The new film, Get Out, defies easy classification. Though it has funny moments, it's primarily a horror film, with racial anxiety at its center. Writer-director Jordan Peele tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that he thinks of Get Out as a "social thriller."
The movie tells the story of a young black man named Chris whose white girlfriend, Rose, takes him to meet her parents for the first time — without first telling them he's black. Rose's parents go out of their way to show Chris how open minded they are, but there's something suspicious in the liberal facade they present. The film takes several twists and turns (which we won't spoil here) as Chris figures out what is going on.
Peele wanted the audience, regardless of race, to see the subtle racism through Chris' eyes. "It was very important to me to just get the entire audience in touch in some way with the fears inherent [in] being black in this country," Peele says. "Part of being black in this country, and I presume being any minority, is constantly being told that ... we're seeing racism where there just isn't racism."
Previously known for his comedic work on the Comedy Central sketch series Key & Peele, Peele says that his current turn as the director of a horror/thriller film comes from a "deeper place in my soul" than his comic work. "This [movie] is just simply my truest passion," he says. "It comes from this fact that in order to deal with my own fears, I wanted to be able to sort of master them. It's really just want I want to be doing."
On racism as a device for a horror movie plot
Every great horror movie comes from a true fear, and ideally it's a universal fear. The tricky nature of this project is that the fear I'm pulling from is very human, but it's not necessarily a universal experience, so that's why the first third of the movie is showing, and not in an over-the-top way, in a sort of real, grounded way, just getting everybody to be able to see the world through my protagonist's eyes and his fears.
On a lack of black representation in horror films
The gestation period for this idea 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, except [that] race in a modern sense, hadn't been touched. It really hadn't been touched in my opinion since Night of the Living Dead 50 years ago. Maybe with the film Candyman. That to me, I just saw a void there. So it really started with this notion of like, this has to be possible, let's figure it out.
On writing a film that would play differently to black and white people, but is meant to be inclusive
This was an exercise in ... making a movie that is meant to be inclusive. ... In any good story, whoever you are, you should be able to relate to the protagonist. At the same time, I had to recognize that black people would be watching this movie and having a different experience ... than white people would. ...
Often when I thought about a specific scene or a specific moment I'd think, I hope the black audience here is [saying] 'You know what? This is my experience. I've never seen it done in film like this, that's awesome.' And at the same moment I might recognize that there would be a lot of white people who would watch the scene and either recognize these moments as something that maybe they've done, or that they've seen someone do.
On Chris trying to connect with the black groundskeeper and housekeeper at Rose's house and not getting the response he expected
You know the stereotype of all black people know each other, well I think it probably comes from the fact that we can identify with each other's experience in a way that others may have a harder time. So yes, you see a black person anywhere where you're the only two, it's like there's an instant bond, or there should be, is sort of the feeling.
There's also this feeling, the fear of dating outside of one's race also brings with it a loaded group of fears. Am I abandoning my blackness in some way? Am I turning my back on my roots in some way? So I wanted Chris to be dealing with that uncomfortableness of not knowing how he's being judged by the housekeeper and the groundskeeper in this situation.
On his biracial identity growing up
I'd been taught from an early age that I was in the "other" category on the standardized tests. I had to go down the list, "Caucasian, African American, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander," and then at the bottom is "other." Very early on I was taught in a way that I was somehow this anomaly. ...
It's probably one of the reasons that I fell in love with horror and comedy, which I think are genres that really appeal to someone who identifies with the outsider or the other, which is many of us. I remember it being a very confusing notion that we were on the one hand learning about Martin Luther King's dream and then on the other hand we were having to fill in these boxes and declare what we were.
By the time I was a little older, maybe fourth or fifth grade, I would check the "African American" box, which brought me comfort to be able to identify with a group more. ...
By the time Barack Obama was elected it changed a lot of my feelings of identity and really inspired both Key & Peele and Get Out. ... All of a sudden being mixed was an identity, and one that was the identity of a man who I consider [to be] the very best of us. I feel like the discussions about being biracial weren't even in existence, so when Barack Obama was elected it definitely inspired us to explore that and the notions of code-switching and everything.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is Jordan Peele, who is half of the comedy duo Key and Peele. Peele wrote and directed the new film "Get Out." And he just became the first African-American writer-director whose debut film earned more than 100 million at the box office. "Get Out" has some pretty funny moments. But it's a horror film with racial anxiety at its center. And for those of you who haven't seen it yet, I promise, no big spoilers.
"Get Out" is about a young African-American photographer, Chris, played by Daniel Kaluuya, who's dating a white woman, Rose, played by Allison Williams. They've been together for a few months. Rose decides it's time for Chris to meet her parents, but she says she hasn't told her parents that Chris is black. Don't worry, she reassures him, they're not racist. In fact, her father would have voted for Obama for a third term. Chris is not reassured.
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. At first, Chris thinks maybe he's paranoid, but as the film goes on, he realizes he's in danger. Reviewing the film in the LA Times, Justin Chang wrote, this is surely the nerviest, most confrontational treatment of race in America to emerge from a major studio in years.
And it brilliantly fulfills the duty of both its chosen genres, the horror thriller and the social satire, to meaningfully reflect a culture's latent fears and anxieties. 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 the car hits a deer. They pull over, a police officer arrives and asks Chris for his ID.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GET OUT")
TREY BURVANT: (As Officer Ryan) Sir, can I see your license, please?
ALLISON WILLIAMS: (As Rose) Wait, why?
DANIEL KALUUYA: (As Chris) Yeah, I have state ID.
WILLIAMS: (As Rose) No, no, no, he wasn't driving.
BURVANT: (As Officer Ryan) I didn't ask who was driving. I asked to see his ID.
WILLIAMS: (As Rose) Yeah, why? That doesn't make any sense.
KALUUYA: (As Chris) Here.
WILLIAMS: (As Rose) You don't have to give him your ID 'cause you haven't done anything wrong.
KALUUYA: (As Chris) Baby, baby, it's OK, come on.
BURVANT: (As Officer Ryan) Any time there is an incident, we have every right to...
WILLIAMS: (As Rose) [Expletive].
BURVANT: (As Officer Ryan) Ma'am...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Is everything all right, Ryan?
BURVANT: (As Officer Ryan) Yeah, I'm good. Get that headlight fixed and that mirror.
WILLIAMS: (As Rose) Thank you, officer.
GROSS: Jordan Peele, welcome to FRESH AIR. I should mention, we can't 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 this 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, you know, part of 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, you know, African-Americans in this sort of situation or other situations that arise later, the experience and the perception of the racial undertones is an everyday experience.
Right here, we see Rose sort of coming into her own woke-ness (ph) for the first time. And whether or not she's onto something with the cop is up to the viewer, in a way.
GROSS: So you call your new movie a social thriller. Is that your coinage, social thriller?
PEELE: It is. It is.
GROSS: I like it. Why did you need a new term? (Laughter) Why did you need that term?
PEELE: Well, you know, people who watch this film tend to, you know, have a hard time describing what genre it is as well. And I sort of knew that. It's not - you know, we sort of market it as a horror. And I'm a huge horror fan. And I think you can put together a really good argument that it's a horror. But you could also put together an argument that it's not, that it's closer to a psychological thriller or something.
But because it's not about the psychology to me as much as it is about society, I call it a social thriller. It's in the same vein, to me, as, like, "The Stepford Wives."
GROSS: 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 (laughter)?
PEELE: Yeah, the gestation period for this idea was, you know, kind of spanned several years. And I think one of the most important milestones in that process was just realizing that, you know, 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, 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 "Candyman."
And that, to me, I just saw a void there. So it really started with this notion of, like, this has to be possible. Let's figure it out.
GROSS: So why the idea of the white girlfriend with the black boyfriend bringing him to her parents?
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 was so - it resonated so powerfully is that it's a universal situation. 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.
GROSS: And the parents, when they meet the Allison Williams character's boyfriend, are trying to be, like, so cool with the fact that he's black, they're masking any discomfort they might feel by being, like, overly jokey and overly friendly and you can really sense this discomfort. But they're very, like, liberal and open-minded, or at least they think they are. And so I want to play a scene. And it's a little hard to make out what they're saying 'cause there's a lot of jokey asides here, but you'll get the kind of tone of it.
GROSS: So Allison Williams has just brought her boyfriend home, played by Daniel Kaluuya. And the parents, played by Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford, are, you know, again, trying to be, like, super friendly and cool. And Bradley Whitford, the father character, speaks first. And what he's asking here is, like, so how long have you been together? So here we go.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GET OUT")
BRADLEY WHITFORD: (As Dean) So how long has this been going on, this thang (ph)? How long?
KALUUYA: (As Chris) Four months (laughter).
WHITFORD: (As Dean) Four months?
WILLIAMS: (As Rose) (Whispering) Five months, actually.
KALUUYA: (Chris) She's right, no problem.
WHITFORD: (As Dean) Attaboy. Better get used to saying that (laughter).
CATHERINE KEENER: (As Missy) Please, I'm so sorry.
WHITFORD: (As Dean) Oh, yeah, I'm sorry. She's right. I'm wrong (laughter). See?
WILLIAMS: (As Rose) Does he have an off button? This is exhausting.
WHITFORD: (As Dean) (Laughter) I know, and I want to give you a tour.
WILLIAMS: (As Rose) Can we, like, unpack first?
WHITFORD: (As Dean) Do you want to unpack before the tour?
GROSS: OK. I love the way Bradley Whitford says this thang (laughter).
PEELE: Yeah (laughter). It's perfect.
GROSS: Yeah (laughter). So...
PEELE: He really got it.
GROSS: Yeah, so you obviously wanted to put in things that white people sometimes say to black people to make them think, like, they're really aware of and in sync with African-American culture.
PEELE: Yeah, you know, a part of being black in this country and, you know, I presume being any minority, is constantly being told that we're being too aware of race somehow, we're obsessed with it or we're seeing racism where there just isn't racism. So it was important to me to, first of all, put the entire audience on the same page of what it feels like to be aware of these little subtle interactions and the sort of underlying racism that is sort of, like, just being even slightly distracted or to be made aware of your own race in a normal conversation. So yeah, I sort of teach the audience early on that, you know, Chris, played by Daniel Kaluuya, is - he's nervous about meeting these parents because - and he's nervous that she hasn't told them that he's black. From that point forward, any little, whatever you want to call it, microaggression, (laughter) you know, sort of lame reaching out to make a connection, it becomes aware to the audience. And we sort of - we get the giggles of awareness from audiences.
GROSS: So again, you've made a kind of horror film that plays on real racial fears and stereotypes and discomforts. And the movie starts with a young African-American man on the way to visit his girlfriend in her suburb. And he's totally geographically lost. The streets all look the same. Her address is on - I think, like, Edgewood (ph) Street. But Edgewood Street is right near Edgewood Lane. And just wondering - like, who does that? Who puts Edgewood Street close to Edgewood Lane?
GROSS: How can you possibly know where you are?
And he's a little nervous, especially when a car passes him by and seems to be slowing down and watching him. And you know that this character is thinking about Trayvon Martin. And you know most people in the audience are probably thinking about Trayvon Martin. But you don't have to mention Trayvon Martin's name in this. And you don't.
PEELE: Right. This scene, for me, is the entry point into allowing a nonblack audience to relate to real fears that we experience. I think after this scene, for the rest of the movie, everyone knows that there is a threat of racial violence just around the corner. And that is the state that black people have when they feel like they're - might be perceived as the outsider in the wrong neighborhood. So it's very important to me to just get the entire audience in touch in some way with the fears inherent of being black in this country as a starting point.
GROSS: So it sounds like you had this conscious sense that you had to set out certain things for white people in the audience that black people would take for granted. But the first thing you needed to do was kind of bring in white viewers who might not be oriented to that.
PEELE: Yeah. I mean, it's...
GROSS: Is that what you're saying?
PEELE: Well, yeah. I did - this was an exercise in, first of all, making a movie that is meant to be inclusive. It's meant that, you know - like, you know, any good story, whoever you are, you should be able to relate to the protagonist. At the same time, I had to recognize that black people will be watching this movie and having a different experience or - bringing in different baggage than white people would. And I don't mean, you know - I don't mean to trivialize it by saying baggage. Often when I thought about a specific scene or a specific moment, I'd think - OK, yeah. I hope the black audience here is meant to say, OK - you know what? - this is my experience. I've never seen it done in film like this. That's awesome.
And at the same moment, I might sort of recognize that there would be a lot of white people who would watch the scene and either recognize these moments as something that maybe they've done or that they've seen someone do or not recognize it but be invited to experience it for the first time.
GROSS: So have you ever been in the position of being the black boyfriend brought home to the white girlfriend's parents and the parents didn't know that you were black until you walked through the door?
PEELE: You know, it's hard to know. I had a - I was dating a white girl many years ago and went to meet her parents. And I do remember asking, do they know that I'm black? And she said no. And that fear, you know, was present. It's like oh, gosh - you know, the worst-case scenario, of course, is really bad. But even if it's just a small adjustment that I have to witness on the parents' face, it'll just be such a bummer. It'll be such a buzzkill (laughter), you know?
You just - it would be just something I dreaded. And that, to me - you know, when I met the parents, it was - it turned out to be fine. I don't know if she told them or if they were just, you know, woke and cool. But that's - you know, the reality of how it turned out was - is - it was actually less important to me than the fact that my fear was coming from somewhere, somewhere very real.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jordan Peele. He wrote and directed the new film "Get Out," which he describes as a social thriller. And we're going to take a short break and then come right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL ABELS' "MEET THE HELP")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jordan Peele who, until now, has been best known as half of the comedy duo Key & Peele. And now he wrote and directed the new - some people are calling it a horror film; he calls it a social thriller. It's called "Get Out."
So in horror films, usually, like, 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 whether 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 this - that constant uncertainty until we really know what the story is.
PEELE: That's right. I mean, it's one of the...
GROSS: Did you experience that a lot, that uncertainty? Like, I don't know what that person said is 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...
GROSS: ...That that guy just said - is that really sexist, or does he understand what he just said? - (laughter), you know.
PEELE: That's exactly right. I think we're wired, at this point, to look for these interactions and to - to wonder and to sometimes, you know, to call them like we see them. But we're also, you know, I think any minority - women, gay people - you know, we're constantly told we're not seeing what we are seeing. You know, I'm glad you brought up gender because this thing you're talking about is also present in "The Stepford Wives."
GROSS: You know, I've never seen that.
PEELE: It is...
GROSS: Should I see that?
PEELE: Oh, you should - if you - if you like "Get Out," you should absolutely see it. It's one of - 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 - what ends up happening is we see that - that state that you've described as being part of being a woman - I described 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 a 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, you know, 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.
GROSS: The main character - the guy - goes to a garden party at his white girlfriend's parents' home. And he seems to be, like, the only black person there. Except there's a couple of people who are on the staff. There's the groundskeeper, and there's the housekeeper. When he sees the groundskeeper, and when he sees the housekeeper, he feels this, like, connection with them, like, you know, hey. Like - it's unsaid, but you know he's trying to make this connection based on the fact that they're the only black people in this white place and that they share this - this, like, deep connection.
And, of course, they don't return that sense of connection, for reasons we won't go into. But I'm wondering if you've been at that kind of party where, you know, just about everyone's white except for people, say, on the waitstaff. And I'd be interested in hearing whether you feel - if those people are African-American, and they're the only African-Americans in the room - if you feel connected with them, or if you feel that there's this implicit disconnection for class reasons because, like, you're one of the guests, which implies that you're in a higher economic bracket.
PEELE: Yeah, I mean, great question. There really is a connection, which is, you know, honestly one of the great things about being black in this country - is, you know, we - we - you know, you know the stereotype, all black people know each other. Well, I think it probably comes from the fact that we can identify with each other's experience in a way that others may have a harder time. And so yes, I mean, you see a black person anywhere where you're the only two, there's an instant bond. Or there should be, is sort of the feeling.
There's also this feeling, the fear of dating outside of one's race. It brings with it a loaded group of fears. Am I abandoning my blackness in some way? Am I turning my back on my - my roots in some way? So I wanted Chris to be dealing with that uncomfortableness of - you know, of not knowing how he's being judged by the housekeeper and the groundskeeper in this situation.
GROSS: But what about the class question?
PEELE: As far as the class question, I think black - you know, from my experience, blackness totally trumps any kind of class question. You know, I don't - you know, this is - maybe Ben Carson aside, it's, you know, no matter who, you know, I run into, there's going to be a connection that's more powerful than any economic difference.
GROSS: You've excluded Ben Carson. (Laughter).
PEELE: Yeah, he doesn't get in this. He doesn't get into this familial...
GROSS: OK. (Laughter).
PEELE: ...Familial feeling anymore.
PEELE: (Laughter) He's in the sunken place.
GROSS: (Laughter) People who've seen the movie will know what that means. (Laughter).
My guest is Jordan Peele. He wrote and directed the new film "Get Out." He's also known as half of the comedy duo Key and Peele. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL ABELS' "BLIND ART DEALER")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Jordan Peele, who's known as half the comedy duo Key and Peele. They had a popular sketch comedy show on Comedy Central. Jordan Peele has written and directed a new horror film that's a big box office hit and has a lot of people talking about its movie references and its observations about race in America.
The main character, Chris, is a young African-American man played by Daniel Kaluuya whose girlfriend, played by Allison Williams, is white. She's taken him to meet her parents, who live in a wealthy suburb. The parents go out of their way to show how totally not racist they are. And Chris senses something isn't right.
As we've been talking about the film, it's very much a kind of thriller about race. And I don't want to give away too much of the plot. But I want to find a way of talking about this. The white people in this movie are - they're very upper class. They're very kind of outer suburb, you know, outer ring of suburb. And they're basically living very much in their own bubble.
And when the young man, the African-American protagonist, arrives with his white girlfriend and they're at a party here, you know, at her parents' home, the white people there are very kind of admiring of this young man because of certain qualities that they feel like black men have. You know, black people are - they're faster, they're cooler, they're stronger, they're athletic. And all the white people there kind of want to kind of be close to him and have some of that rub off on them.
GROSS: But at the same time, you have the sense that they would like black people to be exactly like white people so that they're not posing any kind of challenge of being different. They're not challenging the norms that the white people have in any way. And I guess if there's - and I was wondering if there's anything you wanted to say about that (laughter) - about the sense of both, like, admiration and envy and at the same time - but be just like us.
PEELE: Yeah. You know, it's a tricky part of the African-American experience. And it's interesting because these are the type of things that really happen all the time all day long. And it's really, it's very low key. And, you know, when you compare it to the more violent, hateful versions of prejudice, it's, you know - these are seemingly meaningless interactions.
You know, but this movie is - was - you know, I kind of was coming up with it in the post-racial lie America. OK? That's what, you know, I think, I've been calling it when, you know, Obama was elected and all of a sudden we weren't addressing race or there was this feeling like, if we stop talking about it, it will go away. There was even this, you know, some notions that like - hey, Obama's blackness was, you know, helped him become president. That's why he became president.
You know, so there are these little, you know, notions and these little racisms that, on one level sound OK. But if you dig a little bit deeper, there is a denial of the reality of the African-American experience and the horrors attached to them. So you know, the point - in this movie, I wanted to point out how, you know, these seemingly harmless, again, like - you know, I don't love the term microaggressions 'cause it just seems so kind of clinical and not - I don't know, it just - it seems weird to me. But these microaggressions are proof to me that racism is still very much alive in this country. And, you know, they're one side of the same monster that ends up killing black men at the hands of police or the mass incarceration of black people. Yeah.
GROSS: How did being biracial figure into writing the screenplay because, you know, we're talking about tensions between black people and white people. Your father was African-American. Your mother is white. So in some ways, like, you've lived in both worlds. And, like, you're no stranger to either world. And you, I imagine, like a lot of people have, like, a dual consciousness. That might be particularly pronounced in you.
PEELE: Yeah, I mean, I think you probably nailed it. You know, it's like - it is kind of living in two worlds as far as the country's need to identify us or the human need to categorize us and identify us. You know, I'd been taught from an early age that I was in the other category on the standardized tests. You know, I had to go down the checklist - Caucasian, African-American, Latino, Asian-Pacific Islander, and then, you know, at the bottom is other. So, you know, very early on I was taught, in a way, that I was somehow this anomaly. And, you know, it's hard. I might be too close to it to really be able to tell you how all of that went into the movie. But it very clearly did. It very clearly did.
GROSS: What impact did it have on you as a kid to be told to check the box other?
PEELE: You know, I - not a pleasant one. I think in some ways, it felt - you know, even as a young person, you sort of felt like - OK, well, first of all, there's a weird hierarchy going on because this is a list. And it's put in some weird order. I don't know if it was - what the point of the order was - or if I got the order correct, I think I did. But, yeah, it was - it's probably one of the reasons that I fell in love with horror and comedy, which I think are genres that really appeal to someone who identifies with the outsider or the other, which is many of us.
But yeah, it was - I remember it being a very confusing notion that we were, you know, we were on one hand learning about Martin Luther King's dream and then on the other hand we were having to fill in these boxes and declare what we were. By the time I was a little older, maybe fourth, fifth grade, I would check the African-American box, which I think, you know, brought me comfort to, you know, be able to identify with a group more, which is sad. You know, it's all very sad. But, you know, definitely by the time Barack Obama was elected, it changed a lot of my feelings of identity and was one of the - you know, really inspired both "Key & Peele" and "Get Out."
All of a sudden, being mixed was an identity and one that was sort of, you know, the identity of, you know, a man who I consider the very best of us. So I feel like the discussions about, you know, being biracial just weren't even in existence. And so when Barack Obama was elected, you know, it definitely inspired us to explore that, then the notions of code switching and everything and "Key & Peele" and Barack Obama very - election very much inspired this movie as well.
GROSS: My guest is Jordan Peele. He wrote and directed the new film "Get Out." We'll talk more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL ABELS' "ICE TEA")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jordan Peele, who's known as half the comedy duo Key & Peele. Peele wrote and directed the new horror film "Get Out," which he describes as a social thriller.
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?
PEELE: I was a very scared child. Not, you know, not so much of life but of the demons that lurked in the dark. And horror movies terrified me. You know, I'd love watching them but then at night, I would just be up in sweats all night. At some point, you know, I swear, Terry, it was like my mind just shifted in order to cope with these fears. And, you know, 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 to it.
That's what happened. I just fell in love with horror films.
GROSS: What's one of the films that really scared you when you were young?
PEELE: You know, one of them that really got me was "Nightmare On Elm Street." There was - and something about the way that, you know, Freddy operated with so much malice and also the way that those movies, you know, the sequels especially, begins almost being told with Freddy 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 (laughter) to my core.
GROSS: Were you afraid of his hands that have these, like, you know, knife-like fingers that you can slash people with?
PEELE: (Laughter) Terry, you are so cute (laughter).
GROSS: What did I do wrong (laughter)?
PEELE: Yes, I was scared of the knife glove, yes.
GROSS: All right.
PEELE: I was terrified of the knife glove. I was terrified of the idea that you can't escape him by going to sleep. But, you know, there was, you know, really what got me was this sort of urge that, you know, the movie was trying to make you relate, you know - people would cheer, you know, Freddy's little - you know, he'd kill somebody brutally and then say, like, you know, some stupid pun (laughter), you know, like (imitating Freddy Krueger) game over, chump.
PEELE: You know, he, like, kills a guy with a video game or something. And then, like, the audience, like, laughs and is on - and I was not, you know, on Freddy's side. I was, like, terrified of Freddy. So that sort of - that was this interesting period in horror where the audience was sort of invited to relate to the monster - kind of started with this stalker-vision idea from the '70s where, you know, the camera would be lurking behind the trees watching, you know, some sorority girl taking a shower.
And, you know, 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.
GROSS: You told I think it was Jason Zinoman in The New York Times that you'd made a list of your favorite types of scares in movies. What are some of those scares that made it to your list?
PEELE: Well, there is, you know, the scare from, you know, "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, you know, there's also the - in "Silence Of The Lambs" when they meet Hannibal Lecter, this, you know, arriving to this person who's been waiting for us. There's something about that that is just scary.
The notion of depth - of, you know, we have - there's a scene where Walter is running through the field at night straight at Chris. And that is very...
GROSS: This is in your film.
PEELE: This was in my film. And this was inspired by, you know, the plane 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 a natural instinct, you know, like from back in the days when there's a lion coming at us. It's like, you know, your DNA is telling you just squat and run.
PEELE: Fall to the floor, play dead or run or do something. Then there is, you know, of course, the, you know, one of the big techniques that I use in this film is, you know, inspired by, you know, 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 it 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 that is the most important type of fear to use in a horror movie is if 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 that just, you know, with something like "The Blair Witch Project," which is, you know, whatever, it's 89 minutes of people running through the woods and one minute of, you know, a guy standing in a corner.
PEELE: It's - you know, on paper, it shouldn't work. But it was so effective.
GROSS: So one of the things that you draw on is this fear of somebody kind of, like, invading your brain, like, not only getting under your skin but, like, invading your mind. And that's been a theme of a lot of horror films, like "Invaders From Mars." Have you seen that?
PEELE: I haven't seen that one.
GROSS: It's a great one. I think it's from, like, the 1950s. Like, 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 - he's a smoker, and his girlfriend's mother offers to hypnotize him (laughter) 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 I really - watching the film, I was really wondering, like - are you a smoker? Did you to try hypnosis?
PEELE: (Laughter) I used to smoke. I have not tried hypnosis. But it is something that, you know, I think is kind of universally scary to people - right? - this idea that - oh, my God - what? When somebody - if somebody can probe into my psyche, there's no telling what - how vulnerable I'll be and what kind of influence they could have. You know, albeit this is a stereotype 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 is a heightened fear in the black community of this idea of going to a 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 - you know, Chris would sit down in this chair with with Missy, played by Catherine Keener, you know, I could just hear, you know, the black people in the audience going, nope, nope, nope, nope - 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, you know, Chris himself is appropriately skeptical of the process as well.
GROSS: My guest is Jordan Peele. He wrote and directed the new film "Get Out." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL ABELS' "INVESTIGATIONS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jordan Peele, who's known as half the comedy duo Key & Peele. Peele wrote and directed the new horror film "Get Out," which he describes as a social thriller.
So Roger Ebert had a phrase he called the idiot plot, which he 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 is kind of coming after them and they very, very slowly, like, back away instead of just, like, running. Or like, they run right into a corner where they're definitely going to be, like, locked in as opposed to, you know, like, getting into a car and driving away. And if they just behaved rationally, the story would end and they'd be alive at the end of the movie.
Did you try to avoid, like, 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's a lot of stupid ways of reacting in some not-very-good horror films that you wanted to avoid?
PEELE: I did. I did. Yeah, that was what one of the things - especially something that I feel like every horror movie fan is sort of underserved with smart protagonists. Certainly, black horror movie fans have, you know, been particularly vocal. I mean, there's the whole Eddie Murphy routine about, you know, black people in a horror movie wouldn't last very long. Right? They just walk in - you hear get out. Too bad we can't stay, baby.
PEELE: You know, that was (laughter) one of the great routines.
PEELE: And, yeah. So this movie - and one of the reasons the Ira Levin school of writing.
GROSS: He wrote "Rosemary's Baby," Yeah.
PEELE: He wrote "Rosemary's Baby," and he also wrote "The Stepford Wives" and...
GROSS: Oh, OK.
PEELE: ..."Boys From Brazil." But he has this great - he saves the big events till the end. So he just - you know, he does this great thing where he takes one little step into weird town. And then he does the work to justify why the character would - 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 - you know, if Chris got to the Armitage home in this movie and some huge, crazy thing happened, then the movie would have to be over.
GROSS: So this is like a - seems to me like a turning point in your career, this new movie "Get Out." It's doing very well. It's established you as a writer and director and taken you kind of away from your other identity as a comic writer and performer. I mean, there are some comic aspects in this movie. But anybody coming in and just, like, expecting it to be a comedy is going to be surprised because it's not that. Why did you decide to step away from what you were best known for, which is comedy?
PEELE: No, I think I've always felt that I would actually be better at this than I was at comedy. Yeah, I mean, I - it's just one of these things that comes from a deeper place in my soul. And, you know, I think we talked about it - probably just comes from this fact that, in order to deal with my own fears, I wanted to be able to sort of master them. So it's really just what I want to be doing. And I love comedy. I've been in love with comedy as well from a very early age. And it's a - you know, comedy, to me, is a different way of doing the same thing. It's also meant to face our fears and to be able to laugh them off in a way. But this thing is just - it's just simply my truest passion.
GROSS: How did you and Keegan-Michael Key decide that it was time and "Key & Peele" - to end the show together, your Comedy Central sketch comedy series?
PEELE: Well, one of the things that I think did it was just feeling like we had reached this, you know, level of awareness and this level of success with that show and not even the perception of success, but we felt like we had made some sketches that were really saying some things and really funny and we had really contributed to the, you know, the pantheon of sketch. And, you know, it was a very difficult show to make, very all-consuming. And I don't think we knew for a fact that the - the season after season number five would be a step up. And I think we kind of feared, like, even if it's a plateau, that's as good as a step down. So that was a big part of it.
And then, you know, of course like, you know, this - I had this, you know, this idea of horror and, you know, so many projects gestating in my brain that, you know, I wanted to get an opportunity to do them. And, you know, I know Keegan also has - he's a brilliant, brilliant actor, comedically and dramatically. So I knew he wanted to stretch a little bit, as he will be doing and has been doing.
GROSS: So I have to let you go. But one more question before you leave - I know your wife is pregnant. Congratulations.
PEELE: Thank you.
GROSS: Are you trying very hard not to think about "Rosemary's Baby," which is one of your favorite films?
PEELE: I'm trying to - yeah, I'm just trying to be very receptive and understanding and supportive and to not - to be as far from the - John Cassavetes' character as possible.
GROSS: Yes. Tell her to avoid anyone who offers her tannis root (laughter).
PEELE: That's right. No tannis root, no weird drink concoctions. We're just going to play it safe.
GROSS: All right. Jordan Peele, thank you so much and congratulations on the sex - success of your film. And...
PEELE: Thank you.
GROSS: ...On your forthcoming baby.
PEELE: Thank you. And the sex, too. That created the baby. That was...
PEELE: Thank you. I was - it was all - it's all a first time for me, all first time.
GROSS: Are you nervous?
PEELE: (Laughter) I'm - you know, I am nervous. But, you know, I figure it's kind of like directing. I feel like you're never really ready, and at this point if I'm not - if I'm not ready, then who is?
GROSS: You made a film. You can do anything.
PEELE: That's right. That's right. We'll see.
GROSS: All right, well, thank you so much.
PEELE: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Jordan Peele wrote and directed the new film "Get Out." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.