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Keegan-Michael Key On Why Less Money Means Smarter Movies, and Why the Whole Country Needs Anger Translators — SXSW 2017

Acting in both Joe Swanberg's "Win It All" and Shane Black's upcoming "The Predator," the former "Key & Peele" star reflects on his changing relationship to filmmaking and how comedy has shifted in the age of Trump.

keegan michael keey

Keegan-Michael Key

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As half the duo who created the now-defunct comedy series “Key & Peele,” Keegan-Michael Key knows a lot about being funny. Perhaps just as notably, neither he nor longtime collaborator Jordan Peele will let themselves be defined by it.

While the pair co-wrote and starred in last year’s missing-cat romp “Keanu,” their more recent work shows considerable effort to work outside the confines of comedy. Peele recently made his directorial debut with the wildly successful racially themed horror film “Get Out,” and Key has cast a wide net with his acting gigs. Last year, he had a major role in Mike Birbiglia’s ensemble piece about an improv troupe, “Don’t Think Twice,” and he’s currently shooting Shane Black’s big-budget reboot “The Predator.” This month, he’ll surface in “Win It All,” Joe Swanberg’s latest effort, which is produced by Netflix and will premiere at the SXSW Film Festival ahead of launching on the platform on April 7.

Ahead of the March 11 “Win It All” premiere, Key talked with IndieWire about a wide range of topics, including his interest in lower-budget projects and how comedy has been impacted by the age of Trump.

For both you and Jordan, moving beyond the show, you’ve really focused on smaller projects. Even though “Keanu” was a studio movie, you’re putting a lot of time into lower-budget movies made outside of the studio system, like “Don’t Think Twice” and Joe Swanberg’s “Win It All.” “Get Out” was a Blumhouse project. What sort of contrasts do you see between those kind of efforts and your experience in the TV arena?

One of the greatest enemies of filmmaking, period — not to be too dramatic — is largesse. Why is “Jaws” a classic? Because the fucking shark broke. They paid money for the shark and the motherfucking shark broke. [laughs] It was broken. That’s why the beginning of that movie is so terrifying and ominous to us. We’re as helpless as the girl, because she’s being attacked by an unknown assailant. That wasn’t Spielberg’s plan! He wanted to use this fancy shark! And he ends up making one of the greatest classics of American cinema because his shark didn’t work. On “Don’t Think Twice,” Mike Birbiglia said, “I don’t have any money. Necessity is the mother of invention. I’m going to invent an idea in my mind, and that idea is, we’re going to rehearse for two and a half weeks before we shoot a frame of this movie. That way, my actors are already at a 10, and when I get my crew from seven up to a 10, I never have to worry about my actors.” Now that helps the actor creatively discover new things.

Don't Think Twice movie

“Don’t Think Twice”

The Film Arcade

I’m working with Shane Black right now on “The Predator.” The other day he used this really amazing metaphor. He’s very dialogue-heavy. An actor eats that like steak, you know what I mean? So that’s why I want to make a movie with Shane Black, because he made “Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang.” So he opens up a box and says, inside that box is another box and another box. There are all these tiny little boxes and once we discover them, we can put them back together, put them in the big box, and that box is the scene. But if we don’t explore those boxes, what happens is that we’re exploring them on the day.

So you don’t waste time on set.

That’s why movies go over budget. We never did any of this artistic exploration prior to the day of shooting. So what I make of that is that largesse ends up being the enemy. It’s too much money. Wouldn’t you be interested in seeing an “Avengers” movie that only cost $10 million but it was the script Joss Whedon wrote? I want to see that movie. If Joss Whedon can write a script and direct “Avengers,” and Joss Whedon can also make a version of “Much Ado About Nothing” in his home — they’re vastly different films, but I’m interested in both of them. I’d love to see what his treatment would be for “Avengers” if it was an indie. I want to see that movie! I want to see your invention, your creative problem-solving.

So I wish studios would say, across the board for a year — and this is never going to happen — every feature we make, no matter how long or big the script is, everybody gets $20 million. That’s it. That’s all you get. $20 million for your principal photography budget. Right there, that’s still $10 million more than the most expensive indie you’re going to see. But we get bogged down.

You see a lot of smaller production companies finding results by not overspending — like Blumhouse, which produced Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” They know it’s not going to be a failure because they didn’t spend too much movie — I mean, money — on it in the first place.

They do spend too much movie on it! They spend too much movie on a movie. To me, a movie is a story unraveling before my eyes. Sometimes, I think the studio system gets caught in metrics. There’s no metric for good storytelling. I will put Aristotle up against metrics any day.

READ MORE: ‘Friends from College’: Keegan-Michael Key, Cobie Smulders to Star in Netflix Series from Nick Stoller

Of course, studios are also concerned with getting name actors.

“Slapshot,” with Paul Newman, is a movie that’s very dear to me. Paul Newman is the one A-list actor they’ve got in that movie, but it’s special for a lot of other reasons aside from Paul Newman. It’s all the guys you never saw again in another movie — namely, the Hanson brothers. They make that movie. Three extremely unattractive guys, who were very nerdy and weird, in not-great shape, but they’re unbelievable characters. You crave to see them again. They made two more movies their whole lives, and one of them was “Slapshot 2.”

You cast the right person to help enhance your story and give it a certain amount of dynamic clarity. Then you’re cooking with gas — and that doesn’t take $180 million. If you had a really kickass story, and $180 million, and all you were doing with that money was honoring your prints and advertising and other ancillary stuff around the filmmaking, that would be different. But you’ve seen good movies made from good stories that had barely any publicity budget and they make a lot of money.

Doing a movie with Joe Swanberg must have been mind blowing for you, since he spends next to nothing on his projects.

I’m sitting there one day waiting while they shot some B-roll of Jake Johnson, and I just heard this interesting sound I hadn’t heard in quite some time — a whirring sound. Someone said, “Cut,” and I looked over at the DP and said, “Did I just hear film in that camera?” There’s this sensibility where the only thing we spent money on was film, but film makes the performance more focused, because I don’t want to waste it. So there’s something about the grittiness of having nothing but the story to go on, so we have to honor the story. We have to. We have no choice.

What else have you gleaned from working with filmmakers on a smaller scale?

I’ve been very, very fortunate to be involved with the auteurs I’ve been able to be involved with. To be able to make “Afternoon Delight” with Jill Soloway, to be able to be in Birbiglia’s sophomore effort “Don’t Think Twice,” to be able to do “Win It All.” Both Swanberg and Soloway are very interesting figures because Jill never had made a film before when we did “Afternoon Delight.” Swanberg’s a different story. He sat down with me one day over beers and said, “At the end of the day, I still want people to see my movies. So I think I’ve gotta put a little more plot in my movies.” I was like, “Just so you know, we’re having a great time, but if that’s what’s important to you … yeah, it sounds like a really good idea to me.” Aristotle would approve of you telling a story with a plot structure. It was really nice to be able to involved in the flash point of that discovery in his creative process.

Speaking of the creative process, what do you make of this moment in American comedy? A lot of people in the business of laughter seem to be having a hard time finding punchlines in the age of Trump.

Right, people feel like they’re in a position now where they can’t make frivolous comedy. I think you’ll find that there’s probably still quite a large number of people who work with that fear by making escapist entertainment. If you think of all the fantastic movie musicals that were made in the ’30s, in the midst of the depression, they made all these happy movies because people wanted to escape. So I think there’s still a section of the industry that’s going to want to make escapism.

But I also think that it’s just going to be tough for a while, by which I mean we have to work harder. [laughs] We can’t just be silly. We have to work harder because we have an application. The visual metaphors, and the visual language, that people are going to be consuming will get inside of them — in a positive way, hopefully, and also in a socially conscious way. When storytelling is effective, people will put into your entertainment what they’re thinking and feeling, which is subtle.

And how does that impact what you do?

The struggle I have myself is, should we be pushing as hard as possible? And, if so — if we do that — are we simply preaching to a choir? Or do we try to find a subversive way to change minds and hearts? So I’m thinking about how to do that. That’s the challenge for a lot of comedians right now. I explored it a bit when I hosted the NFL Honors Ceremony. We’re not going to ignore the elephant in the room, but can we be elegant and state something that’s virtually empirical — in a humorous way — so that even the person who you’re lampooning goes, “Hmm, that might be true.” That would be the ideal, wouldn’t it?

Did it work?

I don’t know, because I don’t know that anybody who came up to me and said I did a good job was somebody who was being changed. They’re not going to admit that. It’s very hard. The biggest obstacle for every one of us — all seven billion of us — is that we all have ego. There’s like six adults on this planet who don’t have an ego. The rest of us don’t want to admit we’re wrong. So I have no idea if it was effective or not.

We could all use an anger translator right now.

It’s almost like Luther has to just be there for the rest of the country, because everything else is surreal. Don’t you walk around every day feeling like you’re in a dream? It’s like we’re in a dream! It can’t be true, what’s happening … if I wrote this movie, you wouldn’t buy it. The thing that always emboldens me is the people who protest, who make an effort. I felt a sense of accomplishment when I spoke at the Women’s March in Los Angeles. It’s like everybody is becoming their own anger translator. That’s my hope — that all of us, collectively, get together as a nation and go, nah, we’re not doing this, buddy. You’ve gotta go.

Crowdsource the sketch, basically.

Exactly. [laughs] That’s a perfect way of saying it. Because that’s what we need. I think someone’s got to make a film or a show like that. Maybe I’m working on these things now. Who knows? There’s lots of things I’ve got in development right now. But it has to speak to those people who think they’re did the right thing for themselves by standing up and saying we needed something different. I completely agree. We need something different. But you chose hastily, and that is probably the most diplomatic way I can put it.

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