Boots Riley made a big splash with his directorial debut, “Sorry to Bother You,” which he also wrote. Known for decades for his hip-hop group The Coup, Riley is now receiving much acclaim for his foray into filmmaking, earning a Directors Guild of America Award nomination for Best First-Time Feature Film Director and other critics prizes.
Riley recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing editor Zach Laws about what sparked the idea for “Sorry to Bother You,” his influences across various mediums and what he has planned next. Watch the exclusive webchat above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: Boots Riley, you made your feature film debut with the movie “Sorry to Bother You.” Suffice to say it’s one of the most interesting movies of the year. Certainly one of the most interesting debuts we’ve seen in a while. Why don’t you take us back to the beginning and tell us where the idea for this movie came from?
Boots Riley: I’ve done telemarketing before in my life and grumbled while I was in the cubicle that I would have revenge on the industry, so I think maybe that’s where it started. I feel like anytime you put where you are in context for the larger things that create where you are, there’s a story in the connecting of those dots. I think that’s where it started. I knew that it was gonna take place in the world of telemarketing, I knew there was gonna be an on-the-job struggle but other than that I didn’t know it would have any of the fantastical or surreal things and that just came as I was trying to talk about certain things.
GD: The thing that you talk about in this movie, you cover a lot of ground in terms of the way that we treat people in the workforce, with people of color, and all kinds of different issues. Can you talk about putting those ideas into this movie and where the fantastical elements came from that?
BR: Yeah, when you have a scene and you try to put that in context of something more philosophical or the political positioning of that thing, could be a conversation or physical piece, in order to do that, there’s a few ways you can do that. One way is to have someone say it through exposition, like, “You know, this is the way that is. This is why these things are this way.” That happens a lot in movies and I hate when that happens. Or, you can visually show it but sometimes if the piece of context you’re talking about is this really bigger idea, for me, it became necessary to use things that were not realistic, like, to have them have overdubbed voices that sounded overdubbed to the people around them, to talk about this thing that was not them, this performance. I could’ve had him just say, “You know, I feel like I’m invading people’s homes when I do this.” I could’ve had him say that. But instead, to show that I felt like instead of it being some sort of intellectual thing, I wanted it to be visceral.
GD: To that point, you’re right, so many movies do tell instead of show. Since this was your feature debut, were there filmmakers that you looked to for inspiration or were there other avenues you looked to for inspiration?
BR: Oh yeah, a lot of filmmakers. For the chaos that I tried to get to, I think I was influenced a lot by Emir Kusturica, “Black Cat, White Cat,” “Underground, “Time of the Gypsies.” I think for what I tried to get in some scenes, which was a certain kind of epic-ness that comes from a lot of people and characters, I feel like some of that was inspired by the wedding scene in “Deer Hunter” or the beginning of “Heaven’s Gate,” Michael Cimino films. “The Fireman’s Ball,” Milos Forman and the beginning of “Loves of a Blonde.” There are other things like the way everything’s important to me, like [Stanley] Kubrick. There’s not just gonna be somebody walking across, just to show that they got from this room to that room. It’s going to have some importance. Coen brothers, the way everything’s hilarious and nothing’s a joke. I also tried to take from literary things.
I know that from music, too, when you strike upon something new and exciting when you take an influence from something else that is not necessarily easy to do a one to one influence, like when there’s a great piece of music that someone was inspired by a painting or something. In this way, I also drew influences from literature that I loved. I think there’s a lot of “Invisible Man” in this. I think there is a long of Toni Morrison “Song of Solomon,” Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “Hundred Years of Solitude.” Not only in that some of those have magical realism in it, but in the way that they do the details. Often in literature there’s so much detail and you can really go wrong. I’ve seen people try to do that with film and they try to duplicate the actual verbiage instead of duplicate what that person was trying to do with that verbiage. They’ll do it in dialogue or whatever. Someone like Toni Morrison or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, they might have a sentence like, “He walked to the store slowly, and in his right hand was the coffee cup that his grandmother had murdered his grandfather with, and it was the coffee from last night that he was determined to finish.” Now, an indie film producer would be like, “Just show him at the store.” There was some juiciness to the details that might just seem like extra at first glance, that I wanted to do visually. A lot of collage art is what also influenced this, but then there’s the ones that are maybe even more obvious, like Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry. There’s a scene in here that is stolen from a Paul Schrader movie, from “Mishima.” I let my influences just be there.
GD: You get it from all over, it seems like. You mentioned “Invisible Man” and it made me think about the journey that Lakeith Stanfield goes through in this movie. There’s a lot in this movie about identity and things like that. Can you just talk a bit about the journey his character goes on in this film?
BR: First, I think where he starts from is a place that we all are at, through much of our lives, which is a place of trying to figure out what it means, what we mean, how we feel about our existence and our mortality, and how to feel like we’re really here. I think that one way you could sum up his journey is that he’s looking for how to feel like he’s here, how to feel like he’s important and powerful and he goes for it in one way and then realizes that to be more fully engaged with the world, you have to be trying to change the world.
GD: You have a long background in music and one other quality this movie has is there’s a lot of great music in it. I’m curious, how did your background as a musician influence you eventually as a filmmaker? What did it teach you?
BR: It really prepared me, some in the general ways, like structuring the movie. You’ll always have a pop producer that will tell you, “Here is the right structure to make a song that people like,” and they’re right and wrong. I learned that through music. Yes, you can have a 20-minute song, but you are going to have to work hard and perform all these tricks so that works, so that someone wants to listen to that song for 20 minutes. It’s not going to be easy. It is able to be done. You can’t just say, “You can’t have a 200minute song.” You can say, “You can only have a 20-minute song if.” I learned that about art. “Here are the things that work. You can break those rules if you’re able to do those other things.” I learned to break rules through that and I also learned how to take people through a journey. Our shows, for instance, a couple decades of doing shows you start realizing how to take a crowd through something, to realize that people can only sustain a certain emotion for so long before they need this other thing, and how to make them feel like they’ve gotten as far as they can get and take them further, all of those things.
I think also just how to work with people. If I’m in the studio as a music producer, the music producer in the studio is analogous to the director in film, so I might be there with the best bass player in the world, someone who people consider the best bass player in the world, the drummer who thinks he’s the best drummer in the world and is definitely not, and then the guitar player who has ADD and texts in all caps. They’re all masters of what they do. They know more about music than I do, they definitely know more about their instrument, but I’ve got to get them to follow my vision because their individual things are gonna be much different than what I would wanna do, even though they’re masters at what they do. I gotta get them to follow my vision and not just because I hired them to do so. I need to get them to buy into it, otherwise, it comes across mechanically. I need to know how to communicate with them, and that’s not so much a knowledge of music but a knowledge of communication and to understand what they have to bring to the table, but then also to have enough confidence in my vision that I can say, “Okay, guitar player, I know you want a guitar solo. That’s not in the best interest of this song.” And also to say to the bass player, “Actually, that bassline is way better than what I had and I want the song to be better. I don’t what it to just be mine.”
GD: I’m guessing the way you work with actors is similar to that as well?
BR: Yes, definitely similar to that. Also with the DP. I had a lot of ideas for this, and some of them I was wrong about, or I have an idea and then the DP can be like, “If you just go over like this, look what that does.” I learned from that. Any number of folks that I’m compromising with, the production designer who I’ve got to do this on every scene and they’re like, “Look, there’s no way we can get this accomplished. We’re gonna go have to go here on something.” Just negotiating in that way and figuring that out.
GD: Going off of that, what are you working on now and taking what you’ve learned from this movie, what do you hope to apply to the next one?
BR: What I have coming up is I have a deal for a feature. I can’t really talk about that yet. Then I have a TV show that I’m creating with Michael Ellenberg from Media Res. Michael Ellenberg was at HBO and brought “Game of Thrones” to HBO, all that stuff. I’m writing and directing an episode for Guillermo del Toro’s Netflix horror anthology. I’ve got a few things business-wise already set up. I’ve got dozens of ideas. I’m 47 and I’ve been wanting to make movies all this time, and I’ve been in a creative space all this time as well, so I have a lot of ideas that I’ve got up on the board that I’m developing.
GD: Well that’s probably the best news I’ve heard all day, knowing there’s about a dozen ideas of Boots Riley movies.
BR: I have way more than dozens. I think I have nine that are great.
GD: That’s how it usually works, right? Well, Boots Riley, thank you so much. Congratulations on the film, appreciate your time.
BR: Thank you for doing this. Thank you.