Jordan Peele’s latest career incarnation could have been fodder for “Key & Peele,” the hit Comedy Central sketch show in which he and Keegan-Michael Key skewered modern racial issues. But Peele had written a horror movie about race, and it needed a director. That created a challenge: After William Crain (“Blacula”), Bill Gunn (“Ganja & Hesse”), and Ernest Dickerson (“Bones,” “The Walking Dead”), how many black horror directors can you name? (The savviest genre fans out there might also remember James Bond III, very much a real person, who directed “Def By Temptation” 27 years ago.)
Needless to say, it was slim pickings. “I first pitched this as a movie no one would make,” Peele said. “About halfway through writing the script, I realized I was the only person who could direct it.”
However, Peele’s feature directing debut, “Get Out,” also brings him into the rarified class of horror directors who edge their scares with cutting social commentary. A black man named Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) follows his new white girlfriend (Alison Williams) to her well-heeled liberal parents’ house, only to discover that they’re part of a bizarre scheme to brainwash young black people and force them into servitude. It’s the kind of wacky high concept at root of countless “Key & Peele” sketches, but Peele had a larger vision.
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“It was a surprise to me even to get paid to write this,” Peele recalled. “Then the switch flipped for me. This is what I love to do, what I’m meant to do.” He had to make it himself.
QC Entertainment’s Sean McKittrick (“Donnie Darko”) originally hired Peele only as the screenwriter. But after discussing it with co-president Ted Hamm, “We couldn’t think of anyone else on the planet who could direct it,” McKittrick said. “It was such a fresh, original voice. Who better to direct it than the person who created that voice?”
In addition to maintaining a careful balance between satire and scares, “Get Out” amplifies what it means to feel out of place in a roomful of white people. “You kind of have to know what it’s like to be a black man in a world you’re being viewed as black before you’re being viewed as human,” Peele said. “For me, that’s a very personal sort of experience.”
They hired him to oversee the project before even reading the first draft. That turned out to be a wise gamble: The movie, co-produced for Universal on a sensible scale by horror factory Blumhouse (“The Purge”), energized audiences at the Sundance Film Festival in January and instantly validated Peele’s ambitions.
A new filmmaking career was born, and it promised to give the horror genre renewed insight into scary times. Peele, who harbored filmmaking aspirations in his teen years before going the comedy route, has found a new calling. “I thought maybe the dream had passed,” he said. “This was a call to arms.”
Learning the Ropes
“Get Out” asks questions not typically found in the average American horror movie, but there isn’t a horror director who’s approached the genre with Peele’s background. The bountiful sketches on “Key & Peele” showcase the creators’ riotous sensibilities as keen social critics, which they combine with their chameleonesque abilities to morph into the targets of their criticism. At one moment, Peele could embody “Meegan,” the whiny, privileged teen who annoyed and offended anyone within shouting distance; at another, he was doing a spot-on Barack Obama impersonation. (Peele famously auditioned for “Saturday Night Live” shortly after the former president’s election; when he didn’t get the part, he pitched a new show with Key, his former MADtv collaborator.)
“The aesthetic of the show was always kind of like we were shooting short films,” Key told me. “Jordan’s such a tactical guy. He said, ‘If we’re smart, we’ll play all these different type of characters in these tiny movies. We can play badasses, crazy people, and flamboyant people, so that every season of our show is an audition tape.’ When I heard he was making a horror movie, it was not a surprise to me.”
The pair flexed their screenwriting muscles in the studio arena last year with “Keanu,” the cat-themed buddy comedy helmed by regular “Key & Peele” director Peter Atencio. While much about the movie successfully translated the racially tinged punchlines of the show into a big-screen romp, that same humor struggled on the national stage and the movie grossed just $20.5 million in wide release.
“Get Out” is a more subtle vessel, smuggling Peele’s sensibilities into a creepy narrative that earns its widely circulated description of “‘The Stepford Wives’ meets ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.'” Peele speaks emphatically about socially conscious thrillers such as Wes Craven’s “The People Under the Stairs” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” both of which are currently screening at Brooklyn’s BAMcinematek as part of a series he curated for his movie’s release.
But he’s also up to speed with newer examples, waxing poetic on “It Follows,” “The Babadook” and the grisly French thriller “Martyrs” with the enthusiasm of a diehard fan. While “Get Out” is an audacious assault on the subtle racism of affluent white liberal elites, it also has the polish of a movie that fits into the genre it uses to make its point.
“You boil down your influences to a soup and it all informs you,” Peele said. “So once I knew what this movie was about, it was just about delivering on that.” For years, Peele had kept his passion for psychological horror among friends; Key got an earful. When he was acting in the 2013 horror satire “Hell Baby,” he recommended that McKittrick, a producer on the project, meet with Peele. “You gotta sit down with Jordan,” Key told him. “He’s obsessed.”
When McKittrick met with Peele, “I just freaked out over the idea,” McKittrick recalled. “I’d never seen this film before. To hear him pitch the story and know that this brilliant satire would always lie underneath the classic horror structure — there was no question in my mind about it.”
Viewers well versed in “Key & Peele” may not realize it, but off-camera Peele has the restrained temperament of a serious director — and the awkward, sensitive demeanor of an artist lost in thought. Key recalled that his partner would often dig into the dynamics of their sketches with a measured approach. “I would watch him solve problems on set and I just knew he was going to be a director,” Key said. “He’d be scratching his head, playing with his beard. I’d watch the cogs turning in his brain and think, ‘He’s directing right now.'”
At its core, “Key & Peele” uses genre to skewer American culture. In “Flicker,” the pair play coworkers who keep pranking each other beyond the grave, and the absurdity unfolds within classical suspense tropes. “Mexican Standoff” shows their proficiency with the action genre. “Family Matters” anticipates the “Get Out” premise by pitting Peele as Regionald VelJohnson against Key as a brainwashed network executive in a battle over whether Steve Urkel deserves to hog the sitcom spotlight; the bit ends with Key putting a gun to his head, at the behest of a mind-controlling Jaleel White.
In other installments, the pair have fought zombies and aliens, reimagined Obama’s hard-partying college days, and explored the challenges of explaining gay marriage to conservative-minded relatives. Joke by joke, “Key & Peele” constructed a scathing template for exploring modern times, something that’s echoed by “Get Out.”
“Tonally, the movie walks a razor’s edge,” Peele said. “Every scene really depends on the scene before it to have really clear intentions.”
Directing brought an expanded arena of technical challenges that Peele had never faced, so he reached out to directors whose work he admired. One was Edgar Wright, whose wry alien invasion comedy “World’s End” was among Peele’s recent favorites. He peppered the director with questions about the movie’s big fight scene, in which the cast battles five android teenagers in the confines of a bathroom. Wright gave him the basics on storyboards, animatics, and stunts, but Peele later came back asking for more details, and in the process bonded with the director.
“I think what he actually said was, ‘Elaborate, motherfucker,'” Wright recalled. “I didn’t know until we became friends how big a horror fan he was. We found quick ground over being horror geeks. Straight genre films that deal with race are few and far between, so the thought of him making his debut was exciting.”
Peele was still polishing the script when he mentioned the project in an interview with Playboy. “It deals with a protagonist I don’t see in horror movies,” he said. That caught the eye of Blumhouse’s Jason Blum, whose tight-knit operation excelled at finding unorthodox material such “The Purge” and “Paranormal Activity” to shake up genre expectations — but had yet to hire any African-American filmmakers.
“I loved that it was about more than scares,” Blum said, adding that he had no issue with Peele’s lack of experience. “I’d take a comedy director over an action director or any other genre, because they know the timing of a joke and the timing of a scare can have the same intention.”
A Tricky Balance
Conceived in the Obama era, “Get Out” hits theaters with even greater resonance now. At one point, Chris finds himself face-to-face with a well-spoken art collector eager to treat Chris as his new pet. In extreme closeup, Chris asks, “Why us? Why … black people?” It’s a frightening moment that pushes beyond the ludicrous context to get real.
This movie was intended to call out racism in what many people were calling a post-racial era,” Peele said. “People didn’t want to talk about race. Now, it’s an undeniable part of the discussion again.”
In the writing process, Peele was clear about the subjects of his satire. “It had to walk that line of racial commentary that didn’t demonize anybody,” McKittrick said. “That’s why we didn’t make the family stereotypical — Southern, white, bigoted racists. It was very important to Jordan that he get beneath the surface of how racism exists today.”
The changing climate informed their production, including a chilling opening sequence that has undercurrents of the Trayvon Martin shooting, and a recurring line in which a white character grandly proclaims that he “would’ve voted for Obama for a third time.” The film clearly suggests that even an educated, enlightened white America harbors deep-seated biases that contribute to our national identity crisis.
Not since the black survivor of a zombie attack took a bullet to the head from paranoid cops at the end of “Night of the Living Dead” has a genre movie taken such a blatant approach to race relations in America. Yet “Get Out” delivers its commentary on the wings of well-timed jump scares, eerie dream sequences, and unnerving monologues delivered by people with dubious intentions. “My message to Jordan was just to make the film fun and scary,” Blum said. “Worry about the message second. You want people to see it.” But, he added, “it would be pretty hard to do any version of that movie without the message coming through.”
If Peele gets his way, it won’t be the last one, either. The comedian-turned-filmmaker said he had “at least four other films I want to make in the social-realist category” (although none of them will be a “Get Out” sequel). Many earlier projects developed with Key have been moved to the back burner, including a project with Judd Apatow and a feature-length adaptation of their “Substitute Teacher” sketch.
READ MORE: Key and Peele Unveil Final Obama Anger Translator Sketch for The Daily Show — WatchPeele has found his second act at a critical moment of artistic renaissance for mainstream African-American storytelling, from “Moonlight” to “Atlanta.” “I feel very fortunate to be making art at this time where you see very elevated work by African-American creators being given platforms,” he said. “Now that the black experience isn’t viewed as box-office death, people are catching up to untapped auteurs.”
Which is not to say that he wants to be pigeonholed by one subject. “My next movie won’t be about race,” he said. “I can tell you that. I’m working on identifying these social demons. Each of my movies will deal with another one.”
McKittrick is waiting by the phone. “Let’s put it this way,” he said. “We will do anything Jordan wants to do.”