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Mixing Up the Cards: Boots Riley on “Sorry to Bother You”

Editor's note: Jomo Fray is one of three recipients of the Sundance Institute's Roger Ebert Fellowship for Film Criticism for 2018. 

Boots Riley is many things: musician, artist, filmmaker. His feature filmmaking debut, “Sorry to Bother You,” premiered this year at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It is a film not easily categorized, yet within it is an undeniably strong, fresh voice. Mixing a host of recognizable and unrecognizable influences, Riley manages to leave you with a film wholly his own. Riley sat down with RogerEbert.com to talk about his approach to filmmaking, art, and the importance of honesty in your work.

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You have mentioned elsewhere that you tried to approach this film in a way as to create surprising moments for yourself—could you talk a little more about that approach and how it affected your choices?

I just hate films where I can guess what’s happening. For some people that’s comforting, “I know what this movie is, and within these parameters the filmmaker and the writer are going to play with what happens in between these two plot points that I know are going to happen” and some people like that. And there is something to be said for confining restraints in art. It can help you—haikus—they have a rule and you know how it’s going to be. Think about when they talk about brain development in kids. If you are trying to teach a kid something you try and teach them the same way each time. “Hey, we are going to look at these cards.” Even the first time they may say, “oh hey, that card is interesting,” and you keep giving them different information on the same cards, the mind is going to shut off; it’s not going to make the chemical reactions it needs to make. You have to switch it up to make the brain realize it has to pay attention in a different way and that’s kind of the approach I took. It’s like if you realize that you don't know what’s going to happen then you are engaged with the movie in a different way.

As someone who is making art I have to keep it interesting for myself; as someone who is going to have to look at it over and over for my whole life, it better be chock full of stuff that I can get into. Some of my influences aren't in film. When you read a Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Toni Morrison novel, you see these sentences that they might create that do exactly what they need to do for the story, but then they do so much more in their choice of words. They tell other stories inside that one sentence. Just from how juicy it is. Complicated on one level, but simple if you just want to let the sentence pass.

An interesting motif in your film seemed to be in your transitions and the use of fades. Can you speak to the editing of the film?

Some of those things were right then and there, some of it was in the editing room. Let’s use one of those “that’s all folks!” fades and he was like “wait, what do you mean?”. To me that’s keeping it alive. I just look for every space that I can do something interesting without totally taking people out of it.

Despite their place in a warped world, the performances of your main actors maintain a level of vulnerability throughout. What was your experience in working with your leads?

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Lakeith [Stanfield], that was the one thing that drew me to him when I first cast him. When I first met with him it was only two episodes into “Atlanta” and I hadn't seen it. I went and watched it and it was cool, and everything else he had done seemed cool, but I couldn't exactly see him as Cassius. I could see him a little bit more after those first two episodes, but he isn't the Lakeith he is now. When I met him, I saw how hungry he was to constantly get better as an actor and I saw how crazy he was and how open he was to just doing what he needed to do to get better. You might meet with people as known actors who want to get better roles, but they might not want to necessarily put work into getting better. They are like "this is what I do, I’m going to stay in my wheelhouse so I can get more roles." No one has said this to me, but that’s what it feels like. Lakeith was definitely interested and intrigued by other ways of doing stuff, and that is why I cast him. Lucky for us, his star got way brighter.

In terms of the collaboration process between director and actor, what was that like?

We talked a lot leading up to it. We spent a lot of time over the phone, Skype, Facetime, all that. Just talking about stuff, everything from posture as it develops through the script to the ways of looking at things. Here’s the other thing that Lakeith had already … the thing that many great actors can’t achieve, which is you look at him and you see that he is open and vulnerable. You see that in how he holds his face, maybe it’s in the stuff he is thinking about or whatever, who knows what it is! Hopefully he doesn't try and figure out what it is, but it’s there. To have that is definitely what this character needed. A lot of actors can’t get that. You see them act. Here, you see him, and he’s vulnerable. We did a lot of talking on set. Sometimes it would be me asking him, “You know what is Cassius trying to do here? Where’s he at?” It might be a discussion, might be a debate, but it was us thinking about what’s going on. Often, he had the answer. We would talk about it and go through the script.

Certain scenes I needed to feel more alive, so I needed to let him like play with it and warp things he was saying, other times it was like this will not work unless you say exactly this. There was a lot of back and forth with that stuff. He was very open to changing things. Tessa [Thompson] also is amazing! She is very serious, and thoughtful about what she is doing. I think all of these actors, what made it was that none of them were in a comedy. While we were filming this, none of them were in a comedy. This was all real life, and if it ended up being hilarious then it was hilarious. Sometimes the characters would be trying to make jokes with each other and sometimes, purposely, those jokes weren't funny because that’s how it is in real life. They are trying to make each other laugh, and it’s not objectively funny, but we see what their relationship is like with each other.

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Within the movie, I found a pretty rich and pointed class critique as well as an analysis of labor rights and labor value, but even space for the problematics within these ideologies. As an offspring of organizers and one yourself, where are you with the struggle? And how did your politics help inform your creative choices in the film?

With any art I do I try to be honest with what I feel about the situation and try and let that come through. I think with my music for instance, I have a song to my daughter called “Wear Clean Draws.” I’m just talking to her about her being ready for life. I didn't set out to put this analysis in it, but if I'm being honest with myself then that analysis is going to come out. Same thing with this, it's situational. Those situations have to do with me being honest with my whole view of the world. I think many people may have this view, I think many artists may have these views, but we are stuck when we write stuff into the clichés and conventions of how we think things are supposed to work and how they happen. I’ve had to deal with this question in my art for twenty-something years, so that’s probably why it’s one of the few things that does that in film.

How do you try and stay creative when you aren't behind a camera or in the studio?

You really just need to be creating something. All that “just write whatever,” it doesn't work for me. I need to be going towards a direction of something that is going to get done. That being said, it’s hard for me to write in journals, “oh, what did I do today?” I’m thinking about how I'm writing it. Someone is going to read this and think I’m a bad writer.

As far as when I am staying creative, I definitely have periods when I am caught up in life and the things that come from just trying to pay bills and make sure this is done and that is done. Doing just the business side of art, you can fall into a rut where you are not creating. But for me, when I’m like “you are going to stay creative,” if I'm going to spend that fifteen minutes, it’s going to be going towards something that I want to do. Even if its figuring out, “ok, here are all the ideas I have for my next script or a song,” I’ll just sit there and be writing stuff. But it will be going towards making something.

What’s next for you now?

Promote the hell out of this movie!

Other articles from the Sundance 2018 Ebert Fellows:

“Emergency” Stands Out in Shorts Program by Brandon Towns

Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” Captures Imperfect Adolescence by Gary Wilkerson Jr.

A Filmmaker’s Point of View by Jomo Fray

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