[This story contains mild spoilers from I’m a Virgo.]
As an executive producer looking for some of the most original movies and series (Prometheus, The Leftovers and Pachinko, to name a few), Michael Ellenberg’s instincts prompted him to pursue the possibility of developing something with explosive writer-filmmaker Boots Riley.
Almost five years ago, Ellenberg saw Riley’s movie, Sorry to bother you, and it blew his head off, he told him the hollywood reporter. Riley presented something fresh and forward-thinking, and Ellenberg wanted to take advantage of that “newness” that she felt Riley offered. Ellenberg began aggressively pursuing a creative relationship with Riley, eventually producing the whimsical urban fantasy tale of a 13-foot giant teenager in Oakland, i’m a virgo starring Jharrel Jerome (now available on Prime Video).
In Ellenberg’s opinion, describing the limited series makes it sound simpler than it is. And he thinks it’s really Riley’s story to tell, but the producer, whose Media Res studio produces alongside Amazon, took some time with THR to give his best representation of how he thinks Riley would describe the genre-bending fantasy project. (Note: Riley was not available to speak. THR due to the ongoing writers’ strike.)
how do you describe i’m a virgo: Is it a superhero origin story? Is it a coming-of-age tale? Is it a love letter to protests and movements like BLM?
Yes, is my answer: It is all of those things! I think it’s first and foremost a coming-of-age story. It’s simply the most unique coming-of-age story you’ll ever see. It’s an Origin Story: Cootie’s [Jharrel Jerome] journey towards oneself; Cootie’s journey to voice. And it’s about the have-nots, and it’s about heroes.
In this case, the hero. [played by Walton Goggins] is actually the villain of the piece. He operates as an individual. Only he decides what is right and what is wrong. Only he decides which stories happen and which don’t within his company. [The Hero is a superhero who also owns a comic book publishing company that produces copy about his adventures.] And Cootie and her friends achieve power and identity through community. So you’re kind of looking at two competing visions of what power looks like and what justice looks like.
And all of this is wrapped up in one wild, mind-blowing ride where it’s joyful, it’s raucous. He is rebellious, he is inhibited. It’s loose and free. Also on a basic level, this expands your mind and the scope of what is possible. And hopefully it’s letting people see that the world as you see it doesn’t have to be the way you think it is. I think this show is saying: don’t be so sure that things can never be different, but you have to look beyond the everyday to get there.
How did you get involved in this project??
I was at Sundance when Sorry to bother you debuted and, like many people, I was blown away. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life, and I don’t think anyone else has. It is an experience in my work that we pursue the most, which is the discovery of an original voice. And while Boots was a first-time filmmaker, he has been a musician, artist, and activist for many years. His was not just an original voice, but an emerging mature voice.
So, I went after Boots at the time, saying, “You should put on a show. We should do it together!” And after a few meetings, he finally said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” And the first idea he pitched was to do a story about a 13-foot giant leaving his home around his 19th birthday. And we said, “Yeah, let’s do it!” That was the start of quite a magical journey.
Cootie is an innocent and very spiritual human being. It’s interesting that his parents tell him in episode one that people will try to exploit him, and when they don’t need him anymore, they’ll kill him. Is there some kind of spiritual symbolism in the Cootie character?
I think there is certainly a spiritual connotation to Cootie and the story. It’s a mythical tale, right? i’m a virgo…it’s like the stars align and for some reason, Cootie emerges into the world. It’s intentional that we don’t learn the full backstory of her here. He was meant to be mysterious; it was by choice, and that was a choice that Boots made.
So, surely it has a spiritual dimension and why did it come here? Do you have a special purpose? And is that purpose to serve yourself or to serve others? Cootie wonders why he’s there, and the season asks: Is someone else going to tell him what his role is, or will he find it himself?
And I think there’s also an everyday aspect to Cootie’s life. Certainly anyone can relate to the notion of being a young man or woman on the cusp of adulthood, trying to make friends for the first time; fall in love, have a job and be politically aware. He too was meant to be an African American in that place, and particularly an African American man. So, the world looks at you in that place, and the world looks at you from above. And that was very important to Boots’s concerns; one that he wanted to explore and that resonates with you if you are African American. And if you’re not, hopefully it might give you a taste of what it’s like to walk the world.
In essence, is Cootie learning that she needs to make the world feel comfortable around her?
Cootie has a great voice. She has a great profile! And yes, she has to figure out if the world is comfortable with both her height and who she is and what she is about. Can it be himself? So, he has to shrink himself, right? And then once you achieve some status and the world is somewhat comfortable, what do you do with that status? But Boots never wants sure answers to these questions. Cootie can elevate himself or he can elevate the community from him.
We have two stories here, but let me go with the spoiler story for a moment, where we have a character who gets lost pretty quickly. This is a pleasure trip, until it’s not. It’s tragic. And Boots’s take is that it’s never just one thing, because joy kind of goes with the tragic, right? And it’s not really for me to say, but in the absence of Boots, I think some would say that’s the black experience in America.
The strengths of each character are linked to their weaknesses. as with flora [played by Oliva Washington], she is super fast. It’s amazing. But [the supersonic speed] it also damages your life in all sorts of ways. But the superpowered characters end up being the people who can see the truth the most. So I think Boots is also trying to inspire us, not just trying to tell us how things are wrong in the world.
Where did you film the series?
We shot in New Orleans and in Oakland. Stage work was filmed in New Orleans, and exterior shots were filmed in Oakland.
Was a lot of CGI used in the making of this series?
It’s super old school. We had to talk to people who worked in Star Wars in the 80s. It was essential that this show be tactile, made by hand. it’s fantastic it’s absurd it’s surreal But it’s not artificial. There are some CGI elements to it, and you can tell when it arrives. But there is animation, there is 2D, there is cel animation. It was old school in an impressive way.
Who are Cootie’s adoptive parents?
Boots should talk about this if there are any more spoilers, but we’re getting answers in terms of Cootie’s background this season. And if there is more story to tell, we will learn much more in the future. That’s all I can say about it.
In episode seven, Jones (played by Kara Young), shows the hero how the villain can be through his surveillance of ordinary citizens. she breaks how some turn to crime because they are denied basic human rights like health care or denied a legal way to earn a living to feed their families. She says that a true hero is a “revolutionary”! Can you expand on this concept?
These are the politics, the words and the ideas of Boots. But I think what you’re looking at in that final episode is, yes, a true hero is a revolutionary. And maybe what the moment needs is to see the world we live in through new eyes. The things that hold us back have become like oxygen, and we think it’s the equivalent of oxygen or the water we drink, and it’s not. It is a reality that has been built, and it is difficult to see through it. So in that sequence of episodes, Jones is trying to reveal to you that hidden structure underneath. Look at those whom you despise with greater love, greater humanity. And free yourself.
there will be a second season?
We’re certainly expecting one and aiming for one, but it’s too early to tell. But it is made to continue. It’s a mystical Oakland and there are a lot of things we said that have been worth it, and there are a lot of things we said that haven’t been worth it. And we hope to have the opportunity to do so.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
i’m a virgo now streaming on Prime Video.