Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” hits theaters half a dozen years after telling us about it

Back in November of 2012, Washtenaw Eviction and Foreclosure Defense somehow managed to bring world-renowned hip-hop provocateur Boots Riley and his band, The Coup, to Ypsilanti to play a fundraiser for Ozone House, to support their work with at-risk and marginalized LGBTQ teens. As you may recall, in my interview with Riley, recorded a day or two before the show, amid all the stuff about his childhood in Detroit, which was spent in a household of Communist organizers, and his work at the time, organizing people in his neighborhood as a member Occupy Oakland, there was mention of a film that he was trying to get made. Well, here we are six years later, and that film is not only out, and going into wide release after a huge debut weekend, but it’s getting rave reviews. [Rotten Tomatoes is calling the film, which stars the likes of Atlanta’s Lakeith Stanfield, Terry Crews, Patton Oswalt, David Cross, and Danny Glover, “Fearlessly ambitious, scathingly funny, and thoroughly original.”]

Here, in hopes that it’ll motivate at least one or two of you to go and see the film, is an excerpt from that 2012 interview, where Riley and I talk about what he was hoping to accomplish with the film, which, at that point, he’d been hoping to star in.

MARK: You mentioned that you were making some headway in Oakland with the fast food workers. What happened with that?

BOOTS: The main problem was convincing other folks in Occupy Oakland that it was something worthwhile compared to the other things that were going on. There are so many things going on with Occupy Oakland. People are spread really thin. So, it just wasn’t the time to bring this out. People weren’t down to dedicate the time.

MARK: It’s tough. It seems, with the Occupy movement, that so much time and effort is spent providing social services… like just recently, with all of the Occupy Sandy stuff. There are just so many needs that have to be addressed, that it takes up a lot of the bandwidth.

BOOTS: I think Occupy Oakland is different. It does provide services, but in the midst of campaigns. We’ve got the foreclosure defense stuff going on. And we’ve got various folks working on police brutality stuff. There are all sorts of things happening. Some people don’t want to do the service stuff and all, and, other people, that’s their thing. They like feeding people.

MARK: So it wasn’t a question of capacity. It was more a result of an internal discussion within the organization concerning priorities.

BOOTS: Yeah, a fast food workers union seems like a good idea, but the question is whether fast food workers would be down with it, and you’re not going to know unless you’re part of that outreach. And, at the same time, we had the school occupation happening, and a lot of people were involved in that. There were foreclosure defense actions. There were neighborhood assemblies. We were declaring moratoriums on foreclosure in certian neighborhoods. So, a lot of people were doing many different things. So, that was part of the problem at the time. Then there’s people that had experience organizing unions, and many of them wanted to be sure that it was their union that got to do it, and it was just too early to declare that. Let’s put it like this… It wasn’t for lack of wanting by people that were in fast food work. We actually had people that were down to do it, and we had a few things in place, we just didn’t have enough people to really carry it through.

MARK: Speaking of the plight of low-paid workers, your new album, Sorry to Bother You, is about telemarkting, and, in a broader sense, I guess, it’s about shitty, low-paying jobs in general. In addition to just being a good record, in the tradition of The Coup, is there a bigger message behind it? Are you trying to rally support for anything specific? Does either the album, or the movie that you’re working on, which uses the album as a soundtrack, touch on, for instance, the importance of organizing low-wage workers?

BOOTS: Not specifically around organizing telemarketers. The movie has some stuff about a union that’s being attempted at a telemarketing spot. Which is what was happening at the place that I worked at (when I was doing telemarketing). But it’s not specifically around organizing telemarketers. It’s around organizing people in the workplace in general.

MARK: So that message is in the movie?

BOOTS: Yeah. Yeah… Well, I don’t know that the “message” is in the movie, but the situation is in the movie.

MARK: Are you in pre-production yet for the movie?

BOOTS: I guess, technically, yeah.

MARK: Your producer, I’ve read, is Ted Hope, who produced movies like The Ice Storm, Happiness, American Splendor…

BOOTS: And 21 Grams. And the director is this guy, Alex Rivera, who did this movie called Sleep Dealer.

MARK: How’d it all come together?

BOOTS: I just kind of put a blast out to people I know, and Danny Goldberg, who was managing Street Sweeper Social Club, and also used to manage Nirvana and work with Led Zeppelin, read it and loved it. And he got it to Ted Hope. And Ted Hope was like, “I want to make this movie.” It probalby also helped that I had a soundtrack.

MARK: How did you sell them on the idea that you would be the right person for the lead? Or was that just part of the deal going in?

BOOTS: That was just part of the deal. I was like, “I’ve written this script. I have the soundtrack. And I will play the lead.” So, if somebody did’t like that, they just didn’t respond… It’s also a good marketing thing for them too. You know, if it’s going to be an independent film, there’s probably going to be more interest in it if the creator of it is part of it as well. I’m acting all the time anyway.

MARK: What do you mean… on stage?

BOOTS: Yeah, as a performer – it’s theatrical.

MARK: Had you attepted to do someting like this before? Didn’t I hear about a book that was being written from one of your songs, and the possiblity that it may turn into a film as well?

BOOTS: So a woman heard a song (Me and Jesus the Pimp in a ’79 Granada Last Night) and wrote a book based on it… I didn’t want the movie made. It had the potential to be a very terrible movie, if not done by the right person… I didn’t like the themes. She took the story and read things into that I…

MARK: With this new record, when you started writing it, did you know that you wanted to see it evolve into a dark comedy…

BOOTS: Well, I wrote the script first. I took like a year and wrote the script, while my manager, agent and record label said, “What are you doing?”

MARK: Because they wanted to keep you recording, and playing on the road…

BOOTS: Yeah. Yeah. It’s like, “You’re not going to get a movie made.” They wouldn’t say it in exactly that way, but that was the thought.

MARK: So, you think that it will do well in the marketplace… that people will buy tickets and like it?

BOOTS: Oh, yeah. There are people that have read it that I trust, that think that it’s a great, new, and interesting thing.

MARK: I’m happy for you… You put something out on Twitter a few days ago. “I realized five years ago,” you said, “we’re never going to go platinum, we’re never going to get radio play, we’re never going to make money at this.” Is part of this movie thing because you want to reach a wider audience, or is it more about paying the bills?

BOOTS: I don’t think people are able to pay bills on independent movies.

MARK: I imagine that you’d get a cut on video sales, right?

BOOTS: Yeah, but think about the time that you spent on it.

MARK: I guess what I was getting at is that it’s probably a little more lucrative than the record business.

BOOTS: Maybe for somebody. But independent movies? No. It’s not like that. It’s a labor of love. But people want to make some money at it. And that’s one thing about Ted Hope. He’s an independent movie guru. He’s someone who’s able to make independent film turn a profit. But, again, like I said, the amount of profit, compared to the amount of time put into it… It’s not like some cash cow. But it’s possible, you know. Maybe it could be some breakout hit. But it’s not real likely to happen. And that’s the name of the game in every industry. “More work for less pay.”

As it turns out, Riley didn’t end up playing the lead. He did, however, direct… Here’s the trailer.

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  1. Sad
    Posted July 9, 2018 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

    If someone takes EOS and HW to see this I’ll buy the popcorn.

  2. Posted July 9, 2018 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

    There is no white hero.

  3. iRobert
    Posted July 10, 2018 at 5:00 am | Permalink

    Okay, I’ll do it.

    EOS, HW, what days and times are good for you?

  4. Anonymous
    Posted July 10, 2018 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    Getting a movie made as a first time director has to be one of the most difficult tasks one can undertake. Hats off to Boots.

  5. Jean Henry
    Posted July 10, 2018 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    My daughter and I were planning on going Thursday. Happy to meet HW and EOS there. I doubt it will transform their thinking though. It’s not that kind of film as I understand it. Just a surreal dissection of the human ambition through the lens of the telemarketing con. We’re going to be entertained by a story that doesn’t follow a standard formula.

    There was a good Riley interview with Terry Gross last week.

  6. Meta
    Posted July 10, 2018 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    Picking up the story in 2012, here’s the Chicago Tribune.

    Now 47, Riley finished a first draft in 2012. Then, with his band The Coup, he put out a concept album, also titled “Sorry to Bother You,” inspired by the screenplay and “talking about the same stuff I’m always talking about,” he says. Capital and labor; racial inequity; organizing the masses against a caste system of privilege; that sort of thing.

    In town recently on a promotional tour, Riley picks up the timeline from there. “I had to put that album out to make money, and then we toured, and I ran into Dave Eggers and told him I was thinking about just putting the screenplay online.” Eggers, who grew up in Lake Forest, read it and loved it and printed it in his magazine, McSweeney’s. That was in 2014. And that, Riley says, got him invited to the Sundance Institute development labs, where the first-time writer-director started figuring out how to be a first-time writer-director.

    Spoiler alert: He figured it out. Expanding to wide release Friday, six months after its rousing Sundance Film Festival world premiere, “Sorry to Bother You” stars Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius Green, a telemarketer who, at the urging of a veteran co-worker (Danny Glover), discovers his “white voice” and rises to the top of the company’s food chain. In the story’s increasingly bizarre telling, gradually Cassius learns the real source of his bread and butter. Is Cassius a success story or a sellout?

    In its opening weekend, “Sorry to Bother You” made an impressive $700,000 plus change on a handful of screens, averaging about $45,000 per theater. As Chicago-based critic and film writer Erik Childress put it Monday morning on Rotten Tomatoes: “All eyes will be on the film when it goes wide next week; (distributor) Annapurna hopes to have one of the biggest hits out of all the Sundance acquisitions this year.”

    On Twitter, many raves greeted the first few showings, along with a handful of not-for-me-thanks opinions. Typical of the tweets, one screenwriter said: “Seeing it is one of the reasons I tossed the latest draft of my script … Boots has thrown down the gauntlet, challenging us to get dangerous & brave & daring.” Another fan likened the movie to “Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’ meets ‘Being John Malkovich.’”

    Riley tweaked a few things since the Sundance premiere, sharpening the timing on some visual jokes, clarifying story points. Once Annapurna’s Megan Ellison came on board, Riley shot some additional footage (cost: $200,000; the initial production budget, he says, was “something like three million”) setting up the climax, where a transformed, newly woke Cassius confronts the morally ghastly CEO of the company known as WorryFree. Armie Hammer plays the antagonist.

    At Sundance, Riley says, “Megan got on the phone with me and told me she saw this film as having a place in cinema history. Whether it does or not, I don’t know. But she felt like it needed to be seen and known.”

    Earlier, in the Sundance labs process, Riley learned the value of “critique and self-critique.” He also learned that his script was highly controversial and divisive among the lab’s advisers.

    The key conversation, Riley says, came when Brazilian director Karim Aïnouz (“Futuro Beach”) looked Riley in the eye and, as Riley remembers it, said: “Look, man. I don’t really know what to tell another screenwriter about their script. Who am I to say? It’s your thing. I just like coming here to Sundance; it’s like a resort; I get free food. But I will tell you I LOVE your lead character. I love Cassius. I want to hang out with him, I want to protect him, I want to hug him.”

    And that, Riley says the director told him, “is how I know it’s bull—-.”

    Riley was taken aback, but “that turned into a three-hour conversation about people in our lives, people who made decisions we disagreed with, stuff within ourselves. And I realized at that point I’d written Cassius as this pinball, who just gets slapped around the whole movie. I wasn’t giving him agency. He wasn’t yet making his own decisions, however misguided, and I wasn’t taking the risk of having people not love him so much.”

    Read more:

  7. Michael Jewett
    Posted July 10, 2018 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    To think that Black Panther may end up not being my film of the year.

  8. M
    Posted July 11, 2018 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    I just listened to Marc Maron’s interview with Riley. In the interview, Riley says they ended up not using his album “Sorry to Bother You” as the soundtrack. So that’s one more change that happened along the way.

  9. Jean Henry
    Posted July 12, 2018 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    Just saw the film. It was great, really and truly great. People in the theater either loved or hated it, which is always a good sign in my book. It’s a hard film to feel Blaise about. It’s been a while since I saw a new film that seemed to come so directly from the mind of one man. It was like it’s own cosmology. The only parallel might be the latest season of Atlanta. The soundtrack was amazing and still done by Riley and the coup. I heard Riley say on Fresh Air they just felt the original soundtrack was too familiar now. Mark, I think you’ll really love it.

  10. Posted July 21, 2018 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the review, Jean. I’m really looking forward to seeing it.

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