Interview: 'Sorry to Bother You' Director Boots Riley Talks Filmmaking
by Alex Billington
July 13, 2018
"This is telemarketing. Stick to the script." One of the year's wildest, weirdest, most original films is Sorry to Bother You, from the mind of Boots Riley (watch the trailer here). This is Boots first feature film, but he has some experience making music videos and in the theater world previously. Boots is also a very successful musician, not only as a rapper and songwriter but also as a producer. His film is about a kid from Oakland, played by Lakeith Stanfield, who takes a crap telemarketing job to make some money. Using his "white voice", he works up the sales chain until finally meeting the CEO and being introduced to the glorious world of high society and rich snobs. It's already on its way to becoming a huge indie hit. With the film now playing in theaters, I had a chance to chat with Boots for an interview and couldn't pass up the opportunity.
I first watched Boots' film Sorry to Bother You at the world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this year, one snowy night in the completely sold out Library Theatre in Park City, UT. It was an awesome and unforgettable experience, to be the first audience ever to witness this mind-blowing, independent film. I wrote in my review from Sundance: "Sorry to Bother You is one of Sundance 2018's most original, most WTF, most entertaining discoveries yet. Made by talented musician-turned-filmmaker Boots Riley, this anti-capitalist social commentary comedy film has creativity oozing out of every orifice. It's balls-to-the-walls nuts, in a good way." It's one of those totally amazing, unbelievable films that you can't stop talking about - and now that everyone else can finally go see it, they can't stop talking about it either. Do not miss this film.
My interview with Boots Riley was conducted over the phone during a press day in New York City. I am very glad I had the chance to talk with Boots, I think he's a creative genius with such an open mind, and I wanted to dig deep into his creative process. He gave me some fascinating answers and I wanted to ask him more about the actual process of filmmaking and working on set and working with all of his actors, but I'm happy I could ask him a few questions. Most of all, I'm happy to speak with the mind behind this mad crazy, one-of-a-kind film and bring some more attention to it now that it's playing in theaters everywhere. Here we go…
I was at the world premiere at Sundance, which was an awesome experience. The reaction at Sundance was crazy enthusiastic and that set everything in motion from that point forward. What was your Sundance experience like?
Boots Riley: The very first showing was nerve-wracking for me, because I'm used to doing live performance. And being able to roll with where I think the crowd is, and make this part more hyped if I think that's what the crowd likes. And, oh that guy in the second row seems like he's from New Jersey and they like this sort of thing. I can make eye contact with the crowd and manipulate them through the energy that I feel that they need. And this was not that. You've done your performance already and you're just, you're stuck to it. But I did go back and using the many screenings we had at Sundance that I sat through, and stuff afterward… I've gone back in and made some edits and actually we shot a few more things and added them as well.
I've heard from a lot of filmmakers that they're never really done with each film they make, they just have to say well I've done enough and finish up and put it out. Is that how you felt?
Boots: Yeah, that's how it always is. There's that saying that great works of art are never done, they're only abandoned.
You wrote a nice tweet response to someone asking how you're this good making a first film, and you said you were new to film, but not new to life and you're okay with your own voice in art. You seem very confident about filmmaking. Is that the case?
Boots: Yeah. It's not magic or conjuring up ghosts. There's — you do A, B and C and you get X, Y and Z. I don't know, we're taught that a lot of things are hard. There are things that I don't want to do because I don't want to do them… One time I had a Volvo and it had blown a head gasket. And the tow truck driver was driving me home with the car and I was like, I wonder how much this is going to cost to get this fixed? And he said some high number and he was like, "but you could do what I did… I just went and got the manual from the auto parts place and figured out how to do it myself." And he's like, "that's how I learned about engines. You could do it." So this guy on this ride home convinced me to do that.
I went and got the manual for the Volvo and took apart the car little by little, labeled every single screw. You label the screws and you put them there, all the different parts. And I put it back together. It took me, because I was doing other things at the same time, it took me about three months. And I went to turn on the car, and it did not start. But I did learn a lot more about engines… And how does that have to do with this? I know I made a mistake somewhere, but I also know that it was doable. I just didn't do it. I'm not a mechanic. And I'm not one now and wasn't before then. But things work a certain way, you can figure it out.
The other thing about it is that it's just it's creating. It's getting things done. I'm an artist that studies how to do those things. If you have someone that's built a house and they tell you they're going to build a boat, there are things that they need to learn, but because they've actually built a house before you probably will believe that they are going to build that boat.
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. You can also find a team of people who have more experience in certain aspects of filmmaking and then surround yourself with them and pull it off.
Boots: Well, here's the thing. I don't need to know how to run the dolly. You know what I'm saying? Just like in music, I'm not going to learn how to fix an amp, right? In order to have the guitar player play. That's not music. I mean, at times I've had my own studio and I've gotten so into gear that I'm listening to music and only thinking about what compressor they used on this bass line. And it took me so far away from the creative process. So I'm not operating the camera. You think about all the people who've had decades of experience in making films and they make shitty movies. That has nothing to do with their experience, right? It has to do with the choices you make.
That's the thing that doing art can tell you. I've sat in the studio with some music projects — one project that I did with Jeff Beck, which nobody will hear, and I have another project that people have heard with Tom Morello. And these are people that other guitar players look up to as gods. In reality, they're not doing anything mystical. They're just doing shit. And they're great at it. But I think a lot of our culture teaches us it's some sort of hierarchical learning around art.
Basically, I wrote the story [for the film] and I have a very strong opinion about what it should look like. What should happen. What the performances should be. And all of those things are built. Those opinions are formed by the fact that I've studied art for 20-something years, because I am an artist. Right? But even if I hadn't, my opinions would be formed by something else. And still come out with something interesting.
That's what I really admire about the film — it is so fresh and original in a way that I wouldn't expect from other filmmakers who aren't as open-minded with their creativity. I think you bring so much to it. It almost seems like you threw every cool and crazy idea you could come up with into the film. Was there anything that you left out? Was there anything you thought, this is too crazy for the film? Or there's no way we can pull it off.
Boots: There were things that got left out. Things that we couldn't do. There were things that I did at the Sundance Labs that got messed up when we did it. And I'm not going to say [what], because I'm going to use them in something else. But yeah, there were things that just didn't work. But that's how I feel. Like, why save… I mean, all the ideas that were in there were about me, they came for a reason. I needed to express something. I needed an emotional thing to happen, I needed these things. It wasn't like, oh this is cool. I mean, there are some parts that's just like oh this is cool. Like, here, oh check this out. This angle will be really cool and working with Doug Emmett, my DP, who had that relationship [with me], being able to go back and forth about different things. And he's really good — if you look at his other work, he's very much whatever that director he's working with's style is. He shoots a lot of Duplass Brothers stuff. Which the Duplass Brothers look nothing like what we did here. And so it's just going back and forth.
I say this analogy all the time with music. You might have the best bass player in the world. As a producer — you might have the best bass player in the world, the drummer that thinks he's the best drummer in the world, but isn't. A guitar player who has ADHD and is crazy, and only texts in all caps. And individually they may each know more about music than you. And they definitely know more about their instrument than you do. But that view that they have also causes them to make things in a different way than you would. And they each make things in that case in pretty different ways than you would. It's your job to have the vision and have them not only do it because you hired them to do it, but be able to communicate to them and get them excited about it and to get them to be able to pick out the thing from them that they have to offer.
And you also have to know that the guitar player's always going to want a guitar solo and the guitar turned up. That's because it's coming from his standpoint, his opinion is biased. Those opinions don't help the final song. But you also have to know when that bass player has hit a lick that's way better than what you came up with. And you have to say, that's what we're going with. You just did something better. And that's what we're using. And because you have to attach your ego to the final product because all of those decisions of what goes in there and what doesn't, that's mine as a producer. I mean, in that case. As a director, it's the same thing. Also as a music producer, the way that I've been doing music for a long time, ever since I got Pro Tools now, fuck, 18-19 years ago, is that it can be like wow, okay, you got that tuba come in. Lay your track on this song. Oh you have a violin? Let's go. Oh nose flute, cool. And then you got all these layers of vocals and then you have to carve out a song. Out of all these performances. It's very similar to the editing process.
It reminds me of a metaphor of a conductor with an orchestra. You have the talented people in the orchestra, but you have to conduct them well for the symphony to sound perfect.
Did you find it was hard to convince everyone of your vision? To get them on board with what you wanted. Was that as challenging as it seems? Or were you able to convey it well through your experience?
Boots: It's funny… It was [hard] for investors, that was a more difficult notion. But for all the other talent, people were pretty hyped. As a lyric writer, one of the things that I have done for 20 years is take big, giant ideas and condense them down to small bite size portions that get at the essence of something and show the extreme contradictions. And relate to people. And so that led to me being able to do this, to orally pitch this movie and make people interested. I remember — it was a competing company. I went in, when we were looking for funding, we went and sat with [them]. We had a meeting setup, I'd never met him before. But it was on the schedule and he went to the meeting room and he sat there with his assistant. He was like, "unfortunately I have to… I've double booked, I have a phone call, a phone meeting and so I'm going to be in here for the first two minutes and you can pitch to me. And you can keep pitching to my assistant because I have to leave in just two minutes. And she'll take notes and tell me about it." Which sucked… So I was like, okay, because I know I'm good at pitching. Which is connected to songwriting, connected to screenwriting, connected to all these things. So I started pitching — he didn't leave there for a hour and 45 minutes.
Boots: Because the idea was compelling to people. That wasn't hard to get people to be compelled. The hard thing was — with [investor] people, to answer, "what thing that has made a lot of money is this like?"
That's the "Hollywood question", right?
Boots: So yeah. I mean, I'm not saying that they asked that, but I'm just saying in general that's kind of the thing. And nobody would be crass enough to say that. In those words. But that's what it is. And me being a first time filmmaker was also different. But if you looked at other first time filmmakers, usually they've done one or two shorts. And then they do a film. But me — I went to film school. I did not finish. I did tout that I still went, but I actually didn't remember anything useful from film school. But I didn't say that. And I was heavily involved in each music video that we ever did. I did the treatments, storyboarded it, and camped out in the editing room for all these things. And then I co-directed one music video. I did a documentary. And I've done a lot of theater things. So it wasn't unprecedented. I had more experience than some of the people that — there are people that come out of theater and then they get funded for doing their movie. And concert shows sometimes. That was the hard part. But to get actors excited about it, as long as I got them to read the script by having enough co-signs on there from people that said it was great, then they thought it was great.
If there's one thing you want people to take away from the film, what do you want it to be? What's the most important idea that you hope sticks with viewers of Sorry to Bother You?
Boots: Well, there's not just one idea.
Ha, yeah, I know. I know.
Boots: Like, what's the one idea that is in War and Peace, what's the one idea that's in 100 Years of Solitude or whatever.
Boots: There is an idea, one of the ideas I would say, is one of optimism — even with all the crazy, fucked up things that happen in the movie. I think the version you saw, and I can tell you this, it doesn't really give away since you seen it, the version you saw doesn't have the ending that is there now. We just didn't have the time to shoot it before. [Boots then explains the more "optimistic" ending compared to the Sundance cut, but we won't include it here for those who don't want the final scene spoiled.]
Thank you to Boots Riley for his time. And to Submersive Media & Annapurna for arranging.
Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You is now playing in theaters nationwide - get tickets here. It first opened in limited release on July 6th, and expands wide this weekend (July 13th). Read my review and go see the film.