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‘Sorry to Bother You’: Boots Riley Pitched a Movie About Sidney Poitier as a Serial Killer to Make His Actual Movie Sound Normal

At an IFP Week talk, the director and producer Nina Yang Bongiovi talked about how they took a unique approach to preparing investors for the unorthodox project.

Lakeith Stanfield stars as Cassius Green in Boots Riley's SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, an Annapurna Pictures release.

Lakeith Stanfield in “Sorry to Bother You”

Peter Prato/Annapurna Pictures

Boots Riley’s riotous satire of capitalism and racial biases, “Sorry to Bother You,” was a sensation at the Sundance Film Festival and a surprise summer hit. Made for $5 million, the veteran musician’s first feature has grossed close to $18 million in North America, with the story of a wayward telemarketer (Lakeith Stanfield) using his “white voice” to generate sales transforming into a cultural phenomenon. But Riley spent years trying to generate interest in the project before landing the resources to bring the project to fruition.

The filmmaker’s biggest strides came from the publication of the screenplay in McSweeney’s, a grant from the San Francisco Film Society, and participation in the Sundance Institute’s labs. In the midst all that, however, Riley found himself engaged in “speed dating” with potential investors at IFP’s Project Forum in 2015, when the screenplay was featured in the No Borders International Co-Production Market.

Revisiting the experience on Sunday for a conversation at IFP Week in Brooklyn, he recalled taking a unique approach to putting his movie in context. “At first, I pitched them a story about Sidney Poitier being a serial killer,” he said. “Then I said, ‘I’ve got one more that’s more realistic,’ and I pitched them ‘Sorry to Bother You.’” He laughed, and elaborated on his approach to explaining the movie countless times over the years. “I don’t really analyze it,” he said. “I just tell the story and people get what they get from it. I think that’s also what I do in the movie. I tell the story. There aren’t places where somebody’s like, here’s how you analyze capitalism. You just experience it and hope you come up with the idea of it from that.”

He noted that his previous experiences onstage came into play in this new setting. “Because I come from a background of performance, I try to hold people’s attention in the way I told the story — the pauses, releases — and get people hyped on it,” he said.

Riley wasn’t the only one who took a roundabout tactic to presenting his movie’s loopy premise. “Sorry to Bother You” finally came to fruition when producer Nina Yang Bongiovi, who joined Riley at Sunday’s IFP talk, signed on. With Forest Whitaker, Yang Bongiovi has shepherded along a string of successes featuring people of color, including “Dope” and “Fruitvale.” With those projects behind her, she was confident about getting her regular investors — China’s MNM Creative — onboard for Riley’s film.

(l to r.) Tessa Thompson as Detroit and Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius Green star in Boots Riley's SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, an Annapurna Pictures release.

Tessa Thompson and Lakeith Stanfield in “Sorry to Bother You”

Annapurna Pictures

“By then, I’d made my core investors enough money, so what I did was not pitch them the movie,” she said. “It was more about Forest and I wanted to support this amazing incredible revolutionary filmmaker. I said, ‘You don’t need to read the script.’” Nevertheless, the company took on 70 percent of the financing for the project. “When they signed on, the other investors who had a vested interest in the story felt more assured that they weren’t taking the lion’s share of the risk,” Yang Bongiovi said.

Riley original intended to make a much cheaper movie, using resources already at his disposal from his other career. “When I sat down to write for the first time, I thought we would make a movie for one location for $50,000, and I could get the record label to give me a promotion budget,” he said. He envisioned the whole movie taking place in one room — until he started writing it. “At that point, I was feeling the movie, and I was like, I need to get out of this room,” he said. “So then it was another location and a little more expensive.” Ultimately, the movie took place across 61 locations, captured across a tight 28-day shoot.

Riley is still in the promotional phase for “Sorry to Bother You,” which next screens at Sundance Hong Kong, but he’s already plotting his next moves, including a secretive television project produced by Michael Ellenberg’s studio Media Res. “I’m writing scripts,” Riley said. “I’m doing a TV show and a feature. What would I like to do differently? Not worry about the bills while I’m writing.”

Whatever he does next — the specifics of those projects have yet to be revealed — he said he wasn’t planning on letting his next project gestate as long as “Sorry to Bother You” did. “I’m 47 and I have a lot of ideas and films I want to do before I die,” he said. “I’m like 20-something years behind, so I have to hurry up.”

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