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.