It was a screening I won’t soon forget.
Rumors had been swirling through the thin mountain air: Get Out, a racial horror movie by first-time filmmaker Jordan Peele, would be the “surprise midnight screening” of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. In recent years, the surprise midnighters—Eddie the Eagle, Jupiter Ascending, etc.—were head-scratchers, but this would be different. Its trailer debut elicited shock and awe, and its premise, about a young black man (Daniel Kaluuya) who becomes increasingly aware that all is, in the immortal words of Marsellus Wallace, pretty damn far from OK when his white girlfriend (Allison Williams) takes him to visit her “liberal” parents for the weekend, made for the perfect respite from a torrent of sobering indies.
And boy, did it deliver. As Kaluuya’s Chris delves deeper and deeper into the mystery of this segregated suburbia, navigating spooky servants, discomfiting soirees, and hypnosis, the film broadens beyond mere thrills into something extraordinary. When the lights went up, the audience, including my seatmate Patton Oswalt, erupted in applause. What a deliciously satisfying—and surprising—change of pace from one of the comedy gurus behind Key & Peele.
The Daily Beast spoke to Peele about his soon-to-be hit and the chaotic climate its being released into.
You opened the Q&A portion of the Sundance premiere by sharing that the idea for this came to you during the 2008 presidential primary race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. What about that matchup inspired Get Out?
I was at a point where I was asking myself, “What is the real horror that I can discuss with my horror movie?” I feel like all classic horror movies have a very true horror behind them, and the thought of doing a racial horror movie came up but I really doubted whether or not it was possible. When Hillary and Obama were competing for the Democratic nomination, there were a lot of questions raised about gender civil rights and racial civil rights, and almost a pitting against one another of the two different causes. I began to look at those two issues as being parallel issues, and two of my favorite movies are Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives. The way that those movies deal with gender and are ultimately about men making decisions for women’s bodies—and address justified fears from the women’s lib movement—was a signal to me that you can also do a movie about race using the same model.
It’s interesting how film projects tend to be ahead of the zeitgeist. Though you’ve been developing this movie for almost nine years, it does seem more relevant now than it was even, say, a year ago.
To the issue of relevance, I can’t be sure. The movie was meant to come out at a time when we were in this “post-racial America”—this post-racial lie, as I call it, right? The whole idea was you’re not supposed to talk about race, and we’ve got a black president so race didn’t exist anymore, right? This movie was meant to point out how many of us know we’re not done with race. Cut to now, and over the past couple of years, the way we talk about race has evolved into a somewhat more tense but at least present conversation. I don’t know that the movie is more “relevant,” but I do think that the world right now is more ready for it.
Your star Bradley Whitford said Get Out was a commentary on “unconscious, white liberal racism.” It reminded me of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? in that respect—the idea that rich white liberals are not as liberal as they think they are.
I think that movie succeeds on many levels. One of them is that it points out the juxtaposition of the white liberal parents who proclaim that they’re open-minded. The first little twist to that I pull was, when he first arrives to the parents’ home in Get Out, they don’t flinch. You can see in Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn’s faces, when they first see [Sidney Poitier], everything. Here, there’s zero conscious acknowledgment of anything being wrong, and there was something about that, to me, that felt creepy and unnatural. As a lot of people know, we’re not quite at that point where, if someone who’s never brought home somebody of a difference race to their house doesn’t give a forewarning, I think there are few households where there wouldn’t be a little hiccup of some sort, or a little readjustment.
Psychology plays a very interesting role in Get Out, primarily in the way Catherine Keener’s character manipulates Daniel’s character and drags him deeper and deeper into the abyss.
Well, I wanted to make the character of Chris honor many commonalities of the black experience. Call them “stereotypes” or call them “trends,” but one observation I’ve made about African-American culture is there are fears and a slowness to embrace the idea of therapy. Black people, we tend to find answers in religion, and I don’t think—as a whole—we’ve been encouraged to embrace the idea of therapy. Some of that is with good reason, though. The fear of somebody fucking around in your head is frightening. It’s a huge generalization, but I felt that the African-American audience who I want to relate to the protagonist here—I want everyone to relate to the protagonist, but I felt like a black horror audience would really respond to the fear of someone meddling in your psyche.
The psychological manipulation aspect was one element of the film that appears timelier today than it did a year or two ago with the way our current president has attempted to meddle with the psyche of the American public. He tends to play strange little mind games when it comes to the things that he does, e.g. trying to convince people that he didn’t do or say things that he clearly did in order to have their reality conform to his.
Yeah. Real textbook manipulations. These are manipulations that we’ve seen work before to very disastrous consequences—the manipulation of fear, the gaslighting, and, quite frankly, the bold-faced lying. At the center of this movie is the fear that someone is pulling the wool over your eyes, and the question is: How deep does the pit go? How bad is it? But you’re absolutely right with the projection. I noticed that, too. Sometimes, when Trump brings something up out of thin air, it really makes me question him. There was one point where, out of nowhere, he said, “I want to take a drug test with Hillary. I’ll pass a drug test, she won’t.” Literally no one was ever talking about this, and it was such a bizarre thing. I know he supposedly doesn’t do anything, but that raised the question in my head of: Does this guy do drugs? Why would he even talk about this?
That made me raise an eyebrow as well. You know, a big turning point in your career was your Saturday Night Live audition. The show was apparently looking to cast a new Obama, and auditioned a bunch of comedians to play him?
It was during the primaries, while he was running, and I believe they wanted someone to play Obama. It had a profound effect on me. It was a situation where, first of all, I was very grateful to Lorne [Michaels] for extending the invite. He was very generous, and is a hero of mine, so it was sad that I couldn’t get out of the contract I was in [with MADtv]. But the overall feeling was that all of a sudden the momentum in my career had stopped. MADtv was over, my prospects of going back to New York and doing my dream show was over. I had some anger and the ambition to really figure out my place in the world, so I began working on writing several projects—all of them horror, and all of them in the genre I call “social-thriller,” like Get Out. The original purpose was just to become a better writer and write the movie that would be one of my favorite movies that hadn’t been made. So Get Out is the first of this handful of social-thrillers that matured into what it is now.
Speaking of SNL, I’m curious how you think the show is doing as far as satirizing the current administration goes, and what the role of satire should be when it comes to those in power? Enormous. I think you can’t undersell it. SNL is doing amazing work right now—as good as they ever have—and I think that horror and comedy are similar in that they create a visceral response, an entertainment-based response, and that is the way to affect real change and affect the world. You need to lead with the gut, the entertainment, the fun, the story, and if you’re successful in that, people are left to think about why they had such a visceral reaction to it. Don’t tell people to think, tell people to feel and let them think for themselves.