Changing the Game: Talking Film and Filmmaking with Hip Hop Pioneer and First Time Filmmaker Boots Riley
Since 1993 hip hop group The Coup have been challenging the contemporary music industry system with thought provoking albums that clearly have a finger on the pulse of the political landscape but also offer keen insights into cultural perspective, America’s tarnished history, and Oakland, California. Over 70’s inspired funk, soul, and R&B beats that capture both the rhythm of the streets and the essence of the dance club, group founder Boots Riley is a pioneer for West Coast hip hop, it’s also easy to call Boots royalty amongst the pantheon of MC’s that have ever touched the mic.
25 years in the game and Boots is still operating like an artist in his prime. It’s hard to believe that the classic album, “Steal This Album”, was released in the late 90’s. It still feels as pertinent, if not more pertinent, than it was in 1998 with its themes of resistance, political movement, and lyrical imagery that are equally gritty and surreal. Boots has evolved the sound of The Coup towards thematic levels, even composing a concept album called “Sorry to Bother You”. Well before the release of this album Boots was already planning the next move, writing a script in 2012 that he eventually took to Sundance.
We had the opportunity to chat with Boots Riley and talk with him about his film “Sorry to Bother You”. Boots is an artist who wants to create material not easily categorized, an artist who has crafted a film that is as bold and captivating as his music.
Q: I still have your movie on my mind. And I have so many questions about your hip hop career so it’s going to be difficult to stick to just to film. Your film is so layered with themes like comedy, political satire, some real dramatic moments, and even themes similar to the genre of horror or science fiction. What are your cinematic influences for “Sorry to Bother You”?
BOOTS RILEY: There’s a lot, thing is, I do wear all my influences on my sleeve, but I try to have a lot of sleeves. So, I would say, Emir Kusturica’s “Black Cat, White Cat”, there is a chaos he brings in the photography with his camera movements and his other films “Underground” and “Time of the Gypsies”. “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters”, if you watch that movie there is a nod to it in my film. Even stuff like Francis Ford Coppola’s “One From the Heart”, what he did with lighting and reflections. Michael Cimino, “Deer Hunter” and “Heaven’s Gate” have scale and what they do with crowds, and similar in Milos Forman’s early stuff like “Loves of a Blonde”. Sergei Parajanov for some of the wider things, “The Color of the Pomegranates” specifically. And then a person that stole a lot from that movie, which I also like the movie in certain ways, is “A Holy Mountain” by Alejandro Jodorowsky. And, let’s see, Lindsay Anderson and his trilogy of films “If”, “O Lucky Man!”, and “Britannia Hospital”. Definitely Luis Buñuel, specially “The Exterminating Angel”. But directors like Stanley Kubrick, people who take themselves seriously as filmmakers, Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Terry Gilliam, those are all influences. I don’t know where to stop.
Q: What an impressive list of films and auteurs. Was it hard to layer the different elements happening in your film to something manageable and satisfying to you. With so many influences it sounds like it might have been difficult to find the right way to layer the script?
BOOTS RILEY: I centered it around the things we know are real. If I do that with composition and performance then I can do anything. We care about Cassius in the film and actor Lakeith Stanfield is giving us a performance that feels realer than most because of his choices, because he’s not face acting or eyebrow acting. We do see things in his face but he’s not giving us the “confused look” with my eyebrow up, or here’s the “concerned look”; Lakeith is more concerned about what Lakeith feels and that’s going to show up, albeit in different ways than others. I have notes on the movie that say he should be more active, and I didn’t agree with that. But I knew that we couldn't have him delivering regular Hollywood choices, I knew we couldn't have him do that because it takes us a step further back and then all the fantastical things will start to feel like gimmicks.
Q: His normalcy really grounds the film. You see Lakeith in other films and he is usually tasked with being these bigger, more eccentric characters. Here he is given something more subtle and it works in grounding the character. Detroit (Tessa Thompson) feels like an amalgamation of the entire catalog of The Coup albums, was that purposeful?
BOOTS RILEY: Every character I wrote as myself. That’s my way of making sure I’m putting humanity in it and not saying “here’s what this person would say”. It’s “here’s what I would say” if I had these particular experiences, here’s what I would say and reflecting it off of that. Definitely, it may be strange to some people, but Detroit is probably the closest character to me.
Q: You can feel that completely. For those that know your history in hip hop and the way your group challenged the political landscape, you can clearly see who you are in the characters. You’ve been in the entertainment industry for a long time. As someone who has been in the changing political landscape since the early 90’s, was it planned or just plain luck that this movie seems to hitting at the right time in terms of our current political atmosphere? Like if you made this movie at any other time in your career, it may not have been the right time.
BOOTS RILEY: It’s probably a combination of a lot of things. I think that there are movements that the entertainment industry is trying to respond to. I think that maybe what I was doing would have had less chance of getting funded when I finished writing it in 2012. Not that it had no chance, it just would have had less chance. I think that all of these things, for instance I wrote it when Obama was in office, but Trump being in office has caused people to notice some things that have always been happening. And, separate from that, there are movements on the streets like “Black Lives Matter” and “Occupy” some years ago that have made it obvious that people are looking for something else. I think all of those things coming together have made this be the movie of the moment. But it’s also luck, because usually film will try to respond to the time, like right now there would have been someone writing a movie who is responding to these times. And that movie would come out three years from now, when it isn’t about this. But this is the stuff that I have been talking about my whole career, and its the stuff that is relevant to people’s lives, and actually it’s been relevant to people’s lives forever. But right now media outlets are open to talking about these things now.
Q: If you were going to pair this movie in a double or triple feature, your movie playing first, what would you choose?
BOOTS RILEY: I don’t know. I would play something totally different so mine seems better.