Friday, January 19, 2018


In February of 2017, Jordan Peele released his feature directorial debut Get Out. While the film’s tagline suggests an altogether straightforward plot - “a young African-American man who visits his Caucasian girlfriend’s family estate” - Peele often describes how he uses his film to “provoke thought and further the conversation on real social issues in a powerful way”. On December 14, 2017, the Writers Guild of America West and the American Cinematheque presented a screening of Get Out as part of their "Groundbreakers: Writers Who Move Hearts and Minds" series. Following the screening, Larry Wilmore (former “Senior Black Correspondent” on The Daily Show and current executive producer on Blackish) led a discussion with Peele at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica.

Larry Wilmore and Jordan Peele photographed at the Aero Theatre by Silvia Schablowksi. 
After a brief story about Peele (and comedy partner Keegan Michael-Key) meeting President Obama, the conversation moved towards Peele’s process when making Get Out. Peele began by describing how he came up with the idea for the story: “It came from a lot of places, but the first thought was: what are the horror movies that only I can write? I didn’t see it becoming what it turned into. The idea was to write my favorite movie that doesn’t exist yet. It’s a crazy - and in this case long - balance and dance between strategy and inspiration and it goes back and forth and sometimes your heart and visions are leading you, and sometimes you have to step back to analyze what you’re doing. There were several parts that felt like huge breakthroughs, the very first idea was the fear of unwanted attention. It started there, with this dream where I was walking through a bank lobby and I turn the corner and suddenly all of the people stop and everyone is looking at me. Like the scene in the movie where Chris goes upstairs, everyone stops and you become the protagonist of the story you didn’t want to be the protagonist of. It’s the record scratch. That was the 'oh shit, it’s about race' moment. One big revelation was: 'let’s explore the premise of [the 1967 film] Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.'”

Peele compared the writing process to coming home after work and watching his favorite movie. He spent five years outlining the film, and it was the pitch that ended up getting the movie made. Before the pitch meeting, he had doubts that the film would ever get produced.
Writer and director Jordan Peele explaining his approach to pitching Get Out.
Photogrph by Silvia Schablowski. 
Once Peele sold the pitch and began working on the script, he focused on tone. Referencing other horror films, Peele described how he didn’t want the tone to be tacky like Snakes on a Plane or overwhelmingly dark and unpleasant like Funny Games. Instead, his goal was to have a similar tone to The Stepford Wives; he wanted Get Out to be as grounded as possible. Even actor Lil Rel Howery’s TSA agent character, Rod, the protagonist’s best friend and the source of most of the comic relief, was entirely fleshed out. Peele found that if he let Howery say the line his own way, he’d get a more grounded line. Peele referred to Rod as “the character missing from horror movies. He’s us.”

Rod’s character in Get Out led to this question: how do you keep an audience from predicting the plot? Rod functions as the audience, he’s constantly pointing out everything strange about the Armitage family. He’s the guy in the audience yelling “get out” at the screen. To keep the audience in doubt over the Armitage’s’ intentions, Peele said he “had to use every trick I could come up with to stop the audience from going there and getting it, and instead make them think “that’s not this movie.” This movie uses the trope of the white savior against the audience. The common perception is that a movie about race needs a white character to "rescue" the black characters in one way or another. So, however much an audience might suspect about Rose (the white girlfriend of the protagonist), you still think the Hollywood rules are that not every white person can be evil.

Sold-out Get Out screening at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. Photograph by Silvia Schablowski

Rose is the embodiment of the “white savior” trope that audiences have come to know and expect. Wilmore referred to her as having “liberal woke,” talking down to the cop and seemingly going against her parents. Peele expressed how he almost messed up her character. In earlier drafts of the script, Chris calls her family out as racist and Rose defends them. When Peele realized that the scene betrayed where the movie was going, he changed it so Rose would keep the audience’s faith by admitting her family is “a little racist." Peele cites Rose as the reason Chris stays as long as he does. Even when Chris starts freaking out and asks for the car keys, Rose appears to be helping him.

Peele was later asked about his own “sunken place” and how it helped develop the plot. In the film, the “sunken place” describes a form of brainwashing where a person’s consciousness is no longer in control of their body. Peele referred to his sunken place as: “the representation of oppression. It’s the system that silences and oppresses black people. In writing this and searching for the villain of the movie, I was confronted with systemic racism, which is the monster in question here. The thing about systemic racism is that it’s not one person or a group of people, it’s a system of collective checkpoints that interact to keep things in this system. It’s the prison industrial system where black people are thrown into darkness and we turn our back on them; it’s the lack of representation in this industry and horror films. It’s connecting the idea of prison and being tossed in this hole with the screen and how you can scream at the screen to get the f- out. A lot of the writing was connecting how getting tossed in a hole and watching the movie both represent voiceless darkness”.

Another subject of conversation focused on the actor who played Chris, Daniel Kaluuya. Peele said that “when I was first casting I was very reluctant to cast a British person in the role, as it’s a movie about being an African American. I told this to Daniel; I voiced I was worried about how he would connect compared to an African American actor. I talked to him and heard how he talked about race. He’s dealt with racism and been wrongfully arrested and felt that awkwardness of being the only black guy. He got it in such a primal way that he assured me it’s not just an American phenomenon.”

Wilmore brought up the film’s alternate ending, asking Peele to describe what was shot and why it didn’t make the final cut. Peele described how originally it was the police, not Rod, that show up in the last scene. Originally, Chris was arrested for murder and sent to jail. Peele said “I wrote this in the Obama era and I felt like we were not talking about race. It felt like a black president muted the conversation about racial violence. This movie was meant to show that when police come in a horror movie and see a black man, it’s a different ending. I wanted a movie that felt true. When I showed it to an audience, it was a different time. People had been dealing with racism more directly, and black and white people both said 'no." That’s when I made the car the TSA car. We still get the value of the original ending, but it quickly becomes a cheer with the reveal.”

Few films this year have accomplished as much as Get Out. Following its screening at the Sundance Film Festival, Get Out has been nominated for numerous awards (including SAG, BAFTA, and Golden Globes), and has been named a top film of the year by the AFI. Jordan Peele has become the first African-American writer/director to make over $100 million from his first film. Critics have compared it to classics like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Stepford Wives. Time magazine’s Stephanie Zacharek writes “Peele succeeds where sometimes even more experienced filmmakers fail: He’s made an agile entertainment whose social and cultural observations are woven so tightly into the fabric that you’re laughing even as you’re thinking, and vice-versa”. In terms of cultural relevance and cinematic auteurship, Peele’s Get Out is a landmark achievement in filmmaking.

More comments from Jordan Peele:
On pitching the film: “So I started with the best pitch strategy, basically saying no one is going to make this and this is my fantasy, and the guy said 'okay, pitch it,' and I did, and they said 'that’s the movie we want to make.'"

On horror films: “What I’ve noticed in horror movies is that terror is the most effective form of horror - using the audience's fear of what’s to come. The end of the movie is typically less scary than the beginning. Blair Witch is intense because the audience’s imagination takes over, and that’s better than whatever you could do."

On whether he was making a film for black audiences: “The answer is yes, but it’s more complicated. I wanted to make something; first of all, I knew there’s a void in the conversation. This is a movie I’ve heard black people want, they’re my target audiences. If black people get this movie, that is what’s most important. It’s about the black experience. But, it was also important to make a movie that everyone in the theatre would get and feel like a black person while watching. I love the way it relates to the premise of the movie. That’s the power of a story that has a protagonist, if a story is well crafted you’re immersing the viewer’s body, like the coagula. That’s why I think films that promote representation and voices promotes empathy. You know how I feel when I walk through the suburbs when you watch this movie.'

On director influences: “I always thought the best movie would be a combo of Kubrick and Spielberg. Obviously, some Hitchcock, some Tarantino influence. Specifically, as a director Tarantino has this unabashed addiction to homage. What brings on my writer’s block is when I hit something that feels derivative. I think it’s got to be original. What Tarantino does is say that all artists are a combo of our favorite shit. If you take all your favorite movie moments and try to make a new movie out of it, it’s really hard. If you look at Tarantino’s work, he’s got moments from specific movies yet he creates something that feels specifically new. No director has changed the game like him. It’s not easy to make a love letter to all your favorite things”.

On Chris as a photographer: “More than just plot device, it was him being an artist. A successful black artist is an archetype I don’t see enough. I wanted him to be investigative, it’s a shout out to Katharine Ross in The Stepford Wives. The psychology is the connection behind him trying to capture these images and freeze time, and his mother’s death”.

On mixing comedy and drama (and horror): “What I wanted was to package f’d up moments in a way that everyone can get behind; it’s what Tarantino does, and it’s what I wanted to do. The ending is a black man killing a white family, and I wanted the audience to cheer. I wanted to subvert everyone’s expectations.”

Stephen Michaels is a playwright and screenwriter from Los Angeles. He is a current student at Chapman University where he studies screenwriting at the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts.