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This is Where We Blow Up: Writer/Director Boots Riley on Sorry to Bother You

Lakeith Stanfield in Sorry to Bother You (photo courtesy of Annapurna Pictures)

“The papers on the boardroom table were stained from corpses.” Those lyrics, from The Coup’s 2012 album Sorry to Bother You, offer some idea of the ideological imperative propelling Boots Riley’s wildly inventive, Brazil-meets-Afrofuturism satire of the same name. Struggling to make ends meet in Oakland, Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) takes a job with telemarketing firm RegalView, where he finds himself rocketing to the top of the corporate ladder after he uses his “white voice” to drum up sales. His activist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) disapproves, especially after Cassius comes to the attention of deranged tech bro Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), CEO of RegalView’s biggest client, WorryFree, which cheerily sells the working class a 21st century form of indentured servitude. Steve has big plans for Cassius, who finds himself at a crossroads: take the money and ascend materialistically while compromising all his core beliefs, or leverage his newfound agency to support the unionization effort of his fellow telemarketers? 

If that sounds like the synopsis for a dryly analytical study of race, class and power relations, think again. Riley’s feature debut quickly swerves into a surreal sci-fi terrain that shouldn’t be spoiled. Even before that happens, Sorry to Bother You’s unabashedly direct interrogation of racist power dynamics is buttressed by Riley’s carefully composed widescreen framing, command of vibrant color and overall commitment to heightened visual story-
telling. 

As the leader of hip-hop ensemble The Coup (think The Roots but much less polite) and as an activist organizer, Riley has long been committed to overtly radical politics. His first feature also has been a long time coming: that it was redirected into a loose concept album of the same name six years ago gives some idea of the arduous trek. The screenplay built up steam and support over time, starting with endorsements from David Cross and Patton Oswalt (who provide the movie’s “white voices”) and ending with the film’s buzzy premiere at this year’s Sundance, where it was quickly acquired for release by Annapurna.

To interview Riley, we asked producer (Good Hair, The N Word), director (A Ballerina’s Tale, Brooklyn Boheme) and writer (The Get Down) Nelson George, who has a similarly passionate knowledge of and investment in both hip-hop and cinema. The film is in theaters on July 6 from Annapurna Pictures.

Filmmaker: I didn’t realize you had gone to film school at some point. Is that right?

Riley: Yeah. Even before that, my grandma was the director of Oakland Ensemble Theatre, and I did theater separately from that. In high school, I made an East Oakland musical version of West Side Story with raps in it. That was probably my first actual [time] writing raps. People didn’t boo, so I was like, “Oh, maybe I can do this.” But theater was clearly not going to reach that many people as far as I was concerned. It was Spike Lee days, so I went to film school—at San Francisco State. If you’re going to NYU or some school in LA, you might actually know other people who are making movies. This was like, even though you’re in film school, it’s like a dream. I didn’t know anybody who had graduated from there recently who was making movies, and San Francisco State focused on documentary and experimental film at the time. We got a record deal while I was in film school, so I dropped out real quick and did that instead.

Filmmaker: So, doing a film is kind of a return to an early interest.

Riley: I wouldn’t even put it like that. It’s all one thing in my mind. We always told stories. Our two most popular songs are “Fat Cats and Bigga Fish” and “Me & Jesus the Pimp in a ’79 Granada Last Night.” Those are two eight-minute-long songs that are just stories. It’s all a process, figuring out how to communicate and using different ways to do that. 

Filmmaker: Did you direct many of the Coup’s videos?

Riley: Put it like this: yes, for all of them, but only one of them did I get a director’s credit on. I was codirector on “Me & Jesus the Pimp in a ’79 Granada Last Night.” Because I was a film student, I wanted to direct almost all of our videos. And the label would always say some version of, “Well, if you direct it yourself, here’s your budget. And if you let this other person direct it, here’s that same budget times four.” So, there was always this thing of getting more budget, especially since we were actually shooting on film back then. So, often I did the treatments, sometimes storyboarded, and camped out in the editing room with the director on all of those. I also did this weird little travelogue documentary, documenting this tour that we did of South Africa.

Filmmaker: You hadn’t done any narrative directing until this?

Riley: Right.

Filmmaker: It’s a big leap you made.

Riley: Here’s the thing: it’s not that big of a leap as far as I’m concerned. I produce music with live musicians. I may have a bass player who is the best bass player in the world, a drummer who is not the best drummer in the world but thinks he is, a weird keyboard player and so on and so forth. Each one of them, individually, probably knows much more about music than I do. However, it’s my job, I have the vision, and maybe without me it would be a jam band mush. I have to get them to buy into the vision, have a bigger idea of the aesthetic, and not just get them to do it because I’m paying them to do it but get them to feel like this is the thing to do because otherwise it won’t come out well. I also have to know [that] the guitar player is always going to want more guitar, [but] maybe that riff that he did is better than the riff I had, and to submit myself to the greater good of the project and be able to quell my own ego and say “No, this is better. We’re trying to make a great song.”

Filmmaker: Being a bandleader is basically being a director, in other words.

Riley: Definitely. The producer in music is the director in film. And I’ve been doing things independently for a long time. I mean, we’re selling tapes out of a trunk, making deals, all that sort of stuff. So, to get folks on board with this, in certain cases we had to go around the agencies and make stuff happen. 

Filmmaker: The hip-hop hustle you learned manifests itself in independent film.

Riley: Yeah. And also, touring in a band with six people, driving 10 hours to the show and then having to put up with your guitar player and keyboard player getting into a two-hour fist fight but still keeping things going. I’ve also been an organizer. Trying to figure the plan of what we’re going to do while police are shooting tear gas at us prepares you for the chaos that happens when you’re shooting and you still gotta stay on point.

Filmmaker: It feels like the film is both a combination of your years as an artist and your activism. It has both threads. What’s the genesis of the idea of the film? 

Riley: There was a period after our second album when we had this song “Fat Cats and Bigga Fish.” It only got played on the radio in two places, LA and Chicago, and in those places it was selling 5,000 units a week. Everybody said, “OK, if you duplicate that in other areas, you’re going to have a platinum album.” BMI bought the album wholeheartedly from Wild Pitch, and we thought, “This is where we blow up.” The very next week, BMI said they’re not working the album even though they paid a good amount of money to Wild Pitch for it. I was like, “Fuck, I’m not in control of this.” So, I stopped doing music, and we started an organization called The Young Comrades. But I needed money, and I knew I was good at sales. I did telemarketing in between Genocide & Juice and Steal This Album. I also did it during college—that’s how I knew I was good at it. 

Filmmaker: Did you have a white voice?

Riley: I’m sure. Nobody actually tells you that, but you figure that out. And you feel like you’re selling your soul, probably like [if] the great painters stopped painting and got a job at an ad agency and spent their time figuring out what the best font is. You spend your creative energy that could be making a great piece of art that says something and has a creative impact through the ages to sell something. That’s probably where most people from art school are at.

Filmmaker: Yes. So, you had that real world experience, and that obviously gave you insight into the world of Sorry to Bother You. But then you didn’t do a naturalistic view. You took a heightened reality view, a surrealist, Afrofuturistic view. What drove you to that direction?

Riley: Well, one, what we always do. For instance, instead of making a song saying, “Stop kissing the boss’s ass,” we have “Ass-Breath Killers,” which is about these magical pills you take that stop you from kissing the boss’s ass. Our song “5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO”—the way you kill the CEO is you put $20 in the barrel of a gun and they try to suck it out. Having an analysis of what the world is means putting forth the contradictions in the world. That’s what analysis is: how something works, what the function is. A function has to do with competing forces and how those things set things in motion. That’s a contradiction, which is also irony, and humor relies on irony. Heightening those contradictions, heightening that irony, it’s all one thing. I’m glad that I didn’t make a film straight out of film school because it might have been way more on the nose than this one is. Whenever I wanted to talk about a big idea, I didn’t want to have somebody say it in dialogue and not even necessarily have the story tell you that. 

Filmmaker: How much do you think the aesthetics of hip-hop impacted your filmmaking, if it did?

Riley: I don’t know because it’s hard for me to separate anything I do creatively into those categories. I don’t believe in the origin story of hip-hop. That’s bullshit. Kool Herc didn’t start it. Hip-hop started in Congo Square in New Orleans. When black folks all over the country heard Sugar Hill Gang, we were like, “This is a hambone song.” No one was like “What is this newfangled thing?” They were like, this is just what we do. Hip-hop is just black culture, you know.

Filmmaker: Absolutely.

Riley: I got my education on music by digging up old records and then being like, “That bass line is tight. Who is that bass player?” Then, if I saw that bass player on something else, I’d look it up. Similarly with film, I’ll do that, too. I will look at films that maybe are not considered that great, that I don’t think are that great, but there’s something great in it that they did.

Filmmaker: I was going to ask you if there were any particular films or filmmakers who informed your directing of this film.

Riley: A lot, and if you ask me that question it changes on the day that you ask me. Emir Kusturica, films like Black Cat, White Cat; Underground and Time of the Gypsies, this chaos that he brings visually. Paul Schrader’s Mishima. Who’s the guy who did Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate?

Filmmaker: Michael Cimino.

Riley: The ways that he uses scale of crowds are maybe too expensive to do now because the director would really have to talk to all the extras, and that would end up making everything cost a lot of money. They’re only extras if the director doesn’t talk to them. There’s this series of films that this guy, Lindsay Anderson, did with Malcolm McDowell. Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry. Sergei Parajanov has a thing called Color of Pomegranates, and it influenced the way that we tried to do a couple of the wides in there. Because I didn’t tell myself what genre the movie had to be, I also didn’t limit what influences I had.

Filmmaker: I think Oakland is a huge character in the film.

Riley: I don’t know what that means. I hear that all the time. Location is a big part of what makes up character and stuff like that, but I don’t know what that means, actually. 

Filmmaker: I recently spent a lot of time in Oakland. The particulars of the geography of the city play a role. It gives it a personality.

Riley: Definitely. It shapes the film in a great way. That’s why I needed to shoot there. Because I know what it looks like, I know what it should feel like—besides the fact that I know so many people that we could get free locations and stuff like that. Now, everybody’s shooting in Atlanta or whatever, and it becomes generic, just any city. I wouldn’t want to have a generic any character: this is a tough guy, this is a smart guy. I wouldn’t want that, so I definitely don’t want generic any city. If I was going to shoot some other city, I’d have to spend a lot of time there and figure out what those details are that make up that city because that would influence any real character that was there.

Filmmaker: Absolutely. I wanted to talk a bit about Lakeith Stanfield. Was he your first choice, and what do you think he brought to the story that made you want to work with him?

Riley: I finished writing this in 2012, and I don’t think anyone knew who Lakeith Stanfield was in 2012, so he definitely wasn’t the first choice. I probably finished this just before Short Term 12 came out. What happened was, we both grew into each other. I developed my ability to get this movie made, and reined in the vision, and went to Sundance Labs and all that kind of stuff while he was honing his skills on various movies. So, yeah, there were other folks before, but when I finally zeroed in on him, I realized that he was exactly what we needed. Part of it is that Cassius needed to be grounded in reality, since all of this other crazy stuff was happening. If there were someone giving a performance that’s like, “He’s a movie star” or “Now he’s sad! Now he’s scared!”—I hate that kind of shit. Some people call that being more active, quote-unquote. It’s soap opera shit; it’s stuff you see on TV all the time by people who are considered great. I don’t like it. What Lakeith brings to this, and what his style is, he just lets the thought and feeling happen to him. He doesn’t have to raise one eyebrow because he’s wondering something. He just does it, and that feels way more real. And he’s someone who is always learning. From the time that I hired him to the time he showed up on set, he was a better actor. I got a better actor than the person I hired because of the movies he had done in between. 

Filmmaker: This was shot before or after Get Out?

Riley: After Get Out. I wrote the screenplay, finished it in 2012, and we put it out as its own paperback packaged with McSweeney’s Quarterly in 2014. So, it went out to like 10, 20,000 people in 2014. 

Filmmaker: You have been working on this thing for a long time, my brother.

Riley: Yeah, because nobody wanted to fuck with me, so I had to figure out the other angles. Especially doing music: You would think that that would help you with connections, but it actually hurts. People think of you as a rapper or a musician, and you say, “I got a screenplay.” They’re like, “Yeah, of course you’ve got a screenplay. You probably got a line of shoes, and you want to do a restaurant somewhere, too.” The quality is suspect, so just to get someone to read it is a crazy thing. I had to go little by little. I sent this script to David Cross. I had his e-mail from a long time before, and he tells me now that he had no plans to read it. But he was out of town, and his assistant was housesitting for him and was bored and read it and was like, “You have to read this.” So, I had David Cross saying it was hilarious, and he said I could use his name. So then I was able to get Patton Oswalt to read it. Then, when I ran into Dave Eggers from McSweeney’s—at that point I was giving up, and I was like, “I’ll just put it out on the Internet because I want people to know that I did it at one point. Maybe 20 years later, somebody will make it.” I was able to be like, “David Cross and Patton Oswalt like it.” That made Eggers read it and then he went around publicly saying that it was the best unproduced screenplay he’d ever read. Then, I was able to join San Francisco Film Society with that sort of thing behind me, as a filmmaker in residence, and then apply to the Sundance Labs. By then, I got producers on board—no money, but producers on board. Once I had Sundance, then it made it be like, “Oh, this is a real thing.” 

Filmmaker: Were you in the writer’s or director’s workshop?

Riley: I was in both. 

Filmmaker: I’ve been an adviser there a couple of times, so I was curious to see if you thought what impact that had. Was that experience helpful?

Riley: Just being accepted, you gain a certain amount of confidence in your work that you didn’t have before. Then, you have all these brilliant writers who have read your thing and are taking it seriously and have advice. With mine, people had strong opinions on either side of it. You have all of these master writers arguing with each other about your work, and you realize everybody’s still trying to figure shit out. Nobody knows the answer, so it gives you this sort of freedom. I got a lot of great advice because we had folks like Walter Mosley and the dude who wrote The Big Short—a lot of people like that. There were people who didn’t like it. There was a woman, Jennifer Salt, she hated it. She was like—I don’t want to have any spoilers, but, you know— “Make it be that Detroit and Cassius meet at work, and they get together.” I was like, whatever. The point is, even that really helps. 

The thing that had the most change on the script was something very subtle. There was this dude, Karim Aïnouz, who did a movie called Futuro Beach. He’s a Brazilian writer/director based in Berlin, and all he said to me is, “Look, I don’t know what to tell anybody about this script. That seems stupid to me. It’s your script. I’m just here because it’s summertime and we get to come to this resort. But what I will tell you is, I really love Cassius. I feel like I would wanna hang out with him. He’s a lovable character. That’s how I know it’s bullshit, because I don’t like anybody.” So, we had a three-hour conversation about people in our lives who have come into situations like this and the choices that they made. And basically, it made me give him more agency, whereas before that he was a pinball getting slapped around. It had a ripple effect because I realized he had to be the one doing this stuff.

Filmmaker: That’s a huge and beautiful piece of advice. The film is very confident directorially in terms of how you framed your shots. 

Riley: It wasn’t just a picture of the characters going through this stuff in their lives. I wanted to bring the viewer through something emotionally, not just [have] them watch the characters go through something emotionally. So, I needed to figure out ways that, visually, it made you have these feelings that represented what Cassius was going through. That could be a bad thing in some stories, like something like Belly—visually, it’s amazing, but it took me out of it so much because you realize you’re thinking about that [beauty] all the time. I wanted to be careful not to do that. A lot of the directors that I named who I really like, they’re able to do that. And it’s not taking anything away from certain films that are like, “I don’t want you thinking about what the camera’s doing. I just want you watching these people go through this.” I feel that; that’s just not the kind of thing I wanted to make. 

Filmmaker: What were your biggest surprises about the process of directing the film, if anything?

Riley: The lack of time. We had 61 locations to shoot in 28 days.

Filmmaker: Wow.

Riley: Which is why it was a good thing that this is my first film because otherwise I would have known, “This is crazy. Let me figure out how to make this story simpler.” Had I done a simpler movie first and seen how hard it [was], I would have changed this movie in the wrong ways. Some of those surprises I learned during the Sundance Directors Lab. I had a lot of time on this and was always trying to be productive and had gotten grants to work on the thing more. Often I was like, “Fuck, what can I do? Let me move things forward.” So I started storyboarding stuff. Originally, the opening scene, which is the interview scene, I had this crazy figure-eight thing, where I was like, “This is my debut! I need to show people that I’m a force to be reckoned with!” So, I had this diagram drawn of this figure-eight thing, that we were going to start on the interviewer, then go around his head and reveal Cassius and do all this stuff. The week that we were shooting that, Rodrigo Prieto was one of the advisers. I approached him with my notebook full of drawings, like, “Oh, you’re gonna love me!” I showed it to him, and he’s like, “That’s interesting. Can’t wait to see what you do.” Throughout the week, I’m talking to him about it, like, “I’m thinking this and that,” because I love his work, and he kinda nodded and was like, “That’s gonna be cool.” Then, when we did the rehearsal the day before—because at the Labs you get rehearsal; you don’t necessarily get that when you’re shooting—I realized that the whole idea was stupid because I was going to miss so much of people’s faces. We’re gonna not get the comedy on certain things, and we were going to be distracted by the way the camera was moving at that time. So I was like, “No, I’m not gonna do that,” and Rodrigo was like, “Yeah, you are probably right, but I’m gonna insist that you do it tomorrow. Because the danger is, if you don’t do it here, you might try it on set in real life when you’re shooting because you’ve been talking about it so much that you might get it in your head that there’s a way to do it. So, you should try it out here.” So we tried it, and, just like I had thought the day before, it wouldn’t work. 

What I realized is that you need to have all this planning, but you also need to improvise. You want to plan out the best shot list possible, but then the actor does something that you’re like, “Oh, shit! We gotta get that from this way!” And then that changes all this other stuff. Or, locations are changing. For instance, we have this shot that I love, which is Omari [Hardwick] as Mr. Blank—mister with seven underscores—and when we first meet him upstairs, it’s a shot down this hallway, with these strips of fluorescent light. It’s one of my favorite shots in the movie, but that was something we had to come up with two days before because we lost the other location. That shot, and the shot with Cassius listening to his presentation and there’s a reflection of fluorescent light and other fluorescent lights behind him, those two things are the only reason we picked that location. The point is, you have to figure out stuff. You have to know how to get great shots in places that you hadn’t thought about. Because you could stick to this thing and get like, “Wow, we planned this shot with this rotating thing,” and you don’t make a great movie. It’s part of that same thing of quelling your ego based on the idea that you thought was great and going for just the best thing that you can get.

Filmmaker: Now that you have this, and it’s about to come out and you’re getting good notices, what is your plan? Are you ready to make another film? Do you want to wait?

Riley: Oh, yeah. I got 20 years of ideas all ready to go. And half of them are great. 

Filmmaker: Well, make sure you do that half.

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