Last weekend, Jordan Peele delivered the Keynote address at the Film Independent Forum. In an hour long conversation with film critic Elvis Mitchell, the sketch comedian-turned-director talked openly about what he learned during his eight-year journey of conceiving, writing and filming his directorial debut, “Get Out” – the breakout horror film that tackles the issues of race and has become not only one the year’s biggest box-office success stories, but finds itself in the midst of the awards conversation.
Here are five important lessons Peele discovered in the process of making “Get Out.”
Internalizing Hollywood’s Lack of Representation
Peele told the Film Independent audience that he spent five years thinking about the story of “Get Out” before ever committing pen to paper. He knew it was an ambitious project, but he admits he initially constrained himself by assuming his horror movie about race was something that could never get made.
“Every white person in this movie is evil, you can’t make that movie ,” said Peele, who added he came to realize that Hollywood’s lack of racial representation was something that had become a dangerous part of his thinking.
“I internalized this system and the lack of representation in the system,” said Peele. “[I realized] I can’t worry about this movie getting made, I have to worry about writing my favorite movie that doesn’t exist.”
Good Writing = Fun
Without the pressure of worrying about “Get Out” getting made, Peele treated the script outlining and writing like a hobby – something he did for enjoyment rather than watch TV at night. Peele said that one the lesson he learned from his comedy writing background – and was a big portion of the success of his hit Comedy Central show “Key and Peele” – was that when you are having fun writing it leads to good writing.
“That’s my advice with dealing with writers block, follow the fun,” said Peele. “If you aren’t having fun, you are doing it wrong.”
Tapping the Genre Power of Social Thrillers
Peele wanted to make a film that a black audience would accept as true to life, but admitted that one of his biggest fears is that his movie – that takes a hard look at subtle white liberal racism – would be divisive. He was pleasantly surprised when, during the film’s first public screenings, it was clear that mid-way through the movie that both black and white audiences were seeing and experiencing the film through the eyes of his protagonist Chris, played by Daniel Kaluuya.
The hardest part Peele discovered in the writing process was knowing that most black audiences would instantly recognize the threat of the white suburban family and based on their personal experience with racism in America would instantly know that Chris needed to “get out.” The key, according to Peele was to lean into the power of what he calls a “social thriller” genre, which he defines as “a story to explores the horror of society,” where “human beings and the way we interact is the bad guy.”
The template of how to address the problem came from studying the stories of social thrillers “The Stepford Wives” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” which were based on novels written by Ira Levin.
“When I looked at these Ira Levin movies, what he did with his stories is brilliant,” said Peele. “It’s not simple, it’s very nuanced and very detailed. He would have something a little weird happen – taking a step toward the eventually, horrific revelation – but he would justify why the character doesn’t leave. And the way he justified that was the horror of reality.”
What Levin’s stories about trapped women taught Peele was that the actual horror of actual society – not the supernatural or sci-fi aspects of the story – would supply a relatable sense of danger that doesn’t necessarily force someone to flee.
“For Chris, he’s in this place where everyone is looking at him and we the audience are getting the same feeling as he is – that this is some conspiracy, secret society shit going on and I don’t like this,” said Peele, “But the reality of the situation is it’s not far off from a party I’ve been to.”
Subverting Genre Tropes: The White Savior
On the flip side, Peele learned that using genre expectations could also be a powerful tool. In the case of Hollywood movies about race, there’s always a white savior, which is something Peele knew he could use to his advantage.
“The character that is there to say to the white audience member, ‘it’s OK, this is you,’” said Peele. “It’s Brad Pitt in ’12 Years a Slave,’ ‘Don’t worry, not all white people are evil.’ It’s [Kevin] Costner in ‘Hidden Figures’ – ‘that’s me, I’m not one of the racist ones.’”
Peele knew that the audience would see Rose (Allison Williams) as the white savior, and therefore could keep them from seeing she was a threat. The audience, even if suspicious, would think, “a movie wouldn’t do that – you can’t have the last good white person in the movie also be evil.”
This allowed Peele to build to a key moment where the film subverted the audience’s expectation in an incredibly effective and revealing moment late in the film.
Budget Constraints as Creative Juice
“Get Out” was made for less than $5 million, which often meant Peele was being told by his production team that there was something he wanted that they couldn’t afford. Instead of trying to find ways to compensate, Peele would use the setback as a way to force himself to make a stronger creative decisions and improve the movie.
One incredible example: For the film’s party scene, Peele didn’t have enough background extras, so he conceived the movement of the crowd through frame so they were arranged around Chris.
“The choreography of those backgrounds [was] to almost suggest that they are placed, that everything is scripted, and that eerie feeling that something is not right about this party,” said Peele.
The inventive solution was simply resourceful low budget filmmaking that made the scene stronger and more effective.
Watch Peele’s Film Independent conversation below:
Film Independent Forum took place October 20-22nd.