Director Boots Riley Breaks Down The Craziest Part of 'Sorry To Bother You'

boots riley sorry to bother you
Boots Riley & Steven Yeun | Peter Prato / Annapurna Pictures
Boots Riley & Steven Yeun | Peter Prato / Annapurna Pictures

This interview contains spoilers for the end of Sorry to Bother You.

Boots Riley got the inspiration for one of the wildest moments in his new satire, Sorry to Bother You, from an ex-girlfriend's obsession with horses. Now, what do horses have to do with this comedy set in an alt-reality version of Oakland where a telemarketer Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) finds success by using a "white voice"? Well, we'll get there.  

At every turn, Sorry to Bother You ups the ante. This is a movie where shit starts crazy, and just gets crazier from there. Riley began writing the script back in 2011. In 2012, his band, The Coup, released an album with the same title and featured a song addressed to Cassius. In 2014, the screenplay was published by McSweeney's, and by early this year, the finished film was one of the most praised out of the Sundance Film Festival.

Riley's cinematic universe looks a lot like the one we live in but filtered through an often horrifying kaleidoscope. A popular TV show is called I Got The Shit Kicked Out of Me and a menacing company called Worryfree enslaves people with cheery marketing. (And there's an MTV Cribs parody.)

Cassius starts Sorry to Bother You living out of his uncle's garage, but finds his morals tested when he rises through the ranks at the RegalView telemarketing firm by talking in his "white voice," dubbed over by Arrested Development's David Cross. Even though Cassius is losing his activist friends -- who are striking in their efforts to form a union -- he's growing complacent thanks to his newly luxurious lifestyle. He only snaps out of it after encountering Worryfree's CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), who reveals the next step in the company's inhumanity: Turning workers into human-horse hybrids called equisapiens. Unfortunately, the line of coke -- or at least what appears to be coke -- Lift gives Cassius to snort seals his fate. 

Riley explained where all this pointed insanity came from in a recent interview with Thrillist.

sorry to bother you lakeith stanfield
Peter Prato / Annapurna Pictures

Thrillist: You have been living with these characters since 2011. In the path from then to now, how have your ideas of these characters changed or evolved at all?
Boots Riley: After I published [the screenplay] in McSweeney's, the next year I went to the Sundance writing lab. When you're at the writing lab, you sit with different master writers who have read your script and they go have meetings with each other. In my case, it was a very controversial script, so they were all arguing with each other about it. It's interesting, because these are all masters of their craft and you realize nobody knows what the fuck they're doing. It's free, but it also means nobody is going to give you the answer. You better work on it.

But the best thing that I got there was there's this filmmaker named Karim Aïnouz who is considered part of queer cinema, a Brazilian filmmaker based in Berlin. He was like, "Hey, dude, I don't know what to tell you about your script. I think it's stupid. How can I tell you about your script? You're a writer, do your thing. I just came here because it's summertime and we get to come to a resort. It's fun. What I will tell you is, your main character, Cassius? I love him. I want to just hold and protect him, and I want to hang out with him. He's just a guy that you could really respect and love. That's how I know it's bullshit. Because I hate everybody."

We had a four hour conversation about people in our lives and things that people have done at different times, including ourselves. I realized, in the McSweeney's version and the version it had been up to that point, Cassius was getting slapped around like a pinball. But then what I did that had ripple effects in the whole movie was I made him take more agency and be making these choices, which changed that character so much more. It changed his relationship to the other characters as well.

Yeah, there's a period of the movie where you, as a viewer, are really pissed off at Cassius. You had experience in telemarketing. What was it about telemarketing that made it a fertile ground?
Riley: It had that experience so I could write about it, but I think any experience you have -- if you want to write about the larger world -- you can start there and go out wider. I think what made it work for me was that I had lived it. I could talk about it and connect those details to my larger ideas.

Was the facelessness of it something you were interested in?
​​​​​​​Riley: When I started writing the script, all I knew was it was going to take place in the world of telemarketing and there was going to be a struggle. I knew the first interview scene because that was how [my friend] got all his jobs, he never got caught. And I knew the argument scene that Sal and Cassius have because it happened to my brother. So that's all I knew. And as I was using my experiences to talk about bigger ideas, that's when I knew that I could bend reality to point out those things. Some of those things only came about when I'm sitting there writing Langston talk about what the white voice is. At the beginning of writing it, I didn't know that this was going to be a major part of the movie. I didn't pick it because of the facelessness of it, but the facelessness of it helped to make my point.

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How did you film the scenes where the characters are using "white voices?" How were you having Lakeith Stanfield and Omari Hardwick act while David Cross and Patton Oswalt's voices came out of their mouths?
Riley: It ended up being a mixture of ways. First I tried it at the Lab so I had a formula, which was we had someone reading it and the actors would just mouth it without making sounds because I wanted it to feel more exaggerated so it can feel like an overdub. But it wasn't always working. Sometimes they just spoke in their own voice when they were doing it. So for instance, the scenes between Omari and Lakeith, they spoke that in their own voices. And other scenes like when he's doing the toast that was him just mouthing it.

Was it a strange experience for them seeing the final product?
Riley: They definitely both said, "Oh, that's weird."

And then what was it like directing David and Patton?
​​​​​​​Riley: David was like, "So, what does this mean? White voice?" And I was like, "You. It means you." He had a character from Mr. Show that always made his workers eat Tofutti ice cream, and I was like, "the Tofutti ice cream guy." He was like, "That guy? Okay." That was pretty easy. They were doing it like, "This is weird." It's funny because leading up to it, I didn't know who was going to do what voice between David and Patton. It was just that day at the last minute I was like, it has to be David. I'm actually closer friends with Patton. Patton gets there and I explain to him, "Actually, you're not Cassius you're Mr. 'Blank,'" which is just "Mr." with seven underscores. He was like, "Oh, really?" And I was like, "Yeah, because I realized I needed Cassius' voice to sound like the whitest guy in the world, the whitest person that people might recognize. And I realized that David's voice is a little whiter than yours." He was like, "Really? Oh yeah, his voice is whiter than mine," and started feeling proud about that.

"Nobody gets out of this clean."

Where did the idea for the equisapiens originate from?
Riley: A few things. I needed Cassius to see himself. I knew it was getting to that part of the movie. He needs to see who he is. So when he got to the party, I didn't really know what was going to happen. And then the performance, and I thought, okay, this is going to be what makes him see himself. I sat with that for a day and I was like, does that make any sense? You have a world in which everybody is accepting slavery and now that he's hawking their labor, I thought, there needs to be something that shakes him to his mortal core. Somehow I came up with the genetic manipulation idea. But one part of it is just an artist thing: Genetic manipulation has kind of been done, so what's an animal that hasn't been done and what also makes sense for Steve Lift?

I don't think [a horse] has really been done before in movies. And two, horses occupy a space of labor for us and it rings out in our lingo: Workhorse, working like a horse, horsepower. And then obedience, like: Dumb as a horse. Hung like a horse. I had a girlfriend at the time who was really into English riding and was really obsessed with horses and claimed it wasn't sexual. I'm not saying it's wrong that it was, but it was not recognized. That was part of where all that came from.

Were they made using prosthetics?
Riley: It was ADI company, who did Alien and did Predator. And the guy that was in the suit for Alien and Predator was the one in the suit for us. I did drawings with a woman in the Bay Area and then they did their own drawings based on those ideas, and then did a sculpture, made prosthetics, and then made an animatronic head. So there are like four people operating the head. We just had one suit and then we had three other heads to switch off for the suit and different hair patch combinations and different tattoos.

It almost looks for a second like you're going to have an ending where everyone rides off happy into the sunset. But then Cassius transforms. Why did you want to do that?
​​​​​​​Riley: That is not the only thing that happens. He doesn't only turn into an equisapien. He fights back. I think that it is a happy ending, but it's a different kind of happy ending. It's one that says nobody gets out of this clean and there's no way we can't be affected by this world. But the point is you keep fighting. And that's the happy ending.

sorry to bother you tessa thompson lakeith stanfield
Peter Prato / Annapurna Pictures

What was it like to film the party scene, especially the performance? [In that scene, Steve Lift demands that Cassius rap, despite the fact that Cassius says he can't. After a failed attempt, Cassius just starts repeating the n-word to the delight of the maniacal white party-goers.]
Riley: I had to have a long talk with everybody because people weren't wanting to do that part. Because, like, do you want to be on camera doing that? So had to explain the whole movie.

Were they all extras?
Riley: Some of them were friends, but even still they might not have known about that scene. Then when I was telling them they have to show that they are really into it. Because some of them wanted to show that they weren't really, they were just doing it. I was like, no, that doesn't make sense. That doesn't fit with what we're talking about here. It's funny because we shot that and immediately the part from behind his head, that's like a classic cinema moment right there. Or going to be.

It's pretty funny that there's an MTV parody in the movie, and then you guys were at the MTV Movie & TV Awards this year. What was it like creating the pop culture of this universe?
Riley: We were making a small budget movie. All these little details that I think are what to me really help the movie are the ones that people want to cut -- script-wise and the budget-wise. People are like, "You don't need that, why do you need it?" In reality, we maybe really only need three scenes in the whole movie, but the whole point is to build that world. So the guy on the NTV Spots -- [the Cribs parody] -- that's my co-producer for The Coup. He's co-producing the soundtrack with me. Lakeith's manager is the guy getting hit with the fish.

What did you like about I Got The Shit Kicked Out Of Me as a show that would exist in this alternative present?
Riley: What some media is is a tenderizer that gets you malleable and ready for anything that's thrown your way. I think we needed to explain what people are taking in as part of the explanation for what they're accepting.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.