“Society is the Monster”: Jordan Peele on Racism as Horror, Writers’ Block and More at 2017 Film Independent Forum

“Any good scary moment or scene is not very intellectual for me. It’s from the gut. It’s a feeling. It’s a vibe,” says Get Out writer-director Jordan Peele, one of several keynote guests for the 2017 Film Independent Forum at the Director’s Guild in Los Angeles. “I love watching movies and getting intoxicated with the simplicity of fear.”

Of course, there is plenty of food for thought to chew on in Peele’s breakout slice of satirical horror-comedy. But even the film’s most layered and complex moments, at their core, are expressions of raw emotion. (Case in point: the scene that gives us Get Out‘s most iconic image, of a young black man paralyzed by hypnosis, shedding a single tear, his mouth agape, yearning to scream, but too frozen to utter a sound.)

In conversation with moderator Elvis Mitchell of KCRW’s The Treatment, Peele shares his takes on exploiting and exploring social turmoil in the context of horror moviemaking; the causes of, and cures for, writers’ block; screenwriting from a place of racial sensitivity and honesty; working on a budget; and much more. Here are some takeaways from their talk.

On the Genre Tropes at Play in Get Out

All my heroes have pulled off elevating the B movie premise, time and time again. When I got the final cut and watched it, I remember thinking, “This is a ridiculous movie. There is some fun, ridiculous shit in this movie.” I’m very thankful and humbled that everybody working on the project took it as seriously as I did. They honored me with the trust that this story could be told.

There’s a pivotal scene where Jim Hudson goes, “Your eye, man. I want those things you see through.” It’s an important scene in terms of the dehumanization of Chris, the idea of assimilation—taking the goods of the black artist and leaving the soul, or trapping the soul. He disregards Chris’s humanity. While you could argue that we have many villains in this movie, I think that scene honors the idea that the principal villain is the system itself. Society is the monster here. That is thrill of this genre of the “social thriller.” This film never felt like a psychological thriller, and doesn’t quite fit in with horror. The idea behind social horror is a film or story that explores the horror of society and the way human beings interact within it.

On Starting Get Out With the Premise of a Black Man Disappearing

I started Get Out in 2008, 2009. I developed the story for five years before I set pen to paper. For five years this project felt ambitious enough that it might never get made. Ambitious in the subject matter, in the idea of doing a thriller that explores the victimization of black people. And it’s a terrifying idea to write. I thought, “This is going to pass the smell test for no one.” Every white person in this movie is evil. You can’t make that movie! You can’t make a movie where a black man kills a white family at the end in cold blood and the audience is rooting for him. A movie like that doesn’t get made.

[An audience member shouts, “Yes you can!”]

[Laughs] Yes you can! It’s like I had internalized the system, and the lack of representation in the system. I had to stop worrying about getting the movie made and concentrate on just writing my favorite movie that didn’t exist yet. It’s not like I worked on it every night for five years, but that mindset did put me on a path where it allowed the film to be my hobby. It was the most fun thing I could do with my time.

On Figuring Out That Writers’ Block is Cured By Having Fun

What I know from Key and Peele is that when you have fun writing, that’s the material that works. My advice to anybody dealing with writers’ block is to follow the fun. If you’re not having fun writing you’re doing it wrong. Shift up your tactic. I’ve been in comedy for many years, and often times that sketch I thought was going to work and be brilliant, doesn’t work. But that simple, stupid sketch you cracked yourself up on will work. The process of having fun doing the work is visible to the audience. By the time we were making Key and Peele we knew that. We were continually validated by that. As far as writing the film, the idea was follow the fun and let it come. Not having a time limit, not being on a clock, allowed me to push a little, have fun, come back a day later…smoke a little weed, and have the good work teach me what it was. Several pivotal moments happened like this during that initial five-year period.

A few years in, I sat down and thought about the kind of racism I was exploring in the garden party sequence—the micro-aggression thing. What if that type of horror was what was behind the surface? What if I didn’t take up the more typical type of racism, the more outwardly demanding racism of white superiority? Trumpism. What if it wasn’t that, but the other side of that? What if it was assimilation, the admiring of black bodies and culture? At that moment I realized these are two sides of the same coin. One is more violent in practice, but at the time we were in a period where a lot people saying racism was over. I was writing during the Obama era, the era of the post-racial lie. We didn’t have the attention on police brutality we do now; we didn’t have Black Lives Matter. I had to turn to the subtler racisms we deal with on a day-to-day basis. That became the project. Two years in I thought, “What if these motherfuckers weren’t doing brain surgery? What if they were stealing our bodies and trapping our souls?” They did it out of admiration of what we can give them, but disregard our humanity. Isn’t that slavery?

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

On How Get Out Reflects Peele’s Biracial Identity

If you’re telling a story and not bearing some part of your soul and telling your truth, you’re not doing it right. I trusted that we’re all human, all made up of the same emotions, so my feelings would come across as genuine. You find this in comedy as well. If you put your own truth out there, no matter how specific it feels, however much you feel like no one is going to care, that’s not the case. People are drawn to truth like magnets in art. It’s really easy to see in comedy. If something feels true, you get a laugh, and if something doesn’t, you don’t.

On Conceiving Get Out‘s Opening Sequence, and Making Big Scenes Feel Like Bad Dreams

My feeling about the genre is that it needs to be a tailor-made worst nightmare for the protagonist. The opening sequence, which is a single take, comes first from being African-American and never seeing my identity or perspective in a thriller or horror film. This movie got to be a fun project of realizing my worst fears as a black man in this country.

I often thought about the movie in terms of what the black audience will need and what the white audience will be watching, which is where my fears about the movie being divisive came out. I had to acknowledge that black people watching the opening scene would recognize that fear, and also certainly recognize the moment the character realizes he’s in trouble. Then he does what no one does in a horror/thriller, which is just get out of the situation.

On Making a Horror Film That Would Play to Black Audiences

I wanted to signal to the black crowd that this is going to be a movie where the black characters do what we would actually do. Part of the black identity is the horror of America. There are things we are cognizant of because we have to be. Race and racial violence and the threat of racism are just some of them. For the white audience, I wanted the scene to put them on the page of what it feels like to be a black man in the suburbs at night, where you may be viewed as a threat. That is a horror movie. To introduce that just walking down a street at night as a black man can step you immediately into your deepest fears.

Any good scary moment or scene is not very intellectual for me. It’s from the gut. It’s a feeling. It’s a vibe. I love watching movies and getting intoxicated with the simplicity of fear.

Jordan Peele on set of Get Out. Courtesy of Universal Pictures

On Using Budget Limitations to Your Advantage, and How the Simplest Idea is the Best Idea

One of the things I decided from the beginning of this movie was that I would have no artistry for artistry’s sake. No cute angles or camera movements, everything had to be in service of the story in as stripped down a way as I could imagine it. I knew nothing could stop me from telling this story, so with that conceit over the whole project basically every time someone would come to me and say for instance, “We can’t have that many background performers, that’s too expensive,” I would use that as a way to force myself to make a stronger decision than I had made originally.

Every time I hit the wall of budget, I looked at it as a gift. If I can figure this out it will make the story better. They’d tell me I can’t have 40 background players, I’d turn around and place the ones we had very strategically, use the contrived-ness of the choreography to almost suggest that they’re placed, that everything is scripted, that something is not natural about this party. I would argue it’s a better movie than if it had 40 people in it.

Making a movie that the highly critical, highly vocal, loyal black horror audience would be able to accept was difficult. It’s very hard. As soon as you have something that satisfies the horror, motherfuckers need to get out of there. How do you tell a story where the main character would just leave? It’s a difficult thing. You can trap them there somehow, but that can be frustrating. When I looked at these Ira Levin movies (Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives), what he did with his stories is brilliant, and not simple at all. It’s very nuanced and very detailed. He would have something a little weird happen, take a step toward the eventual horrific revelation, but then he would justify why the character doesn’t leave. The way he justified that was with the horror of reality.

On Subverting Expectations That Allison Williams’ Character Would Be a “White Savior”

Everything with Rose was a balancing act. I had to recognize that people are going to be scrutinizing where the film could be going, and it’s impossible to imagine that no one is going to guess. But what I had working in my favor even if you did suspect Rose from the beginning, is this tradition of the white savior that always exists in a movie about race. The character that is there to say to the white audience member, “Don’t worry, not all white people are evil.” It says to the white audience, “This is you.” It’s Brad Pitt in 12 Years A Slave. It’s [Kevin] Costner in Hidden Figures, the character that lets the white audience think “I’m not one of the racist ones.” I knew that even if it occurred to you that Rose was in on it, you would have this nagging feeling that a movie couldn’t do that. You can’t have the last good white person be evil! That shit is racist!

One of the hardest scenes to figure out in this movie was the scene after the first dinner at Rose’s house. In the original script, after the dinner scene, where Jeremy is being weird, trying to fight him, we go up to Rose’s room and I had Chris saying to Rose basically “I told you so.” He knew it was going to be a fucked up situation. Then I had Rose going “I know my brother’s weird; my family’s a little weird; give it a couple more days.” But I knew that wasn’t going to cut it. That wasn’t giving my audience enough credit. If she had tried to appease him my audience would have thought, “I know something fucked is goin’, he knows something fucked is goin’, and she’s trying to pull the wool.” So that reversal, where instead it’s like she’s getting woke for the first time, realizing her mom is racist; her dad is racist. Then Chris has to be the guy to say that it’s actually the best-case scenario he can think of, so it’s fine. That hid the reveal the best. MM

The 2017 Film Independent Forum ran from October 20-22, 2017 at the Directors Guild of America, Hollywood, California.

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