hook, line and thinker

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Di­rec­tor Boots Ri­ley on his crack­pot sci-fi com­edy Sorry To Bother You

When Boots ri­ley sat down to write a film based on his ex­pe­ri­ences as a tele­mar­keter, he ended up pro­duc­ing one of the most in­ter­est­ing and bat­shit crazy sci-fi movies of the year. “The sci-fi el­e­ment came up in this film be­cause it needed it,” he tells Red Alert of Sorry To Bother You, his bold, genre-splic­ing de­but about a broke Cal­i­for­nian (Lakeith Stan­field) who lands a job at a tele­mar­ket­ing com­pany, and ends up se­duced by the prom­ise of more money.

Smartly dressed in a dark suit and white shirt as we chat in Lon­don’s Soho Ho­tel, Ri­ley is open about the fact that he never set out to write a sci-fi film. “The char­ac­ter needed that; we needed that to hap­pen,” he ex­plains of his movie’s fan­tas­ti­cal el­e­ments, which rear their ter­ri­fy­ing heads in the fi­nal act (and which we’d be hugely re­miss to spoil but, take our word for it, they’re a doozy). “It wasn’t be­cause I was like, ‘I want to do this,’” Ri­ley adds. “None of the things that hap­pen [in the film] just came about be­cause I had the idea and then fig­ured out how to put them in there.”

Com­ing at genre from a very sin­gu­lar per­spec­tive, Ri­ley orig­i­nally wrote Sorry To Bother You back in 2012. When he strug­gled to get it made, he first turned its themes into a rap al­bum with his mu­sic group The Coup, and then pub­lished the man­u­script in full as a pa­per­back in 2014. One year later, Jor­dan Peele was in line to star. “He then directed Get Out and was like, ‘I don’t want to act any more,’” says Ri­ley. “I be­lieve that we got the best ver­sion of Sorry To Bother You that we could get, but that’s the thing. There are all of these things that are in­ter­twined, and mo­ments that are hap­pen­ing with each other.”

Ri­ley’s talk­ing, of course, about the #Black­LivesMat­ter move­ment, which was founded in 2013 and earned Hol­ly­wood recog­ni­tion dur­ing the #Os­carsSoWhite furore in 2015. Now, in the wake of the suc­cess of other films helmed by black film­mak­ers, such as Get Out and Black Pan­ther, Ri­ley counts him­self as part of the move­ment. “In a way, it’s kinda like a cer­tain kind of hip-hop verse,” he says, “where peo­ple are go­ing down the line and reach­ing out and touch­ing on this and that, and show­ing how it’s con­nected. I think maybe my film is way less ran­dom than that. I think all of these things are con­nected.”

Poverty is seen as the fault of the im­pov­er­ished. In re­al­ity, cap­i­tal­ism needs poverty

Get Out ex­plic­itly tack­led is­sues of racism, but Sorry To Bother You in­stead takes the con­ver­sa­tion a step fur­ther to ex­pose prej­u­dice on a so­cial scale, and how it in­fects ev­ery­thing from of­fice cul­ture to the lives of the work­ing class. Blend­ing tough po­lit­i­cal state­ments with hi­lar­i­ous flights of fancy (there’s a re­al­ity show called I Got The S#*@ Kicked Out Of Me), the film is tonally nim­ble, its most bleakly ef­fec­tive joke re­volv­ing around black char­ac­ters adopt­ing a “White Voice” to get more sales. Mean­while, the tele­mar­ket­ing com­pany’s slo­gan (“Stick To The Script!”) is the worst kind of op­pres­sive.

Sorry To Bother You draws its bat­tle lines early on, with­out ever back­ing away from them. “In my film, I’m talk­ing about not only the black char­ac­ters’ per­for­mance of white­ness, but also in­ves­ti­gat­ing what white peo­ple’s per­for­mance of white­ness is,” Ri­ley says. “Racist tropes are ones that say, ‘Black peo­ple’s cul­ture is in­suf­fi­cient for sur­vival,’ or folks are ‘sav­age’ or ‘lazy’ or ‘the fam­ily unit isn’t right’. The whole point of it is to ex­plain poverty as the fault of the im­pov­er­ished. In re­al­ity, cap­i­tal­ism must have poverty if it wants to sur­vive.”

en­ter valkyrie

Along­side Stan­field, an ac­tor who Ri­ley com­mends for “al­ways be­ing in the mo­ment”, is Thor: Rag­narok star Tessa Thomp­son, who plays Stan­field’s ac­tivist girl­friend Detroit. Wear­ing ear­rings that say things like “Tell Home­land Se­cu­rity We Are The Bomb”, she’s a fierce and mag­netic pres­ence in the film. “Tessa is a con­sum­mate pro­fes­sional,” Ri­ley re­veals. “Hav­ing their two styles go against each other re­ally cre­ated a great syn­ergy and fric­tion at the same time.”

And we haven’t even men­tioned the film’s crown­ing glory, a stop-mo­tion se­quence scripted by Ri­ley and directed by Ri Craw­ford of Tip­pett Stu­dios, who pre­vi­ously con­trib­uted to the Star Wars films. To re­veal its con­tent would con­sti­tute yet more spoil­ers, but it’s in­te­gral to the film. “We’ve seen the hor­ror of [SPOILER],” Ri­ley says, “but I wanted to show peo­ple how it’s repack­aged. The feel­ing that you get when you see stop-mo­tion an­i­ma­tion is one of be­ing happy and that ev­ery­thing’s okay. It’s the Dis­ney­fied ver­sion that we see. I wanted to rep­re­sent that.”

As for Ri­ley’s orig­i­nal in­ten­tion to write some­thing that drew from his ex­pe­ri­ences as a tele­mar­keter... “All the lit­tle sto­ries that I thought I’d put in from the tele­mar­ket­ing, most of those didn’t make it,” he chuck­les, “be­cause it’s not re­ally about tele­mar­ket­ing, that’s the bait and switch right there.” Which is all part of the ge­nius of Sorry To Bother You. JWi

Sorry To Bother You is in cin­e­mas from 7 De­cem­ber.

It was no time to be draw­ing dirty pic­tures.

How do you make small talk with­out men­tion­ing the head in­jury?

A won­der­ful im­pres­sion of a wax­work.

Tessa Thomp­son plays an ac­tivist called Detroit.

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