Boots Riley Interview: I’m a virgin and I won’t tell you
The filmmaker faced financial difficulties after the film “Sorry to Bother”, but he came out of the experience with a stronger work ethic and big local plans.
This year’s SFFILM, San Francisco’s long-running film festival, opened outside the city limits. On Thursday, Ryan Coogler took the stage at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland to introduce his documentary “Stephen Curry: Underrated” and pointed to the middle of the room. “I saw my first movie there,” he said.
Throughout the history of Bay Area filmmakers—from the early days of Frances Ford Coppola and George Lucas to the Pacific Film Archive—Oakland’s presence has gained traction. Along with Coogler, there is another filmmaker with a much deeper connection to the scene.
Boots Riley rose to fame more than 30 years ago as the frontman of the legendary Oakland hip-hop group The Coup. He reinvented himself as a filmmaker with 2018’s Sundance breakout, “Sorry to Bother You,” a feisty workplace satire that served as a nod to Riley’s long-held socialist values and investment in working-class empowerment. He just finished the remarkable Amazon miniseries “I’m a Virgo,” the spirited escapade of a 13-foot-tall teenager (Jharrel Jerome) who escapes the island nation to get involved in local activism. The first four episodes will air as SFFILM’s finale next week; debuts on Amazon Prime in June.
From what we’ve seen, the show is hilarious, weird and tragic, with a spiky underground quality characteristic of Riley’s sensibility. It’s quite remarkable that he pulled it from Amazon’s resources. When I caught up with him this week at the Telegraph Beer Garden in Oakland, he said that “I’m a Virgo” cost $53 million — nearly 17 times what his debut film cost — and that he felt he had made no compromises. Not that it was easy.
“I always had to fight for so many things,” he said. “I felt like everyone was operating out of fear, no one was willing to take risks.” He sipped his IPA. “I don’t want to talk shit about people,” he said, “but I think the bottom line is that there’s a lot more bureaucracy in TV than there is in independent film.
As I wrote in January, the notion of a Sundance breakout is a myth, and Riley’s experience proves it. He directed “Sorry to Bother You” after working on the script for years (including helping out at the Sundance lab) and acquired it for $3.2 million. When that budget was leaked, it led to low bids and it ended up being sold to Annapurna for about what it cost. However, Riley had personal debts on the assumption that he was on the verge of a bigger payday.
“So many people were like, ‘Oh, I know it’s going to be Sundance,'” she said. “At Sundance in years past, all it talked about was $10 million, $17 million, $20 million. So at the end of Sundance, I was angry and depressed. Until then, I was squatting in one place, and somehow we negotiated with the bank, who will start renting it to us, and stuff like that. I owed a lot of money to a lot of people.”
Now speaking as a seasoned filmmaker and musician, Riley, 52, finds that doubling down on her Oakland identity can be most effective. Wearing a large felt hat to shield his eyes from the sun, Riley greeted several friendly faces in the beer garden, some of whom he did not recognize. “I think people took some pride in me,” he said. “It’s not just that they love the job. They feel like they are a part of me.”
Empowered by this influence, Riley believes she can develop a career locally, even as she navigates Hollywood resources from afar. Here are some of his biggest takeaways.
Stick to your community
Riley never planned to leave Oakland, even while establishing himself as a writer-director. “We’ve been pushed in this direction since the ’90s,” he said, referring to his musical era. “Like, ‘Oh, you’ve got to be where all this other stuff is going on.’ But I think when I was an organizer, it was in my mind that you are most effective where you come from. It wasn’t about going where the action was, it was about making the action happen where you were. I’m a better artist when I know what’s around me.”
Some of the interiors for “I’m a Virgo” were shot in New Orleans, but Riley balked at the pressure to set the story there. “I said, ‘I don’t know New Orleans,'” he said. “It’s a beautiful city. It means something different to the people who live there, and they may shoot it differently. Noah Baumbach, Jim Jarmusch and Woody Allen are filmmakers from New York. There is something that shows in their films about the knowledge of the city. I don’t want to work here because Oakland is the best place, frankly, but it’s the best place for me.”
Invest in the scene
Riley said that while he appreciated SFFILM, he felt that Oakland lacked a central hub for its own filmmaking scene. With director Cheryl Dunye (“The Watermelon Woman”) and “Pardon to Bother” producer George Rush, they formed the local non-profit Cinemama with the intention of creating a screening and event space. “The big problem in the Bay Area is that there are a lot of filmmakers here doing things, but there’s no scene,” he said. “There’s no place where people hang out.” He hopes Cinemama will program local film series as they plan for a physical space.
Take the money, keep your valuables
Courtesy of Prime Video
Riley’s activism may be a paradox with the prospect of putting on a show for Amazon, a company not exactly known for respecting workers’ rights. He resolved the apparent contradiction. “Honestly, it wasn’t my first choice,” he said, noting that the show has been shopped around. “But I’ve heard executives say, ‘I’m so happy to be working on something I really believe in.’
He recalled his experience at The Coup when he went on a road trip with Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra, another Bay Area figure. For three hours, Biafra held court on the history of punk, with a sore point.” He was very critical of The Clash,” Riley said. “He said, ‘Fuck the Clash, they sold out, they made music for Sony. We kept it real!” Riley didn’t see it that way. “Maybe The Clash weren’t as unequivocally anti-capitalist as I was, but they reached a lot more people,” he said.
He added that the coup concluded an agreement with EMI Records and Warner Brothers, among others. “Look,” he said. “Most people are against the way things are going. But most importantly, we were taught that we can’t help it. People say, “Yeah, I don’t like the way capitalism works, but I can’t help it. I have to get a job somewhere.” For Riley, his ability to make an anti-capitalist argument in a corporate context is all the justification he needs to get the job done.
“I’m trying to get people to organize specifically at work, including at Amazon,” he said. “They have to be able to shut the crap out. It’s part of a movement that can eventually grow into something and create a new society, a whole new system.”
“I’m a Virgin” takes a lot of daring swings, including the decision to use forced perspective over CGI. But nothing in the first four episodes is more memorable than an imaginary sex scene between two characters whose size is incompatible. It’s a bold maneuver that stands out in part because so few writer-directors would attempt to go there.
Riley said she was inspired by “Nashville” writer Joan Tewkesbury, who mentored her in the Sundance lab. “I remember him telling us once, ‘Everybody has to humanize their character,'” she said. “And do you know anything about people? People like to fuck. And you desexualize your characters, doing everyone a disservice.
Riley said he worries that newer writer-directors are self-censoring. “I think people still want the same thing,” he said. “They want to challenge me. But one of the things that happened with attacking people for legitimate abuse was that some of the things that got tangled up in that was shame about sex itself. How can we talk about humanity when everything has a PG-13 lens?
Find a routine and stick to it
Riley said that even after her experience at Sundance, she was careful about avoiding commercial acts.
“I’ve broken a lot in my life,” he said. “People got mad at me because I don’t accept things.” But he found a rhythm to write consistently so that he always had a few potential gigs around the corner. In the aftermath of “Sorry to Bother You,” she struck out three scripts—one for “I’m a Virgin” and two other features. The other two – which he can’t talk about yet – have already secured funding and actors.
“I wake up at 5:30 in the morning,” Riley said. “And I usually write something I’m not working on for four hours. I’m taking the wifi off my laptop. Knowing that I’m going to do this every day takes a lot of pressure off. I might only get a few lines or five pages, but those four hours will pass and pass no matter what.” He smiled. “I do a lot of shit.”
Riley’s situation is unique: not every struggling artist can switch from one profession to another in addition to an existing career to support their profile. But his ability to double down on his surroundings and develop a work ethic that supports his particular vision proves that filmmakers don’t have to let the system eat them to survive.
As always, I welcome feedback on this week’s column and it may appear in an upcoming installment: [email protected]
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