How Social Media and Social Consciousness Made 'Sorry to Bother You' a Success (Exclusive)

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“This guy has a voice that America needs,” Terry Crews announced at the New York City premiere of his new film, Sorry to Bother You. The Brooklyn Nine-Nine star has been making headlines lately for using his own voice in support of the #MeToo movement, but in this instance, he was praising his director, Boots Riley. Riley is best known as the frontman of hip hop group The Coup, but now he is stepping off the stage and behind the lens for the first time to tell a political and personal tale about telemarketing.

"It's one of the most unique, beautiful, absolutely incredible films I have ever been a part of," Crews told ET, summing up his experience making the wild, dark comedy. “It’s the movie you didn't know you needed."

And Crews is hardly the only one singing the film’s -- and Riley’s -- praises: When Sorry to Bother You opened in just seven cities and 16 theaters on July 6, it made over $700,000, which comes out to $44,831 per theater, more than double the average for that weekend’s No. 1 film, Ant-Man and the Wasp. After adding more than one thousand additional theaters over the next two weeks, the film cracked the top 10 at the box office and has grossed $10 million so far. Not bad for a man who turned to screenwriting books for guidance because he’d never written a screenplay before.

Celebrity super-fans like directors Ava DuVernay, Edgar Wright, Rian Johnson and Taika Waititi and legendary musicians like Questlove and Eryka Badu all stepped up to support the movie. Snoop Dogg was one of the first celebs to buy out a theater for audiences to see the film for free.

Oscar winner Jordan Peele, who has called the film a "classic," similarly celebrated the film by buying out a screening. His debut feature, Get Out, has been compared to Sorry to Bother You -- mostly because of their conversations about race in America, the critical and social media buzz around them, their first-time directors and the fact that they both star Lakeith Stanfield -- but audiences should be warned not to spend much time comparing the two. While giving his endorsement of the movie, Peele highlighted Riley's "one-of-a-kind unique voice" and wrote that the film was "brilliant and totally different than anything ever."

Boots Riley always dreamed of telling stories, studying filmmaking before his political hip hop group was offered a record deal. Riley, 47, has also always been an activist; members of his family were progressive labor organizers and he became involved in the movement at a young age. While Riley’s focus was primarily on music, at times, he worked other jobs to make ends meet. During a hiatus between The Coup’s second and third albums, Riley worked as a telemarketer, which ultimately inspired Sorry to Bother You. He initially conceived the story about a telemarketer, named Cassius Green (played by Stanfield), who winds up selling slaves for an evil corporation as a song, but quickly realized it could be a film -- and that he could be the one to write and direct it.

So Riley got to work, fleshing out his idea using his experiences growing up in Oakland and his politically-minded background. He used comedy to convey the realities of code-switching as Cassius discovers his “white voice,” highlighting the issue of racial identity and what one must do to overcome and embrace its challenges. He plays up the absurdity, but -- bolstered by Stanfield's solid performance -- makes the whole scenario incredibly relatable and equally uncomfortable for many who experience these real-world conflicts in the workplace. “All my views on capitalism are in this movie,” Riley explained of his inspiration. “I’m making a comment on how our system works, and how it changes us. I’m examining how we as humans are coerced into being more efficient.”

Peter Prato / Annapurna Pictures

By 2001, Riley was working on a script, relying on his 20-plus years as a music producer and his experience creating storyboards and directing music videos to get started. When he got stuck on the script, he began to work on a soundtrack to accompany the movie, which turned into The Coup’s album of the same name. "I took the ride with the characters and I just wasn’t afraid to go to other places when I needed certain emotions to be felt,” Riley told ET about writing the story. “I also wanted the audience to feel the emotions the characters were feeling, so that guided a lot of the choices.”

Over the next four years, Riley utilized as many of his industry connections as he could to refine his story into the one blowing audiences' minds on screen today. According to Riley, the pitch went something like this: “It’s an absurdist dark comedy with magical realism and science fiction, inspired by the world of telemarketing. It’s called Sorry to Bother You."

To find the right actors to make his vision a reality, Riley first had to find a way to get it in their hands. The first two stars to sign on were David Cross and Patton Oswalt, who lent their voices to the film as the stylized “white voices.” Cross told Riley to count him in almost immediately after reading the script. (The Arrested Development star initially didn't intend to read the script when Riley reached out, but was convinced by his assistant to check it out)

But not everyone Riley approached said yes. According to the New York Times, Donald Glover and Jordan Peele both circled the role of Cassius before Glover’s Atlanta co-star Stanfield landed the leading part. “It was a tremendous beautiful responsibility to take on Bootsy’s work,” Stanfield said about accepting the gig. “Being the anchor of it was a really nice honor.” Riley also approached a few awards season favorites about appearing in the film. In order to get the script to two-time Oscar-nominee Viggo Mortensen, the director reportedly snuck into a private dinner at the Napa Valley Film Festival. He passed. Because Oscar winner Colin Firth once approached him at a party rapping some Coup lyrics, Riley sent an email to an address that belonged to Firth’s wife asking him to participate. Another no.

Ultimately, Riley built his dream team, an ensemble that features some of Hollywood's buzziest names, including Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer, Steven Yeun, Omari Hardwick and Crews. “Man, we have the 2018 Rat Pack,” Riley told ET about his cast. “I didn’t have to make a great movie. I could just make a not-terrible movie and everyone would want to see this because we have all of the actors that everyone knows that have been underutilized in everything else and that people love and want to see.” He continued praising his cast, adding, “It just so happens that they came together to make a great story and a great film and that’s why it’s a film that really represents the moment.”

Tessa Thompson, Lakeith Stanfield, director Boots Riley & Jermaine Fowler on the set of 'Sorry to Bother You'
Pete Lee / Annapurna Pictures

Hammer admitted that he was already a fan of Riley's before signing on for the role of Steve Lift, a depraved CEO and Cassius's boss. "I was listening to The Coup in high school on my way to school in the morning," the actor gushed. "So it was a lot of fun. Great to work with Boots, great to work with his crew. It's a good bunch of guys." Of her role, Thompson told ET she "was really excited to play a character like Detroit [Cassius's artist girlfriend] who uses every inch of herself as a canvas and uses it for activism."

Over 28 days, Riley officially became a filmmaker, utilizing his adopted hometown of Oakland -- a city having a moment and showing off its creative talents with another film in theaters now, Blindspotting. While the film’s production and style had a pretty distinctly Oakland-flavor, Riley says that “the location of the film is anywhere in America." With Sorry to Bother You, Riley is speaking to and for "the culture" and America's current racial and socioeconomic climate, taking on race relations, union organizing, and capitalism in one fell swoop. But he’s also speaking for himself and welcoming audiences to his world.

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