Fall 2017

Cheers for Fears

For first-time director Jordan Peele, laughs and gasps are interchangeable


Director Jordan Peele (Photo: Cullin Tobin/Universal)

In his breakout hit Get Out, director Jordan Peele threw his audience Keyser Söze-sized curveballs and a lead character who might have said, "I see not-quite-dead-people" if he hadn't been trying to avoid zombie-fication himself. But Peele's personal plotline got an unanticipated twist when Donald Trump was elected president: The "wake-up call" he'd been trying to deliver with his movie had largely been made. The audience for which he'd been directing his film was suddenly in another place.

"I was writing the movie under Obama, about what I called the 'post-racial myth,'" he says. Ironically, Peele adds, "I think the climate that influenced this movie also laid the groundwork for Trump's election to be possible."

Get Out ended up being one of the biggest critical and commercial sensations of early 2017, grossing north of $252 million worldwide on a shoestring budget. The film, Peele the director's first feature, stars Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington and Allison Williams as Rose Armitage, who bring Chris home for a weekend in hell with her parents (Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener).

"Horror movies allow us to face our fears together and celebrate them," says Peele. "Without outlets, our fears build up and are released in horrible ways."

It's not exactly the kind of fare that might have been expected from someone best known as half of the comedy duo Key & Peele. The actor-turned-filmmaker is a veteran of standup and sketch comedy, which was essential to the direction of Get Out.

"The real connection," he says, "is that with comedy you have to have a very precise attention to the audience and where they are moment to moment. Certainly, anybody who's done live comedy knows you're chasing the laugh—you're trying to get the whole room to laugh at once, which gives you a very narrow focus. And it either works, or it doesn't."

So throughout Get Out, he was preoccupied with "where the audience's head was at. And the real win is if you can have the entire audience on the exact same page as one another. If you can work that out, it's undeniably engaging, in comedy or film."

Getting there took some choreography of both the script and the performances. "We shot this for $4.5 million, so you don't have the luxury of shooting in order," Peele says. "A lot of the work was reminding the actors, 'Look, the audience knows this much up till this point in the film.' With several of the characters, the ones guarding the secrets of the film, you have to be mindful because one notch one way or the other the whole thing could topple over. That could come from something the actor doesn't realize he or she is doing, or something I don't realize. But when you see it you know."

It was not, he says, the way he imagined he would direct a drama. (Peele has signed a first-look deal with Universal and is planning an as-yet untitled "social thriller.") "This was like walking a tightrope."

Jordan Peele preps actor Daniel Kaluuya for "the sunken place" in Get Out. (Photo: Justin Lubin/Universal Pictures)

Peele says he's learned a great deal from the directors he's worked with as a performer, including Peter Atencio (Key & Peele, Keanu) and David Wain (Wanderlust). He describes Atencio as "calm but in charge," adding that his "demeanor and meticulousness always instilled a great deal of confidence in me as an actor." And he likens Wain's best work to be "like elements an actor found in improvisation and David zoned in on. He's a comedy magnet."

Outside of his own experience, the directors Peele most admires feed into his sensibility. "Certainly, Hitchcock is the big one, Spielberg, Kubrick, John Carpenter. Those are kind of my group." But he also had in mind M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense and Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects, movies that play differently the second and even third time around.

"There's an amazing re-watchability to them," Peele says, "because they've laid the groundwork early in the movie—when the twists happen, they don't come out of the blue. If you're really, really paying attention, you can figure it out. I put my entire comedic brain onto this idea of protecting the reveal, while also planting clues."

The most technically complex task in the filmmaking was creating the "sunken place," the realm of the mind where Chris goes under hypnosis. "I definitely had the support of real master craftspeople to help me achieve it," he says. "A big piece of the puzzle was editing it down; we shot for a whole day with Daniel hanging there, uncomfortably, on wires; we're over-cranking it, so it's super slow-motion, we have fans blowing on him, and [DP] Toby [Oliver] is figuring out where the light has to be so it's shining in that perfect way. So that was probably the most meticulously crafted scene technically."

That some characters can be seen peering into the sunken place through what looks like a TV screen was a key to Peele's message—one of them, anyway.

"Part of the intention was to serve the black horror audience," he says. "A film that represented us. It wasn't a mistake that the sunken place was like this darkened theater, where no matter how much Chris screams at the screen, he can't affect what's going on. That to me is what for many years it was like being in a horror theater in a black neighborhood. You can scream, 'Get out of the house!' as much as you want, but the lead character doesn't hear you."

Peele's affinity for horror runs deep. "Fear is such a primal and powerful emotion," he explains. "I was haunted by horror films as a kid, to the point where I could barely sleep. One day I told a 'ghost story' on a camping trip and it scared the shit out of everybody. The power I felt wielding fear instead of being victim to it was addicting and life-altering."

That audiences would bring their own experiences and perspectives to Get Out was something the director expected.

"Every day someone would come up to me and say, 'Oh, I just got what this is' or 'I see the connection here.' And to be honest, I had a few of those moments during the movie myself. It's really amazing when the film sort of takes over and begins teaching us all what it is. And you have to be sort of open to that, you have to listen to your collaborators. And listen to what the movie itself is telling you."

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