Jordan Peele is a horror fanatic. That may come as a shock to some who only know him as half of the duo behind the Comedy Central series “Key & Peele,” alongside Keegan-Michael Key, but Peele is showing off his darker side in his directorial debut, “Get Out” (in theaters Friday) – and it’s quite impressive.
In exploring the perennial issue of racial division in America, Peele combines “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” to deliver a chilling look at a black man named Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) visiting his white girlfriend’s (Allison Williams) parents for the first time. Peele, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, creates a creeping send of paranoia and dread around racial politics, which spirals into full-fledged horror that’s not short on scares or gore. And the movie and its social message will stay with you long after you leave the theater.
Peele talked to Business Insider about the challenges that came with directing, why the movie is even more important now that Donald Trump is president, and his plan to make more “social thrillers.”
Jason Guerrasio: What were the motivations behind writing this?
Jordan Peele: I wanted to become a better writer. This movie, among others that I’ve been working on, are really total passion projects and this one rose to the surface early as one that could fill a gap in the genre.
Guerrasio: How far back was this?
Peele: It was around when Obama was running for office. With him and Hillary Clinton going head-to-head for the Democratic nomination, I was thinking of the gender and racial civil rights movements in terms of one another. That’s what opened my mind, because with “The Stepford Wives” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” films that successfully tackle gender politics and do it in an entertaining way, I was validated that there was a way to tackle race and horror in a similar way.
Guerrasio: For you, is it story first, or while writing are you also thinking about how you can shoot certain sequences?
Peele: First of all, with a horror movie, you want to know where the engine of the fear is coming from. Like in comedy, you want to know what the engine that’s going to make the comedy – where that’s coming from. So for me that started with the feeling of being the outsider. The fear of being the outsider, the fear of being the other. That was the first part. As it evolved, it became more apparent that race was the real fear here. And that was what the movie had to be about.
Guerrasio: So early on you were dancing with the idea of race being in the story and then it just kind of became the main theme?
Peele: Yeah. In a way it starts with images and moments that I know are bubbling to the surface, just cinematic instincts. The reason it takes a long time is you have to weave together and find meaning in the images your subconscious is presenting. And pretty quickly I realized that the discussion of racism and horror was what was missing, and what my own personal demons are about.
Guerrasio: Was the party scene in the movie, that feeling of all eyes turning to you, one of those early images?
Peele: I once had a nightmare where I was going through the lobby of a bank and I turn the corner into the area where the elevator is and everybody that had been walking around bustling in the bank lobby – you just hear their voices stop. And the energy of the voices stops. And the energy of them moving stops. I tiptoe back around the corner facing the lobby. Everyone that was paying me no mind is facing me, and standing there. It was such a powerful, creepy image, and I use it in this movie.
Guerrasio: I talked to Terry Crews once and he told me he used to get scared when he was the only black person in a bank.
Peele: [Laughs] It’s no joke. There’s something in the collective subconscious going on there. And there’s something unique about the black experience in that way. Well, I guess it’s not unique to black experience – other minorities face it. The fear that you’ll be viewed as the thief or the outsider. You will be the target of scapegoating. It’s very real. And makes perfect sense, why Terry and I are afraid of the bank.
Guerrasio: I would think both of you should feel good going into banks now. What was the bigger roadblock, the subject matter or getting a big name attached to the project?
Peele: I was probably the biggest roadblock. I didn’t think it could get made because of the subject matter. But when I sat down at QC Entertainment, I had a general meeting and I was like, “Look, let me tell you about this movie premise I have that’s never gonna get made but let me just give you an idea of the type of things I want to do.” And at the end of that meeting, he wanted to make the movie. I think I developed the idea and the script enough that some people in Hollywood got it. He got it, Blumhouse [Productions] expressed interest shortly after, and they really got it. And they were the perfect match. There were other places that didn’t get it.
Guerrasio: I had assumed you probably directed some “Key & Peele” episodes, but this movie is your first credit as a director, ever. Were there times where this got overwhelming?
Peele: Absolutely. There were times, especially during production, where there are some do-or-die decisions that need to be made. There are things that come up that you really have to – just some big cannonballs you have to dodge, basically. But thanks to my experience at “Key & Peele,” knowing how production works, learning from Peter Atencio who did direct the vast majority of “Key & Peele” – that was just invaluable for me to learn how to do it.
Guerrasio: Give me an example of one of those cannonballs.
Peele: The idea is problems are going to arise. And you have to figure out how to maintain the vision and avoid that problem, or change something big to keep the continuity of the vision. We were going to shoot this movie here in Los Angeles until about a month before we were set to shoot, and then I got a call saying we had to figure out someplace else for tax reasons [eds note: filming took place in Alabama].
Guerrasio: That’s a gigantic curveball.
Peele: A gigantic curveball, and a real lesson that sometimes blessings come in strange packages. Because I think the movie is what it’s meant to be. I think it might be a better movie than we would’ve done in here in LA. Also just a big lesson that you can get past the insurmountable.
Guerrasio: You’ve mentioned “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Stepford Wives.” Having now directed a movie, can any of those reference points help at all while you’re actually directing?
Peele: Absolutely. This was made out of my influences, really. You find the moments where something’s coming from your subconscious and you have to build a story around your dreams and the things that hit you in the gut. But in the execution of those things, I’m basically speaking in terms of all my favorite movies.
Guerrasio: Did “Get Out” change at all through things that happened in the country in the last handful of years? Whether it be Ferguson or Trayvon Martin or even the Trump election? Did suddenly a line make more sense or a sequence make more sense than it did before?
Peele: The whole movie’s purpose, a little bit. In the beginning, we’re in the Obama presidency and race was not supposed to be discussed. It was almost like, if you talk about race, it will appear and we’re past that now. So the movie was about calling it as I was seeing it, in that regard. With the emergence of Black Lives Matter and the discussion becoming focused on the police violence, when the country got more woke, this movie’s purpose transformed into something that was meant to provide a hero and release from all the real horrors of the world.
Guerrasio: Was anything added after Trump was elected? Or was it just a feeling that the movie was now going to mean something more?
Peele: A little more of the latter. I knew I made something universal and I just think it’s more relevant now as the need for racial discussion is more obvious now. What people are willing to engage with – especially if it brings a little escapism at the same time.
Guerrasio: Now it’s just even more interesting.
Peele: The conversation is happening. Which I think is difficult, but a good thing. I think it’s more healthy for us than the other version, which is let’s ignore it all.
Guerrasio: Your wife is comedian Chelsea Peretti, who is white. Was she a good sounding board for this? Did she throw in a joke or a line here or there?
Peele: I wrote it before I met her, really. But I was dating her during the process.
Guerrasio: That must have been an interesting topic to bring up when you guys started dating. By the way, I have this script about…
Peele: [Laughs] Yeah. But she loves this film and she really gets it and gets a devilish kick out of it. Anything I do, creative or otherwise, she’s a perfect sounding board. Which is one of the reasons we’re a great couple. We both have our own projects and we both really root for each other and trust each other’s opinion.
Guerrasio: But can you come to each other with an objective opinion?
Peele: Yeah, we have total trust that there’s no ego attached to each other’s opinion. She’ll tell me if something, she won’t be rude, but I can tell if she doesn’t like something. Or if she’s not into something I’ve done. She’s the perfect sounding board.
Guerrasio: Did the comic relief just come naturally in the writing? Specifically Chris’ friend, Rod (LilRel Howery).
Peele: Yeah. I think first and foremost the Rod character is a release for the audience. Because he’s kind of realistic. He’s saying the things that we’re mumbling as an audience. He feels like a real friend and it makes sense that somebody with his conspiracy-theory brain would zone in on something being wrong here before even Chris does.
Guerrasio: What are your future plans for directing? Could you fathom a sequel?
Peele: I can fathom anything, man. I love biting off more than I can chew and figuring it out. I have four other social thrillers that I want to unveil in the next decade.
Guerrasio: What’s the biggest takeaway from this experience that you will hold onto when you direct again?
Peele: You hear it said time and time again by successful directors: You have to make a movie for yourself. Don’t make it for anyone else. My style of filmmaking happens to be give the audience what they know they don’t want, but they want. Ultimately I have to write and direct in a way that let’s just say, you don’t want to regret making a choice.
Guerrasio: Can you tease at all what you have in store for us with these other social thrillers?
Peele: I’ll say this: The scariest monster in the world is human beings and what we are capable of, especially when we get together. I’m working on these premises about these different social demons. These innately human monsters that have been woven into the fabric of how we think and how we interact. Each one of my movies is going to be about one of these different social demons. The first one being “Get Out,” is about race and neglect and marginalization.