BOOTS RILEY: “SORRY TO BOTHER YOU”
illustration by safety first
Sorry To Bother You is a comedy. Maybe. It’s a story about a Black telemarketer in Oakland who succeeds by adopting a Caucasian voice in a world that’s more dystopian by the day. The white voices are ridiculously overdubbed and there’s recurring scenes of old white people in durags. Or is it really science-fiction? There’s some crazy deranged shit that happens in the last third of the film—that I’ve been contractually obligated to not mention—that could only be labeled science-fiction. Plus, there’s lots of world-ending shit. So that makes this film is a sci-fi comedy. But is it actually a satire—like Putney Swope?
It’s hard to witness a story about a Black character struggling to survive in ultra-capitalist Oakland and the consequent existential conflict without seeing the parallels to our own lives. Shit. That’s actually a bit dark, almost like a drama. Come to think of it, the film is really about how no matter what our lives contain, for the vast majority of us the powers that be only see us as workhorses: either a Clydesdale to move that productivity needle a bit higher or an Eeyore to fill a rebranded prison.
To be perfectly frank, I don’t know what box to put Sorry To Bother You in. I just know that the film, written and directed by Boots Riley of the Coup, fucked me up in the best possible way. It is humane without being saccharine. It’s incisive without being preachy. It’s lighthearted without being shallow. It’s powerful without taking itself too seriously. I am not sure how to introduce Sorry To Bother You because it feels like something new. This interview by sweeney kovar. Sorry To Bother You begins limited release on Fri., July 6.
Special thanks to Movement Generation for the plug.
Most people who would listen to your music might think that your first film would be overtly political—
Boots Riley (director/writer): Our music has never been that! It’s only been thought that way by people who write about it who don’t really listen to the lyrics. First, we always got accused of not being political enough because our music was funky and fun and danceable. You have to remember that when we first came out, ‘political’ meant the Bomb Squad sound or something like that. We were never that. Our music was always optimistic and our music always talked about stuff from a personal perspective, like ‘Cars and Shoes’ or ‘Repo Man.’ We never were like an Immortal Technique, who is really cool but just different to us. We were never coming with a list of information. It was about everyday life. Even when we have a song like ‘5 Million Ways to Kill A CEO,’ it’s a dance song and it’s funny. The fact that you’re saying the right thing doesn’t matter if the person you’re saying it to doesn’t give a fuck. For instance Rage Against The Machine—who I love and obviously I’ve worked with Tom Morello extensively—their thing is anger. But me coming from being an organizer, I know that anger doesn’t get people to actually do things. It’s the ability and viewpoint that they can actually change things that gets them to do things. That’s always guided my music and guided the aesthetic of what I wanted to do. If I made it doom-and-gloom, I’m never going to get anyone to do anything.
You talk about being an organizer and I thought this felt like a film made by an organizer. It’s clear that it’s made by someone who understands the way to connect with people isn’t beating them over the head with problems or even a solution but it’s about being able to form relationship. Everyday people deal with all these ‘issues’ simultaneously but most folks don’t over-analyze their lives—they just live their lives!
Boots Riley: That’s the ultimate goal. If I’m going to be an artist then the form of the art and the way it’s done has to take priority. If it’s just the content that takes priority, I might as well just be making speeches. My goal is to connect emotionally with people, like you said. That’s the most important thing. Hopefully while I’m making that thing, I’m honest with myself about what I think about the world and what I think about people, [and] it’ll come across without me having to mechanically say this piece of art is going to do this or that.
How do you manage the way that different audiences interact with it? I watched the film in a screening with about a dozen people, mostly white, and it was very interesting to see how people reacted differently to different parts of the movie. I’m trying not to give anything away but basically it felt a bit weird to watch some parts of the film with white folks.
Boots Riley: Well, we played it at a lot of places and I’ve been in the viewing of it with a lot of different demographics. I don’t know if you went to an industry screening…
Yeah, it was.
Boots Riley: Those are usually different. Those people are thinking, ‘Does this work? What does this mean in the marketplace?’ They’re not reacting to it fully. We played the film to crowds that are largely people of color and crowds that are largely white. One of the best reactions we had were at the Salt Lake City in Sundance which you can guess is mainly white folks and the other was at South by Southwest which was still majority white. It’s hard to gauge that from industry screenings because those are always weird. I think everybody will have different ways into it. Sometimes people are laughing at it and sometimes white people are looking like, ‘Is it OK to laugh? How should I be feeling about this?’ Which is fine because there are lots of things in the movie where people might be thinking, ‘How should I feel about this?’ Because they’re trying to take everything seriously, which is good. It’s going to make you laugh at some point anyway, no matter who you are. Some of the stuff is just going to be really hard to deal with. That’s the point. I want to have people engage with the film. Part of the reason why it’s different is to have people on their toes and not necessarily think they have it figured out. Sort of like real life.
Sorry To Bother You is the kind of film I’ve wanted to see for a long time. Watching it was an emotional experience.
Boots Riley: I’m glad you felt it. It’s great to witness people taking it in and processing it. It’s one of the most artistically satisfying things in my career. Maybe it’s the most artistically satisfying thing I’ve done in my career.
So many moments felt like I was watching a Coup skit …
Boots Riley: [laughs] The truth is those skits also had a lot to do with film. We got really into a lot of those skits on the albums, from the sound design to the story and the editing. That was, in my mind, very similar to making films. At one point I even thought if I couldn’t get anyone to make this movie, maybe I could do it in an audio format like an old radio play.
The last Coup album was supposed to be a soundtrack to the film and you published a version of the screenplay in McSweeney’s Quarterly. How does it feel at this point? Just before it’s really out?
Boots Riley: It feels good. It feels satisfying to be able to watch your work processed by people and to get people’s reaction to it and see it sit in the cultural sphere as opposed to being an idea that you know certain things about but you don’t know what it means until it bounces off of people. I did that to a certain extent during the whole process with the script. I was not secretive with the script. Obviously we put it out on McSweeney’s to ten or twenty thousand people and we got reactions from there. But before that … even when I was only 30 pages in I was letting people read it and tell me what they thought. I went through labs and bounced it off people there but this is the ultimate—seeing people that I don’t even know processing it. With music it’s a little different. People talk about it in a different way and people experience music in a different way. They might not be done experiencing a song for ten years and it happens little by little while they’re sitting around with their friends or at a party or whatever. With a film, I’ve captured people for two hours and made them have this experience. It’s gratifying.
What did you get from having such an open process for so long?
Boots Riley: I got to look at my characters and my story more three dimensionally. You feel it differently when someone else has a question about something. ‘Why is this character doing this?’ It may not be something you thought about before but it makes you see them in a certain way. One of the biggest things was going through the labs and having all these master writers comment on my work—some that I agreed with and some that I disagreed with, but it ultimately gave me a process to think about.
Your interest in film dates back to the early days of the Coup. Why was now the right time for a full-length film project?
Boots Riley: I went to film school and then we got our first record deal. One—movies cost a lot more back then. There wasn’t the same technical quality of film that you could produce back then. There was also this question: you make this small film and how many people see it? So I weighed it out. Our songs were getting play on BET and people were getting the album. Even beyond the people that were getting the album, it was something that they used in crowds and other spheres. I felt that the art that I was doing at the time was getting to people so I had a certain satisfaction from that, especially when you combine that with what I thought it would take to fund the crazy ideas I might have had through the 90s But by the way, we did do film stuff during that time. I co-directed ‘Me and Jesus The Pimp In A ‘79 Granada Last Night.’ I was very involved in the other videos. I’d usually write the treatment and sometimes storyboard it. I was very involved in choosing the locations. I was very involved in lots of ideas for framing and compositions. I’d usually be camped out in the editing room if it was somewhere in the Bay area.
How did the stars align around this idea being the project to see through as a film?
Boots Riley: This movie was just the idea that, when I downloaded Final Draft, I started typing first. The opening scene is an interview scene that’s based on something that my friend Rob used to do. I always had it in my head that I would put that in a movie. It wasn’t much more than that. I knew that I was going to take something, start with it and put a lot of my ideas into it.
Another aspect that makes it feel triumphant is that you directed it.
Boots Riley: I always wanted to direct it but I didn’t think that I could. I didn’t think the funding would align around me directing it. I thought I’d let someone else direct, it could become a hit and then I can direct the next one. But for one—like Richard Ayoade told me—nobody else would be able to capture the voice, and two, if I went the first route people could just think of me as a writer and it may actually be harder to direct a movie. So I learned all I could about directing. I watched interviews with directors talking about their process. I got Dave Eggers from McSweeney’s to set me up with a three-hour master class with Spike Jonze, where he just told me everything he thought I needed to know. I read all the books I could read about directing. I read this book Acting for Directors, which deals with communicating with actors. I even took a Skype class from Judith Weston, the woman who wrote the book. Then I took a similar class with Joan Darling. I watched a lot of ‘making of’ things because I’ve been on sets before so the space wasn’t totally new to me, but there are certain processes and protocols that you wonder about. One resource that ended up being particularly helpful was a behind the scenes version of a film—The Two Faces of January, which stars Viggo Mortensen. 80% of the footage was them showing the crew and the behind-the-scenes process of making the movie. There’s also websites I would frequent like mentorless.com, filmschoolrejects.com and nofilmschool.com. I also made people be my mentors. I found Guillermo Del Toro at a dinner that San Francisco Film Society was hosting. I pitched him the idea of the film and he loved it. I told him I needed a mentor and he said he didn’t have the time, but he gave me his email. He never did not answer my questions and never didn’t help me. He even helped us while we were looking for certain practical effects. Same thing with David Gordon Green, who was an advisor at Sundance. I told him I needed a mentor and he said, ‘Well, you better start shadowing me then.’ He invited me to shadow him while he directed the TV show ‘Red Oaks.’ I made a lot of lists. I made so many lists. I made a look book. All these things were as much to organize my thoughts for myself as they were to communicate my ideas to other people.
What’s next for you in film?
Boots Riley: This year I’m going to be writing a feature and a TV pilot. That’s what I’m working on next.
You’re one of my favorite MCs. Are we going to hear more of you rapping and making music?
Boots Riley: The Coup did a whole new soundtrack to the movie that will be coming out this summer. We did all the diegetic music that happens in it. tUnE-yArDs did the score. The new Coup album is called The Sun Exploding, which is brought up in the movie if you remember.
We’re living in crazy times. In your eyes, what is the role of an artist in times like these?
Boots Riley: The role of any human being at any point in life should be to engage with the world. In order to fully engage with the world, you have to change it. If everything is exactly the same whether you were here or not, then you didn’t really engage with the world very much. Changing the world and being part of some sort of movement that changes material conditions eventually is something that all humans should be a part of. Now, if you’re an artist, what you do is communicate. You should be involved with a movement and that would probably affect your work. As an artist you make things that have to do with what you know about the world and how you see the world … but what you know about the world and how you see it should be changed drastically by what you’re involved in in the world and how you’re involved in the world.
BOOTS RILEY’S SORRY TO BOTHER YOU IN SELECT THEATRES ON FRI., JULY 6, WITH A WIDER RELEASE ON FRI., JULY 13.