When Jordan Peele and his comedy partner, Keegan-Michael Key, announced after five seasons they were ending their sketch comedy series, Key and Peele, a potent era of comedy that wasn’t afraid to get topical ceased. But what would they do next? Key announced he’d continue acting while Peele made plans to make a low-budget horror film with Blumhouse Productions, the company responsible for the Paranormal Activity franchise. Wait, what? Peele was venturing far outside his comfort zone after establishing himself as a brilliant comedic writer and performer.
Blumhouse gave Peele a budget of $4.5 million to make Get Out, which tells the story of black photographer, Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), and his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), who take a weekend trip to meet Rose's parents, neurosurgeon, Dean (Bradley Whitford), and psychiatrist/hypnotherapist, Missy (Catherine Keener). When Chris arrives, he suspects there’s something amiss with the Armitage family and their wealthy inner-circle of white friends.
After premiering at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Get Out received critical acclaim and still holds an enviable 99 per cent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Peele’s film opened to $33 million and the number-one spot at the US box office in February. To-date, Get Out has made $168 million at the American box office, making Peele the first black writer and director to have a debut film surpass $150 million. And the records keep coming; Get Out is now the highest grossing debut film from a writer-director based on an original screenplay (the previous record holder was The Blair Witch Project, which ended its run in 1999 with $140 million). Get Out is also now the second-biggest R-rated horror film of all time sitting behind The Exorcist ($232m including reissues). Oh, and it’s currently the highest-grossing original live-action release of 2017.
Peele is now one of the most sought after directors in Hollywood with rumours circulating that Warner Brothers is courting the filmmaker to helm the blockbuster remake of Katsuhiro Otomo's iconic anime, Akira.
It’s now Australia’s turn (finally!) to get the creeps from Get Out when it’s released on May 4, 2017. Get Out is unnerving and genius on every level with a pulpy edge. Peele reinvigorates horror elements to such a great effect that you’ll swear you’re seeing them for the first time. I spoke with Peele about what inspired the film; how the naysayer attitude toward black filmmakers emboldened him to make the ideas of Get Out more potent; and how he’s approaching the big offers for his next project.
How long has the idea for Get Out sat with you going back to the way you tackled similar issues on Key and Peele?
The sketch for me that started from the most similar place was the Obama/Luther sketch, angry translator. That sketch was meant to address the fact that there were racist things happening in America, but no one was really calling them out because we had a black President. We wanted to give Obama that voice, well, Get Out is meant to address the same neglect of the issue, so that’s where it came from, saying the unspoken.
So one day you’d had enough and started writing Get Out?
Sort of, I started with the desire to become a better writer, and to work on several projects that would be my dream projects if I ever got asked, and Get Out was one of those movies. The first real Eureka moment was realising that I was going to make a horror movie about racism.
There’s a naysayer attitude around films by black filmmakers in Hollywood, people say certain films can’t get made, others say they don’t do well overseas, did that atmosphere inspire you to be bolder with the ideas at play?
I think my lack of faith in the film’s ability to get made in the first place was actually kind of freeing because I was then left to write the movie for me. The primary goal was always to get better as a writer and to maybe have a good script at the end of it, but really to have fun and to exercise my voice. My fears about how the script would be received, and the naysayer climate, allowed me to be bolder.
It has the vibe you were pushing the idea as hard as it could go and I think the film is better for it.
People like knowing that the artist doesn’t give a fuck, but they also like to know the artist does at the same time, so, I wanted to include both my not giving a fuck, and my giving a fuck [laughs].
The film is bookended by acts of physical aggression, but there’s a lot of passive aggression at play in the middle, glances and comments elicit more unease than the more traditional horror elements, how did you thread that needle?
It’s a great observation, and thank you. For me, it was very important that I was making the connection between the more overt violent racism and the more coded passive aggressive racism. They’re parts of the same beast. When it came to portraying what we call ‘micro aggressions’ today, that was a task of presenting those interaction as real and grounded as possible. I don’t know if I’ve seen those interactions and that part of the African-American experience in film.
"For me, it was very important that I was making the connection between the more overt violent racism and the more coded passive aggressive racism. They’re parts of the same beast."
There’s a lived-in quality to it, some of the conversations between the white and black characters feel organic and true to real situations, it doesn’t feel workshopped to hell in a writer’s room.
I’ve lived it long enough, so it’s all second nature [laughs] I know them all [laughs]. It’s very important to me, with this movie, to recognise it’s a very B-movie premise, it’s pretty pulpy, it can play like that very easily, so the way I helped to elevate it was to allow it to feel as real as possible, and to allow the conversations to feel natural. Look at the work of Robert Altman, for example, he had an amazing ability to direct these slice-of-life conversations, and that was definitely the Altman influence on Get Out.
Australia, like America, has a colonial past and a racist past that is still strong today. In Get Out, you make a teacup terrifying: was the choice intentional as a colonial symbol?
That was intentional. First of all, I liked the idea that the character (Keener) is using a silver spoon in the scene, which is a symbol for privilege, but there’s also a connotation for me of clinking a teacup to calling a slave. I do know it was used to call slaves in that way in the same way as a bell.
I want to get to the future for you; you’ve had one of the best-received debut films of the year, both critically and commercially, and new filmmakers of your calibre can get absorbed into franchises or driving adaptations. How do you plan to move forward with choosing between the ‘written and directed by Jordan Peele’ films and the lure of bigger Hollywood productions?
This is the question I’m asking myself right now and I’m dealing with it. Ultimately, I’m going to make the responsible move. I’m going to put myself in a situation where I can work on something I’m in love with. As long as I’m in that state, I know it will work out. I definitely do have original films that I want to make, the scripts for them aren’t done yet, but they will expand on my theory of ‘thrillers that are fun’ and have a social relevance. My next movie, whatever it is, will be different from this movie, but for my next original film it will be in that social thriller category.
Do you feel the pressure? Or is it off, now the debut is out of the way?
There’s always been pressure. I’m ambitious and I like to top myself and that’s going to be a challenge but, ultimately, I have to focus on the fact that I get the best reward of all time – I get to make another movie. I’ll make something I love. Get Out was made because I made my favourite movie that doesn’t exist. So, I will do that again.
The conversation seems to lean toward a thirst for more Jordan Peele movies from the audience.
I consider that the most flattering thing. Whatever I do, I’m going to try to use the trust that I’ve hopefully received with Get Out to do something else bold.
Get Out is now showing around Australia.
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