Boots Riley on “Sorry to Bother You”

Posted on July 6, 2018 at 2:00 pm

Boots Riley is a filmmaker who made a slight detour into music, where he found great success as lead singer for The Coup and Galactic, and in teaching a high school class called “Culture and Resistance: Persuasive Lyric Writing.” His provocative, wildly funny, and remarkably assured first film is Sorry to Bother You, starring LaKieth Stanfield as Cash Green, a telemarketer who achieves great sales numbers by using his “white voice” (provided by David Cross), and Tessa Thompson as his graphic and performance artist girlfriend, Detroit.

In an interview, Riley spoke about what he learned about communication when he was a telemarketer, and when his father asked him what voice he was using after he overheard a phone call with one of Riley’s friends, and why Armie Hammer’s family history played a part in his casting as the corporate CEO.

I have to begin by asking you about Detroit’s wild earrings, like the ones that say in big letters “MURDER MURDER MURDER KILL KILL KILL.” What do we learn about her as an artist from the way she puts herself together?

Copyright Annapurna Pictures 2018

Detroit is always looking for a way to make a statement, looking for a way to talk about the world. So she uses every wall she can find, every piece of her being to say something to the world. The are earrings are just a part that symbolizes that about her and the words on the earrings are all quotes from songs.

Detroit is much more political than Cash, but she has a job that is just as demeaning and corporatist as his job, standing on a street corner twirling a sign. He is out there selling and he’s out there selling; does that bother her at all?

One of the reasons that she maybe wasn’t all the way against what Cassius was doing or didn’t leave him right away is that she’s not of the mind that the way that we get rid of capitalism is somehow going out into the woods and creating some alternative system. She knows that whatever she’s doing is going to be part of that.

And what did you learn about selling when you were a telemarketer? What was your most effective pitch?

I’ve actually been doing sales sort of stuff forever. There’d always be these 17-year olds who were hired by some company or whatever and they’d go pick up kids like me in the neighborhood when we were around 11. You go knock on doors and sell newspapers. I learned through those sorts of jobs for the wrong reasons how to listen to people and to understand that people may be saying something that the words they’re using aren’t saying. That was for manipulative reasons that I learned that but then that carried over into my style of organizing which is not to be caught up on the linguistics of someone. It wasn’t so much about vocabulary and identifying words as it was about what is the thing that we’re trying to create.

So if you call and somebody says, “I haven’t got time for this?”

You figure out through that some clue of who they are. “I haven’t got time for this” sounds like somebody is really overwhelmed with things that are going on in their life and other things they don’t want to be doing. They’re not saying, “I got all this stuff that I really want to be doing.” They’re saying, “I don’t have time for this,” so you could play off of that.

I’m sold! Do all black people have a white voice they can use?

There are some people that don’t consciously know that they do and maybe don’t have jobs where they have to have that but definitely a lot do.

I guess everybody has to code switch some time in their life.

I know when I was growing up and getting to the age where I got on the phone with my friends, I remember getting off the phone one time and my father being like, “Who was that”? And I was like, “Oh that was Joey.” “No, who was that on the phone?” I said, “I told you it was Joey.” “No, who was that on the phone here because I didn’t recognize that voice at all.”

In the movie it’s all about performance. We’re all performing in some way even when you don’t do the switching thing it’s sometimes a reaction to who you think you are and all of these things that you will perform or not perform. It might not be switching but I think the more relevant thing is that it’s all a code because we’re made up of all of these influences and all of these ideas. It’s not saying that any of it is bad. I don’t think the goal is to try and figure out how to not do that.

One of the things that I think is important is that what it puts out there is because a lot of times blackness is codified. Like “it comes from this and this and this: and whiteness it ends up because of that being like this pure thing it’s just the thing that is and everything else is a reaction. Danny Glover’s character Langston says that “there are no real white voices.” What their white voices try to convey is the sense that everything’s okay and “I’ve got everything taken care of.” To the extent that that voice does exist, it’s in reaction to the idea the racist tropes of blackness and of people of color. Through all sorts of media and culture we get told that poverty is a fault of the impoverished and that through these bad choices but no one wants to talk about the fact that capitalism demands that there be poverty; it is necessitated. You can’t have full employment under capitalism otherwise everyone would be able to demand every wage they want. You have to have an army of unemployed workers and the only time it gets talked about openly is when the Wall Street Journal is worrying about the unemployment rate going down which causes wages to go up and stocks to plummet.

It would be great if there was an episode of one of those cop shows like CSI where they figure out that they’re not going to stop crime because crime comes from people needing to eat who are unemployed. As long as we have this system we’re going to have unemployed people who need to eat.

Copyright 2018 Annapurna Pictures

And as your wealthy CEO you have Armie Hammer, whose great-grandfather, Armand Hammer, was a famous CEO notorious for his disregard of shareholder interests.

I think it’s really great casting historically and also he’s a really great guy and a guy that people don’t understand how much acting he’s doing because it seems so natural.

He is remarkable in the film, and so is LaKeith Stanfield.

I don’t think this movie would have worked with another kind of actor. I got notes about him which were like, “He needs to be more active,” which means like the blockbuster style of action — “I’m confused now, look at my eyebrow,” that sort of thing. We did pre-preparation so we knew what his posture was going to be like at different points of the story and everything else was more about him feeling whatever it is he supposed to be feeling and not worrying about whether he’d look like he was feeling that.

The movie features a company called WorryFree that promises to give people everything they need — a job, a place to live, food, clothes — but it is clear to us in the audience it is a sort of prison.

The point is I don’t think it’s illegal, I really would like someone to point out whether that company is illegal; if it’s not illegal it’s going to be done. And actually it’s a lot like how many places in other parts of the world that US companies contract out to work. The big thing in the movie is that it’s happening here in the US; that is the big difference.

Which is why those corporate folks are the puppet masters and we only get to vote on the puppets. We get to vote which one will be the puppet that might more resist the pulling of the strings but we know that they’re all still puppets. And so I think that my movie puts forward an idea and approach that has to do with trying to go directly to the puppeteers through withholding of labor and that we need movements.

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Directors Interview Race and Diversity Writers

From Script to Screen: Changing the Dialogue

Posted on June 27, 2018 at 9:41 am

This is a fascinating look at the difference between the way the script for “Sleepless in Seattle” looked on the page and the way it finally appeared on the screen. We don’t know how many of these changes were intentional and how many were slips of the tongue or amended by the actors because they felt more natural.

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Behind the Scenes Understanding Media and Pop Culture Writers

Interview: Jules Feiffer on “Bernard and Huey.”

Posted on June 14, 2018 at 8:00 am

It was truly an honor to get a chance to interview Jules Feiffer, who wrote the critically acclaimed “Carnal Knowledge,” a movie that was the subject of a Supreme Court case about whether it was obscene (they ruled that it was not). He also illustrated one of my favorite books, The Phantom Tollbooth, wrote a book about the history of comics, and many, many other books for children and adults. His latest movie is Bernard and Huey, based on a script he wrote thirty years ago.

The full interview is on The Credits. Here’s an excerpt:

Is the conquest more important than the sex for Bernard and Huey?

Conquest is major with Huey, but he also loves sex, and giving pleasure to women. Once it’s over, he’s indifferent, and wants them out of the way. This point was made more openly in Carnal Knowledge, where it’s clear that heterosexual men didn’t like women, they liked women’s bodies. And once the sex was over, and the cigarettes smoked, they wanted the girl gone, so they could go out with the guys (their real relationships), and talk about how, and with whom, they scored. Bernard would love a real relationship. He’s just too screwed up to maintain one.

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Interview Writers

Interview: John Cameron Mitchell of “How to Talk to Girls at Parties”

Posted on May 23, 2018 at 8:00 am

I had a wonderful time interviewing one of my favorite people to talk to, writer/director John Cameron Mitchell of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and the new release “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” based on the Neil Gaiman short story. The full interview is at rogerebert.com, and here is an excerpt.

Lately I feel like for a lot of young people, at least let’s say millennials, there’s such a weird storm of 9/11 followed by economic collapse, followed by the Internet and social media saturation that serves to kind of douse youthful rebellion. It all kind of paralyzed them into thinking that nothing can really change. First of all, it was terrorism, then it was an economic rug being pulled out from under them, coming out of college, not having a job, suddenly feeling old because you have a $100,000 loan or at least $20,000 and then the Internet which gives you a false feeling of accomplishment because you’re zipping around on it but not doing a whole lot on it. Of course some people certainly use it as a very good tool but for a lot of people it is just an equivalent to worry beads, just to check, check, check and post, post, post and selfie, selfie, selfie. That’s the worst example, of course, and there are plenty of people who use it as a tool in a good way but it can serve to make young people not necessarily the vanguard of any change in the last 15 years. There might be rebellion but it isn’t directed rebellion in any way.

There’s no mass movement possible anymore because of digital culture. The last real musical movement was grunge. After that, everything was atomized; sliced and diced. Porn got sliced and diced into what fetish you were into and boys are saturated with porn before they have sex. So, when they have sex they are imitating it rather than just being it or trying it and girls are kind of just going along with it, and then sexualizing themselves whether they want to or not because that is currency. It is an imitation of porn and it didn’t feel sui generis, it felt quickly commercialized. Even sexual top or bottom became a capitalist kind of thing that you have to be if you’re on Grindr and it was important to decide so you can present yourself with all the things people used to find out about each other when they got to know each other established up front. So, everything started becoming quantifiable and sellable.

Capitalism does that but now it is done in a very efficient way because of digital media, so that serves to dampen the young person being at the vanguard of actual change as opposed to surface rebellion. The old people got scared about things changing became punk and they voted Trump in and they are welcoming him smashing all tradition. They don’t care anymore that he is inept. They are watching it burn. They didn’t believe that he wasn’t going to be corrupt and or that he’s going to drain the swamp. They just saw someone going in there like a child has got the controls. It’s like, “What’s been happening so far sucked, so might as well do this throw a monkey in the driver’s seat,” and some of them are still enjoying it; it’s kind of mindless punks as opposed to any focused punks.

The new possible kind of punk that I can see coming is like the Parkland teenagers. These are the post-millennials. They are coming up in high school with Trump in office and they can’t believe it and they’re getting shot up and there is one thing that they can do, maybe stop the NRA. That is one issue I think is going to hopefully be the beginning.

I think punk changes for every era but we know it when we see it and usually it’s about smashing up stuff so that new stuff can grow.

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Directors Interview Writers

Mysteries of Screenwriting Credits: & vs “And”

Posted on May 16, 2018 at 8:41 am

Scott Myers has an excellent guide to understanding the arcane world of screenwriting credits. For example:

Here’s the deal with “&” and “and.”

When you see an ampersand (&), that means the writers worked together on the project and are considered — at least for that project — a writing team. So whatever revenue they generated in the form of compensation, production bonuses, and residuals gets split. If it’s two writers as a team, each gets 50%. If it’s three writers as a team, each gets 33%. In the case of a movie like “The Simpsons Movie,” which has 11 writers with Screenplay By credit, each with an ampersand between them, I have no clue how they divide that pie.

When you see the word “and” between two or more writers, that means the writers worked independently of each other and are not considered part of a team. So for instance if you look at the writing credits for The A-Team, you’ll see this:

Written by Joe Carnahan & Brian Bloom and Skip Woods

That means that Messrs. Carnahan and Bloom are considered a writing team on the project while Woods’ contribution was as a solo writer.

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Behind the Scenes Understanding Media and Pop Culture Writers
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