Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” captures and defuses racial tension so effectively that it’s a 2017 box office phenomenon ($253 million worldwide) and now an Oscar contender for Best Picture. The challenge, though, was editorially balancing horror with satire in this nightmare of enslavement for black photographer Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) when his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) takes him home to meet her liberal parents, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener). Think “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” meets “Rosemary’s Baby,” as Peele turns every genre convention on its head.
In fact. editor Gregory Plotkin (producer Jason Blum’s “Paranormal Activity” sequels) partly got the gig because he was on the same geeky wavelength with Peele. The first thing they discussed were using the two above-mentioned movie classics as creative inspiration. “The hard thing to balance with the two tones was knowing when to cut off the humor and when to add more humor, and also when to use every scene as an opportunity to do a reveal,” Plotkin said. “It was delicate not to do those reveals too soon, and to not have them be too over the top. And it was one of those things, instinctively, where I wanted to hold back as much as I could until the very end.”
The Apartment Setup
When Rose and Chris get ready for their trip to meet her parents, his anxiety intensifies when he asks the inevitable question: “Do they know I’m black?” Her teasing reply: “Should they?” But then she puts him at ease. “We wanted to sustain the tension and keep it more thriller than satire,” said Plotkin. “You obviously want to preserve her as being completely trustworthy and never having a clue that she might have any issues at all or might be complicit in this.”
To accomplish this, the editor kept the focus of attention on Rose, letting shots linger along with her responses so it doesn’t appear she has anything to hide. And silences were important too. “Editorially, I didn’t want to cheat the audience: Let’s stay on her, let’s learn to trust her, and let her performance rule the moment,” added Plotkin.
“And then we get into that great two-shot where Chris goes to kiss her and talks about not wanting her parents to come out with a shotgun. She just killed it with her performance. And I carried that philosophy over to the car ride. I let her take control and whenever I thought she was giving away too much, I’d cut to Chris. And the big edict there was make them feel natural, make them feel like they belong together.”
The Sunken Place
Rose’s therapist mother sets a trap for Chris by exposing his darkest secret about the death of his mother, and then hypnotizes him so they can later enslave him inside the body of a white man. Under hypnosis, Chris falls into a black void called “The Sunken Place.”
“It was one of the quicker things to cut, Daniel on wires, floating through space,” said Plotkin. “I thought I understood it on the page. I didn’t, as it turns out. The big idea for me was, as he was slowly falling into a black hole, Missy’s face receding from camera on the TV. It became this allegory, this prison. It was this fun thing being on the Avid and shrinking the frame and shrinking Chris, making him more isolated.”
The director and editor had valuable conversations about the political meaning of the scene, marginalizing Chris, the way black men can feel isolated from mainstream society. “Chris’ emotions were so complex and so wonderful, that it was great to have the camera just pull on him and have the tears form,” Plotkin said. “The one thing I did with the sequence was that I initially cut it without the [tapping of the] teacup. I had the dailies for it, but it was so dirty on stage because of the dialogue, that I asked the sound mixer to go shoot me a wild track. I waited until I got the clean sound. And I put the sound in and never actually cut to the teacup until I needed to accent it.”
The Police Station
Chris’ best friend, Rod (comedian Lil Rel Howery), a TSA officer, steals the movie as a release valve. “He’s the voice of the audience,” said Plotkin. “I wanted to keep him innocent, bumbling a little bit, but it turned out Rod was right the whole time.”
But when Rod tries to explain his black enslavement conspiracy theory to the cops, it backfires when they laugh in his face. “I hadn’t done that much comedy but I laughed my ass off when I cut the sequence,” Plotkin said. “When Rod says, ‘She’s white,’ and we cut to a low angle closeup of the detective [Erika Alexander], asking to hear the rest, it made me laugh and realize that it was the heart of the scene. Between the two of them, the white person is the problem here. And we obviously paid it off with, ‘You’ll never trust white girls.’
“He was so good and the most fun thing was when I heard him do the take of being a TSA agent and, ‘We might know more than y’all sometimes…’ We loved it but we watched it so many times that we didn’t think that people would find it funny. But audiences loved it. They got what it was about instantly.”
A New Ending
But preview audiences didn’t like the original ending in which Chris kills Rose and is sent to prison yet finds inner peace in stopping the secret society of black enslavement. “On the page and the way it was shot, I thought it was poignant,” Plotkin said. “Chris had been broken to the point that he actually kills Rose. And in some ways, justifiably so for what she and her family had done to him. But audiences didn’t want it to end on such a downer.”
So Peele reshot the death scene with Rod coming to Chris’ rescue. “The lights flooding over Chris’ face were very important, I really wanted to play up the moment as much as possible [of what it means in our society for a black man to get caught with a dead white woman],” said Plotkin.
But although the revelation of Rod was funny and cathartic, the director and editor realized that they could milk it even more. So Peele did another reshoot inside the car. This time, it included the immortal line: “I’m T.S… motherfuckin’-A. We handle shit.” And audiences roared with laughter.
“Jordan didn’t sacrifice the message of his film at all, We made it funny but we stayed with character, we still ended on Chris, and let his friendship with Rod carry the day,” Plotkin said.