John Byrne talks to Boots Riley, the director of the hugely anticipated US comedy-drama, Sorry to Bother You
During the summer, word began coming across the Atlantic about a new American film that was being touted as this year's Get Out. Naturally, that got my antenna going.
No one ever wants their creation to be any year's "anything" other than itself, but the word was pretty much on the money. Sorry to Bother You is a truly exceptional slice of celluloid and nothing short of subversive. If you're on the side of the tiny, ultra-greedy minority who are milking it, and exploiting millions of other people in the process, then this movie will not be to your liking. Tough.
US President Donald Trump's tax cuts have handed even more money over to the outrageously wealthy, while those less well-off Americans are encouraged to consider immigrants (especially ones with dark skin) as the real problem. The rich get richer, and the rest become more divided . . .
But Boots Riley's debut film isn't merely anti-Trump, though the timing of its arrival would indicate otherwise. The story centres on Cassius Green (superbly played by Lakeith Stanfield), a young man with zero prospects, who's financially unsound, and living in a garage. The only positive in his life is his girlfriend Detroit (an even more impressive Tessa Thompson), an optimistic artist who's also a political activist.
Cassius lands a job in the undead world that is tele sales but, thanks to an experienced co-worker (played by Danny Glover, who in real life is a pal of Boots Riley's dad), discovers that he can earn well and eventually move up by putting on what's described as his 'white voice'.
And while the plot of Sorry to Bother You grows increasingly bizarre and tangential as the story progresses, you're left in no doubt that this current version of capitalism is more cut-throat and dangerous than ever before. The film's also highly amusing, which is no mean achievement given the subject matter.
Boots Riley has long been a left-wing activist, as well as rapper, producer, screenwriter, and now film director. Sorry to Bother You - which he also wrote - is an audacious debut.
When I get him on the blower, he seems in fine form: laid back and self-effacing despite believing 1,000% in his film and the reasons behind its creation.
John Byrne: You're going to have to help me here. I just can't sum up Sorry to Bother You in a few words. Seeing as it's your movie, can you manage that?
Boots Riley: It's an absurdist dark comedy with magical realism and science fiction, inspired by the world of telemarketing. There's too much to sum up!
People seeing Sorry to Bother You in 2018 might think it's critiquing the Trump era, but the concept predates that . . .
Oh yeah. I finished writing it the first time in 2012 and if they think it's criticising the Trump era then it's possibly because they were not paying attention before Trump. And some of that has to do with progressives and liberals being quiet while Obama was in office.
So you'd see liberals and progressives - or at least the quieter ones - as being the problem?
Our problem is not really what label you put on yourself, it's more like the fact that our problem is the economic system that we're in. And we have various levels of terribleness under this system.
But it's caused by the system. It's all caused by the economic system that we're in. And that is why I could write about these things under Obama, and they'd still be things under Trump. People think that they're attributed to Trump.
It's a very serious subject, but the film is also very funny. Presumably part of your plan was to make people smile and think at the same time?
I think it's all the same thing, really. If a professor was to give a lecture about how the world works, they'd be giving you an analysis. And to analyse something, that means that you show the contradictions. And in showing the contradictions, one of the tools is exaggeration.
That means getting rid of all these other factors to say, here's the important part. These are the main forces working against each other and that's a contradiction. And contradiction and irony are almost the same. And irony and comedy are very related. And so is irony and tragedy.
So it's all like the one same thing. Sometimes when we laugh at something, it's because we recognise the truth in it. If, for example, I were to say to you, something like about how the shoes we're wearing cost so much, yet the people that made them can't afford shoes.
There are ways that I can deliver that, that can be funny and tragic at the same time.
Could you tell me a little about your background. In Ireland, people mightn't be familiar with you, and assume you're 100% in the movie world. They could well be oblivious to the fact that you've long been involved in music, for example.
I'm still equally inept at everything I do. But that allows me the bravery to do any new thing.
Sorry to Bother You also has quite a unique voice. The various strands and surprising twists and turns really carry the film along.
I looked at it as like composing music . . . and I don't think I'm the first person to do that. There's a book called The Conversations, that's Michael Ondaatje [who wrote The English Patient] talking to [noted film editor and sound designer] Walter Murch. And Walter Murch was talking about the invention of film, and how just because something advances doesn't mean it ends up taking hold.
With film, Edison didn't think it was anything or really worth much [without sound] because, you know, people had seen picture and animation before. And people had seen pictures and painted them.
The image wasn't a new thing, but hearing a voice come out of a recording, it felt like there was someone's soul in that. And so it felt much different.
So your musical background strongly influences your approach to film?
I've never been a person to make my songs with like oh, here's the formula for how you make a hit pop song. I never was that person. So I was able to use some of my own feeling, around that. How you can engage people more by not only by making it something that they didn't expect - because I hate that.
I disengage when I know what's going to happen. You can decide you're not going to pay attention when you know what's going to happen. Here's your chance to go to the bathroom. And here's the heist movie team-building montage.
So now that I know they're going to go find that mechanic that knows how to do the such-and-such, now there's going to be a lull in this story for a second. Some snafu can come up, and I can go to the bathroom.
Sorry to Bother You is on release in cinemas from Friday December 7