In Conversation With Boots Riley: What We Learned At A 'Sorry To Bother You' Soundtrack Listening Party

(This article was written by Rosie Knight and Jazmine Joyner.)

Rosie:  On a very hot summer afternoon in July, Jazmine invited me to join her at a listening party for the original soundtrack for Sorry To Bother You. We both adored the film and were incredibly excited to get a chance to hear the soundtrack. Plus, it would be a chance to listen to director Boots Riley talk about creating the radical, unexpected, hilarious, and vital film that we'd fallen head over heels in love with. Jaz, you saw Sorry To Bother You months ago at an early screening and have gotten to see the way the film's been received in its wider release. What were you most excited about seeing Boots cover when we headed to the event?

Jazmine: I was really excited to hear him talk about how his music career influenced his work with Sorry To Bother You, and possibly listen to him expand on the socio-political themes within the film. But overall I was just really into the idea of getting to hear about his process in detail and all that comes with it.

Riley describes Sorry To Bother You as an "absurdist dark comedy with magical realism, inspired by the world of telemarketing." But what does that absurdism mean to him? He explained:

"I'm exaggerating things, but not in the sense that they're untrue. Anytime you put forward an analysis of something, you're exaggerating. You're shaving away the other parts that aren't important to what you're talking about to highlight a contribution. That's what an analysis is – here are the forces working against each other. And that's a form of exaggeration because you're not talking about all these little things, but it's a necessary thing. And this is something where I exaggerate contradictions so that it highlights them, and sometimes that might mean taking things that help to the next level, you know, in length or in focus or any of those."

Classic Film Influences That Inspired Sorry To Bother You

When Riley was talking about his influences, he described the process as digging through the crates of cinema, which was a perfect summation of the unexpected creators who inspired him. From lesser-known filmmakers like Lesley Anderson, to more well-known Hollywood stalwarts like Stanley Kubrick, Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, and the Coen brothers, Riley's taste is eclectic as you'd expect."There's a filmmaker named Emir Kusturica, out of former Yugoslavia. There are some movies that he made called Black Cat, White CatUnderground, and Time of Gypsies. These movies are slightly racist, but they're good." He elaborated:

"There's an energy to them and just the way they move and all of that. That's really in there. There are other beautiful elements to [the work of] Michael Cimino, who did Deer Hunter and Heaven's Gate. What he does with scale and crowds, and the way you move through the crowd, things like that. Paul Schrader, especially Mishima, there's actually a scene in Sorry To Bother You that I pretty much just stole from him. Or, you know, it's an homage to them. It's when Cassius is really being captivated by the golden elevator. There's a scene from Mishima in the segment Temple of the Golden Pavilion where the main character is looking at this golden pavilion and there's this trombone shot, which is a zoom lens on a dolly that keeps the character in focus and makes the background compress. And so, you know, I wanted that same feeling right there."

Jazmine: That scene in the film was really interesting. It's a lot like that moment in Pulp Fiction with the suitcase, and the golden light that shines out of it. It was more about what the suitcase represented and less about what was in it. But in Sorry To Bother You we got to see what was on the other side of that weird gold elevator. Boots demystified it and I thought that was so brilliant.

Rosie: You're so right, and to be honest I hadn't really realized what a subversion that was. I loved hearing Boots talk about these almost unexpected influences, because so often films are shoved into pigeon holes by studios that end up defining them. But the reality is that Boots made a film that can't be defined by standard genre tropes or expectations, and I feel like hearing him talk about the films that inspired him gave me an insight into just why that is.

Jazmine: I thought it was so interesting to hear him say filmmakers like Spike Jonze and the Coen Brothers were some of his influences. You can definitely see it in the film, but why I found it interesting is because those directors often make films steeped in magical realism that are also devoid of people of color. Boots took what they did and showed that people of color can also be shown in these surrealist tales.

Rosie: One hundred percent this. The movie is radical in so many ways, not least because it centers blackness and direct action in a setting that is so often reserved for whiteness. I also adore that he utilized the tools and aesthetics that these famous white directors have often kept to themselves to break open the indie film circuit, making space for himself and Tessa Thompson, Lakeith Stanfield, Steven Yeun, and others.

Jazmine: I can also see his influence with Michael Cimino. There's a famous scene in The Deer Hunter, the wedding/reception scene, that's around 30 minutes long. Cimino takes his time in his films to let the characters unravel, and Boots does the same in some respects. A lot of Sorry To Bother You's scenes tend to feel long and uncomfortable toward the end. For example, that scene where Cassius is rapping at the party, or rather, the entire party itself.

The Journey to Making Sorry To Bother You

Though many have seenSorry To Bother You as a response to current affairs, Riley actually wrote it in 2011, and it's been a seven year journey to get it to the screen. It started with an album inspired by the script, which didn't actually help the cause:

"It almost backfired because, you know, it was just reinforcing that I was a musician with a script, and that's the last script a studio wanted to read. Like, okay, you're a musician, you want to make a movie, of course you do. You also want a clothing line and a chain of shoe stores, so the quality is suspect. And although I'd built up some context through the music, maybe even doing that album made it worse, just more reinforcement that it's some musician's movie or whatever."

Jazmine: I think it's wild that most of the responses to this film have been "it's this year's Get Out." It's like there's no room for a black filmmaker and their film to stand on their own without being compared to a previously successful black film. Critics don't use that kind of terminology with other films. It just rubs me the wrong way.

Rosie: It's so wildly ignorant too, as it ignores the fact that, sure, the movies are both satires, but they're talking about massively different topics. Get Out is a critique of the way that liberal whiteness still enables and enacts racism and white supremacy on black bodies. Sorry To Bother You is about capitalism, racism, patriarchy, and the ways that society treats workforces, particularly poor workforces of color.

Jazmine: Exactly! The comparisons are so tired and dismiss both of the films' unique dialogues. I thought it was really interesting to find out that this film started as an album idea and then a script that was then published, and then it was reworked and made into what we have now. Boots' journey to getting this film made is so different than the typical filmmaker story. I think his experience coming from music plays a massive part in why the film flows so well. It's an interesting balance of the real and the absurd.

What happened next would change the future of Sorry To Bother You, as Boots bumped into Dave Eggers, who runs the publishing house McSweeney's. Boots was so tired with the process of trying to get the movie made that he was about to just post the script online, so asked Eggers for notes before he did:

"I asked him to read it, to give me some notes so that it can be as tight as possible. He read it and said that it was one of the best unproduced screenplays he'd ever read. So he published it as its own paperback book, and bound and packaged it with the quarterly [literary journal] which went out to 10 or 20,000 people in 2014. That reinvigorated my fight to get it made, and I joined SFFILM as a filmmaker in residence. Then in 2015 I applied and got into the Sundance screenwriters lab, and then in 2016 did the Sundance directors lab. And little by little, you know, we built up some authenticity points that made people think maybe they should click on it when I sent that PDF."

Rosie: This was such a fantastic insight into how fucking tough it is to get a film made, even as an established professional in a creative field. I'm honestly still completely astonished that Sorry To Bother You got made at all.

Jazmine: I agree, and also that Boots was able to make the movie he wanted, and not have the studio take over and change/subvert the message he wanted to get across.

Rosie: There are so many layers to what he achieves in this film. First off, he made what's essentially a magical realism/body horror/sci-fi story that centers solely on people of color. Then there's the fact that it's a movie about unions, which showcases them in a positive light and promotes the idea of direct action in the face of capitalism. That's some unheard of shit in Hollywood.

Creating the Voice of Sorry To Bother You

Though Sorry To Bother You sort of began life as album years ago, Riley and his band The Coup made an entirely new record for the finished film, one which creates the aural landscape of just what the characters hear and experience within the world of the movie:

"So there are two musical worlds in Sorry To Bother You. One is the score that's made by Tune-Yards and the score is all the stuff that the characters can't hear, right? It's the voice of the movie in that sense. It's commenting on something, it's a leading you down the path. And then there's the soundtrack, which is the stuff that the characters can hear that's playing in the bar. It's playing out of cars, at parties, wherever. We do break that rule once, which is with kind of the theme song of the movie, which is 'OYAHYTT'... 'Oh yeah, alright. Hell yeah, that's tight.' Which they can't hear."

Jazmine: I love that Boots split the soundtrack and the score into diegetic – all the audio elements that come from inside the world – and non-diegetic – the audio only the audience can hear. I feel like it gives the movie more life to know the soundtrack we're hearing is music created in a world where that alternate Oakland exists. It just creates another layer to the film that I wasn't expecting.

Rosie: Exactly this! The whole conversation around the soundtrack just confirmed to me how much of an experience Sorry To Bother You is. And that's clearly intentional. There's so much thought in everything from the direction to the message to the soundtrack. I feel like in an age of franchise blockbusters it's incredibly rare to find such a thoughtful and thought provoking movie.

One of the most radical songs on the soundtrack, 'Whathegirlmuthafuckinwannadoo (feat. Janelle Monáe),' almost never was, as Boots only rediscovered the demo when he was about to throw out an old laptop:

"I found this MP3 of this song that I'd done. It was just a demo, not really even mixed. I wasn't even done writing it, so the hook was just like, 'This the part where we sang on top, thought it was but it ain't gon' stop, wanna keep her with you but the girl finna do what the girl muthafuckin' wanna do.' It's just about a woman leaving her man because he's keeping her down, you know, that relationship is not letting her grow. So Janelle Monae is singing on another song on the album, and I played [this demo] for her during the time while she was working on it. And she was like, 'I want to sing on that.' I was like, 'But I don't have the multitracks and we've got to turn in the album tomorrow. All I got is this MP3 that's not even a mix. It's just a, you know, demo made in 2003, so it's not even quality of the stuff we have now.' And she was like, 'That's cool, I'll just sing over that.'"

Rosie: I really love this anecdote, as it highlights how special the project was, in that Boots really managed to find like-minded creators to work with. I mean, having Janelle Monae on the album at all is amazing, but to have her ask to just record over an old MP3 is such a fantastic, fun fact that gives us a feel of how much everyone on every level was into the DIY process that's been such a big part of making Sorry To Bother You.

Jazmine: Same. I love that it's just her matching his vocals and them harmonizing on the track. It really is a different sound than what we're used to hearing from Monae, but her belief in the project and Boots' open artistic flare really shine on this track. Just knowing it was a spur of the moment thing adds a very fun vibe to the song as well.

Rosie: Janelle is such a force of nature, and knowing that she was so open to collaborate and work on the film somehow makes me like it even more. How rare is it that we see lauded "indie" creative endeavors that really showcase black women's talents? And it was even refreshing to just hear him talk about Janelle and give her the credit that she clearly deserved for her work on the album.

Boots also spoke about the eclectic soundscape of the soundtrack and how it was influenced by the responsibility that gets put on you as public figure:

"I wanted to make a movie that felt full. That felt messy, right? Felt like a collage. There's a thing that people go to that's kind of like this aspirational thing that sometimes exists. I've noticed it exists in the Black community. For instance, with our music, I'm from Oakland and it's a relatively small town. Even though it's in a bigger metropolitan area, it's still only like 400,000 people. So you get known from there, and you become a representative. And when I say representative, I mean to some people it's like you're an elected representative–you're supposed to represent them and it becomes, 'Let me talk to you about how you can represent me better.' Right? So as an artist I feel that, I understand that, and I'm glad for that. But in some of these conversations people will be like, 'What's that shit you make? You need to come with some clean beats.' Right? And so clean, sparse, and all that is very much associated with success."

Rosie: I loved hearing Boots talk about this, as it kind of goes back to what we were talking about with the Get Out comparisons. If you become successful as a black creator suddenly, you're expected to represent every black person and all black experiences. Of course, that gets even more specific when we start to look at dealing with fame when coming from specific artist communities like the rise in Oakland filmmakers that's hit Hollywood recently. I love his thesis that making the soundtrack messy and unexpected was a kind of retaliation against the ways people expect success to feel or sound.

Jazmine: I like that, too. I also like that Boots as a community figure takes that very seriously. He's constantly bringing it back to Oakland and the people when he talks. Even when we went to this, Boots took the time to talk to and shake everyone's hand and tell them that he appreciates them being there. I found it interesting how he takes on the responsibility of getting to know the community that's building around his film, as well as the one he focuses on at home.

One of the recurring themes of the soundtrack is group vocalization, which Riley felt was vital because of the way that music can bring people together:

"I think one of the reasons I like it is that it sounds like a lot of people, right? One of the things that I think art and movements do is fight loneliness. It makes you feel connected to the moment, connected to other people. Other people might be listening to this or like it. It doesn't feel just like a letter from your significant other to you. It feels like somebody's yelling out at the stars and it might even feel like you yelling out at the stars."

Jazmine: I like that he commented on how a lot of people on the track could help fans combat loneliness. It does give a richness to his music and very much mirrors the film's unionizing theme that there's power in numbers. One person alone often can't effect change, but a collective can create something lasting and, in regards to Boots' music, something fun.

Rosie: This spoke to me on such a profound level. It seems simplistic, but art really can make you feel like a part of something, especially when you're depressed or isolated. It also made a lot of sense to me because the film really moved me as someone who believes in unionizing and workers' rights. So even on that minor level, it made me feel like there were other people out there who care about that stuff, which felt huge.

Activism and Organization in Sorry To Bother You

A lot of focus has been put on the spate of fantastic films coming out of Oakland and many people want to know why. For Riley, that's still a question he's trying to answer for himself:

"Honestly, I'm still trying to figure it out. I think everybody is just like, 'What's the deal with Oakland creativity right now? How's that evolving? What is making it happen?' I don't know. I think it's a confluence of things. I was able to get this happening because first, just over the last 20 years, Oakland was a hotbed for music and for independent people kind of hustling and making things happen. While at the same time, you know, some things like blew up commercially. So all that time you've got random things happening and people are intertwined."

He continued:

"But the thing is, people have been making movies in Oakland for a long time. Honestly, a lot of them have been bad, but people have been figuring out how to get resources and get out there. We don't have the industry here, so people are just figuring it out for themselves, and sometimes imitating whatever they see. There hasn't been a group – at least among people of color, Black folks – to kinda like hone that and make that happen."

Jazmine: With the internet and the fact that cameras on phones keep getting better and better, plus free editing software, I think that filmmaking has become more accessible to those marginalized people who economically were not able to participate. With that comes an avalanche of new talent and diverse voices, and just as we're seeing with Oakland, more and more marginalized communities will be able to gain the access to tell their own stories.

Rosie: It's so exciting to see the democratization of filmmaking in that way. Also – as ridiculous and ignorant as it is that it takes this – the success of films like Get Out and Sorry To Bother You will mean studios are more willing to commit money to projects by marginalized creators. So hopefully that support will begin to be there. I loved that Boots didn't have some concrete answer for this. To be honest, throughout the entire event he was really clear that he wasn't interested in creating sound bites or easy answers, and that's such a good, honest, and rare way to look at promoting a film.

Jazmine: Yeah, he seemed like he wants the film to speak for itself. He's very vocal about the process and things behind the scenes, but when it comes to promoting the film he refuses to play the game and I really admire that. The movie honestly sells itself.

When it comes to how we can keep supporting young creatives in Oakland, Riley had some great ideas:

"I do know that if we want to keep it going in the Bay Area, we're gonna have to get cheaper rent. The thing is that to have a real artist scene, you have to have cheap rent. Otherwise, for people to stay there they're going to have to work 16 hours a day at wherever. Or you get people that have some talent and then they have to use it for somebody else, and all they're doing is making commercials or something like that. So the future of the Oakland film scene depends on that."

Jazmine: This is what Sorry To Bother You is about. The theme of falling into indentured servitude just to have basic living necessities. Boots definitely has a point here that in order for those to live and create art, we first have to make it so our basic needs are met and that we're able to have time to live.

Rosie: It's one of the things that stood out strongest to me about the film. It's inarguably a dystopian landscape, but one that looks exactly like ours because guess what? For a lot of people, we're already there. No living wages, people living in extreme poverty, children in cages... There's a lot wrong with our society as it is, and Boots does a great job of creating something that seems familiar but also absurd. It makes us question just how much we would put up with/ignore the most horrible things that are done to the marginalized.

Jazmine: When I saw WorryFree first show up in the movie I wasn't shocked. I just thought, "This is something a lot of people would sign up for today, right now," which is so shitty. Boots' absurd borders on the devastating truth and that's why Sorry To Bother You is such a good movie, that teetering he does with comedy and the truth.

People want easy answers to how we can help stop gentrification or support marginalized communities, and as Sorry To Bother You showcases, Riley believes in direct action:

"Well, there has to be a movement that happens in that case, that could make an initiative that calls for real world control. Often initiatives that have come up have been mitigated by people worrying about what the public will accept. And so they've been kinda halfway, like rent control. We need some real rent control, and even then you if you lock the pricing right now they're still real expensive. But five years from now, if they're locked in as they are now, that won't seem as expensive. But to even get there, there needs to be stuff like eviction defense where groups of folks – and this is something that happens!–where groups of folks help someone who's being evicted to just move their furniture in back in when the police are trying to move them out."

He continued:

"It brings awareness to that and makes folks want to get an initiative like rent control out there and promote it. That's it, really, if we're just talking about how do we in any place make sure there's a scene where people are able to create and just experiment and try things. Because when things are so desperate, what happens is people have to think commercially. And so they make choices that are corny because they're based on what they think is sold and not based on what they think is better!"

Rosie: I love how unapologetic the film is, from it's representation of unionizing and direct action to Boots' vision to the soundtrack. Nothing about Sorry To Bother You ever panders or attempts to make the audience comfortable. It's just a film that a director made because he wanted to tell a story in a particular way. It's funny, the term auteur is so often thrown around, and is usually the domain of white men, but look at the definition: "a filmmaker whose personal influence and artistic control over a movie are so great that the filmmaker is regarded as the author of the movie." He has already established himself without question as an auteur.

Jazmine: I love that this movie is uniquely his own vision. Boots was so adamant about preserving his vision of the film and soundtrack that we got something we've never seen before. Honestly, that's what happens when the artist gets full creative freedom and isn't forced by a giant studio to make something that appeals to the masses. I really hope this film brings a chance for more creators of color to put their ideas on the big screen.