel bad because we’re on a low budget so we can’t just switch scenes and start filming something else. I was like I don’t want to deal with that, and I don’t want you to be regretting that for the rest of your life. He got his wife on the phone to talk to me, and she was saying she was okay with it, and all this kinda stuff. It just being different and feeling important, the idea that that’s what we said on the first day that we want to make art that is important, not that it feels heavy handed but that it’s important in the conversation of art and the world. Everybody wants to be involved with that in their life.


I like the reality aspects that you put in the film and then it went to the right with plot twists, etc. What made you go in that direction with that later on in the film?


Riley: I need him to see who he was. There’s a performance that happens in the movie. There’s a performance piece that Cassius does. As I was writing I was like okay maybe this is the thing that puts everything into perspective for him. Then I was like well he’s already been doing all this other crazy stuff so why would that happen? I needed there to be another level. I needed there to be something that showed him who he was in the world. I remember having the idea, and I went there with him.


You have an incredible cast; Danny Glover, Armie Hammer, Terry Crews, David Cross…


Riley: David Cross and Patton Oswalt were the first ones to jump on board and that only happened because I had had David Cross’s email from 2002. It was probably like Hotmail or something. I emailed him saying, “I have this script. Would you mind reading it, blah, blah, blah.” Obviously it must have forwarded to his new one and he hit me back and he was like, “Hey yeah, just send it to my house in New York.” I sent it, and now he admits he had no intention of ever reading it. But it happened to be that it got there when he was out of town and his assistant was house sitting. His assistant was bored when the thing came through and read the script and was like, “You have to read this.” I got him on board, Patton Oswalt, and I think everyone was attracted to the script and to the parts that they were playing, which were very different than the parts that they would normally play. Everyone saw a challenge in it. It was amazing to see people work together.


Often I would just not yell cut because I was so happy that this world I created was happening. And they would go. They’re the kind of actors that they’ll just keep going in the scene. Sometimes the story will change. They’re not stopping unless you tell them to cut. They’ll just keep going with something; they won’t break character. One of the times that we did that that we did use is there’s the champagne popping, which is also in the trailer, I just left them in the office. It was supposed to end but then they just started messing with the props, and that’s when, “Because we didn’t have any cups!” and he drinks it from the bottle. There were just these moments that happened that ended up really expressing what needed to be said right there.


Kate Berlant and Robert Longstreet; Kate Berlant plays Diana DeBauchery and Robert Longstreet plays Langston. Michael X Sommers plays Johnny. These are all just great folks. Working with Armie, he’s crazy like, “Armie okay this time say it like you got a calculator in your pocket.” And he’ll make an adjustment and he’s thinking about whatever that would be, and there’s a change in what he said that you can feel. Yeah, he’s very adjustable in that. Lakeith is someone who is not just going to show you the emotion that you need to feel to move the story along. It’s not like, “He’s supposed to get scared right here. He’s supposed to get mad right here.” That’s not how he works which is great. He’s reacting off what’s happening around him which causes some choices that actors normally wouldn’t make. If you want him to do a certain thing you better give him that thing that will cause him to do that. We got such a realistic performance, which was needed with all the craziness going on.


Tessa is somebody who has known her lines maybe for a couple weeks before or whatever. Lakeith purposely doesn’t learn his lines. He knows the story and the whole thing, but he doesn’t learn his lines until the day of and that way as he’s saying the lines they feel new like they’re just being thought up right then. There’s an actor thing that folks do, especially folks that have done a fair amount of TV, where it’s just so clean. It doesn’t have any of the stuff I’m doing right now, you know, that makes it feel real. Now of course then you’ve got mumblecore which, to me, can get distracting. I think we had that combination that really worked, and all the actors loved working with each other. It was such a love fest the whole time.


What was the process like for David Cross and Patton Oswalt? Were they ever on set or did they just do their ADR afterwards?


Riley: Yeah, because I also wasn’t clear what I was going to do with them exactly. I knew they were going to do voices, but I wasn’t sure which one Patton was going to do and which one David was going to do. David came in first and I was just thinking I needed the whitest sounding voice. I knew I had two of the whitest sounding voices in the world but, it’s funny because then when Patton came in the next day I informed him that he was doing Mister, which is Omari [Hardwick’s] character, and at first he was a little like, “really?” And I said, “Here’s the thing. I needed Cassius’ white voice to be the whitest voice there is, and listening to both of you I realized that David Cross has a much whiter voice than yours,” and he was like, “Yeah, that is true.” And I think that the shape of Patton’s voice, like the sound wave, fit Omari’s a little bit better too.


With all the creativity out of Oakland, where do you see as the future of Oakland as far as creativity is concerned?


Riley: It’s hard to predict. I hope it’s going to inspire more people to be making films, creating things in ways that they’re not normally used to creating. I think there’s a new movement in film, a new black film movement, hopefully a new radical film movement. I think there’s a lot of things that are coming that will actually reflect what’s happening in the world right now.


Sorry to Bother Your opens in theaters on July 6, 2018.

Matt Rodriguez
Interview by Matt Rodriguez
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