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Jordan Peele: “Can you make a horror movie where white people are the bad guys?”

The writer-director of Get Out talks about the tricky politics behind his smash hit race relations chiller

Universal Pictures
Daniel Kaluuya as Chris in Get Out

An African American photographer, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), goes to meet the parents of his white girlfriend, Rose (Girls’ Allison Williams) for a weekend at their place in a wealthy WASP community. Rose assures him that her parents are Obama-voting liberals, but there’s something not quite right about Dean and Missy (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener), something really off about their son Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), and something batshit insane about their black maid and groundskeeper (Betty Gabriel and Marcus Henderson). Is Chris walking into some kind of trap?

That’s the irresistible and strangely timely premise for Get Out – a creepy horror thriller that is the debut feature for writer-director Jordan Peele, better known for sketch comedy show Key & Peele. Peele worked on the idea for a decade and channelled his love for horror movies into a funny and disturbing story that is also a discussion about racism in America.

Time Out spoke to Peele by phone about subtext, the black guy/white woman taboo, and that certain ‘look’ black people sometimes give each other in white company.

Jordan, your film is a monster hit, having grossed more than 30 times its budget in the US, and social media can’t shut up about it.
Yeah, it really came together and worked. I think the timing and everything is pretty uncanny. You release a movie like this that takes so many chances with the tone, so I wasn’t 100 per cent sure how it would go over. But it went over as well as I could have hoped.

What was the starting point for this story?
I was trying to figure out what kind of horror movie I could to do that would bring something fresh to the genre, and I began to think of real-life fears and horrors, because all my favourite horror movies have a real horror underneath them. Very quickly I realised there hasn’t been a horror film about racism since Night of the Living Dead [1968]. During the Obama administration, racism wasn’t being talked about proportionately to how it exists in this country, so I wanted to make a film that addressed and called out racism.

So Night of the Living Dead is about bigotry because all the dead white people are coming for the black hero?
In my eyes, it is. I know George Romero swears that he just cast the best actor for the [lead], that he wasn’t looking at race, which I don’t entirely believe. The social commentary that the movie carries is so poignant and present and important in the movie. The Duane Jones character is prepared for horror – presumably because of being black in Jim Crow America.

[Spoiler] And also [there’s] the climactic scene where Jones is shot by the sheriff and it’s shrugged off as “probably another zombie”. [End spoiler] I looked at that film as a total allegory.

I agree that good horror movies always have a strong, resonant subtext.
I love The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby, which I think are about gender – about the fears addressed by the women’s lib movement in the ’60s and ’70s. And Halloween, I would say, is a movie about mental illness. Horror movies for me are the art form where we exorcise our demons, no pun intended.

And Alien is a big metaphor for child abuse.
That’s great! I never even thought about that – I can see it! I was also very influenced early on by Cronenberg’s The Fly, which is about AIDS, and such a good film – and if you’ve seen Room 237, [the documentary about interpretations of] The Shining, there’s so many theories as to what Kubrick was saying.

Given that your wife [Chelsea Peretti] is white, I imagine that there’s an element of your own personal experience in Get Out, though, right?
You know, I wrote the movie before I met my wife, so it wasn’t based on my in-laws, who happen to be very woke, smart and funny, but it is very much based on my experiences as an African American, and any situation where I’ve felt like the other, such as walking down a suburban neighbourhood at night and feeling like I might stand out like a sore thumb and look like a threat.

 

There was an instance where I had a white girlfriend many years ago. I was going to meet her parents and asked, had she told her parents I’m black? And she said no – just like the first scene of the movie. It didn’t turn out to be a horrific experience, but I had to take note of the fact of my fear that they didn’t know. Wherever I feel fear, I know that there is a way to pull the horror out and put it on the big screen, just as I know that anything I laugh at something I know there is a sketch that can be pulled out of that laugh.    

At his girlfriend’s parents’ place your hero encounters black characters who speak in a strange, overly formal, non-African American way. I was reminded of that hilarious sketch from Amazon Women on the Moon – ’Blacks without Soul’. Do you know it?
Yeah! Where David Allen Grier plays No-Soul Simmons. You’re right… It is rather true with African Americans that there is a connection – a little look that we’ll give each other if we’re in a room full of white people that indicates that we have a commonality to our experience. There’s a camaraderie there. The lead character Chris, in the party scene, finds the one other black guy at the party and he tries to make that connection, and when he doesn’t get that, he’s disoriented.

The party scene is wonderfully done, where all the white people are friendly but they say really awkward, patronising stuff.
That’s right. That scene tends to resonate with a lot of people because it epitomises an experience that black people have that white people may not know black people are having. You can talk about black things with a black person. That’s OK. But if the first thing you have to say to a black person is about black things, you might want to think about why that is. And if you can’t go to a party and not have a conversation expressing how OK you are with their race, it adds up to: ‘my humanity is secondary to what you are seeing, which is the colour of my skin’.

The movie is powerful because even though there are fantastic elements, watching it, you never forget that this kind of victimisation was, and is, very real in America. Did you ever feel that this unpalatable truth would be alienating to people?   
My initial fear with this movie was, can you make a horror movie where white people are the bad guys? Is that going to be viewed as simply racist? And then I thought about The Stepford Wives and thought, when I watch The Stepford Wives I don’t hate it because I am villainised as a man. The power of story is stronger than that. I come out of the movie relating to Katharine Ross’s character. And that was an important touchstone for me, because I knew, if this was going to work, the story would be well crafted enough that white people would leave the movie identifying with Chris, rather than the Armitages. 

 

You have a fantastic cast. 
I do. I think I have the best cast in any thriller since Rosemary’s Baby. Or The Shining.

It was lovely to see Catherine Keener being evil.
The idea of scary Catherine Keener was delicious to me. She’s remarkable in it, and what she and Bradley Whitford bring to their roles is this deceptive allure. They’re disarmingly charming. On paper, they’re the best-case scenario of who you could meet as your potential future in-laws.

There has been some backlash about the casting of British actors as African Americans in movies like Selma and 12 Years a Slave and even The Force Awakens. So what made Daniel Kaluuya right for the lead role?
The important qualities Chris needed to have were qualities Daniel has. He needed to be a guy we trust as an intelligent, perceptive person. This is not a movie where we can stomach the protagonist stumbling into bad situations because of his own ignorance. And the other quality is he’s so relatable. He’s a perfect surrogate for the audience.

Get Out opens Thu May 2.


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