Interview: How Boots Riley Fit All His Best Ideas into Sorry to Bother You

As much as many have written stories about how Sorry To Bother You writer/director Boots Riley “hacked” the Hollywood system to get his debut film made, the truth is he took the same path that many a first-time indie filmmaker takes—moving his screenplay through the Sundance writing lab, scrounging up money along the way, and finding ways to stay economically efficient during the short shoot in his home base of Oakland, California.

Granted, unlike many first-time filmmakers, Riley wasn’t exactly an unknown coming into the process. A leading anti-capitalist voice and one of the most important voices during the Occupy movement, Riley is probably best known as part of the hip-hop collective known as The Coup, which has been releasing music since the early 1990s

Sorry to Bother You

Image courtesy of A24

And partly because he was a known quantity going into the making of Sorry To Bother You, he was able to pull together an impressive cast that includes Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Danny Glover, Armie Hammer, Forest Whitaker, Jermaine Fowler, Terry Crews, Steven Yeun, and the vocal talents of David Cross, Patton Oswalt and Lily James.

To dig into the plot of the film would be far too complicated outside of a full review (oh look, here’s one), but it’s highly anti-corporation, pro-revolution, pro-organizing workers for better treatment—all of the things Riley (who was born in Chicago) holds dear in all of his creative outlets.

I spoke to Riley recently in Chicago, where he was attending an opening night screening of Sorry To Bother You to an enthusiastic crowd (the film opens wider beginning this weekend). We talked about the long process of getting this film in front of cameras, his visual influences, and where he goes from here. He had a lot to say, so let’s begin…

I’ve seen people compare the visual style of your film to the likes of Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze, but I know that you went to film school, so I’m guessing that your visual cues are a bit more deep cut in their origins. Even for people who don’t know anything about where you come from, the visuals of this film are going to be your calling card.

Yeah, for sure. Emir Kusturica’s Black Cat, White Cat (1998), Underground (1995), Time of the Gypsies (1988); the guy who shot Black Cat, White Cat is Thierry Arbogast, who shoots a lot of Luc Besson’s stuff, so some things from that maybe; The Color of Pomegranates (1968); The Holy Mountain (1973). Coming from hip-hop, I’ll even search movies I think are bad, like One from the Heart (1981), which has amazing visuals, but the acting is terrible; Mishima (1985), in fact, I pretty much just stole one part, which is when he’s looking at the elevator and we use that trombone shot on his face—that was from the Temple of the Golden Pavilion scene—but I figure it’s old enough that I can steal from it.

What I didn’t quite get but I hope to explore more is some of the crowd stuff from the Michael Cimino film, like the wedding scene in The Deer Hunter (1978) and Heaven’s Gate (1980). I think we accomplished scale because I know everybody in Oakland. There’s also Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde (1965). I feel like what a lot of indie films miss is scale because it’s hard to get people to do stuff. If you talk to an extra to be part of the scene, they aren’t an extra any more, and you usually don’t have the money to do that. The loophole is that you can talk to your friends and family, and so many of those extras, I know. If you look, many of them are doing something different, and that makes it feel more real. It’s not just like “You guys talk.” There are little stories happening. That’s something I’m hoping to explore more. So those are some of the visual things. I mean, there’s also Parliament-Funkadelic [laughs].

Since this is your first film, did you feel like you had to cram in as many ideas as you could because who knows if or when you’ll get to make another movie?

I approached it, like, when I make music, I’m drawing from all sorts of things, different genres of music, different literature, poets, anything that gets me going. And the same with this thing too. There was something I wanted to try and approach that I don’t really see in movies but I do in novels—a level of detail that’s hard to get. I think Inherent Vice tried to do it with dialogue, and it didn’t work for me because of that. I was already on this path before that, but I saw what he was doing. For instance, Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” or Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon,” those kinds of writers have the details that you can say aren’t necessary.

Instead of “He walked to the store,” it’s “He sauntered slowly to the store, and in his right hand he held a coffee cup that his grandmother had murdered his grandfather with 20 years ago. It was the stale coffee from last night that he swore he would finish.” That tells you a lot about that character, but most producers would be like “Don’t even say he went to the store; show him at the store.” Then you end up with this problem later on that there’s something about the character that you have to fill in because you didn’t have that other information, and you try to throw it in with some dialogue, and it sounds corny because you should have had him carrying that coffee cup to the store. For me, it makes it more full and lively, those details. On a literature level, it’s nowhere near as detailed, but for hip-hop, it’s descriptive.

I wanted to have that, and we went for, with the whole thing, this idea of a beautiful clutter, with the production design, the way it moved, the editing, and the narrative. I wanted it to be chock full of details. I wanted people to feel full of stuff and the frames to be full of things and to feel more natural than others. There was this book that I got into by Bruce Block called “The Visual Story,” and I got into it maybe for the wrong reasons. Someone told me “This is Pixar’s bible.” So I read it and went to a two- or three-day seminar, and it had ways of organizing your thoughts about your film, from color schemes to deep vs. flat space.

So I started thinking about all of these things in terms of the kind of rhythm and how I wanted it to feel, trying to get it to go to this place. It was more about wanting it to be full of morsels. If I’d done it clear, we’d only have the details that we need but there would be hints of something happening, and either those hints would be like “He’s showing us the apple. What is that about?” or it would have been, like when some other stuff happens later on, people still might be like that, but it ends up feeling okay in that world.

I’ve seen the film twice, the first time was at Sundance. It was an early morning screening, I was tired, and I swear that things happened in this movie that I thought I’d imagined. But when I saw it again recently, I thought, “Nope, that’s exactly what I remember seeing.” There is an almost fever dream quality with some of the science-fiction stuff you’re touching on here. Why was science fiction the best method to deliver some of your hardest-hitting messages?

I have a pet peeve about a lot of science fiction because a lot of science fiction is trying to say something. I can’t think of one where somebody doesn’t have a point. I think that part is good, but the part I don’t like is that they create worlds that are so far removed from us that it doesn’t even matter. And to a certain extent, that’s why people feel safe doing it because they’re not going to get chastised for what is being said. I was reading this interview with Walter Murch [legendary editor and sound recorder], who said that Apocalypse Now was originally George Lucas’ idea—the idea to make “Heart of Darkness” into a Vietnam story, and he has just done American Graffiti. But his version would have made the protagonists the Viet Cong, fighting the U.S. in the U.S.-conquered territory. And their Kurtz, who has climbed up the ranks of the U.S. Army because he’s helped them defeat the Viet Cong, is now some sort of general, and they go in to defeat him. And he couldn’t find the funding for this.

They were like “It’s too radical.” And he’s like “I just made American Graffiti. How about if I put it in space?” And that’s what Star Wars became. The Rebels were the Viet Cong, the U.S. was the Empire. In the end, who cares? Nobody knows. If you’re like “Wow, I’m going to make this science fiction thing, and if everybody sees it, it will do something. No, that movie has not done anything for us because it’s so far removed, and you don’t even think about. You can plug whatever you want into those roles.

I didn’t want to make something that was science fiction in the sense that the world was so different that nobody would care and nobody would think about their own world. Everything that I did in the movie was, all the weird stuff, magic stuff, science fiction, it had to do with something that we needed to happen in the character’s development or something that I needed him to go through. He needed to see himself. I’d written the rap scene for that reason, and after I wrote it, I’m like “Well, that’s not enough. This is a world where people are accepting, basically, child slavery. He’s selling it. I’ve set this up now, so there has something big and strong that makes him change.” The way I wrote it, I didn’t know where it was going. So now that I’ve got into this situation where he’s selling this stuff, I know that I want him to switch sides back but I didn’t know how I was going to do it, so I needed [the sci-fi element].

When we get to the part of the film where you announce that we are living Slavery 2.0, that’s what I thought that was the big reveal, but then you show us something even more shocking.

That’s the thing, I’ve never been one to conserve my ideas. I have all kinds of ideas; I’m never going to stop having dozens of ideas at a time. And that’s because there are a lot of things to think about, and some people might say “I’m going to save that for something else.” There are some people that are like that with songs. You get a great song and say “I’m saving this for another album.” It’s not like I don’t think I’ll get another chance to make a film again; it’s more like that idea makes it better.

Let’s talk about the Bay Area a bit. I think it’s fair to say that two of the most talked-about films out of Sundance this year, both of which are coming out this month, were your film and Blindspotting, both set in Oakland and both capturing a rhythm and flow to that city that I’ve never seen before about any movie in any city. Why was it important to have it set there, and what is the most Oakland thing about this movie?

Hmmm. It’s important to write about what you know, and I know Oakland. And like I said about details, the surroundings are important. I don’t know Chicago. For instance, if I were to film this room, I don’t know what about it would feel most Chicago. Or what would make a certain character, if he was from Chicago, what would his room look like? I don’t know. I could research—that’s certainly a way around it—but might as well utilize the thing that I know and that I’m good at.

What you see on the screen—from the lettering to the titling to the earrings and art that Tessa’s character does—so many Oakland artists contributed to this. And like I said, all the extras—when we did the premiere in Oakland, it seemed like 80 percent of the crowd was in the movie [laughs].

There’s been this narrative around you making this film that you somehow “hacked” Hollywood. But I’ve read account of how you got this made over a number of years—you took it to the Sundance labs, you scraped up the money—that doesn’t sound like you hacked anything. You worked hard and like any competent first-time filmmaker, you made a great movie. Where did that story come from? Do people think because it’s you that you aren’t going to go through the normal channels and do the work?

Yeah, it’s weird. I’ve encountered that with some writing. People don’t get how you do this, and it’s true that it’s rare for people to get to do this. But I do have a certain amount of expertise of making stuff happen, so maybe I had a leg up on a person coming out of film school.

I want to ask you about Lakeith, the busiest man in show business. Why was he the right guy for this part, and how did you hook up with him?

When we connected with him, he wasn’t the Lakeith Stanfield he is right now, but he was respected still. I was at first concerned because only one episode of “Atlanta” had been out at the time, and my main connection to him was him playing high school students. I was concerned he looked too young, because when he acted, he moved like a young person. But when I met with him, he had the full beard and it was easier to see that he was an older soul, and I could see how crazy he was.

I met with a lot of actors, some more famous, and it was clear that sometimes there were actors that wanted the interesting roles but mainly because they want to get more famous. But it felt to me like Lakeith was striving to become a better actor. So the actor I hired in the fall or winter of 2016 was not as good as the actor who showed up on the set in June of 2017, and that’s because every job he takes he’s consciously figuring out from other actors what processes they’re doing that he might take.

I’ve read a couple things about what you might do next. Do you know at this point?

Idea wise, I have 20-something ideas; 13 of them are really good. So I have a TV deal to do whatever I want to do; I have a feature deal to do whatever I want to do. I don’t think I’m supposed to talk specifically about either of them. All of my ideas are stuff I don’t think have been explored in ways I want to do it. I don’t know which idea…the way that this works is that I give them three ideas and they pick one of them. I’m going to probably do all of them, but it’s just a matter of which one I’ll work on first.

Great to meet you, Boots. Best of luck.

Thank you, man.

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