Interview with Boots Riley, writer/director of Sorry to Bother You
During the 2018 Atlanta Film Festival, I interviewed Boots Riley writer/director of Sorry to Bother You. The film is about Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) who finds work at a telemarketer, and, after finding out the secret to selling, he becomes successful beyond his wildest dreams. But at what cost?
Mike: Tell me about writing this film. I was doing research on the film, and you were talking about making this film way back in 2011. What’s that process like, talking so long to get it made?
Boots: It’s hard to think about it in those terms. Every day, every month I was moving the project forward, inch by inch. You don’t really see the development, you just know you have been doing it. After a while, you get so far along that you can’t really give up on it. So at a certain point, I wasn’t touring, and I had gotten a couple of grants to work on the movie. So it got to the point that it was either going to go, or go bust. So it feels good to see people’s reaction to it. It’s really satisfying to see the responses to it.
What motivated you to go in the direction that you did with the film? Why did you set it in Oakland?
Boots: As far as Oakland all my songs are set in Oakland. It’s what I know having grown up there. When I wrote the script, I took the journey with Cassius. I knew a few things I wanted it to do. The strike was something I wanted in the movie, but I didn’t want the film to be just about that. I need for Cassius to go on an emotional journey. I also wanted to take the viewer on a ride to stimulate new ideas. I wanted the viewer to have similar feelings that Cassius had. That caused the story into not being predictable, so you engage with the film that same way that life happens.
This is your first feature film. You did co-direct a music video.
Boots: That is correct. I did go to film school. Film school was in 1992, so I don’t remember any of it. The things that I know about film come from other stuff and not the school.
What it harder than you thought it was going to be?
Boots: It depends on what you are talking about. We had 61 locations that shot in 28 days.
And you had a lot of night shoots.
Boots: We had a lot of split days. If I had known how had that was going to be, I would have cut down the number of locations. But luckily I didn’t because I think that’s what gives the movie its character. I knew it wanted to be more complicated than a standard Indie film would be. I wanted it to have more scale than a typical indie film. Since I was from there, it allowed us to get locations for free. It allowed us to have more massive crowd scenes. The budget meant that we had to work longer hours, but I’m used to being tired. Luckily we had great actors that could be scenes done in one take, and we didn’t have to deal with bad performances which can slow you down.
How did you pitch this film to the actors because this film is out there and goes off in directions you don’t see coming?
Boots: By the time I met with Lakeith, he was already interested. I had been through the Sundance Labs, so it had drummed up a lot of buzz. People didn’t necessarily think I was getting funded. A lot of what I do is take big ideas and bring them down to bite size portions. So in pitching the film, I would say this is an absurdist dark comedy with some science fiction elements about telemarketing. By that point, they want to hear more. What brought people in was the audacity of the vision and the idea that it was trying to say something. All the actors worked on the film for scale. We said on the first day we wanted to make art with this film.
You had a fantastic cast in this film, with Danny Glover, Steven Yeun, Terry Crews, Jermaine Fowler, David Cross, Patton Oswalt. Talk about the cast.
Boots: David Cross and Patton Oswalt were there first two on board. That only happened because I had David Cross’s email from 2002. I told him I had a script from him to read and he said to send it to my house. He now admits that he never intended to read it. It happened to get there when he was out of town, and his assistant was house sitting. His assistant was bored and read the script, and told David that you have to read this. Everyone was attracted to the script because it was different and was different from the parts they usually play. Often I would say cut because I was so happy with this world we were creating, and the actors would just keep going.
Thank you and good luck with the film.
The film is currently playing in Atlanta area theatres.
For more information on the Atlanta Film Festival go to www.atlantafilmfestival.com