Us: Interview with Jordan Peele about New Horror Film, Starring Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke

After setting a new standard for provocative, socially conscious horror films with his directorial debut, Get Out, Oscar-winner Jordan Peele returns with another nightmare that he has written, directed and produced.

Set in present day along the iconic Northern California coastline, Us stars Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide Wilson, a woman returning to her beachside childhood home with her husband, Gabe (Black Panther’s Winston Duke), and their two children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), for an idyllic summer getaway.

Haunted by an unexplainable and unresolved trauma from her past, compounded by a string of eerie coincidences, Adelaide gets paranoid, as she becomes increasingly certain that something bad is going to befall her family.

After spending a tense day at the beach with their friends, Kitty and Josh Tyler (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker) and their twin daughters Becca and Lindsey, Adelaide and her family return to their vacation home to discover the silhouettes of four figures in their driveway.

Us pits an ordinary American family against a terrifyingly uncanny opponent: doppelgängers of themselves.

Creating Terror, Times Two

Before he even finished making Get Out, his Oscar-winning 2017 blockbuster that delved deep into issues of race and privilege in America, writer-director-producer Peele was already developing the idea for a new film that promised to be even more terrifying, and just as psychologically incisive. “The idea for this movie came from a deep-seated fear in doppelgängers,” Peele says. “I love doppelgänger mythologies and the movies that have dealt with them, and I wanted to make my offering to that pantheon of ‘evil-double’ films. I was drawn to this idea that we are our own worst enemy. That’s something we all know intrinsically, but it’s a truth we tend to bury. We blame the outsider, we blame ‘the other.’ In this movie, the monster has our faces.”

Doppelgängers, or mysterious doubles of living people, are almost as old as storytelling itself. They appear in almost all folklore and mythology, reportedly reaching as far back as ancient Egypt in the form of “ka,” a physical manifestation of a spiritual double that shares the memories, experiences and feelings of its living counterpart. These early narrative archetypes were the progenitors of so-called “evil twin” characters that have appeared in literature throughout history. With few exceptions, it’s seldom a good sign when doppelgängers pop up in a story. “Doppelgängers have always been a source of fear,” Peele says. “It’s connected to your sense of mortality, I think. You can’t both exist, so one of you has to go. Throughout mythology, doppelgängers often represent bad omens or are a foreshadowing of one’s death. I wanted to pinpoint, and then develop the story, from that primal fear.”

That quest to pinpoint our root fears, and what they might represent, led Peele to some provocative places that not only plumbed the depths of the human psyche, but also America’s national identity. “I tend to draw inspiration from my own fear,” Peele says. “At some point I ask myself, ‘What’s the scariest thing for me, personally?’ In this case it was the idea of seeing myself. And then I think about what that’s really about, about why seeing yourself is so scary. No one really wants to look at their faults, their guilt, their demons. We all want to look elsewhere.” That inclination to project our own fears, anxieties and anger outward is also an endemic part of American culture. “This country, and how this country looks at the world, we have a fear of the outsider,” Peele says. “It’s built into the fear of everything from terrorism to immigration. One of the great core horror films that carried a powerful social message is George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. That movie was about race even though they don’t really talk about race in the film. I wanted to follow that approach with this movie.”

The Enemy Within

While Get Out confronted unspoken truths about race in America, Us takes on the American dream itself. “This film is operating on multiple levels,” says producer Ian Cooper, who has known Peele since they were both teenagers. “On the surface, it’s a terrifying thriller, and you can watch it that way and enjoy it, but beneath that, it’s about how the things we think we’ve gotten away with come back to haunt us. And beneath that, it’s about how, in American culture, we often claim that ‘the other,’ some group outside of ourselves, is the problem. With this script, Jordan has given us an ‘other’ that is a terrifying force to be reckoned with, and it is ourselves.”

The film centers on an American family, the Wilsons, who come under attack by doppelgängers of themselves, referred to in the film as The Tethered. And while Us is not overtly about race, it does subvert historical tropes of the horror genre and its typical depiction of black people. “The film is about an American family trying to live the perfect American dream, and then realizing that the American dream is perilous, insecure and unsustainable,” says Winston Duke, who plays Gabe Wilson. “I look at the American dream as another character in this film that succumbs to the dangers of the horror-thriller genre and becomes a hapless victim. Whereas audiences typically experience black characters as the first casualties of the plot, Jordan take a revolutionary position, making the American dream the central victim of the film instead of the people of color.”

That, Cooper says, is one of the many things in the film that will defy audience expectations. “What’s remarkable is that Us centers on an African-American family in 2019, but their race has nothing explicitly to do with the plot of the film,” Cooper says. “Obviously, that’s a huge change from Get Out, but this story is really about humanity and about being an American. The genius of Jordan’s writing is that when audiences see the Wilsons, a black family, and the Tylers, a white family, in the film trailer they are conditioned to imagine what might be occurring in this story, but that’s not what’s actually occurring. The Wilson family is not unlike Richard Dreyfuss’ family in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. They’re just an American family with problems and loveable aspects to their dynamics, but they aren’t relegated to having to be ambassadors for their skin color.”

Peele anchors the story around Adelaide Wilson (Nyong’o) who, as a child in 1986, wanders off from her parents during a family outing to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk and finds herself in a dark funhouse hall of mirrors called Vision Quest. While alone, young Adelaide (Madison Curry) discovers, to her horror that what seems at first to be her reflection is in fact a hostile doppelgänger of herself. She escapes, but she has no words to explain what she has seen, and no one, certainly, would understand or believe her if she did. Over the years, Adelaide tries to bury the memory, but when, as an adult, she returns to Santa Cruz with her own family, it becomes clear that her past will not let her go.

“I love making films that are terrifying but also fun,” Peele says. “Adelaide is a woman who has a trauma in her past that she has been dealing with throughout her life. She now has kids, a husband and sort of the perfect American family, but that trauma is still lingering in her subconscious. When she comes back with her family to the house she grew up in, she’s returning to the location of her original trauma. She starts to sense that something is wrong. That nightmare she had so many years ago is coming back, and it’s coming back for her family.”

Credits

The film’s director of photography is Michael Gioulakis (Glass), the production designer is Ruth De Jong (Manchester by the Sea) and the costume designer is Kym Barrett (The Matrix). Us is edited by Nicholas Monsour (Keanu), with music by Michael Abels (Get Out).

Us is produced by Jordan Peele, Sean McKittrick (Get Out, BlacKkKlansman), Jason Blum (Get Out, Halloween, The Purge series) and Ian Cooper, the creative director for Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions.

The film’s executive producers are Daniel Lupi (Lincoln) and Beatriz Sequeira(co-producer, Get Out).

The film is written and directed by Peele. Us is the first solo production for Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions.

 

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