Boots Riley is not afraid to lead with magical realism. When the activist and lead vocalist of the influential hip-hop band The Coup first stepped behind the camera to write and direct 2018’s Sorry to Bother You, he presented audiences with something new right away. That film’s premise of Black telemarketer Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) learning to adopt his “white voice” to put customers at ease quickly gave way to something even stranger, angrier, and yes, more political.
Riley is seeking to pull off a similar magic trick with his next project, the seven-episode TV series for Prime Video: I’m a Virgo. The show, starring Jharrel Jerome (When They See Us), has an equally ambitious premise. It’s about a 13-foot-tall Black man in Oakland. And oh yeah, he’s a Virgo, as he’ll happily tell you. But like Sorry to Bother You before it, that’s just a jumping-off point for all the surreal social commentary to come.
Before the show’s premiere at SXSW, Den of Geek talked with Riley about what he describes as the “second track” of his current filmmaking era.
Den of Geek: Where did this idea come from?
Boots Riley: I just had a general idea: “13-foot-tall Black man in Oakland.” That was my pitch. So then I sat down to write. That’s what sparked everything else. Obviously, it ends up being about a lot more than that. And it’s called I’m a Virgo because that’s what he thinks is important about himself, even though nobody else would come up with that in their top five things important about him.
When did the Zodiac element come in?
It started forming as I was thinking about writing the script. If I tell you what the original title of the show was (which I won’t tell you now, but I’ll tell people after the season comes out), it would reveal so much about where the show goes. But the whole point is that you’re this giant, people are thinking about you in the context of what they expect, what they’re afraid of, what they hope for, but they’re not thinking about you and how you feel.
Do you personally feel any kind of way about the Zodiac?
I’ve been thinking about what I should say about this since it was coming up. I’ll just say this: our character does care about it, and that’s about it. It’s not something that I really subscribe to, but it’s something that I know is a part of human culture. I also thought, marketing-wise, we will get one-twelfth of the human population watching the show. It’s like when people used to make songs for every holiday. “It’s Thanksgiving, play this song every Thanksgiving.” That was this marketing trick.
What was it like assembling this cast?
We’ve got Jharrel Jerome, Mike Epps, Walton Goggins, Carmen Ejogo, Brett Gray, Olivia Washington, Kara Young, and then we got a bunch of cameos that are amazing. What’s funny is I hear all sorts of stories about other productions, but this cast really got along. They hung out. If you were looking for them when we weren’t shooting, they were all hanging out together. We lucked out in that way. You can have a movie where rhinos that look like they’re pencil-drawn 2D-style bust through the room, and as long as you believe the character’s reaction to that, you buy it.
What was it like filming with so many practical effects?
It’s more fun to do. We had a forced perspective. A lot of the stuff is just Jharrel closer to the camera with half-scale objects because his character is twice as tall as he is. And then we have puppets. We have all sorts of stuff like that. It’s a lot more fun. You’re looking through the monitor, and what you see is what you’re going to get, as opposed to looking at a sea of green and then being like, “Oh, we’re going to make this look good.”
What do you think it will be like to premiere this at SXSW, which started as a music festival, given your musical origins with The Coup?
SXSW is our favorite festival to perform at. Last time we performed at SXSW, I think, was 2014, and in five days, we did 20 shows. And none of my band was complaining. Because you’re playing in front of all these musicians. You move your own equipment, push it down the street because you’re not getting a car there in time to make it to the next gig. There’s a certain spirit there that I think is different from the film side.
A lot of people have only gone to the film side. I would say they should stay and check out the music. My experience of it last year is that the crowds are rowdier and more fun than other film festivals. That’s how I’m used to going to movies. We used to pick the movie theaters we went to based on the crowd that was going to be there. There’s this theater called The Parkway. We would always go there because no matter how terrible the movie was, the crowd was going to be funny because we were going to make fun of the movie and throw shit at the screen. SXSW is not like that, but it’s closer to that than some of the other film festivals.
I’m a Virgo premiered March 11 at SXSW. It does not yet have a Prime Video release date.