Boots Riley was on his way to MTV’s “Total Request Live” when he said, “I don’t care if people know about the music.” It was a stunning admission after spending more than 25 years as frontman for socially conscious hip-hop band The Coup, but its last album, “Sorry To Bother You,” is also the name of Riley’s filmmaking debut. And now, it’s the only thing that matters.
Riley was wearing a shiny black robe (he’d favored a tie-dye variation at the New York premiere the night before), and his bushy afro consumed about a quarter of the backseat. He waved his hands in steady half circles, as if composing his words in real time. “I’ve never been on a nostalgia trip about what I used to do,” he said, peering out at the midtown Manhattan crowds. “It’s always been about right now. Is this working?”
Riley had been on the campaign trail for “Sorry to Bother You,” a rambunctious workplace satire about race and capitalist greed, since the movie premiered six months ago at the Sundance Film Festival. A comedy with a lot on its mind, It’s a singular work indicative of its creator’s vision that immediately establishes his filmmaking voice.
Even he sounds a little surprised he pulled it off. Riley started shopping the project four years ago, when he was already in his early 40s and well established as a Bay Area musician. “Making movies seemed so impossible as far as getting my ideas funded,” he said.
“Sorry to Bother You” reflects the winding path of resources that Riley tracked down across several years. The movie stars Lakeith Stanfield (“Atlanta”) as a young telemarketer in Oakland who climbs the ranks of his company after realizing he can make more sales by speaking with a “white accent” (David Cross dubs these lines). That’s just the first act; there’s also experimental performance, street activism, union organizing, and bioengineering.
However, that bizarre combination is no hodgepodge of sensibilities; it’s an extension of the same vision that fueled Riley’s music career. (One popular song by The Coup, “Ass-Breath Killers,” focuses on magical pills designed to stop employees from kissing their boss’ ass.) In cinematic terms, the results combine the surrealist eccentricities of Michel Gondry with the polemics of a Spike Lee joint while heeding its own beats.
Riley’s was less enthralled by the acclaimed black filmmaking like “Boyz in the Hood” and “Menace II Society” than iconoclastic movies from an earlier era, like British director Lindsay Anderson’s 1973 “O Lucky Man.” Accordingly, “Sorry to Bother You” feels like it was produced in some alternate version of the ‘70s American cinema boom, with a scrappy counterculture aesthetic that often eludes the mainstream.
At this point, the “Sorry to Bother You” saga is Bay Area lore, like Riley himself. The script initially baffled most of his peers, and he considered turning it into a radio play. Then he showed it to fellow local writer Dave Eggers, who published a draft in The Believer. “His endorsement made people interested in a different way,” Riley said. “Even people that were around me who had read the script before. It’s kind of like with music, when you’re in a small town and have a hard time getting people out to your gig because they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s just a local band.’ Then you go to some other town and they like you, all of a sudden you represent them.”
Even with that endorsement, Riley was a relative filmmaking rookie. He co-directed a music video for The Coup’s “Me and Jesus the Pimp in a ’79 Granada Last Night” with Chris Wrouble, and made a few shorts in college over 20 years earlier. Eggers suggested that Riley focus on screenwriting rather than deal with the hassle of the director’s chair. “He was telling me, ‘Look, man, you don’t want to direct a movie because they get so long to get made, and you could be writing more scripts,’” Riley said. “That’s true, but they wouldn’t be my movies. I said no, I’m going to direct it.” Eggers relented, and helped connect Riley with Spike Jonze for advice.
The pair met in a coffee shop; Jonze brought his dog and knew nothing about the project. “He said, ‘Well, what do you want to know?’” Riley recalled. “I was like, ‘Everything you think I should know.’” They chatted for three hours, with Jonze sharing anecdotes about coaching a vulnerable performance out of Cameron Diaz on “Being John Malkovich” and why it was important for actors to wear the same outfits for the duration of a shoot. Later, Riley went to a karaoke party at the San Francisco International Film Festival and tracked down attorney and film producer George Rush. Riley pulled the script out of his backpack, and Rush signed on as a producing partner in a matter of days. That helped Riley secure SFFILM’s FilmHouse, the year-long filmmaking residency that supports a select group of filmmakers each year.
“That was the first time I had ‘filmmaker’ in my title,” Riley said with a sly grin. “But it was also the first time I was around people who were really making movies.” SFFILM’s director of artist development, Caroline von Kuhn, recalled how people would come up to him during location scouting. “Good luck walking down the street in Oakland without at least one person every two minutes shouting hello and sharing some personal story of his influence,” she said. “Part of the movement in the Bay Area’s film industry is the exciting work coming out of interdisciplinary artists … Boots’ navigation of the music industry set him up for success in our equally flawed, challenging industry.”
Riley continued hacking his way into the system. He had been reading “The Conversations,” Walter Murch’s book that largely focuses on his Frances Ford Coppola collaborations. “Murch talks about about how Zoetrope was started as a radical film collective,” Riley said. “I was like, ‘Hey, this is the film you guys need to be behind, because this is the film you were trying to do.” He returned to the office once a month during production; after Sundance accepted the film, he made weekly trips until the festival date to no avail. “I never got through,” Riley said, and shrugged.
While Riley admires Zoetrope’s roots in politicized cinema, he has a broader disdain for the commercial system. He bemoaned George Lucas’ failure to make “Apocalypse Now” from the perspective of the Viet Cong. “He couldn’t get it funded,” Riley said. “They were like, ‘We don’t want people to be empathizing with the Viet Cong.’ So he decided, ‘Fuck it. What if I put it in space?’ So that’s where ‘Star Wars’ came from. The rebels are the Viet Cong and the Empire is the U.S.”
Riley’s work with SFFILM ultimately led him to the Sundance labs, where he developed the script with actors and directors, from Jordan Peele to “Nashville” writer Joan Tewkesbury. Riley quickly became a popular figure at the organization. “There’s a purity and absurdist quality to his humor which lives at the intersection of storytelling and activism,” said Michelle Satter, founding director of the Sundance Institute’s Feature Film Program. “He’s provocative, his humor is subversive, and he’s fearless.”
Courtesy of Sundance Institute, photo by Jonathan Hickerson
One of his closest mentors was David Gordon Green, who invited Riley to shadow him on the Amazon series “Red Oaks.” When Riley showed Green some sample clips from “Sorry to Bother You” shot in the workshop, Riley recalled Green shouting, “Boots Riley, you’re a crazy motherfucker!,” and “Man, this is like something me and my friends would make!” In an email, Green elaborated, calling Riley “an extremely thoughtful explorer of culture.” He added: “His curiosity leads him to ask a lot of questions about alternative mindsets and challenge the expectations of the world around him.”
The support kept coming. Catherine Hardwicke invited Riley to stay at her Venice home while he tracked down more financing; cinematographer Rodriego Prieto helped Riley think through some tricky camera movements. All the while, he was refining his unusual vision. “It was important for Boots to know that the humor would play,” Satter said, “and could be grounded in character and the given circumstances he had set up, not just in funny lines or visual gags.” Riley chuckled as he remembered working with Glenn Close for a table read. “She was always like, ‘I don’t know if it’s me, or the language, but I don’t understand anything that was just said here,’” he recalled.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute, photo by Doug Emmett
Riley hopes to keep his message-mongering going in a new medium. Much of the press leading up to the release of “Sorry to Bother You” heralded his arrival in the industry, including an extensive profile in The New York Times proclaiming, “Boots Riley Infiltrated Hollywood.” He disputed that characterization.
“I don’t know about ‘infiltrating,’” he said, as his car got closer to the MTV studio. “I mean, think of all these writers in sci-fi where the basis of what they’re talking about is radical politics, but when they write something that’s in this world, there’s no rebellion in it.” The car drifted by a massive crowd doing yoga in Times Square. Riley peered out at the spectacle. “If you tell a story that’s only allegory then it doesn’t help you at all,” he said. “If it doesn’t bring some emotional charge, then it’s just talking about something.”
However, he was certain that “Sorry to Bother You” needed to escape the clutches of sentimentalism.
“It could’ve been a union organizing movie that was like set up like a ‘Rocky’ movie or something like that,” he said. “Maybe that part of me is working against getting the message out. I don’t know. I do think that the voice has to feel someone really cares about it. It can’t feel mechanical.”
As the car came to a halt, he noted that he had a new movie project in mind that might require more resources, and was all but certain he wouldn’t be able to make it for the budget it demanded. “For me,” he said, sliding out the door, “that just means my ideas will make it crazier.”
“Sorry to Bother You” opens in New York and Los Angeles on July 6, with a national rollout to follow.