Jordan Peele's standout horror-comedy is both a social parable and an homage to both genres.
Jordan Peele’s face has become such a comedic mainstay that audiences anticipate hilarity and laugh at the mere sight of him. But now that his directorial debut, Get Out, is about to be released, fans may have to look twice—Peele has the intensity of a veteran director.
Best known for Key and Peele, Comedy Central’s wildly popular sketch series, Jordan Peele wrote and performed with longtime collaborator Keegan-Michael Key for five stellar seasons. (The pair were together on Fox’s MadTV for several seasons before that.) Peele took his first dive into long-form storytelling with the feature comedy Keanu, released this past year, which he co-wrote. Now, with the debut of Get Out, he takes the stand as director for the first time.
Peele’s debut directing effort is a horror film with racism at the core of its scares. Critics and audiences have praised the film’s originality, especially in the context of a genre that often trips over clichés and falls flat. Is it funny? Yes. Is it scary? Yes. Is it totally unexpected? That, too.
"This is true for both horror and comedy: if they work, its because there’s some kind of social truth."
Casual fans of Key & Peele may be confused by this transition from comedy to horror. But this film hasn’t come out of nowhere; in fact, many of the sketches under Peele’s belt are specific, hilarious horror movie parodies. He teases the genre with the affection and familiarity only achievable by a true genre aficionado.
"Horror has always been my truest passion," Peele confirmed when he sat down with NFS prior to the film's premiere with his two lead actors, Daniel Kaluuya (Sicario) and Allison Williams (Girls). Here’s their story, plus plenty of useful advice.
Lean on the classics
Peele loves movies. Even his film's title, Peele revealed, is a nod to loyal horror movie fans: a futile cry often shouted at the screen by riled-up moviegoers. "Get out!" Peele roared, in his best impersonation.
He also cited numerous references that contributed to his vision: "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) meets The Stepford Wives (1975) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Those last two are brilliant: they’re both about gender, and they’re really interesting mysteries."
In general, Peele urges other horror filmmakers to look to the classics. "It’s a great way to learn how to reinvent modern ideas," he explained. "Stylistically, Get Out is a throwback to the '60s, one of my favorite times for film. They really knew how to wind tension tighter and tighter."
Peele’s directing success can at least partly be attributed to his unabashed fanboy past. But he is also disarmingly modest: to achieve biting satire on such an ambitious level requires mastery of the craft and a strong sense of storytelling. Peele clearly has both.
"You have to stay open because the best idea is sometimes the last thing that happens."
"I've had the comfort of being on TV for so long [Girls], I’ve been able to wait around for the right thing to come along," Williams said. "And Jordan’s script was the one. Extremely risky, potentially rewarding...and a guaranteed conversation-starter."
Kaluuya agreed. "I say no a lot to scripts, but this spoke to me."
Make your movies socially relevant
According to early reviews, this is where Peele’s film succeeds: by infusing Get Out with socially relevant issues, he has reinvented and refreshed the horror film genre.
Even the first hint of tension is racially charged. Chris (Kaluuya) is black; his girlfriend, Rose (Williams), is white. The film tells the story of his introduction to her family. Then, as paranoia creeps in, it’s up to Chris—and the viewer—to discern whether or not something is really "off."
For Peele and Kaluuya, this backdrop of fear mirrors the black experience: the uneasy questions, the constant self-doubt, the tendency to double-think. ("Am I just being sensitive, or is something malignant going on here?")
"This is the African American experience though the lens of a horror film," Peele explained. "When I first Skyped with Daniel, who’s British, we had a really enlightening conversation because we realized that race is everywhere. It’s a worldwide phenomenon, a human problem. Daniel related to many of the same issues."
"Jordan directed by telling us what he wanted the audience to say out loud or be thinking at that moment."
Thanks to Peele and his cast, the portrayal is subtle. "In the film," Peele continued, "everybody’s trying to connect with [Chris] in terms of his blackness. It’s those little subtle moments that any member of color or any minority will recognize. White people will recognize it, too. It happens. It’s not a hateful side of racism, but it is a reminder that race is always going to be there. It’s always something that invades the way we interact with each other."
For Peele, the horror genre is an ideal platform for the exploration of social themes. "I do think that when any horror movie hits its stride, really resonates....it’s because it’s playing to some real fear in the zeitgeist," he said. "That’s how the torture-porn genre became big in the post 9/11 era [Saw, Hostel, The Human Centipede.] That was us exorcising this demon within us—we were out for blood. This is true for both horror and comedy: if they work, its because there’s some kind of social truth."
As for the social truth in Get Out, Peele compared his first feature to a well-known Key and Peele episode. "Get Out comes from the same place where we wrote the ‘Obama Anger Translator sketch," he said. "We felt that Obama had to hold his tongue, couldn’t seem like the angry black man we all wanted him to be....so we translated for him. Similarly, film translates how we are not in a post-race world. We're still hyper-focused on race. Obama can’t actually say what he wants to talk about with clarity. In the same way, we left things out of the movie that we tried to conjure up thematically: elements of Trayvon or Black Lives Matter, without actually saying those words."
Get Out isn’t the first horror movie to tackle racism. Night of the Living Dead is another well-known example: the black protagonist fends off hordes of white zombies until he is ultimately shot by law enforcement. Today, despite director George Romero’s insistence that he never intended to make a film about race, Night is considered a classic race parable. In Peele’s mind, there’s an obvious parallel. The only difference is that in Get Out, the social parable is intentional.
"It's a great starting point for conversation," said Peele. "Like, 'Does that really happen?' Yep, it does."
Suddenly, Peele was stopped short by an approaching siren. Jolting upright, he deadpanned: "Are they comin’ for me? Are they comin’ for me?"
Write for your audience
For a natural entertainer like Peele, the audience comes first. "It’s an audience film," he said. "It’s so fun to watch people watch it."
"I’ve seen it five times now in a theater," Williams said. "I’ll never get over listening to and watching audiences react to this movie. They get it." She credits Peele for that. "A lot of how Jordan directed the movie was that he would tell us what he wanted the audience to say out loud or be thinking at that moment."
"I want people to feel this movie," said Peele. "I want them to feel what the African American perspective feels like, which includes fear in a white suburban neighborhood. Insecurity and apprehension about losing touch with your black side. I wanted this to be a movie that you talk about for the next couple days."
Always work in comedy
"One of the beauties of the horror genre is it has a lot of connections to comedy," Peele explained. "There are a lot of things in Get Out that aren’t played as jokes or parody, but they get really hearty laughs. It's such a tense movie, in terms of what the guys are going through, so we made sure that there were plenty of little release valves."
One of these releases is the hilarious character of Rod, Chris’s friend and confidante, played by LilRel Howery. Peele described him as "the guy who says everything you’ve always wanted somebody to say in a horror movie, but no one’s saying it. He’s the guy who’s like, ‘GET OUT, CHRIS!'"
Throw in some improv
A lot of Peele’s instincts track back to improv.
Kaluuya compared his director’s approach to the British indie filmmaker Shane Meadows (This is England), known for his improvisational style. "Jordan really encouraged us, if it’s not feeling right, do something else," said Kaluuya. "Just make this as natural as possible, so it all resonates more."
Williams agreed. "We improvised a bunch. Even if we didn’t use it, it helped us loosen up and get into a scene."
According to Peele, however, his first experience in the director’s chair was the opposite of loose. "It was rigorous," he said. "I'm an actor too." For him, directing fellow actors meant extra work. "It was the hardest part of making the film—and also the most rewarding. I know what it feels like to act, it’s a very difficult and draining experience. So as a director, I wanted to give every actor their own custom-made 'dream process.' Everybody has a different approach. I wanted them to be able to work in a way that would work best for them."
How did Peele learn his approach to directing? Part of it came from his improv days creating off-the-cuff comedy sketches. He also cited Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford as mentors. The veteran actors helped teach him about directing. "They taught me how to develop characters into really charismatic villains," said Peele. "Sinister, but incredibly likable. A lot like Kathy Bates’ Oscar-winning performance in Misery."
Always plan for rewrites
Another sketch comedy takeaway was the importance of rewrites.
"I’m always rewriting," Peele laughed. "If you have your rules and guidelines in place, things can shift, as long as they don’t corrupt that concrete vision. A lot of what we did on Key and Peele was rewrite our lines to make them feel more natural, right down to the moment of shooting. And we did that with Get Out, too."
Peele credited his actors with helping achieve that natural feeling. "That involved a lot of back and forth with the cast," he continued. "They really helped me hone the characters and the script. You have to stay open because the best idea is sometimes the last thing that happens."
According to Kaluuya and Williams, Peele never stopped writing and rewriting, even on the last day of production. At one point, Williams had to trick Peele into coming on set to help her "feel more comfortable in an intimate scene," in order to throw him a surprise birthday party. Williams shook her head. "He was so focused on rewrites, we had to make a work excuse to get him there."
Believe your movie can get made
Peele is still surprised that his film exists.
"I’m so humbled by this whole thing," Peele said. "This is a movie I thought would never get made. If this kind of story goes wrong, it goes really wrong. It was a big risk on the part of Universal and Blumhouse to give my perspective a platform."
"Not only do black people not get the chance to put their perspective [on] film, but we also haven’t been encouraged to dream towards that."
"I just hope that this film inspires others who don’t think their films can get made," he continued. "The fact that I didn’t think this movie was possible is part of the issue. Not only do black people not get the chance to put their perspective [on] film, but we also haven’t been encouraged to dream towards that. Representation doesn’t seem like a possible reality. There’s mythology in the industry that black movie stars don’t travel overseas, and that’s bullshit. The problem is, we haven’t nurtured the voices."
For a comedian, Peele’s worldview is brighter than most. He’s a realist, but he hasn’t lost hope. "Ever since Straight Outta Compton came out and really broke a lot of monetary boundaries that existed, I feel like we’re in the beginning of a renaissance of many untapped voices doing really elevated work," he said. "It feels like a response to years and years of marginalization."