Get Out: Interview with Writer-Director Jordan Peele

In Get Out, a thriller from Blumhouse and the talent of Jordan Peele, when a young African-American man visits his white girlfriend’s family estate, he becomes ensnared in a more sinister real reason for the invitation.

Chris Washington and his girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), have reached the meet-the-parents point in their dating. So she invites him for a weekend getaway upstate with Missy (Catherine Keener) and Dean (Bradley Whitford).

At first, Chris reads the family’s overly accommodating behavior as nervous attempts to deal with their daughter’s interracial relationship.  However, as the weekend progresses, some increasingly disturbing discoveries leads him to a shocking truth.

Equal parts gripping thriller and provocative commentary, Get Out is written and directed by Peele and produced by Blumhouse’s Jason Blum.

Jordan Peeleis best known as one-half of the brilliant duo Key and Peele and the star of Keanu.  An actor known for his comedic writing, Peele is also accomplished in voiceover work and impersonations.

The comic mastermind and Emmy Award winner has long been a fan of genre cinema.  His directorial debut is with Universal Pictures, the studio that had invented the monster movie, and with Universal’s partner, Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions.

Peele, who got his start as a writer and actor on MADtv, has been a fan of horror movies, holding that terror and comedy draw from the same kind of inspiration, Both genres are grounded in our need to explore the absurdity of our humanity.  We deal with our troubles and fears through the visceral, cathartic experience that comes from laughing or allowing ourselves to become scared.  If we can master the emotions, we can move through the experience.

This tension and release can be viscerally satisfying for the audiences: “In one, you’re trying to get a laugh, and in the other, you’re trying to get a scare.  It was exciting for me to use everything I’ve learned in comedy for my favorite genre, which is ‘thriller.’”

When he began the screenplay, Peele outlined a premise that was equal parts terrifying and social commentary.  The result was Get Out, a provocative thriller that blended humor, satire and horror–tackling the current state of race relations in America head on.  “This idea came from my wanting to contribute something to the genres of thriller and horror that was unique to my voice,” he says.  “The fact that it goes to race goes to the area I’ve worked in a lot, which is comedy.  This was a movie that reflects real fears of mine and issues that I’ve dealt with before.”

The protagonist is Chris, an African-American photographer and artist in New York City who is taking his relationship with his Caucasian girlfriend to the next level by meeting her parents over a long weekend.

As soon as Chris arrives at the family’s rural, upstate home, he begins to suspect that everything is not as it seems.  He discovers that several black men have gone missing in that suburb–his suspicion is more than unfounded paranoia.  What starts out as a mundane, obligatory weekend spirals and builds toward a crazy, thrilling, terrifying, and fun, conclusion.

The filmmaker enjoys playing with the audience’s expectations of what could happen and upending a foregone conclusion.  “The premise to Get Out is that you have white girl bringing a black guy home, and she hasn’t thought through all of the social ramifications of that,” Peele says.  “She assumes her family is going to be fine with it.  They turn out to be, but there are some subtler works at play that we begin to see a part of something much more sinister.”

This series of not-quite-right moments make Chris more and more suspicious. Whether it is curiosity about the odd behavior of the Armitage’s help—or feeling like he stepped into another world during the family’s annual celebration of their departed grandfather—Chris realizes that he isn’t the one who is going insane.  “The trick was to make sure that nothing so crazy happened so fast that we wouldn’t believe the characters would stay in this situation,” Peele reveals.  “The element that starts to alarm Chris is meeting the help, and finding that they’re a little off.  “They’re not like anybody he’s ever met.”

He says that it was of the utmost importance for the hero to never do anything the audience wouldn’t.  “I hate that in a movie especially in a thriller, when you want somebody to just pick up the phone, call the damn cops and get out of the house.  That’s what I allowed Chris to be—an actual, smart, logical human being.”

Like the most provocative horror features–George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead’s exploration of the height-of-Vietnam era to Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left examination of the inherently violent nature of humans—Get Out offers provocative entertainment.

“This movie is about a lot of things,” states Peele.  “It’s about the way America deals with race and the idea that racism itself is a demon; it’s an American monster.  It’s also about the notion of neglect and the idea that, if we allow ourselves to do so, humans can stand by while atrocities happen.”  He felt it was critical to mine the genre and discuss how race can have an impact on horror.  “It’s an important piece of this conversation.”

While many would have expected the multihyphenate to make his theatrical debut with a light-hearted physical comedy, Peele knew he wanted Get Out to be his fore into directing.  “Writing and directing are easier than not doing both,” he says.  “The beauty is that they’re done at separate times, so you don’t have to overlap the responsibility.  It’s a great advantage to feel the confidence to change something on set, and know that you’re not missing what the writer intended.”

To help him bring his screenplay to the big screen, Peele and veteran producers Sean McKittrick and Edward H. Hamm Jr.—who have guided many actors making their directorial debuts, including Jason Bateman on the ingenious Bad Words—turned to producing maestro Jason Blum, who has reinvented the genre since he shepherded Paranormal Activity to staggering heights.  His latest project, Split, from writer/director/ producer M. Night Shyamalan, recently hit No. 1 for three weeks on the box-office charts, and the distribution deal Blum has with Universal offered Peele his entry point into theatrical distribution.

Blum reflects on his reason for wanting to join Peele on this journey: “Jordan is a unique combination of someone who is incredibly talented and collaborative.  I see every scary movie and read every scary script, and never saw anything like this.  As for Jordan making the transition, I believe there are a lot of parallels between comedy and horror; they are the two types of genres in which people have physical reactions in the theater.  The timing of a joke and a scare—as well as the way you construct both in a movie—are very similar.  The combination of that and the way Jordan talked about Get Out gave me the confidence to roll the dice on this movie.”

McKittrick first connected with the writer/director through a mutual friend: “I get to thank Keegan-Michael Key, who introduced me to Jordan, mainly because Jordan is obsessed with horror films.  He pitched me the idea for Get Out, and I had never heard anything like it.  Whether they are The Stepford Wives or Rosemary’s Baby, the greatest forms of horror unveil the social commentary that leaks beneath the surface of our society.  I immediately said, ‘We absolutely have to make this movie.’”

The producer, who cut his teeth in the industry by producing the cult-classic Donnie Darko, was more than impressed with the burgeoning directorial talent he found in Peele. McKittrick commends: “It’s been one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.  Jordan is an incredibly hard worker who knows exactly what he’s doing.  Comedy and horror are such close cousins that he was a master of this before he even came in.  He studied horror his entire life.”

Blum is the first to admit he is drawn to films that are so much more than linear fare.  “Get Out gives you all the thrills and the scares of a great scary movie, but there’s more to it,” he reflects.  “It reminded me of what we did with The Purge, which is a scary, thriller, action franchise, but one that also says something about our society.  Get Out works in a similar way in that it delivers everything you want from a great genre movie, but it also says a lot about the world.  Jordan has figured out a terrific way to shine a light and talk about race…then take this to a level that’s grotesque.  The story is very disarming because you are convinced you’re going to see certain events unfold in a way that you’re used to; in fact, they unfold in exactly the opposite way.”