[Editor’s note: The following article contains spoilers for “Sorry to Bother You.”]
At RegalView, the telemarketing firm where much of “Sorry to Bother You” is set, the most important rule is “stick to the script.” Yet writer-director Boots Riley refused to follow conventional filmmaking wisdom with his debut feature’s ending. Before the credits roll, corporate greed literally strips hero Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) of his humanity.
Cassius first encounters the equisapien — half-horse, half-man — inside the mansion of Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), CEO of Worry Free, the world’s leading provider of indentured servitude. Cassius is terrified and tries to flee, but Lift forces him into his study to watch a claymation video, “A New Miracle,” which reveals that Worry Free residents ingest a chemical “fusing catalyst” that causes 70 percent of humans to mutate into the creatures Cassius just encountered.
Cassius is incensed, but Steve promises he hasn’t been tricked (“I’m not evil”). For $100 million and five years with a “horse cock,” Steve implores Cassius to be his spy and lead his Worry Free colleagues as “the equisapien Martin Luther King Jr., one that we create, that we control.” Then Cassius will be given the “diffuser antidote special sauce” to revert back to his normal self.
Instead, Cassius exposes Steve’s genetic tampering (and increases Worry Free’s stock value) with footage of the CEO warning his charges, “If you beautiful perversions don’t shut the fuck up, I’ll turn you all into glue.” Later, in a loving moment with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), Cassius’ face contorts to reveal gaping horse nostrils. In a brief final scene, Cassuis the equisapien introduces himself over Steve’s video intercom, smashes the camera, and stalks into the mansion with his cohorts, ready to exact their revenge.
Peter Prato/Annapurna Pictures
The equisapiens were built by Amalgamated Dynamics principals Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis, who received their VFX training from the late four-time Oscar-winner Stan Winston (“Aliens,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “Jurassic Park”). A 30-year-old company headquartered in Chatsworth, Calif., ADI was responsible for the Academy Award-honored VFX in “Death Becomes Her” (1992), as well as onscreen magic in films like “Mars Attacks!,” “Starship Troopers,” and this September’s “The Predator.”
Motion-capture technology was not used for the half-horses. Rather, various puppeteers were brought on; one individual received credited for manipulating just the creatures’ eye movements.
Stanfield’s own transformation involved “a lot of time in makeup.” A clue about what lurked within Worry Free was revealed early in the film — the cover of Steve’s book, “I’m On Top,” features him riding Mr. Bobo. The script contained prior sprinklings of magical realism, from barside Jack Daniels bottles encased like Russian nesting dolls to Cassius’ cubicle desk, which bursts into the home of each person he calls.
“It was insane being on set and seeing those things in person because they’re very realistic and very detailed,” said Stanfield in a recent interview with IndieWire. “It’s a guy in like an animatronic robot-type thing. There’s somebody with a control moving all the facial expressions, and he’s doing all the gesticulations and movements and stuff … He has a built-in AC system-type weird thing that keeps him cool.”
Upon first reading about the creatures in Riley’s script, Stanfield said he thought the hybrids “would be cool, but I definitely didn’t know what it would look like. I was just like, ‘Oh, a monster thing, that’ll be fun.’ When I saw the sketches of the equisapiens later, I was like, ‘Oh shit, it’s going to look like that? That’s insane.’ And to me, it introduced an element of horror into it as well. It’s kind of scary.”
“Sorry to Bother You” is now playing in select theaters and will expand nationwide this Friday.