Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw at 10: From Horror to ‘Honk for Jesus,’ an Oral History of Hollywood Disruption

The director and his top executives explain how "Get Out" inspired them to elevate more outside-the-box filmmakers in the genre space. That work has just begun.
Jordan Peele
Jordan Peele
Getty Images

The trio of movies that Jordan Peele has directed over the past decade — “Get Out,” “Us,” and “Nope” — established him as one of the major filmmakers to arrive this century. Evolving beyond the sketch comedy roots of “MADtv” and “Key & Peele,” Peele’s approach to horror uses the genre as a Trojan horse for big ideas about race, class, and the fragile foundations of American society. They also offer an impeccable combination of eeriness and humor that expands their appeal. “Get Out” ultimately grossed $255 million worldwide on a $4.5 million budget, scored Peele a Best Original Screenplay Oscar, and a first-look deal with Universal. The box office and awards success of “Get Out” was a transformative moment for Black cinema in America — as well as genre storytelling with social impact — and Peele did not take it for granted. Even as he kept making his movies, Peele scaled up his production company, Monkeypaw Productions.

Peele launched the company 10 years ago with the help of longtime friends Ian Cooper and Win Rosenfeld. Since then, Monkeypaw has expanded to 28 employees and produced a wide array of successful films and TV. Its projects have ranged from a successful reboot of “Candyman,” which saw director Nia DaCosta become the first Black female director with a number-one box office hit, to Spike Lee’s “BlackKklansman,” which won the filmmaker his first competitive Oscar. The TV projects have ranged from a reboot of “The Twilight Zone” to “Lovecraft County.”

Meanwhile, Peele keeps his writer-director undertakings in check (“Nope” has grossed $171.3 million at the box office this year) and the company welcomes new filmmakers into the fold. After Nikyatu Jusu’s horror movie “Nanny” won the U.S. Dramatic Competition Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Monkeypaw signed on to produce her next project through its Universal deal. Also out of Sundance, the company got behind the satiric mockumentary “Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul.” and set it up with Universal subsidiary Focus.

According to the current team, that’s all just the beginning. In a series of conversations with IndieWire, Peele and his top executives spoke about Monkeypaw’s decade-long journey and what the future could hold for the Hollywood disruptor. This oral history has been edited and condensed for clarity.

JORDAN PEELE, FOUNDER AND CEO: The name “Monkeypaw” came from this Faustian thing where you have to be careful what you wish for. When I came into this industry in 2003, I felt very small on MADtv, because my path was being made by somebody who didn’t share my identity, who didn’t think of me as the protagonist of anything, didn’t think I could be that. I felt in one way like my dreams had come true. In another way, I realized that of course it’s not as simple as that. When your dreams come true, there are nightmares that open up that you didn’t realize were possible. In thinking about where I was and what I wanted out of the future, this sort of horror-comedy principle around being careful what you wish for — that everything that goes around comes around — felt very fitting. Eventually I started the company during “Key & Peele,” to produce that work. But then I made “Get Out,” which had a slightly addictive effect for me.

GET OUT, from left: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, 2017. © Universal Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection
“Get Out”©Universal/courtesy Everett / Everett Collection

DANA GILLS, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT OF DEVELOPMENT AND PRODUCTION: We’re not a company that sits around and waits for people to tell us, “This is the future.” We get to play a role in creating and shaping that. There’s a real intention that goes into every aspect of the process.

PEELE: The feeling for a long time from the industry was that POC films — let’s say Black films, but really any sort of POC film — was a niche project. The presumption was that the audience didn’t want to see films with Black stars — and if you made a Black film, the assumption was that you were doing it for specific reasons just for the Black audience. I was in a position to make a film that transcended that. I put a lot of effort into making a film that would change the game in some way by giving me something I had never seen, something that honored my perspective. I realized there was a ripple effect after that. It felt like I had a bit of a responsibility as the gatekeeper that I’d always sort of sought out to be.

All of a sudden, I started thinking about other movies I’d like see greenlit. It became this question for us at Monkeypaw in those early days: “How do we use this park of magic we have?” One of our first projects was “BlacKkKlansman” with one of the greatest filmmakers.

Laura Harrier, John David Washington in "BlacKkKlansman"
“BlacKkKlansman”Focus Features / Everett Collect

IAN COOPER, CREATIVE DIRECTOR: When “Get Out” came out, we were hoping that the industry would encourage more stories from writers and directors with less exposure than Jordan, stories that come from really specific cultural milieus and personal visions. I do think that Hollywood can make the mistake of just taking the wrong lesson and just saying, “OK, this can be the same thing with a sorta diverse cast. That is a danger that doubles down on the problem in the first place.”

GILLS: We already made “Get Out.” You don’t want to keep making the same film over and over again. But you want to take the feeling of that film and keep going. It felt like it was doing something new. If you take the elements that were at the core of it, that can be your guiding light for finding other things that feel just as daring as “Get Out,” and could be just as misunderstood.

WIN ROSENFELD, PRESIDENT: We don’t just throw something on an assembly line and package it. We really want to engage as protectors of the vision and help with the marketing. We’re looking for opportunities to do things that other companies wouldn’t do.

KEISHA SENTER, VP OF CULTURE AND IMPACT: We’re looking at a very integrated approach to putting artists first. My department was created 2020 off the release of “Candyman,” which was this spiritual sequel to the original. We started thinking about how to approach things differently on that. How could we tap into this core fan base in innovative ways that feed to our core audience while bringing more people into it? Are we entertaining and enlightening our audiences at the same time? What are the different touch points?

COOPER: Each project we do has an ancillary compendium to it in various formats tailored to the needs of each project. On “Us,” we did an “#UsFirst” screening series. We wanted to make sure a diverse range of voices experience the film first. With “Candyman,” since it deals with generational trauma and the horror of being Black in America, we felt it really warranted a discourse around the film that was in a forum. We worked with Keisha to create a panel discussion with mental health professionals to talk about issues of Black mental health.

ROSENFELD: Those resources still exist on online. The movie was an excuse to do something that both helped the movie and spoke to the underlying issues of it.

“Nope”Universal Pictures/screenshot

COOPER: And for “Nope,” which is so different, we got to create a theme park attraction that felt like the immersive experience and the sort of pop grandeur of Jordan’s vision. It was the correct compendium to the movie to make something that felt like it was canonically a part of it, even in a quotational way, so the audience could experience it.

PEELE: The biggest departure with “Nope” from my previous work was a genre departure. I opened up a little bit to the warmth of it. I do believe in the power of horror, but I feel like the way it’s delivered is subject to the time in which it’s made. Not every type of horror works all the time. For me, “Nope” was an experiment in doing horror but maintaining as much of the good warmth of life and aesthetic beauty as I could. It all goes back to this conversation we’re having about expanding what the trappings of genre are and how we can further push them out.

GILLS: With “Nope,” we also had a below-the-line training program. This was the first time that Universal had trainees in different departments getting that onset experience.

SENTER: We work with our development teams to look at innovative approaches to bringing more creators and innovators into the Monkeypaw fold. We’re working with creators across the creative economy. We created a whole fashion brand around “Nope” and created merch that built on the pop culture imagery of the movie. We even worked with Meta to create a VR world.

GILLS: Now we scout for talent in a lot of different places, including the digital art community. Are there people with an interesting eye to tell those stories? We’re reading a lot of plays, books, reading articles, looking on Instagram. We’re really just looking to give people the room and space to tell culturally specific stories that feel that they can be expansive.

SENTER: That is the unique north star that Jordan has already set forth — trying to have our finger on the pulse of culture and where it’s happening — which isn’t only one space here in Hollywood.

WENDELL & WILD - (L-R) Wendell (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key), Kat (voiced by Lyric Ross) and Wild (voiced by Jordan Peele). Cr: Netflix © 2022
“Wendell & Wild”Courtesy of Netflix

PEELE: With “Wendell & Wild,” I didn’t see it as getting Henry Selick to make a movie, since this was a project that came to me before Monkeypaw was together in its current state — before “Get Out” was made. But it confirms something for me. Each film has come about in such a dramatically different way, but this one still applies to the kind of alchemy involved in everything else: All Monkeypaw projects are things that people at Monkeypaw want to watch.

GILLS: Our team is looking for the craziest place to find some new piece of talent. We’re not afraid to build with new people who just haven’t been given the opportunity.

PEELE: There are these amazing Monkeypaw projects in development right now, so I’m helping those the best I can and seeing what’s needed in those.

GILLS: We love sliding into people’s DMs. If you move us, we’re paying attention. One example is Lynae Vanee. We fell in love with her on Instagram, then she hosted a panel we were doing for “Honk.” We also participate in a lot of festivals. There’s a project with a filmmaker we discovered at SXSW and he slid in my DMs; that led to us developing a feature. It happens in a lot of different ways.

PEELE: I’m planning to write my next film, but I’m also getting to see more movies. I went through a large period where I was not watching films and that was a big problem.

COOPER: We’re producing Nikyatu Jusu’s next movie. We’ve been fans of hers for a really long time and have a project we’ve been kicking around for a while. That’s somebody whose short film inspired us. We reached out and found that she’s someone who saw horror the way we did, so it became a very organic relationship.

PEELE: It feels odd to say this, but one of my dreams of being a producer is exploring different avenues of film — to get to this point where there’s a team really doing the work to find a project like “Honk for Jesus” that just shares our DNA. That’s something I’m truly proud about. I have personally directed very little work, but the work I have done puts us in a position where we can really take a film that is kind of game-changing and elevate it by getting it into theaters. We stand up for it.

GILLS: We’re always looking for stories and filmmakers that feel like they’re going to spark conversations. We saw “Honk for Jesus” and it haunted us. It needs room to exist today. That’s the lens we look at any story that comes across our desk. Does this feel like it’s going to shake things up a little bit? Is it a story that will create an organic cultural conversation?

Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul, Regina Hall, Sterling K. Brown
“Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul.”screenshot/Focus Features

ROSENFELD: Universal has been such an incredible creative partner for us. Even if we sometimes encourage projects from different places, it’s always a real good faith dialogue and I think we end up almost in every case on the same page. That’s pretty rare and has a lot to do with the respect that Jordan and Monkeypaw have earned. It feels so easy to embark on another project with them, whether it’s an acquisition or Jordan’s next picture, because they know the spirit of the thing and how we’re going to be pushing it, whether it’s a theme park or a book or a panel.

COOPER: As mischievous as we are, they know we’ll deliver.

PEELE: I want to be iconoclastic. I want to be a badass independent filmmaker. The beauty of the relationship with Universal is that we’re able to really embrace the iconography of monsters with them. Within their studio is this disruptive art form and the majesty of horror. Also, at the end of the day, I’m working in the same place that Spielberg made his Amblin films.

GILLS: The success of films like “Get Out,” “Us,” and “Nope” have definitely awarded us the opportunity to take risks on bold storytelling. Our counterparts at Universal are looking for us to come to them with those stories that feel out of the box but can still break out and be a commercial success. We are interested in continuing to explore acquisitions on that front.

PEELE: I do see limitations to horror, but there are obvious advantages to limitations. There are certain ways that I think the company could be labeled one way in one year and we could try to bust through that box the next year. This is also due to this really turbulent landscape of what entertainment is and what it means. It feels very hard at a certain point to define ourselves with much more than this idea than we have this opportunity to help the things we want to watch get made.

Jordan Peele (center) with the Monkeypaw Productions team

GILLS: The lens for the Monkeypaw formula is expanding, but we will always be a genre company. We want to make sure there’s that genre element leading us forward. However, the way we’re thinking about genre is changing. It started out as horror now we’re looking at sci-fi, comedy, and more. For us it really comes down to the filmmaker.

PEELE: It seems essential to what we do that we keep people guessing about what we’re doing. There is a sense of mystery to the work. There are times where I’ve let things slip and regretted it. There’s a big shift from being a sketch comedy actor who wants to get bigger roles to being somebody who is looking after all these ideas and trying to protect them. It has changed the way I communicate with the world in general.

SENTER: We have some interesting other things we’ll be doing with Universal that we can’t talk about yet.

GILLS: There are other things we’re cooking up to develop more voices.

PEELE: I’ve always looked at the business part of it as intertwined with the artistic part of it because I come from a comedy background. I was trained to think that the bigger the laugh, the greater the gratification — the more I’ve connected with the audience, and done my job. I’m addicted to trying to make something that will connect with as many people as possible. I also need to protect my creative freedom of expression. I need to be able to make stories in the future with a good relationship with my studio. I have that and don’t anticipate that changing, but it propels me to try and make something successful. I might have a really fucking big story to tell someday and I need everyone’s trust. I’m always building towards that possibility.

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