hook, line and thinker
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.”
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.