The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Sorry to Bother You.
Let’s start from the beginning. Where did this come from?
Boots Riley: I knew I wanted to write something that happened in the world of telemarketing. And, I knew that there was going to be a struggle that Cash had to decide what side he was on. I knew the first scene because it happened to my friend, Rob Ebo, that’s how he got all his jobs, and he never got caught. Then I knew the compliment argument scene because that happened to my brother many years ago, and I was like, “I’m putting that in a movie one day.” But, other than that I didn’t know anything. I just took the ride with Cash. I knew there were a lot of ideas I wanted to talk about, but I didn’t want people to just be like, “he’s going through this hyper realistic trial and tribulation. You’re supposed to have empathy with him, and you see the sweat coming off of his brow. There’s steam somewhere in the background.” I didn’t want that. So, I wanted to put these ideas in and avoid cliché. I found that if I bit the reality of that world, it would point out something in our world way more realistic than those hyper-realistic movies. Everything crazy that happened in there was something that needed to happen. I wanted the audience to go through the emotional changes that Cash was going through, not just watch him and empathize him. I wanted to take people through an experience that was similar to what happens when you find out new ideas that change your view of the whole world.
“I can’t believe someone who is this interesting and free exists.”
Lakeith, how did you connect to the material?
Lakeith Stanfield: From my perspective, I just knew Boots had really interesting ideas. When I met him, as you can see, he’s almost a fictional character within himself. I can’t believe someone who is this interesting and free exists. So, it took me very little time talking to him to realize that there would be something valuable gained in working with him. I thought this would challenge me as far as being the top person in the movie as far as screen time is concerned. But, also the journey would stretch me in ways I haven’t been stretched before. I was interested to go on that journey, face those challenges, and try and build this thing with him. I wasn’t concerned about whether or not it would even be seen, whether or not there would be money involved, because the journey is what’s important to me. Thankfully, I was in a position where I was comfortable enough to make that decision. You’re not always, and sometimes you’re forced and pushed in different places. I was comfortable, and this opportunity came to me. After reading this crazy shit, I was like there’s no way I cannot explore this.
Jermaine, talk about your chemistry with Lakeith.
Jermaine Fowler: Well, there are a lot of people that remind me of Cash growing up in Maryland. There are people who got positions and jobs that they swore if they worked there long enough, they would get a higher position. Sometimes that worked out and they are still at that mall in Maryland. It just sucks. So, I saw that desperation in Cash’s eyes. Every time we would do scenes together it would feed me, because it was an emotional investment I had with this character. I feel like I have known him for a very long time, man. I got on set, and I dapped him up for the first time. I think he was wearing that wig too, and I was like you grew that fast! Then the second time I saw him it was off. It was my first movie, man, so I just didn’t want to look like a schlub next to this guy. He’s an amazing actor. He takes it so seriously. The fact that Keith, Tessa Thompson, and Steven Yeun have done monumental things like big, blockbuster movies and popular TV shows and brought the same level of professionalism, collaboration, and open-mindedness to this movie spoke volume to their characters. They are so good.
Boots, what was the hardest scene to direct in the film?
BR: There were many times while we were filming where I was like, “that’s bad writing.” With pacing and stuff I always like it to be something connected to story. I wanted to have some motivation so that it’s more natural. We did a lot of takes on that scene, because I think that was honestly the least clear scene for me. It was also pivotal to me, because he was explaining that he wasn’t changing for her. The things that you would think might be more difficult weren’t because I had a clearer idea of what I wanted.
Jermaine, what was the hardest scene for you in the film?
JF: The first scene I had to shoot was the last scene in the movie where me and Lakeith make up. He gives his Bugatti, or Maserati, or whatever it was. I was intimidated, because I didn’t want to ruin Boots’ movie. I get there and Boots walks up to me and tells me he’s watched my stuff. He says that I’m funny, but in this scene we’re filming a conversation and the camera picks up every little thing. I realize I have a big pimple on my forehead during the scene. So, I go to makeup, and I’m like can you remove this pimple right here? They tell me that Boots wants to keep the makeup and everything minimal, because he wants everything to look real. So, I had to do the scene with Keith, and it was the first time I ever met him. I’m doing the best I can, but half the time I’m thinking about the pimple on my forehead.