To shape the visual language of “Sorry to Bother You,” production designer Jason Kisvarday familiarized himself with the history of Oakland, Calif., where the story is set and the film was shot — and where writer-director Boots Riley grew up.
“He’s more or less the unofficial mayor there. I absorbed all I could about his experiences and then translated them for my designs,” says Kisvarday, whose credits include “Swiss Army Man” and director Jim Hosking’s upcoming “An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn.”
“Sorry,” an Annapurna Pictures release and a Grand Jury Prize nominee at Sundance, casts Lakeith Stanfield of “Atlanta” fame as Cassius Green, an impecunious black man who finds success as a telemarketer when he mimics a white accent (actually, the voice of David Cross).
Kisvarday transitioned the color palettes in the character’s environments to parallel his journey. At the start, avocado greens, wood grains and orange carpeting dominate his apartment, a makeshift spot inside the garage of his uncle. Then as Green moves away from his original identity, hues turn to cooler shades of blue and white. Costume designer Deirdra Elizabeth Govan’s curated outfits further drive this narrative as Green’s wardrobe swings from colorful garments to more grays and blacks.
The film’s short five-week prep time, modest budget and small crew led to constructive conversations among Riley, Kisvarday and DP Doug Emmet to identify exactly where the camera would be placed. “It was a big group effort to try and put as much as we could in front of the camera instead of using a butter knife and spreading it everywhere,” says Kisvarday.
The biggest task for the production designer was finding the location that served as the call center. An actual telemarketing office was out of the question, says Kisvarday, since most of them “don’t want a camera inside.” Instead an empty, windowless Social Security Administration building was dressed with 100 cubicles, replete with functional computers and phones.
Practical locations were drab and needed to be repainted and layered to feel lived in; others were built from the ground up. “The challenge was matching the locations where we only changed a little with ones that had heavy art direction,” notes Kisvarday. “There are moments with every set where you feel like you could have done better with more time and money, but once they turned on the camera and lights and filled the room, it all worked out.”
Adding to the storyline was the aural landscape overseen by supervising sound editors Ruy García and Michael McMenomy. The team crafted a track using local sound elements to reflect city life. Riley, who’s also a rapper, “has an incredible ear for the streets and was very specific in the type of accents and pronunciations he wanted to hear in backgrounds,” says McMenomy. “He could distinguish Oakland neighborhoods from ones in San Francisco and would even call us out when the intonation or echoes off buildings were not accurate.”
Dialogue editor Lidia Tamplenizza and ADR editor Angela Organ helped develop Green’s “white voice,” recording dialogue from actor Cross and matching it precisely to the movement of Green’s mouth. EQ, reverb, compression and other effects were added to subliminally enhance the effect. “We always tried not to be reactive but creative,” says García. “It started with Boots welcoming our ideas and steering us in the right direction. That allowed us to make the most of it.”