Interview: Boots Riley – Sorry to Bother You

Writer-director Boots Riley’s first feature film is the highly anticipated Sorry to Bother You. Boots’ transition from music to movies wasn’t an easy one. He took a lot of the lessons he learned in hip-hop to help put this project together. Sorry to Bother You is a project close to Boots that took years to make. He sat down to talk about the crazy journey that put this movie together – and a funny Ice Cube story.

Did you always intend to write and direct Sorry to Bother You?

Boots Riley: I started out in film school and [The Coup] got a record deal while I was still in school. I always wanted to make films. The reason I wanted to make films is to put my weird [expletive] ideas about the world out there. When I finished writing the first time I thought, “Well…there is nobody that will let me direct this”, because I never directed a movie before. I thought I could use the screenplay to get someone else to direct it and then I could do my own thing. Had I’d done that, I’d be known as a writer and it would’ve been even harder to direct. At one point I got the script to Richard Ayoade (The Double) and he said, “Look, I’m not going to direct this. Not only am I not going to direct this, I’m going to demand nobody directs this but you.”

How were you able to get such an incredible cast in the film?

BR: There’s a good script there. You can have a great script and it’s hard to get people to read it to know that it is great. Once they read it, it’s hard to attach their wagon to it because they might be worried that the film won’t get made. What helped me out was starting with the people I have access to and getting them to read the script. I got the script to David Cross and he thought it was hilarious. He said I could use his name and say that he liked it. Cross only ready because he was out of town and it came to his assistant. His assistant was bored and decided to read it [laughs]. Then I ran into Dave Eggers on the street. He said it was one of the best un-produced screenplays he ever read and he was going to put it on McSweeny’s. He put it out as its own paperback book in 2014 and packaged it with the quarterly that went out to 10,000-20,000 people – plus it had his stamp of approval. Along the way, I’m getting notes and refining and adding detail to the script. Now the script is getting stronger and people are getting behind it. I used that to go to Sundance with a bag of the printed screenplay. I was handing them out on the bus, going to parties and drinking with people while giving them the screenplay. People are looking like this might be a movie that could get made. Even with all that, agents weren’t trying to hear it [laughs]. To get the movie funded, I needed people who were good actors and also known. My only way was going around the agents.

It reminds me so much of early Bay Area hip hop with people selling records out of their trunks and bypassing record companies.

BR: Definitely. That’s really the only way it got made. Once I did get to people, they loved the script. It gave so much of the cast the chance to do something much different than anything they’d done before.

What were the films that inspired to make films?

BR: Spike Lee all the way. Since then, my influences have expanded. As I got confident as an artist, I started watching more things for inspiration.

Was there a scene you had to cut from this film?

BR: There were things that we cut but nothing I miss. Before I met with Lakeith, I was afraid he looked too young to give off the vibe the character needed. When I met with him, I saw he was soulful. Also, some of the stuff I saw was without his beard and he looked much different with it. In the script, there’s a part that’s a non sexual scene but Cassius has full frontal nudity. This is part of the movie because we need to see Cassius being vulnerable and this is our chance to do it. [Lakeith] cut me off when I was talking and said, “I’ve been waiting for a movie with full frontal nudity.” [laughs]. When figuring out what can be cut, I realized we had plenty of shots right on Lakeith’s face and he’s vulnerable. That’s one thing he does that I rarely see in great actors.

Do you have any interesting hip hop stories from the 90’s?

BR: Let’s see….early in my career I really tried hard to sound like Ice Cube. Luckily, I couldn’t do it. There were other rappers at the time that could sound exactly like Ice Cube and I was jealous of them. He was a hero of mine and I think he picked up on this. I would show up at shows and Cube would say, “Tell Boots to come backstage.” I’d be back there and I wouldn’t want to open my mouth because I didn’t want him to know I wasn’t hard. It would be awkward because there was no conversation happening. It kept happening and it would be weird – but Cube was always very welcoming. A little while after our second album, there was an Outkast show with Cube and Goodie Mob too. I went back to talk to them and here comes Cube. I’m trying not to look at him because now I’m backstage AGAIN. I’m talking to Cee-Lo, and I hear, [imitating Ice Cube’s voice] “Boots…BOOTS…come here.” I go over and Cube says very dramatically, “Your work…is very impressive. It’s very impressive. I just want to tell you one thing…it’s all about making that money.” And then he turned and walked away. To some extent it was clear what he was trying to say. For a while all I paid attention to was the fact that he said my work was very impressive. But the second part was him saying it’s impressive but nobody is going to like it, so I better change it up. What exactly was he saying, I don’t know. I would ask Cube but I’m sure he doesn’t remember that conversation [laughs].