Musician and activist Boots Riley has turned his hand to film with this surrealist political comedy Sorry To Bother You, starring Tessa Thompson and Lakeith Stanfield.

The film follows Cash (Stanfield), a call centre worker, who unlocks the key to success to at work, and ends up caught in a conspiracy beyond his wildest imagination.

We spoke with Boots Riley at London Film Festival about the politics of his fantastic debut film.

Yours truly with Boots Riley at London Film Festival 2018

A lot of filmmakers resist making political stories – why did you feel you wanted to tackle this one?

When you talk about political analysis, you’re talking about exposing contradiction, and how you do that is exaggerate contradiction, and that contradiction is irony. And a big part of comedy is irony. And so it all goes together. You know, if I was to make a comment about the price of shoes that women wear, but the people that made them can’t afford shoes — it’s funny because it’s a contradiction, but it’s a real contradiction. And even stand-up comedians when they’re getting up and talking, a lot of times they’re saying things that are real, and you’re recognising the contradiction and that’s the humour. 

You started this project in 2014 and it’s taken longer than you expected for the film to get made – do you almost thing that’s a good thing given how relevant it is to the state of politics now?

I think that my film is going to continue to get more and more relevant until we get rid of this system, so yes I do think it’s more relevant now. But it was also relevant at that time. Until we start a movement that is able to actually change things through people organising on the job, then … things are changing, and if we aren’t a radical militant labour movement that can use the withholding of labour as a strategy for social change – until we have that, things are going to get worse.

The film has such a unique visual style – what was the biggest gamble you took with that?

Well for me it’s not a gamble – I’m making a movie – it’s not my money! I’m going to put something out on the screen, and people are gonna be like “you made a movie!” There’s no gamble in it for me. I did gamble as I was trying to get funding. I had to not get bills paid, you know just a bunch of struggle, so that was the gamble.

Photo by Peter Prato / Annapurna Pictures 

But while making the film everything was just… you know, there were things that maybe might not work as we were trying them, but because all the effects were practical, that was one reason I could see what was working right then and there – I didn’t have to be like “oh, when they make the CGI or whatever, then I’m going to see if it works!” No, it’s working because we’re making it work right there in front of us. 

The kind of projects that Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson have been involved in, this film seems perfect fit for them, but how did you get cast members like Armie Hammer and Steven Yeun on board?

Weed. Weed – they all like weed, and I told them in Northern California there’s a lot of good weed, and they got involved. 

No, but I think that’s part of it – showing your vision, being able to communicate how excited you are about a vision and what this film could mean cinematically and in cinematic history. I mean, who knows? I wanted a film that would have a place in cinematic history, and so that dream – maybe we didn’t achieve that, who knows? But the point is, everybody wants to be part of a big dream, and they saw that between my communicating that, and the other cast that was involved, and just the story itself, that they could be part of that, and they are. 

There are a lot of Bay Area/Oakland creatives coming up right now – Daveed Diggs’ Blindspotting, and obviously Ryan Coogler’s doing amazing stuff – are you guys friends? 

I met Ryan the first time while I was at Sundance Labs, so even though he’s younger than me, he’s kind of a mentor, and Daveed – I used to teach an art and organising class and a 14 year old Daveed Diggs with no hair on his face was in that class. 

Sorry to Bother You is out in UK cinemas on December 7th.

Interview credit is shared with Laura Potier.