Boots Riley Talks SORRY TO BOTHER YOU And Armie Hammer’s Intensity

The director of 2018's most radical comedy chatted with Jacob about his chaotic vision.

Sorry to Bother You is out now. Get your tickets here!

Sorry to Bother You is a shot of pure cinematic vision: coming out swinging like an Adult Swim iteration of Putney Swope. The eye-poppingly colorful Oakland-set absurdist comedy combines the social consciousness of Jordan Peele with the whimsy of Michel Gondry. Lakeith Stanfield (Atlanta) is tremendous as an earnest young telemarketer, mastering the power of his White Voice (provided by funny man David Cross), and Tessa Thompson is utterly fearless as his righteous artist girlfriend who's afraid of seeing her man sell out to The Man. However, the most exciting burst of talent on display is delivered from writer/director Boots Riley - front man of the funk/rap outfit The Coup - who hasn't so much delivered a solid debut as much as he's unleashed his dynamic, hilarious sensibilities upon an unsuspecting populous. Prepare yourself for Sorry to Bother You and leave the drugs at home. There's enough surrealist wit here that you seriously won't need them.

We had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Boots about his picture, and what followed was a loose, funny conversation about the creative process, and just how committed Armie Hammer (who almost steals the whole movie) is to his craft...

*****

BMD: I saw your movie at SXSW and - during the Q&A - there was this woman who just lost her fucking mind on you. Do you remember that? 

Boots Riley: I do. But Armie Hammer said that she was wearing both a yarmulke and a tiara. Now, I don't know if fashion has anything to do with things, but when you combine that with the fact that she had no interest in listening to anything I said about the scene she was questioning me about, I think there may have been other things going on. 

BMD: Man, I never stay for Q&A sessions anymore, which seems disrespectful to the filmmaker, but I've sat through too many awful questions to have the patience for it. 

BR: She was mad because there's a scene - and I don't want to spoil anything for those who haven't seen the movie - but there's a scene where a bunch of people are getting naked. She wanted to know why we basically had only a certain body type in the scene taking their clothes off - people with "small bodies", basically. There were two answers that I gave: one was that, when we put out the call for people to do that scene, those were the only ones who were down. Secondly, it occurs at [Armie Hammer's rich, powerful character] Steve Lift's party, and he's in control of the guest list. He has all the trappings - in terms of his whole being - of the type of dude who would only want those types of people to take their clothes off. It's like, if you were to make a movie that's a take down of the modeling industry, who would you have play the models?

Now, let me be clear: the question wasn't necessarily bad, but her way of having a "back and forth" showed that she wasn't really interested in my actual response. 

BMD: She stormed out yelling! It was crazy. 

BR: It happens. 

BMD: Now, there's a wonderful, deliberate chaos to your movie that's somewhat hard to describe. I was wondering if you could try and detail how you went about creating that?

BR: The method is basically - well, put it like this - The Coup has a song that plays out in a 9/17 count, and it's a dance song. It works as a dance song because, despite that crazy count, we keep the "four on the floor" feeling to it. The song's called Five Million Ways to Kill a CEO. That "four on the floor" stays there; it doesn't go away, it doesn't change, and that allows us to do whatever the fuck we want.

Keith's [Stanfield] grounded, realistic, naturalistic performance allows me to do whatever the fuck I want.

BMD: He's your "four on the floor" in Sorry to Bother You.

BR: Exactly. You know, had he been an actor that was more artificially demonstrative, it wouldn't have worked. Becuase the artifice would've simply blended into everything else I have going on. So, I grounded the performances, and was then able to pull off the tone I wanted. Also, the production design made sure that we pushed that reality, but only so far. 

There is also no chaos just for the sake of chaos. Everything has a purpose, and is there to represent a bigger emotion or concept I was trying to get across that fit into the whole. I wasn't just looking at [describes Airplane!-esque gag involving a copier that occurs in the Telemarketing office] "man, I just want papers flying everywhere!" The papers suddenly represent [Keith's character's] mindset like "I really thought this was gonna be easy, but it's not." So, the chaos works because it has a reason, and better yet, it's born from a reason. 

BMD: Speaking of "purposeful"Sorry to Bother You has a distinct sense of places and spaces. The production design is incredible, taking us into this heightened representation of Oakland. Talk to me about creating this funhouse mirror image of the real world. 

BR: Our production designer was Jason Kisvarday and he's an amazing dude. He did the "Turn Down for What" video and Swiss Army Man. We had a lot of back and forth about this, because this is another element that could've pushed Sorry to Bother You over the edge. If it's too out there, then everything is up for grabs. We did a lot of mock ups and figuring out how each space would feel. We also used a lot of reference pictures of Oakland, to again keep it grounded. 

There was a need to create scale, because to me, that's what made the movie more real. Because of budget constraints and style choices, often indie films break it down to the bare essentials. But I think there are [design choices] that we needed and pushed for that a lot of producers might not have gone for on these constraints. They would've been looking at a bunch of the details going "why do you need that...why do you need this?" and it could've taken away from the world we created. In truth, you could make an argument that none of it's needed - you could tell a story about this telemarketing office and the people in it without any of this. But the scale of the spaces made it feel more real; we had to represent all of these things in these confined spaces, so it felt like we were bringing more of the "real world" in. Even when there's an exaggerated feel, you get the idea that this is also reality. 

We also achieved that scale practically - those are sets, with people moving around and interacting with them. I wanted all of these colorful rooms and spaces and their scale to feel tangible. 

BMD: You talk about Lakeith Stanfield's performance as "grounded", but acting as the counterpoint to him is Armie Hammer, who is so over the top and out of his mind the entire time. Talk to me about achieving those conflicting performative energies. 

BR: Well, to a certain extent, he has to be. He's not just running things in this world because he has a lot of money. He's the ringleader of this circus because he's got something else going on. The people that I have met that are able to get folks to do all kinds of stuff are people that are always performing in real life, which makes it a hard thing to simulate for actors.

Let's say you're an actor who has to play a rapper, for instance. Certain rappers are always walking down the street, conscious of how they're walking, how they're talking, as to keep up this character. This isn't just rappers, mind you; that's just an example. Plenty of people do this. But to play that person, an actor has to perform as an individual who's always performing. Those people have a slightly abnormal way of existing in everyday life, you know? [chuckles] They are trying to perform and project an idea onto you, in order to be effective at all times. 

As a matter of fact, so much of [Sorry to Bother You] is about that sort of performance, in many different ways. Armie was really engaging and was someone who liked to overprepare. We would have discussions regarding particular words and how his character wanted to twist them. That's how in-depth we were in creating this character together. He's also someone who takes adjustments very precisely. My favorite moment in this performance is when he first meets [Lakeith Standfield's character] Cassius, and I told [Armie Hammer]: "you're always worried that somebody's going to hurt you, so you need to assess which of his body parts he might most likely hurt you with, and you need to do that in-between your sentences." And then you'd feel him doing that on screen, because he'd take your note to a whole other level that you didn't think he could take it to. 

BMD: Sounds impressive to watch. 

BR: It is. He's very good. 

Sorry to Bother You is in theaters now. 

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