"They kept calling the police on us."
I'm speaking with Doug Emmett, the cinematographer on the surreal, sublime Sorry To Bother You, which goes into limited theatrical release on July 6. We're seated in a juice bar in downtown Manhattan, stirring production memories for Boots Riley's freshly inventive and energetic cinematic debut, a work informed by a proletariat spirit — yet also willing to effectively interrogate that spirit — and gratefully unlike most any other release on the docket this year.
"We had petitioned the mayor a bunch of times, and Boots had had all these people on the city council trying to get us permission to shoot on their steps and in their lobby," he relays. "And the owners wouldn't allow it, they wanted nothing to do with us. So we're out there with megaphones chanting [for the scene] 'F***, you, RegalView,' and it's loud, and we've got smoke bombs going off, and the smoke is getting sucked into their AC units. You look up at the windows and all the workers are looking out, and some upper management was pissed. But in a weird way, it was almost an allegory for the film: You've got this big faceless company which has no interest in playing ball or being nice to us, and now we're f***ing with their s***.”
Emmett's describing a headquarters building for healthcare conglomerate Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, Calif., which serves as an inadvertently poignant backdrop for the movie's many protest scenes, posing employees and supporters against a vicious armor-clad militia on the public stage. They're fighting for better working conditions for the employees of RegalView Telemarketing, banding together in union while the film's main character Cassius "Cash" Green [Lakeith Stanfield] breaks the line.
If the metaphorical meaning of "cash" crossing a picket line stands out to you, good news: You're in the right mind-state to engage with Sorry To Bother You.
This passionate and ambitious project was somehow completed for $3.6 million. It certainly doesn't look like a three-million-dollar movie, but that's implying that it looks like anything else at all; it's imaginative and bursting with color, and much of that comes from its on-location shooting schedule, primarily in and around Oakland. Beyond the faceless glass and steel architecture described above, Sorry To Bother You's vibrant hometown becomes a characterful urban landscape in which the film's exploratory rhythms find purchase, and also happens to be Boots' stomping grounds.
The film represents a remarkable creative leap for the frontman of provocateur hip-hop group The Coup, and the maverick visual approach Boots employs puts the film in perplexing frieze against July's torrent of sequels. It's a melange of sight gags, anarchic disruptions, and seat-shifting racial commentary, and Emmett's work behind the camera feels crucial to those ends.
While the cinematographer has notably worked on a wide variety of other projects, including a fruitful relationship with the Duplass brothers, Doug Emmett is candid when he describes Sorry To Bother You as the most important project of his career.
How did you get signed on for the movie?
I was supposed to be shooting a film in New York... and sometimes you get lucky in this business. You have to be good, nice to people, and have talent, but you also have to be in the right place at the right time. So I was supposed to be shooting a film in New York, which totally fell apart. I went home, I was miserable, and this was early May – usually, if you want to shoot a movie in the summer, you need to be hired in late spring, and I felt like I had missed my chance of getting hired on a film for the summer.
I got back home, was bummed out, and called my agent like, "You've got to find me something." And that same day he pitched me Boots' movie – and the pitch made literally zero sense. And he tells me, "It's really low budget, and the guy's a rapper." I'm like, "This doesn't sound like it's going to be a good movie."
I told my agent, "Whatever, just send me the script." I then handed the script off to my wife Erin, since I was busy with something else that weekend, and I was like, "Just start reading it, and let me know what you think." Soon she was yelling at me from the other room like, "Get in here, this is amazing! You need to sit down right now and read this."
It was actually cute: We both sat down and just read it together. Like, we kept checking in with each other like, "Wait 'til you get to page 45!" At the end of it, I immediately called my agent on Saturday and told him, "Tell Boots I want to fly up and meet with him tomorrow, see if he's free." I got a phone call from my agent telling me he could meet that night, so I went and bought a plane ticket right away, and was at the airport two hours later. Within a week of meeting Boots, I was hired.
I think we need to be working on movies that are cultural phenoms in order to set ourselves apart as filmmakers, production designers, cinematographers, etc. I think we all need a hit, and we need a director that can hopefully take us along.
Tell me about shooting in Oakland.
Boots was the ultimate tour guide for Oakland. I got to see the city through his eyes, through that lens of a musician and artist, and as a storyteller first and foremost, which was really exciting for me. And there are also very few cities that you go to for a shoot that have such a defined identity; it's just omnipresent.
The people who are practicing their craft and doing their art there really are living and dying by it. They're not rich kids living in Los Angeles who have an expensive apartment paid for by their parents and get to bounce around doing their art. I instantly respected that and saw that, and then I was like "How do we capture that on camera, and embrace this culture of independent, free-thinking, hard-working artists?" Because that's very much what Boots is, too. I wanted to embrace that, and make sure that the movie represented Oakland effectively.
There's a lot of talk about color in the movie, contrast and such. No matter where you go in Oakland, you see bright, vivid, graffiti. And the lighting in that city is really cool, walking into stores and bars, there are just vivid colors. People have found cool ways to decorate their homes and shops through the use of color.
I felt like the movie was begging to be photographed in that way, wild and free with the use of color.
When I screened Sorry To Bother You in NYC, there weren't many people there, maybe 15 or 20 at most, with the majority of them being white. I mention that because I wanted to talk about a scene, the "rap scene" in the movie. I felt like most of the people in my theater cracked up laughing at that scene, but it's frankly horrifying. I don't find it funny at all.
No, it's horrifying, it's really dark. And black people get it. The idea of a room of white people telling a black guy to rap for them is pretty much as bad as it gets. To me, that's the worst scene in the whole film and, in a way, it's the realest scene. It's f**king terrible.
And also, it's evidence that Boots is brilliant, and so is Keith. Because if you look at the way that whole scene is cut – after the rap scene, it cuts to Keith clearly wasted and drunk, completely ashamed, I think, of what he's just done. And I don't know that white people pick up on that. You might just see a guy wasted, sitting in a chair having been drinking all night at a party, but if you really ask yourself why he's in that state, you'll get it.
Even his demeanor when he's rapping is like, hurt, angry, ashamed of himself.
Right. And there's even a glimmer of pride for a brief moment there when everyone starts rapping along with him. You see it purely in his eyes, only for like five, six, seven seconds. And that's really a testament to Keith, and to his ability. He's truly spectacular. As an actor, he's having a real moment.
What were the challenges in presenting scenes like that? While you and Boots were making the film, did you feel like people might misunderstand Sorry to Bother You as a pure comedy? Was that ever a concern?
No, I don't really think that's how Boots has ever operated. You have to look at his music as a reference to how this film was made, and to its intentions. It's the same, and we were never concerned that they'd be misconstrued in any way. And in particular, watching and shooting that scene, I think we were all aware of what we were doing in that moment, and to the importance of that scene and what it meant. And even though everyone on camera seems to be having a lot of fun, shooting that scene was an intense thing for all of us to be a part of.
I can't remember laughing while we were making it, I think I remember thinking, "This is kind of horrifying," which was great, because if you have that response while you're making that scene, then you know it's going to be good later on.
When you have an emotional response at any moment when making a movie, then you know that you're doing the right thing. If you're the man behind the camera and you're looking through that lens, and you're not feeling anything, then something's wrong.
Many times while making this film, I felt emotional. And I felt like Boots directed purely on instinct – this is a guy who had never directed a movie before, and he was able to do this. And he knows a lot about craft, he's studied it, but when you have limited amounts of time and resources, you really have to just operate off instinct, and I think he and I really trusted each other in the collaboration.
We later got in touch with director Boots Riley, who has this to say about the aforementioned scene: "That's been the main response, laughter. I don't think it's wrong, necessarily. This whole movie is about many things existing in one space. Things can be uncomfortable. It's kind of the same feeling, and this political analysis is all about exposing contradiction. This is how these two forces work against each other... and I'm going to break this whole system down and carve away things to get to the main contradiction, which is exploitation. That's reducing things and exaggerating things to show that. Now, contradiction is very similar to irony. And irony and humor? It's hard to separate those things."