Jordan Peele got his start making us laugh as one half of the comedy duo Key and Peele, but now he’s known for scaring us as the writer, director of the horror films Get Out, Us and Nope. He also hosted and was one of the executive producers of a recent streaming TV reboot of the Twilight Zone. Get Out is a horror film with racial anxiety at its center. With it, Peele became the first African American writer/director whose debut film earned more than $100 million at the box office. Get Out is about a young African American photographer, Chris, played by Daniel Kaluuya, who is dating a white woman, Rose, played by Alison Williams. Rose takes Chris to meet her parents, but she hasn’t told her parents that Chris is black. When they arrive at Rose’s parents’ house, the parents, played by Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener, go out of their way to be friendly and to show how much they appreciate black culture. But there’s something suspicious beneath their genial liberal surface. 

 

Interviewer

Jordan Peele, welcome. Let’s start with a scene from early in the film. Chris and Rose are on the way to her parents’ home in an affluent suburb. She’s driving when their car hits a deer. They pull over and a police officer arrives and asks for ID. I should mention we see Chris the boyfriend, the African American boyfriend, cringing and trying to, like, disappear during that scene. What are some of the things the Allison Williams character did wrong?

Jordan Peele

Well, you know, part of the scene is about the white girlfriend who’s dating her first black boyfriend, getting woke to a certain racial dynamic for the first time. So, part of this, this story is watching her wrestle with the racial implications of all these interactions that she’s never really had to wrestle with before. For Chris or for any African American this sort of situation or other situations that arise later, the experience and the perception of the racial undertones is an everyday experience.

Interviewer

So, you call your new movie a social thriller. Is that your coinage? Social thriller?

Jordan Peele

It is. It is.

Interviewer

I like it. So how did you come up with the idea of a social thriller focused around a young African American man who’s taken by his white girlfriend to meet her parents and things don’t go as planned for anyone?

Jordan Peele

Yeah, the gestation period for this idea was kind of spanned several years. And I think one of the most important milestones in that process was just realizing that every true horror, human horror, American Horror has a horror movie that deals with it and allows us to face that fear. And except race had in a modern sense hadn’t been touched. You know, it really hadn’t been touched, in my opinion, since Night of the Living Dead 50 years ago. Maybe with the film Candy Man, and I just saw a void there. So, it really started with this notion of this has to be possible. Let’s figure it out.

Interviewer

So why the idea of the white girlfriend with the black boyfriend bringing him to her parents?

Jordan Peele

At some point I realized that the movie Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner was really the perfect starting point for this film. I think one of the reasons that film resonated so powerfully is that it’s a universal situation. You take race out of it, we can all relate to the fears of meeting our potential in-laws for the first time and the feelings like we might not be what is expected. So, I just thought it was a great entry point to help make this movie inclusive to help make it something that you don’t have to be African American to emotionally connect to the main character here.

Interviewer

So, in horror films, usually the main character has seen something nefarious or is being hunted by a monster or an alien, but no one believes them, and the main character starts to question his or her own sanity. And that kind of happens in your movie Get Out, but it has all these racial overtones to it. And I think it’s interesting that you’re using this form, this genre, to get at that feeling of uncertainty, of not knowing what someone has just said or done. Actually, has a racist overtone, or maybe you’re overreacting. Maybe you’re projecting something that isn’t fair, you know, because of this constant uncertainty until we really know what the, what the story is.

Jordan Peele

That’s right. 

Interviewer

Have you experienced that a lot? That uncertainty? Like, I don’t know what that person said is? It’s kind of racist, or am I just like projecting that on? I mean, I’ve experienced that as a woman. A lot like that thing that guy just said. Is that really sexist or does he understand what he just said, you know?

Jordan Peele

That’s exactly right. I think we’re wired at this point to look for these interactions and to wonder and to sometimes to call them like we see them. But also, any minority and women, gay people, you know, we’re constantly told we’re not seeing what we are seeing. I’m glad you brought up gender because this thing you’re talking about is also present in the Stepford wives.

Interviewer

I’ve never seen that. Should I see that?

Jordan Peele

Ohh, you should. If you like Get Out you should absolutely see it. It’s one of the most well-crafted social thrillers that there is and in it, much like in Rosemary’s baby with Mia Farrow, the protagonist is in this state you’re talking about where It’s crazy enough that something awful might be going on, but it’s also real enough that something just normal and awful might be going on. And so, what ends up happening is we see that state that you’ve described as being part of being a woman, I describe it as being part of being African American, is being told we’re not seeing what we think we’re seeing. It’s a perfect state for protagonist of a thriller because it helps keep the character in this unfolding dire situation longer because he/she can sort of mentally justify why this might be something that they’re overreacting or going crazy about. So that was another thing I wanted to make a movie that satisfies an audience’s need for a character to be smart.

Interviewer

You’ve said that you knew by the time you were 13 that you wanted to make a horror film. How did you know that?

Jordan Peele

I was a very scared child. Not so much of life, but of the demons that lurked in the dark and horror movies terrified me. I’d love watching them, but then at night, I would just be up and up in sweats all night. At some point, I swear, it was like my mind just shifted in order to cope with these fears. And I sort of became obsessed with this idea of mastering my own fear that if I could do what these, you know, great horror people did, that I would be wielding this power as opposed to being a victim of it. That’s what happened. I just fell in love with horror films.

Interviewer

What’s one of the films that really scared you when you were young?

Jordan Peele

You know one of them that really got me was nightmare on Elm Street. There was something about the way that Freddy operated with so much malice and also the way that those movies, the sequels especially, begin almost being told with Freddie as the main character, it was almost as if we were meant to identify with this monster, more than the teens he was killing and he had this weird dark sense of humor. Something about that really disturbed me to my core.

Interviewer

Were you afraid of his hands that have these like, you know, knife like fingers that you can slash people with?

Jordan Peele

You are so cute. Yes, I was scared of the knife glove. Yes, I was terrified of the knife glove. I was terrified of the idea that you can’t escape him by going to sleep. But, really what’s got me was this sort of urge that you know the movie was trying to make you relate. People would cheer. Freddy killed somebody brutally and then say like, you know, some stupid pun. And I was not on Freddy’s side. I was like, terrified of Freddy. So that was this interesting period in horror where the audience was sort of invited to relate to the monster. This kind of started with this stalker vision idea from the 70’s where the camera would be lurking behind the trees watching some sorority girl taking a shower. And that whole world of things is terrifying to me because it’s asking you to identify with your internal predator or something. It’s very, very disturbing.

Interviewer

You told, I think it was Jason Zimmerman and the New York Times that you’d made a list of your favorite types of scares in movies. Were some of those scares that made it to your list?

Jordan Peele

Well, there is the scare from The Shining where we are turning a corner or entering an area. And these two little girls are waiting for us at the end of the hallway. And there’s also Silence of the Lambs when we meet Hannibal Lecter, arriving at this person who’s been waiting for us. There’s something about that that is just scary. In Get Out there’s a scene where Walter is running through the field at the night straight at Chris, this was inspired by the playing sequence in North by Northwest. There’s this visceral reaction that happens when you’re watching a film, and something is barreling towards the camera. It’s almost like natural instinct from back in the days when there’s a lion coming at us. It’s like, your DNA is telling you just squat and run. Follow the floor, play dead or run or do something. Then there is, of course, one of the big techniques that I use in this film is inspired by things like The Blair Witch Project, which is that terror works almost better than horror. And when I make the distinction, it’s actually Stephen King’s distinction that he noted. I don’t know if it’s his per se, but he noted in one of his books, I think Danse Macabre, where he’s talking about terror is the fear of what’s to come. And I think that is the most important type of fear to use in a horror movie. The audience knows it’s heading somewhere dark. Then you don’t have to overload us with these horrible moments. The audience is doing the work the entire time. The audience’s imagination will do a better, more personalized version of the horror than you can actually paint. So, with something like The Blair Witch Project, which is 89 minutes of people running through the woods and one minute of a guy standing in a corner. On paper it shouldn’t work, but it was so effective.

Interviewer

So, one of the things that you draw on this is the fear of somebody invading your brain, not only getting under your skin, but invading your mind. And that’s been the theme of a lot of horror films. Like Invaders From Mars have. Have you seen that?

Jordan Peele

I haven’t seen that one.

Interviewer

Oh, that’s a great one. I think it’s from the 1950s. Aliens land and transplant these things into people’s heads. And they look like the same person except they look hypnotized and they’re not behaving the same because they’re under the control of these invaders from Mars. But the main character in your movie, the guy, is a smoker. And his girlfriend’s mother offers to hypnotize him and help him stop smoking, because that’s one of the things she does in her therapy practice, and his friend urges him, “Don’t. She might get into your mind.” This figures into the story in a larger way that I won’t describe, but, watching the film, I was really wondering, are you a smoker? Have you tried hypnosis?

Jordan Peele

I used to smoke. I have not tried hypnosis, but it is something that I think is kind of universally scary to people, right? This idea that, oh, my God, what if somebody can probe into my psyche there’s no telling how vulnerable I’ll be and what kind of influence they could have. Albeit this is astereotype, but it’s grounded in reality. Black people have not had the experience with therapy as a whole, that white people have, or at least there’s there is a heightened fear in the black community of this idea of going with psychiatrist. It’s like, no, I’m good. I’m going to go to church, you know. So that was another reason why I thought this sort of mental probing, this whole thing, that Chris would sit down in this chair with Missy, played by Catherine Keener, I could just hear the black people in the audience going: “No, no, no, no, don’t do it. Come on. Get out of that room right now. Get out. Get out. Get out.” You can sort of hear and sort of feel that and Chris himself is appropriately skeptical of the process as well.

Interviewer

So, Roger Ebert had a phrase called the Idiot Plot which you described, that any plot that could be solved instantly if all the characters weren’t idiots. And so, in horror films the Idiot Plot is when the monster’s kind of coming after them and they very, very slowly back away, instead of just running. Or they run right into a corner where they’re definitely going to be locked in as opposed to getting into a car and driving away. And if they just behave rationally, the story would end and they’ll be alive at the end of the movie. Did you try to avoid all the Idiot Plot kind of things when you were writing the film? Like even if you don’t know that expression, did you sense that there are a lot of stupid ways of reacting in some not very good horror films that you wanted to avoid.

Jordan Peele

I did. I did. Yeah, that. That was what one of the things, and especially something that I feel like every horror movie fan is sort of underserved with smart protagonists. Certainly, black horror movie fans have been particularly vocal. I mean, there’s the whole Eddie Murphy routine about black people in horror movie wouldn’t last very long, right? They just walk in here, get out. Too bad we can’t stay, baby. You know that was. That is one of the great routines, so this this movie and one of the reasons that Ira Levin School of writing, saves the big events till the end. He does this great thing where he takes one little step into weird town and then he does the work to how the character is justifying staying. It goes to what we were talking about earlier about the protagonist, questioning their own paranoia versus the reality of what they’re perceiving. So that was one of the reasons I went with a movie of this pace, because if Chris got to the Armitage home in this movie and some huge crazy thing happened, then the movie would have to be over.