Conversation With Boots Riley

(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.

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