“I Kind of Resist Definition… That’s the Realm I Work In: Boots Riley on Writing and Directing the Out-There Sundance Hit, Sorry to Bother You
Before his directorial debut with Sorry to Bother You at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Boots Riley was known for his role in the hip hop group The Coup. But Riley had been a film student before he found fame through music, and 25 years later he’s circled back to that original ambition with a wild film about capitalism, race and his hometown of Oakland.
The film, one of the most talked about at the festival (and which was bought by Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures), stars Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson and Armie Hammer in, not the future, but an alternate present. Stanfield plays Cassius Green, a telemarketer who is propelled to scary levels of success when he perfects his “white voice” for sales. The imaginative film is similar to satires like Brazil, and is as funny and deeply American as the best Billy Wilder movies. Watching Sorry to Bother You feels like discovering a mind-blowing gem from another era on late-night television.
We were lucky enough to talk to Riley about how he wrote and directed his first film, the ways producing music taught him about directing, and how he collaborated with some of the most talented people in the industry to make this strange new classic.
Sorry to Bother You was acquired out of Sundance for distribution by Annapurna.
Filmmaker: You started wanting to be a filmmaker, right?
Filmmaker: Back when you were getting into music, you were in film school.
Filmmaker: So why did you not take the film path then? Music just opened up more?
Riley: In Oakland at the time all these record labels needed to have a group from Oakland, or so they thought — there had been people like Digital Underground, Too Short, and MC Hammer who had sold platinum and they were from Oakland. So record labels, being mechanical as they are, they were like, “We need to find groups from Oakland.” It was just time and place. That week or something we had the number one selling independent tape — it was tapes at the time. So that happened. Someone was offering me money to make art. So I was like, that’s the way I’m gonna do it.
Filmmaker: And movies cost money.
Riley: And they cost more back then. Even short films. You could do stuff on video but it looked like VHS. And it wasn’t even cute. Now you could do it and be like, that reminds me of a certain time. But back then it wouldn’t have had that commentary.
Filmmaker: So that was like 20 years ago?
Riley: Yeah, 1992.
Filmmaker: Wow, so 25 years ago. Did you always have in the back of your mind that you were gonna get back to film?
Riley: Initially, when we thought we were gonna get a record deal, 40 Acres and a Mule had a record label. I was like, maybe if I can put my music out on Spike Lee’s record label, I could get to meet him and somehow get to make movies.
Also, my songwriting did quench my storytelling hunger. The Coup was known for, like, eight-minute-long songs that are just narrative stories. We have a bunch of songs like that. We have one song called “Me and Jesus the Pimp in a ’79 Grenada Last Night.”
And then I directed the video for it with my friend Chris Wroubel. And we had Roger Guenveur Smith play Jesus the Pimp. So I was playing with them. We would have songs where multiple songs went through each other in a narrative arc. We were known for these long skits with all this sound design that made it like a radio play.
Filmmaker: By the end of Sorry to Bother You, I was wondering what other forms you might play with, like animation or even VR? I saw some bad VR here, but I bet you could do something cool with it.
Riley: I’m not as interested in it. With my films, for instance, I want people to see them in theaters. And I want people to dance to my music in clubs or listen to it loud with friends. I don’t want it to just be a one-on-one experience.
Filmmaker: And what did you think of audience reactions here so far?
Riley: They’ve been great. I got a little frustrated with the laughter sometimes, though. I mean I want it, but I didn’t realize that now people are laughing at [something] so it’s covering up this [other] line. For instance, where Danny Glover says, “I’m not talking about ‘Will Smith white.’ That’s not even white, that’s just proper.” When he said, “I’m not talking about ‘Will Smith white,’” the crowd burst out in laughter. And they didn’t even hear, “That’s not even white, that’s just proper.” So Jada Pinkett Smith is in the audience and it sounded more like a diss, ’cause all people heard was, “I’m not talking about ‘Will Smith white.’” So I hope if she reads this, she understands.
Filmmaker: Obviously it was a long journey, from writing it to getting to make the movie, but at what point did you decide: Not only am I going to write this script but I’m going to direct it?
Riley: I finished the script not knowing. I knew that I wanted to direct, but I thought, I think this script is good, maybe I could use it to get to direct a movie later. Surely, there’s no way I could get someone to back me directing it. So maybe I could get someone else to direct it and then it would be successful. At a certain point I approached Richard Ayoade, and he said, “I love the script. But, dude, the only person who could direct this is you.” And I was like, “Nobody’s going to give me any money to do it.” And he said, “Look, they’ll just give you less money.”
Filmmaker: That’s good advice.
Riley: He said, “It’s clear from the script. You’re already directing the movie.” Because much of what you see in there, from the production design to earrings, is in the actual script.
Filmmaker: I love the color scheme. You got the Wayne Thiebaud colors of Oakland, those pastels.
Riley: And I have to say, even though I said some of the production design is in the script, our production designer, Jason Kisvarday, is crazy. He’s the guy who did Swiss Army Man and An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn. He’s someone who rarely told me no.
Filmmaker: For your craziest ideas?
Riley: Yeah. Sometimes when it was really crazy, he’d say, “Mmmmm, okay?” And then get all nervous or whatever, but he’d come through with something. So yeah, I want the film, even with all this crazy stuff, to feel optimistic. There are things going on, but the battle never ends.
Filmmaker: It feels very optimistic, but it also feels very specific to Oakland. It feels very make believe, but at the same time very real.
Riley: Well, that’s the thing. To accept the fantasy, we’ve got to be grounded in the reality.
Filmmaker: You always felt that way, even when you were writing?
Riley: Yeah. If I started out with a unicorn shitting torpedos, who cares what happens next. If anything can happen, it’s just a series of images and a series of things happening. If this is real, and people can get sad and get happy, or get hurt, or die, or be worried about the rent, then you care about them.
Filmmaker: So tell me about the casting. Tessa Thompson is obviously great, and the supporting cast is great, but the scenes with Lakeith Stanfield and Armie Hammer were just magic.
Riley: Oh yeah. Those dudes are both crazy! And that’s the key. They’re both crazy… And it happens right there sometimes. Armie made Pixar fly him from London to Oakland just for a day, when we had a day off, to go over a couple of scenes. We spent most of the time just talking and getting to know each other in person, because I had just Skyped with him previously. So there wasn’t a lot of rehearsal. They knew their shit, and that’s it. You know, all of these actors, they challenged each other. It’s like, if I’m in the studio with raw rappers that I really respect, I step my game up. And I’ll throw a curve ball and see what they do. And that’s like what was happening with all of these actors.
Filmmaker: You can see it; it felt really alive. So was there a lot of improvisation? Or the script was pretty tight?
Riley: With the lines, we were rewriting it as we go sometimes. This feels a little clunky or uneasy, well try saying it this way. And with Lakeith… With everyone else it was pretty tight. But with Lakeith, he’s different, because he does a lot of preparation. We spent many hours talking about the different walks and postures of his character.
Filmmaker: That’s amazing! Because I left the theater so aware of the way he walked. That’s crazy he prepped all that.
Riley: And for him, the lines are secondary. It’s like the story and the feeling and what’s happening. What that does is it gives him this feeling, like he’s figuring out what to say right then. And so, with some people, I’m like, “That’s the line.” But with him, it’s, “Okay, let me check that. Did I say what I need you to say.” Sometimes I’ll get a take where I just let him do it more for feel.
Filmmaker: So with all that crazy on set, it seems like it was really collaborative.
Riley: Yeah, I accepted feedback from everybody. And that’s how I produce music, as well. I’ll have something that I want people to play in the studio. And I’ll have people that are considered the best bass player in the word, and a drummer who’s considered the best drummer. And individually they know more about music than I do, but I have to get them to follow my vision. But at the same time, I have to realize, “Wait, that lick that you did is way better than what I had, and it has more feel, so let’s do that.”
Filmmaker: And how about the process of going from songwriting to scriptwriting? How was that for you?
Riley: It was better. Well, first, sometime in the ’90s people had started asking me to do dialogue for movies. I did that for a couple of people’s scripts, but I felt really used in that way. It’d be like, “We have this and it’s happening in a black neighborhood, so could you…” And I’d be writing it and think, well, this conversation doesn’t make sense because this character wouldn’t be doing that. And I got really frustrated. I did that for just a couple of months. So from doing that, I realized the dialogue can lead you to the character and what’s going to happen. When I write songs, I often have scenes in my head, or scenes that happened from life, that I’m translating into poetry: What does this mean and how can it resonate? With this, I’m just like, this is what happens.
Filmmaker: Transcribing the vision?
Riley: Yeah, it’s a lot easier for me.
Filmmaker: And you did the Sundance Labs. Did you get some good advice there?
Riley: Oh yes. So I did some film school, and I made a music video and a short documentary, but I didn’t really remember all that stuff. Even though I didn’t say that as I was pitching this movie. [laughs.] But producing music helped, and the Sundance Labs were tremendous. First I did the Writers Lab, and then the next year I did the Directors Lab. And the Writers Lab really helped, not only in the notes that were given to me, but in the fact that you had these master writers arguing with each other and unsure about what I should do. Meaning, you realize nobody knows what the fuck they’re doing. We’re all just figuring it out as we go.
Filmmaker: So that was useful for you? That freedom.
Riley: Yeah. There were some people who felt like they did know what they were doing. This one person there was like, “You need to strip it down to just Cassius and Detroit. And we need to see them meet. And they should meet at the telemarketing place and break up.”
Filmmaker: Uh oh. I was going to ask you that, if there was advice that you didn’t follow, too.
Riley: Yeah, she was like, “Take out the science fiction, take out the magic stuff, it’s too confusing.”
Filmmaker: Do you think the film is in the afro-futurist tradition?
Riley: I don’t know. I’m not really clear on what exactly that definition is. And I kind of resist definition, with the Coup, too. And I think that’s the realm that I work in. There’s funny stuff in the movie, but I didn’t write it thinking, I’m writing a comedy.
Filmmaker: You said something related to that in your director’s statement about genre and your hesitancy about it.
Riley: I think what I’m saying is that we limit ourselves. Let’s go back to music. If you think about a love song, when you say that, it makes you think, we’re going to talk about things within these parameters. And there are certain things I’m allowed to talk about for it to feel like a love song. And really that’s not how relationships work. That’s not how feelings about people work. And you’re editing out a big part of yourself. Something may have to do with what you think about the world, or something that happened when you were five, or things like that. We edit some truth about ourselves, too. There’s humor and sadness and insecurity…
Filmmaker: And money.
Riley: Yeah, and worry about our basic being. All of that.
Filmmaker: Well movies have more room, though. Don’t you think?
Riley: They should! But they don’t necessarily.
Filmmaker: That’s very true. Hmm, and I know you mentioned the movie Brazil as a reference, but it also reminded me of Billy Wilder.
Riley: Like Some Like it Hot?
Filmmaker: Yeah, but he also did some crazy movies, like One, Two, Three.
Riley: Oh wait no, he did The Apartment. That is a big influence on the production design. I wanted to do a forced perspective but I realize because we were limited with time that if we did the forced perspective it was going to limit how we shot. And we needed more time for that. But yeah, definitely The Apartment is a big thing. And The Trial.
Filmmaker: So you’re a big cinephile.
Riley: Well I watch a lot of strange movies, so if that makes me a cinephile, yeah. There’s a lot of influence from Sergei Parajanov, The Color of Pomegrantes. And Kusturica, some of the wildness. Like we have a lot of things where it starts feeling visually overwhelming, and Kustruica did that well in Black Cat, White Cat. You familiar with that movie?
Filmmaker: Actually I haven’t seen it, but I know of it.
Riley: Okay, yeah. I love that. I mean, it’s slightly racist, but I like it.
Filmmaker: [laughs.]I have one more question. Are you nervous about spending the next year talking about horse cock?
Riley: [laughs] No. I think everybody enjoys it for some reason.
Filmmaker: The woman sitting next to me was this white lady who I didn’t know. And as the credits were rolling, she turned to me and said, “I think Armie Hammer has a horse cock under there. That’s what all the robes were about.”
Riley: [laughs] He’s going to love that!
Filmmaker: Any man would.
Riley: [laughs] No, I mean, like, we did talk about it. We had so many discussions about what these things mean, other story lines that are going on. Not that I want to talk about them in public. But there are other things that are happening that maybe we just don’t learn about.