Boots Riley has a unique approach as a first-time filmmaker. Sorry to Bother You may be his first film (which he both wrote and directed), but he’s been in the entertainment business for so long at this point (as a rapper, probably most notably with The Coup), he knew which pitfalls to avoid. Namely: Just go make your own movie and don’t listen to the people who are telling you that you’re doing it wrong. As Riley puts it, “I have 20-something years of experience doing stuff people think is wrong.”
And the result is something that’s both unique and, well, pretty weird. Sorry to Bother You premiered at Sundance (it’s been slightly tweaked since then) and then played at SXSW to overwhelmingly positive reviews. Trying to sum up its plot in a few sentences is a fool’s errand, but here goes: Cash (Lakeith Stanfield), desperate for money, takes a job at a telemarketing firm. He becomes very good at this job after he perfects his “white voice.” As he moves up the ranks at the company, things get weirder and weirder, leading to a bizarre discovery about what his company actually does and the true nature of its owner, Steve Lift (played by Armie Hammer who is obviously having the time of his life).
Ahead, Riley explains that, yes, he might be a first time filmmaker, but he had enough experience to know who not to listen to. Hey, so movies are supposed to have three acts? Well, as Riley says, this one has four or five. So what? This is how 20 years of experience doing things that people thought were wrong can lead to a fascinating and strange film.
Armie Hammer’s character’s name, Steve Lift, is just the perfect name.
[Laughs] Well, I just expounded from “Jobs”: Jobs, Works, Lift.
When we first see him in a commercial and he says his name, it gets a big reaction. People love that name.
No, definitely. You know who he is.
There are a lot of crazy things that happen in this movie, but what’s unique is it never loses the narrative.
Because all of the “crazy” things were things that I needed to cause a specific reaction or to have the character do something. It wasn’t like, “I have this list of crazy things I want to do and how do I fit them in?” I needed it to tell the story.
Was there any moment you thought you might lose the audience?
You know, I thought about it in terms of what it needed to feel real. So, I didn’t think about if a particular thing happened whether it would pull people out. But if it happened and it didn’t feel like the characters in it were real, I knew that would pull people out.
This is the first film you directed. Did you know you knew how to direct? Because this is one of those movies where it doesn’t feel like it’s from first time director.
Because it’s not my first time making stuff. I’ve been making stuff for making stuff for 20-something years. I’m a producer so I’m working with musicians and collaborate to get something out of them. And I have to have the vision that they follow and I have to know what I want out of each musician. And, also, I have 20-something years of experience doing stuff people think is wrong.
That’s an interesting way to put it. What do you mean?
Well, you know, artistically. For instance, we have a song called “5 Million Ways to Kill a C.E.O.” And it’s supposed to be for the dance floor and 9/17 count, which is weird, but we hide it with a four on the floor beat. But had we wanted just to be sure people would play it, we should have had a 4/4 count. Or I’ll have a song that takes a minute and a half before any vocals start or that doesn’t follow any of these forms. Or a song that’s, “Hey, is this actually a rap song? Why are you doing this? This is not popular.” So, I’m used to doing the things I think should be done. And while taking critique, but understanding some people have a critique based on just what’s already been done at this point.
So, I think, maybe, what we see in first time film directors that we could call “unsure,” because you’ve got 100 people saying hat should be done, then you try to do a little bit of what everybody says and it comes out like a jam band instead of a rock song.
You’ve said Sorry to Bother You has four or five acts. I’m sure people were telling you, nope, you have to have three acts.
Yeah, exactly. And not deciding what works based solely on what has worked. And having a way to really feel things out and listen to people in a different way. Because sometimes people hear what they want to hear or hearing what they think they are going to hear. So, for instance, if at Sundance we said, “This film isn’t finished yet, tell us what’s wrong with it.” It would have been a different thing than, “This is a finished film, check it out.”
The worst feeling would be trying to do what everyone is telling you to do, then standing up there at the premiere and people don’t like it and thinking I should have just done it my way.
And, luckily, I’ve had those experiences already. While it’s true I’m a first-time filmmaker, it kind of hides the fact of what I’m been doing. I’ve been doing all kinds of stuff, so all of those lessons that maybe a first-time filmmaker hasn’t learned, I’ve learned them already through other means.
Is this permanent? Do you want to keep making movies?
Oh, yeah, definitely. I don’t know a bigger creative platform than this. I’ve already got a deal for doing whatever TV show I want to do. And a deal for whatever feature I want to do.
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