Director Boots Riley on His Film “Sorry to Bother You”
Scott Menzel: Hey. How are you?
Boots Riley: All right. How’s it going?
Scott Menzel: Good. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.
Boots Riley: Oh, no, no. Thanks for being down to talk about the movie.
Scott Menzel: So, let’s take a trip back to January to start this phone call, and I mean, there are two things. What was it like having your first feature film not only debut at Sundance to a sold-out crowd, where people, including myself, got turned away, who had tickets, but to have a film that became one of the most talked about films at the festival?
Boots Riley: It was nerve-racking. Because one, I’m used to performance, where I can just kind of ride with the crowd. But this is something that’s already pre-made, and like you said, people got turned away that had bought tickets to it, and that was because donors really wanted to go, so they were able to like, kick the ticket holders off and come. Donors are, it seems like a different kind of a crowd. So, even though people were responding to it. Even the donors were. The donors, I think, watch films differently than your average filmgoer, you know, or even than your average festival filmgoer.
I really was like, “Whoa, shit. Is this movie working?” You know? I was tense the whole movie, even though, definitely, people were laughing and stuff like that. I was not used to not having any control over the performance. Basically, when you’re performing live, you can re-edit stuff right then, like, “Fuck it, we’re going to the bridge right now.” Or like, “Oh, that dude in the second row, he’s from New Jersey. They like this kind of thing. You know, we’ll do this” “But this jump in the air is for that girl right there.” That sort of thing.
Scott Menzel: Well, I think that’s great. I mean, you hit on a very important point. It’s like when you have a film, you can’t tailor it anymore. Like, once it’s done, it’s done. People are seeing it and reacting, and either they like it, or they don’t.
Boots Riley: Yep and that was not familiar to me. And I think that all the subsequent viewings, the crowd was way more reactive than that first viewing. Even though most of the people coming out of that first thing, I mean, they all stayed for the Q&A and everybody seemed like they were really into it. Which is, I’m used to people standing up, and jumping up and down and stuff. But then the subsequent viewings were way more reactive, and especially now we’re doing like college showings and stuff like that. It’s been different, but that first one was nerve-racking. I’ve never been nervous at a performance or anything like that. So, it was a weird feeling for me.
Scott Menzel: I can only imagine. I mean, when I was watching this movie, you know, first of all, I think almost every review, whether they liked it or not, has said that it’s very ambitious, it’s batshit crazy. You know, all those buzzwords have been used so many times before. But what went through my mind is, where in the hell did you come up with this idea? Where did it stem from?
Boots Riley: Yeah, it’s hard to know. I know I started out with just the idea that I was going to do something set on the telemarketing floor. I think I even thought that I would do a one location thing. But I was going to do something set on the telemarketing floor, and there was going to be a labor struggle. That’s all I knew. And I knew I had the first scene. The things that I knew was that, and I had the first scene, because that’s a scene that happened to a friend of mine, that he did all the time. And then I knew that the argument in front of the building between Cassius and Sal, that happened to my brother. So, those are the things I knew were going to be in the movie.
But other than that, after I wrote that first scene, that was the first thing I wrote, I just took the journey with Cassius. And what happened with me is, as I wanted to put in bigger ideas, I found that the heavy-handed way was to have it happen through dialogue. Less heavy-handed, yet still heavy-handed way was for those ideas to come in to the situation of a story that was realistic, because then you’re like, “Okay, this and this is happening, here’s what this guy is trying to tell me. Let me think about that.”
So, I realized that I needed to rely on the way I’ve been creating art for 20 years, which is, a lot of my art goes into the ridiculous. So, we have this song, for instance, called “Ass-Breath Killers”, and the song is a commercial for these pills that you take that stop you from kissing the boss’s ass. It’s much better than just saying, “You should stop kissing the boss’s ass,” because you could say that. You could make a very serious, compelling thing about how that kills your soul. But I find it much more clear and fun to bend reality at the points that make you think about what reality actually is. And so that’s what started happening, and it kind of kept going. There were certain points where I was like, “Okay. Is this really going to happen? Am I really going to do this?” And I was like, “Yes, I am. Okay.”
Scott Menzel: Yeah, I would say I agree with you. I mean, as the movie goes on, I mean, it becomes more and more outrageous. And the third act I’m just kind of like, I don’t even know how you pulled this off on such a limited budget.
Boots Riley: Everybody believed in it. Every single actor on that, you know there’s some not only great actors, but actors that probably from other movies demand high rates. They believed in it so much that everybody did it at scale. Because they wanted it to happen. It was a union shoot, we still did that, but like, all the big budget things, people came in and just really wanted it to happen.
It also was able to happen because I did it in a place where I knew everybody. Probably most of the extras I knew in some sort of way. So, like I said, it’s still a union shoot, they’re still getting paid, but normally that means, you don’t know them, you can’t talk to them if you’re the director. Because then they stop being an extra. But if they’re your family and friends, you can. I think that added, those are little things that people don’t notice that add scale to the movie, and just make it feel bigger, because it’s not just a bunch of people standing doing one generic thing. There’s stuff happening that adds to the texture. We were able to get locations given to us, ’cause, you know, I know people and people wanted to make it happen. You know? My friend, Omiroo did the art for Detroit.
Scott Menzel: Oh, wow.
Boots Riley: I wrote that in the script, because he was my neighbor, and he was doing all that, and I was like, “Hey, I’m going to write this in the script.” He was like, “Yeah. Go ahead.” And the amazing lettering that you see on the title and on Detroit’s earring, and on like the signs and stuff like that, and the cola can and all that. That’s my boy, J. Otto Seibold, who does like, Olive, the Other Reindeer. So, I called together all these folks. But there’s a lot of talented people in that film.
Scott Menzel: That’s incredible. I mean, and you pulled it off so, I want to almost say flawlessly. I mean, it just, you know, it’s almost like you pulled some favors, you went the extra mile to use people who you knew and trusted. And as result, you have this fantastic project that I feel no one can ever say to you, come up to you and say, “Hey. Your movie is like that movie, or that movie.” Your movie is so fucking bold, and original, and different, and you should be so proud of that.
Boots Riley: Yeah. It’s definitely … And it being original and different is a couple of the reasons that we were, it was hard to get it funded originally. You know, that’s not necessarily a great word, is original and different.
Scott Menzel: No. Not at all. Not at all. Everyone wants something that’s safe and bankable. Nobody wants something that’s different and edgy.
Boots Riley: Yeah. Yeah.
Scott Menzel: So, I’m curious. For this film, and I mean, just you as a person, what serves as inspiration to you? Like, who are some of your inspirations in terms of film or television?
Boots Riley: I think one reason that this film works is that I have a wide arrays of influences, and I wear them all on my sleeve. It’s not like I’m trying to hide them. It’s just there are so many conflicting influences that create this new thing. So, there’s like, Emir Kusturica with movies like Black Cat, White Cat, and then Underground. The chaos that comes in some that, and the camera movement that Thierry Arbogast did in that movie. There is Michael Cimino, and Heaven’s Gate and Deer Hunter, and how he worked with crowds, as well as Milos Forman doing the same thing in, what was it called? Loves of a Blonde?
Scott Menzel: That sounds about right.
Boots Riley: Yeah. And, you know, how the camera moves the crowd, and how everybody is doing something. There’s like, some of the shots that are in Paul Schrader’s Mishima that, like, for instance, that I wanted to get the feeling of when, there’s a thing called the Temple of the Golden Pavilion in that movie, and where one of the characters is looking at the Golden Pavilion and is just kind of drawn to it, but fearful. I wanted to get that same feeling when Cassius looks at the Golden Elevator. And, you know, there’s so many things like that, obviously. There’s also Kubrick.
Scott Menzel: I love the Gondry reference.
Boots Riley: Yeah, there’s Michel Gondry, there’s Spike Jones and Charlie Kaufman. There is even some of One From the Heart, Francis Ford Coppola’s terrible movie, but with great stuff in it. There is, obviously, Terry Gilliam.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, you really love cinema. I mean, that is clear. ‘Cause, you’re naming some like, iconic films that only film buffs really know. So, I mean, that’s also very impressive. And you can tell that there’s like, so much love for cinema in this movie when you’re watching it. So, as a filmmaker, right now, how does it feel making films during a time where not only critics and audiences, but society as a whole, wants more films written, directed and produced by women and people of color?
Boots Riley: Well, you know, it’s probably, partially one of the reasons why we were able to get funded. Significant, which is Nina Yang Bongiovi and Forest Whitaker, that’s their mission statement, is to fund movies by people of color, so, and they’re able to go to investors with this mission statement, and partially because of that atmosphere. But they’re also part of the creating the atmosphere because they’ve put out some movies that people love, by people of color.
But I think that it’s great, and it’s also a challenge, because I think that the first thing that happens any time a new door opens up for a new group of people is that people think that they have to make versions of the films that have already been made by people who are non-people of color. So, we need a people of color heist movie, or we need a people of color buddy cop movie, or we need this.
As opposed to what I think is the next thing, which is using these different experiences that have been had by people of color to inform different narrative and aesthetic styles. And I think different narrative takes and aesthetic takes on things, and I think that, what I hope this movie does is kind of start people thinking about new ways of doing stuff. Because it’s not just that there’s crazy shit happening in the movie, it’s also, it takes some structure risks, as well. And, of course, any time you risk those things, you also, it’s called a risk for a reason, that you risk fucking it up. But without doing that, there’s so many ideas about storytelling that we have that we think are set in stone, that at one point were a risk. That we just decided are a rule now. And stuff gets boring.
Scott Menzel: Thank you very much, again.
Boots Riley: Thank you.