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'The Big Picture' — Jordan Peele Scares America

After the amazing success of his directorial debut, ‘Get Out,’ the ‘Key and Peele’ star sits down for a conversation about how he pulled off his daring horror-satire, the lie of a post-racial society, and what comes next

(Jaya Nicely)
(Jaya Nicely)

Get Out broke out. One year ago, if someone had told you that a movie about a black guy visiting the home of his white girlfriend’s parents for a summer weekend — starring an unknown lead and Marnie from Girls — would become the unmitigated Hollywood success story of the young year, you might tell that person to, well, get out. But that is exactly what Jordan Peele, the 38-year-old sketch star best known for Comedy Central’s Key and Peele, has accomplished with his directorial debut.

After just two weeks of release, the movie has already earned more than 18 times its reported $4.5 million budget and ignited a new kind of conversation about race, the pitfalls of white liberalism, and what it really means to make a horror movie in 2017. Peele, who also wrote the movie, sat down for a podcast conversation about how he did it and what comes next. This is a condensed and edited version of that conversation.

Sean Fennessey: This is a wild time for you.

Jordan Peele: Doesn’t get any more wild than these past couple weeks for me, for old JP. [Laughs]

Sean Fennessey: It’s been two weeks since the movie’s been released, and it’s been incredibly financially successful.

Jordan Peele: What’s the number on that? You got that in front of you?

Fennessey: I think it’s $75.8 [million]. Is that right? [Editor’s note: At the time of publication, the movie’s earnings were up to $84.7 million.]

Peele: Damn. You know I don’t know.

Fennessey: It’s your money, not mine. [Laughs] I want to go to the beginning. It’s a very complex and thrilling movie, but it’s a little bit hard to explain. You started writing it in 2008, is that right?

Peele: The writing process is a little tricky to describe. I would say [between] 2008 [and] 2012. I was in what’s called the outline phase, just kind of coming up with the premise. I was working on this premise as well as several other movies and scripts, and then about three years ago I actually wrote the script. So, yes, I started writing it, in the vaguest sense, in 2008.

Fennessey: You were still a cast member on MadTV at that time, right?

Peele: It was about right after I left MadTV and Barack Obama was running for president.

Fennessey: Was that an inciting incident? Did you find yourself watching cable news and seeing how people were talking about the world and respond to that?

Peele: Yeah, I mean we all were, right? Barack Obama was just a total game changer, a culture shifter, an eye-opener. But I think what we found shortly after he got elected was this sort of self-congratulatory thing: "OK, we’ve cured racism." And many of us know that that just wasn’t the case. So it just struck me that this movie now had a place in culture that there could be a modern horror movie about race that discussed these issues that were being swept under the rug.

Fennessey: When you started writing, was your expectation that you were going to be the director of the movie?

Peele: No. My expectation when I started coming up with the concept was [to develop] this idea that would help me become a better writer. I took the shackles off, pun intended, of having to write something that could be producible — so I wasn’t thinking about this in terms of it getting made. I was thinking about it in terms of, "What’s my favorite movie that doesn’t exist?"

Fennessey: Did anything significant about the movie change over a six- or seven-year germination period?

Daniel Kaluuya in ‘Get Out’ (Universal Pictures)
Daniel Kaluuya in ‘Get Out’ (Universal Pictures)

Peele: A ton, a ton. I mean, the very first notion that this movie came from had nothing to do with race. It was about a guy whose girlfriend brings him to a party with all her old high school friends that he’s meeting for the first time. So it was really about the fear of being the outsider in a social situation. People are doing the [affects white bro voice] "Hey, remember junior high, man, when old Doozer spilled the beans on the prom floor?" And you’re just looking around like "What, what, what, what?" So there’s some of that in the scene [in Get Out] with Jeremy at the dinner table, where you catch up to this story that everybody knows. But very quickly I realized, "You know what? This notion is perfect for describing the African American experience when you feel like the outsider."

Fennessey: Did the tone or the approach of the movie change while you were in production? Because obviously the nature of the country changed a lot at that time, too.

Peele: We shot at the end of ’15, beginning of ’16. And yes, I really wrote the movie before the country sort of got woke to police shootings and elements of the prison industrial system and all that. The biggest shift was realizing that the movie was about giving us a hero, from the pain and the horror. Not only is it about not ignoring race and the racial horrors of this country, which was the first idea behind the movie, but it also has to be something that gives us an escape, gives us a hero, gives us a fun way to enter further conversation.

Fennessey: It feels like we’re experiencing a boomerang effect now where people were talking about a post-racial society, and then, as you said, America got woke and we’ve entered into a very charged political climate where people are more aware of divisions between race, sex, gender. Were you concerned that because we were no longer in an Obama administration, that the movie would not be as effective or that audiences wouldn’t get it as well as you wanted to?

Peele: That crossed [my mind]. I didn’t know how it would change things. It did cross my mind for a second that "Oh my gosh, I wrote this movie in a response to this post-racial lie." This movie was a response to that. So [it did feel like] the point of the movie was shifting, but then I found the new purpose for it [in] being a release and an escape and pretty quickly I realized it’s actually going to connect with more people because more people are gonna give it a shot. In the era that I wrote the movie, I feel like less people would be inclined to actually go see it because it’d be like, "No come on, I don’t want to engage, if you talk about race, if you see a movie about race it’s just perpetuating something we’re done with, Obama, yay."

Fennessey: So the idea of white liberalism that you have a magnifying glass on — more people would have been inclined to say, "This isn’t as big a deal as this movie is trying to make it out to be."

Peele: I think so. In some ways I think it would’ve [been] a more important statement back then but now I think the release, the hero, the escapist part is more welcome.

Fennessey: We’re talking about some very heavy themes. It’s a very serious movie in some ways, but in other ways it’s hilarious and it’s also quite scary in a way that most horror movies are not scary. How do you balance all those elements in a movie like this? You’ve reached back to the ’70s for some of your reference points, so when you’re writing and directing, how do you say, "I know exactly how I’m gonna hit the tone"?

Peele: It’s The Stepford Wives and Scream. I looked at those movies very closely. They both have a lot of the more lighter, ironic, comedic choices in the fabric of the script. In The Stepford Wives, the way that [the characters] speak — like they’re in a Clorox bleach ad where they’re the good housewife — it has this really satirical tone that is dark but it is funny in a subtle way. So I’ve got those elements, and then I think where Scream was effective was [how] it addressed horror movies. It had this postmodern reference and so in that way it’s more realistic than a normal horror movie where there’s no knowledge of any horror tropes. I took a cue from that with the character Rod, so that we could have a character that expresses what the audience wishes somebody would say. And that wouldn’t be breaking the reality, it would actually be grounding it.

Fennessey: You subvert some things about horror movies, too. Rather than "Don’t go in that house," you literally have a character who’s trying to get out of the house. There’s not a lot of traditional jump scares in the movie.

Peele: I do have some jump scares, I’ve got a couple.

Fennessey: Just a couple.

Peele: It was a tough choice because I respect movies like The Shining that [feature], like, one jump scare for this entire creepy thing. It’s the scariest movie of all time.

Fennessey: You made the movie with Blumhouse Productions, a very successful, largely horror-driven production team. Did you get notes from a company like that, that knows how to create and sell a movie like this, or are you operating on an island when you’re making your movie?

Peele: So we made it with Blumhouse and QC Entertainment. The real reason these guys are so good at what they do is that they’re in such support of the director and the auteur. My experience was I got to make the movie I wanted. Yeah, there would be notes every now and then, but never anything that I felt like changed the direction of what I was doing and also never anything I couldn’t say no to. That’s the beauty of these microbudget projects; I think [Blumhouse founder and CEO] Jason [Blum] realizes that the spark for the most successful films he makes is in somebody’s singular vision.

Fennessey: Was anybody expecting more of a comedy from you on this, or was it always clear that this was going to be as straight a thriller as it is at times?

Peele: That was the biggest question mark for me too with this shift. It really did take me, years ago, telling my reps and telling people, "OK, just so you know, I’m gonna make this big change."

Fennessey: You would literally say that?

Peele: Yeah. The work I’d done in comedy was sort of providing me with opportunities. It was all very strategic because I knew this was what I wanted to be doing. I didn’t necessarily think this movie would get made, but yeah, I had to let some reps go at a certain point because I felt like they weren’t quite latching onto [this idea]. It’s kind of a crazy thing, right? Especially when you have a successful comedy career, it seems like something to say, "OK, now I want to do something else before I’ve even really capitalized off that."

Fennessey: Some people have pointed out that there have been certain Key and Peele sketches where you can see hints at horror and hints at satire in this specific way, but nothing that’s quite so overt. Is there a sketch from Key and Peele that you can think of where you said, "I want to hit this complicated idea, but I’ve only got a three-minute window to pull it off"?

Peele: Well, when we wrote the "Negrotown" sketch, the idea of tackling police brutality, racially charged police brutality, in a comedy sketch was kind of like, "No. No no no no no no no no no no. You can’t do that." And so that was about trying to figure out, what tone can we do this in? What will balance the uncomfortableness we’re putting the audience through? And so we did it with a musical.

Fennessey: How did you actually get this movie made then? Did it just have to get into the right hands?

Peele: This wasn’t a situation where I was going around shopping this thing and having doors slammed in my face. I did not think this movie was ever gonna get made. Part of that was because of the state I put myself in to write it. I thought that was not that goal. And then the other part was I felt the issues and the imagery was so edgy racially, that no one would give me money to do this. And also just because the perception of movies in general is that white people direct movies.

There were almost insurmountable odds with this movie because if you watch this movie and don’t realize it comes from a black perspective, you might have different feelings or different takes on it. So all these things were stacked up against it.

I went to Sean McKittrick at QC Entertainment maybe three years ago and started the meeting by just saying, "OK, so this is one of my ideas, my favorite ideas. No one’s ever gonna make it, but I want to tell you about it just because I think you’re gonna get a kick out of it." I told him the whole plot. By the end of it he was like, "Let’s make that movie." So that was the beginning, and then cut to a few months later, I’ve written the movie, Blumhouse gets wind of it, and they pounce. And there were a couple other partners that did pass on it, which is very satisfying. [Laughs]

Fennessey: Let’s talk about the cast. The three white leads — played by Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, and Bradley Whitford — are low-key icons of white liberalism, and a lot of the black performers are not nearly as well known. Was that a specific choice you made, to show new faces on one side and people who have a lot of built-in identification on the other side?

Peele: Well, that’s a symptom of the industry, right? I mean, we’ve nurtured white talent and careers and not black ones in any sort of widespread fashion. When I’m just looking to cast this movie, first you go, "OK, so we need a 26-year-old black leading man. OK, so let’s see, who is there, who is there? OK, Michael B. Jordan? OK, that’s one." It sort of runs out real fast. There’s some great actors out there, Chadwick Boseman, John Boyega, but—

Fennessey: They’re a little tied up in franchises right now, too.

Peele: That’s it. So [I] very quickly realized that part of the purpose of this movie, part of what I’m trying to say with this movie, is about the representation. Daniel [Kaluuya] is a very accomplished actor, but quite frankly, he should have been a lead already. He’s my favorite actor in the world right now. And I had seen him in Black Mirror and Sicario. He’s just an incredible talent. It was both sad and made me feel good to be able to give people who are equally hard-working black actors and performers this opportunity to get these great roles as well. And then of course I was just so honored to have actors like Bradley and Catherine and Allison take a chance with this movie that, if the movie is done wrong, it doesn’t reflect on them very well, let’s just say that.

Fennessey: That’s true, they had to buy in.

Peele: They had to trust me.

Fennessey: You mentioned Rod, who is played by Lil Rel Howery, and then there’s Betty Gabriel, Marcus Henderson, who play Georgina and Walter, [along with Daniel] — all four of those actors are now in the consciousness in a specific way. One of the outgrowths of having a successful movie is people know who someone like Betty Gabriel is now. How does that feel to know that they’re probably going to get some more opportunities?

Peele: I don’t think there’s any piece of this that’s more satisfying than that because they earned it. These performances these people put together are some of the best I’ve seen in film, certainly in the horror-thriller genre in a long time. I love that.

Fennessey: Were you surprised by how overwhelmingly positive the reception for the movie was?

Peele: Yeah. I was surprised how overwhelming it was. Some people make movies and the idea is like, "Hey, if you get it, good for you. If you don’t, fuck it. This is my voice." I love [Steven] Spielberg and [Quentin] Tarantino, people who are doing their own voice but they’re also honoring the audience’s entertainment. This movie was designed to catch [on] and to be watercooler conversation starter, to be, "I can’t even talk to you about it until you’ve seen it." I’m more surprised that it got made and got the release that it got.

Fennessey: Before we began recording, you mentioned there were a couple of elements of the movie that you thought would work well because they would create conversation. I think 99 percent of people who make movies have no idea how to even do that in the first place. How do you create something that creates conversation?

Peele: One of the first things I did when I started writing this movie [was] ask myself, "What do I like?" And I love twists. And so I was thinking, "All right, well, a good twist can turn a crappy movie into watercooler discussion, so what if I give them, like, five twists in this? Is that possible? Has anyone ever done that?" You bite off a big challenge that seems kind of like an impossibility and then you just try to nurture it and nurture it and nurture it and make it work.

Fennessey: Some of the targets of the satire of the movie are potentially not necessarily realizing that they’re the targets, or properly understanding some of the nuances of the movie. Have you noticed that at all?

Peele: So you mean people who are saying the movie’s racist?

Fennessey: Well, I think there’s two versions of this: There are certainly people who are saying plainly that the movie’s racist, and that’s a very strange and negative reaction. And then there’s also people who are theoretically [well meaning], like Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener’s [characters] in the first half of the movie, who maybe don’t quite comprehend some of the satire that you’re shooting for. Has any of that come your way?

Peele: I haven’t quite gotten the direct responses from the quote-unquote Bradleys and Catherines of the world, or, I should say, the Missys and Deans, because let’s be real, Bradley and Catherine are very woke, very brilliant, smart people. And the Missys and Deans are very smart people. Maybe not as woke.

But I haven’t gotten that reaction where people are missing the point. Only tangentially do I hear people objecting to the movie, [and] it seems like most people who object haven’t seen it. But they’re also welcome to object.

Fennessey: In the wrong hands, [that reaction] probably could be riled up into some sort of false controversy, but I don’t see much of that happening right now.

Peele: That was a concern of mine. I’m putting this out there and it’s got its intended effect. Who knows, maybe this will create a civil war. Who knows.

Fennessey: I saw the movie a second time, and it was a very rewarding experience.

Peele: Thank you.

Fennessey: The script is a real Swiss watch, there are a lot of clues baked inside. Did you go back after writing it, to add in Easter eggs?

Peele: A little of both. I probably wrote 30 to 40 drafts of the script, so it always evolved. Every time I’d pass it, I’d come up with something that’d be like, "Oh, you know what? This’ll plant this payoff later." It was all very intentional. I have to say, my presumption was any filmmaker is doing this, and that I didn’t necessarily think the audience would key into all of it as much as they are, so it’s very cool, very encouraging. Definitely gonna keep that part of the technique in the future.

Fennessey: You’ve created a lot of internet content in the last few days.

Peele: I love it. I love it.

Fennessey: I’m curious what it’s like to see your creativity get memed. Get Out has become a social media monster.

Peele: It’s very cool. And obviously we have a little practice with Key and Peele, [which was] very memeable. The timing of this is just hitting in a really fun, ridiculous way. It’s so satisfying because, more than anything, one point I’m trying to make with this movie, I wanted to offer a fun starting point for racial conversation, maybe some new touchstones in how we discuss race. So when I see things [from the movie emerge on social media] like The Sunken Place or the Teacup, creating some iconic meaning, I do feel like it’s filling some gap in what our racial conversation was.

Fennessey: Every visual choice, too, is really loaded. You’ve got a lacrosse stick and the concept of tea and the tea cup — these hallmarks of white, privileged life. Were all of those choices conceived before you started shooting, or was the set more open to improvising and adding new things at the last minute?

Peele: Both. There’s a lot planned, but then I’ll be on set, trying to figure out, "OK, what’s the weapon Jeremy should have? Is it going to be a lacrosse stick or a golf club? Oh you know what, Funny Games did the golf club, let’s go lacrosse stick." Every conversation you have with every department head, you’re trying to train them [on] how I’m thinking about this movie. Every choice has either some sort of satiric thing or some other meaning or three meanings. It’s a constant state of mind.

[WARNING: From this point forward, this conversation is loaded with SPOILERS for Get Out.]

Fennessey: Was there anything you couldn’t get into this movie that you really wanted to?

Peele: There’s a video that the lead character watches that answers some questions and sets up this process that he’s going to be going through. In the original draft of the script, there’s this musical torture sequence that this replaced.

Fennessey: What was the soundtrack to this sequence?

Peele: It was James Taylor’s "You’ve Got a Friend," which is a great song. But I’m really into the idea of taking an upbeat or pleasant song and giving it the horror context where now you can’t hear it the same way. Chris is basically forced to listen to "You’ve Got a Friend" over and over again.

Fennessey: That sounds pleasant.

Peele: It was like, "OK, so how many times can we afford James Taylor’s ‘You’ve Got a Friend,’ written by Carole King? Maybe once." So that went away. I came up with the video, which is actually better.

Fennessey: Yeah, and you do give us a couple of great musical moments — the song playing in Jeremy’s car does that a little bit for us, we get a little bit of the Dirty Dancing soundtrack.

Peele: And "Redbone." This is the difference between the early stages of making a movie, when they don’t know how go it’s going to be, then a little bit later in the process when they see the movie and now I can be like, "Hey, can I possibly add the dopest hip-hop-soul track by Childish Gambino in the last two months?" And they’re like, "Oh, OK. We get it now."

Fennessey: That song is just two, three months old. It makes the movie feel very present, it feels very of the moment.

Peele: Yeah. And that was so important. I had Donald [Glover] in a couple of months ago to watch the movie and I knew I wanted to use this track, and he loved it. Just getting to put that in, I knew that was going to be the cherry on top as far as telling the audience, "This movie is right now." You couldn’t make this movie half a year ago, it’s happening now.

Fennessey: You’ve talked about an alternate ending that you had discussed. Was there ever a time where you thought the movie should not end with Chris escaping from the horror, if there should be a down note on the movie?

Peele: Yeah. I wrote, like I said, a lot of drafts. I wrote many endings to it. Yes, a couple of them didn’t end as happily as this. You can probably figure out the direction that I was going. But one of the big moments in this moment is that when the cops arrive in this movie, the entire audience realizes that this is the one horror movie where the cops arriving is not a good thing. And so when the cops arrive, from that point forward, I went a darker route with the script. That was because the time I was writing it in, I felt like we needed this wake-up call. We needed to make that point. That we know what would happen if Chris were to be rolled up on by a cop in the particular moment he’s rolled up on.

By the time we were making the movie, it was clear that the way it ends, with a big cheer, was the way to go. That moment when the cops arrive, in itself, does the whole job of telling the audience, "Look. You know what this means." And if you know what it means, I don’t need to tell you anymore. Now, let’s have some fun.

Fennessey: You are an icon of the TSA now. But the notion of the racist police is beautifully alluded to at the beginning of the movie, with the cop scene when Chris’s character and Rose’s character are pulled over. There’s already this built-up tension in our head, where we know there’s an untrustworthy cop in the vicinity.

Peele: And you know what, even without that scene, it probably would have played the same. Because that’s what we’ve been looking at.

Fennessey: The decision to not have Chris kill Rose at the end seemed very specific as well. What was the thinking behind that, and was it ever different?

Peele: Yeah. I had every version of the script. To me, the one that we used is the right one. I was questioned about it, in the making. I want to stick with my guns here because the audience thinks they want that in the moment. I don’t think they actually do want that. To me, the whole idea is, Chris is escaping. He’s got to get out. He’s committing violent acts for survival and this moment you’re describing is a moment where he’s faced with killing out of anger. I wanted him to hold on to his humanity and draw that line with what type of violence we should be cheering on. Not that any violence should be cheered on. But violence for survival, violence for self-preservation is something I think everybody can understand. Self-defense is where it’s needed, right? I just wanted to draw that line and say, "Look, we’re not going to take my lead character’s soul. We’re not going to turn him into what he’s fighting."

Fennessey: You’ve said you want to make three or four more social thrillers along these lines. Does that start now for you, or do you feel like you need to do something different to get some room between the next project?

Peele: Good question. Like I said, these other concepts are things I’ve been working on for a while. Get Out was the first one to reach its maturity.

Fennessey: Did Get Out have to be the first one?

Peele: No, you know, it didn’t. When Get Out, as a story, started coming together, it was a sign to me that "OK, out of all my ideas, this is the one that is reaching its readiness." I sort of buried my head in this movie. Not until it’s come out have I realized, "OK, I think people want to see more of these." And that’s great, I loved doing this and it looks like I’m going to have the opportunity to do more. So, let’s do these other ones.

I will need some time to make sure they’re as good as Get Out. And, no, I’m not trying to take any breaks. As far as my personal passion, writing and directing these social thrillers is going to be it.

Fennessey: That’s great news. Among film fans that I know, we have a new guy. We have a new great American director.

Peele: Wow. You know, that’s like the coolest thing. There’s no monetary dream, nothing that’s as cool as feeling like I’m in the nerdsphere.

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