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JORDAN PEELE - The Guy Is So Funny, It's Scary. Or Is It The Other Way Around?

Posted By Chris Green, Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The post-studio era of Hollywood filmmaking can claim a select but distinguished tradition of sketch comedy pioneers who went on to significant acclaim as feature filmmakers, a group that includes Mike Nichols, Ben Stiller and both sides of the Mel Brooks/Carl Reiner duo. Readers are free to speculate precisely what makes sketch comedy such fertile ground for creatives who ultimately find their fullest expression on the big screen. If we had to guess, we’d hazard that the tight control over every aspect of production that short-form storytelling requires simply provides an accessible early model for discovering and executing a great idea. If you can do it in four minutes, who’s to say you can’t do it in 90?

We don’t want to jinx his chances at joining that select group; at this point, he’s only got a pair of produced features to his credit. But Jordan Peele is looking like an awfully good bet to become the next essential filmmaker to emerge from the sketch trenches.

The specs all check out. By the conclusion of the five-season run of Key & Peele on Comedy Central, Peele and partner Keegan-Michael Key were widely hailed as the finest pure sketch comics of their day, capping their show with a deserved Emmy Award for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series. His first feature, 2016’s Keanu, was essentially an extension of his television work, featuring Peele and Key in onscreen roles and director Peter Atencio behind the camera. 

  Producer/writer/director Jordan Peele (standing) on the set of Get Out with cast
  members (from left) Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Allison Williams
  and Daniel Kaluuya. 

It’s fair to say that no one saw the next step coming. Whereas most of Peele’s sketch-to-movies forebearers—Nichols being the chief exception—continued to lean on their established chops and expand their comic sensibilities to the bigger screen, Peele took a sharp left turn toward his earliest passion, horror films. Moreover, for the first time, he stayed behind the camera, making his feature directorial debut without the help of his own onscreen skills. Whatever questions may have lingered over those choices, they were resolved by the time the lights came up. A pitch-perfect synthesis of horror and social satire, shot through with his sketch work’s characteristic attention to genre detail and unsparing insight into the racial tensions of 21st century America, Get Out opened to universal critical praise and sensational box office, becoming 2017’s first must-see, word-of-mouth movie phenomenon.  

Already, audiences are bracing for the next salvos, appetites whetted by the announcement of a planned slate of features from Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions, promising to tackle social issues through the genre-film lens. In that effort, he’ll have the continued backing of his Get Out company partners, Universal Pictures and fellow PGA member Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions. Readers can look forward to hearing more about it during Peele’s headlining “Conversation with” session at the 2017 Produced By Conference, a discussion moderated by outspoken fan and TV legend Norman Lear.

So, before you came out here, what did you think a producer did? What was your idea of what a producer was?

I still don’t know that I know the answer to that question. [laughs] But I thought a producer was the person who provided the money for a film. And I knew from the Oscars that the producers accept the award for Best Picture, so they must be important. It wasn’t until coming here that I realized there’s a wide spectrum of types of producers and producorial responsibilities. And now, to me, it’s sort of code for “make the project happen, and make it better.”

Hey, that’s about as good a one-sentence summary as we’ll ever print. So early on, who did you see doing the job of producing that made you think, “This is an effective way to work,” or, “This is the guy that’s making it happen?”

Well, we had great showrunners, Jay Martel and Ian Roberts, at Key & Peele. At the time, Keegan and I were just starting out as producers ourselves, so it was a very symbiotic relationship.

Even before that, on MADtv, there was a guy named Dick Blasucci. I really, really liked him and his producing partner at the time, Lauren Dombrowski, who passed away maybe 10 years ago of breast cancer. She and Dick were probably my biggest mentors as a producer. But Lauren and I had even more of a connection and friendship. Just on a personal level, she’s the one who helped me quit smoking. She saved my life. But also she was someone who I felt genuinely supported the artistry that I was trying to bring to the table at that show. And I think that was tied up in her having a certain anti-establishment sense, which I think is an important producorial quality, because the best projects are always the ones that are pushing boundaries of some sort. She was somebody that really cherished the artist and the craft.

How did you internalize those values and bring them to the work you wanted to do? Key & Peele clearly wasn’t conceived as “just another sketch show.” There was intent to it. How did that intent push the show towards what it was going to be?

I think sketch is one of these art forms where if you’re not pushing the boundaries, you’re not doing it right. It needs to earn its “shortformedness.” Sketch is a temporary thing, and that sort of opens up the door to take big swings, to push into areas that seem uncomfortable and still make it work.

Key & Peele was about satisfying what I wasn’t getting (or what I never got) from the MADtv process. MADtv wasn’t my show. It was somebody else’s show. And so there was this feeling of needing to fit my comedic sensibilities into “the box,” the format.

So by the time Key & Peele came along I was starved to establish a more distinct comedic voice within sketch comedy. And of course we utilized the best techniques that all of our favorite shows used, from In Living Color, SNL, Mr. Show. For us, it was about boiling all of our favorite things down into what was essential about them and then taking that and applying it to what we knew worked for us.

We wanted to redefine what racial comedy was. Redefining or broadening what is thought of as the African-American identity was important to us. Because we felt like we hadn’t seen the “Black nerd” expressed in any way at all. And this was right as Obama was coming into office … I mean, he’s the king Black nerd. Looking at it from a different direction, Keegan and I also had this sense that we’d never seen a sketch show that really executed the genres it parodied with exact precision. We wanted to make absolutely sure that if we’re doing a Les Mis parody, it looks and feels like Les Mis. If we’re doing a rap video it looks and feels like a rap video. Our director Peter Atencio really helped us cultivate that and realize that vision.

He took each sketch as its own short film. Our whole plan from the very beginning was that we wanted this to be like the holodeck [from Star Trek: the Next Generation]. It had to be a sketch comedy holodeck. When we walk onto the set, we want it to look and feel like we’re in that world, in that genre. So that was an ideal we came into the show with and it was the reason we picked Peter, because he’s a chameleon. He had been doing this show called The Midnight Show at UCB, where he had been working on a smaller scale but executing these high production values for that level. We were also very slick with our schedule and budget. We would design the season, from the start, as a season so that we could spot the red flags and say, “Look, we’ve got seven sketches here that will cost as much as an entire episode. So what we have to do is maybe take three of these and then fill these episodes out with sketches that are just as funny, but maybe they don’t break our back.”

So the whole process was very strategic, looking at what we could achieve and adjusting our artistic accordingly. Which is something I did with Get Out as well. Coming into it as a producer allows you to be steps ahead of the pitfalls, allows you to know how to use the monetary limitations … not to bypass them but literally use them to make the movie better.

  Jordan Peele discusses a scene with Bradley Whitford on the set of Get Out

I hear that from producers time and time again, how ultimately grateful they are for the limitations. The thing that you get when you have to scramble is better in the end than the thing that you had originally written back in the day.

That’s right. Because it’s mock inspiration, right? Basically, the more correct choices you make on a project, the better. So if you look at every roadblock or every challenge as an opportunity to make another correct choice, then those limitations become exciting. That’s the only way to do it, I believe, because it’s so easy to get caught up in the idea that something “needs to be this way.” You hit this limitation and your brain checks out or short circuits, and you get stubborn. But a lot of what improv teaches us is, “No, those can be gifts.” And, of course, the best are experts in this. I mean, I always go back to Steven Spielberg and Jaws and Bruce—the shark that barely worked but ended up bringing us the best monster movie of all time, because Spielberg was able to convert it into the terror of what was underneath the water as opposed to the horror of seeing it head-on.

Could you talk a little more about that? What were some of the “gifts” you received on Get Out?

Pretty early on in the prep process for the film we were going to shoot here in Los Angeles. We were scouting here, but then due to a circumstance we were no longer going to get the tax rebate that we were counting on. So all of the sudden, we had to change locations and go someplace that had a better rebate. Now this was a month before we were going to shoot, really three weeks or a month into prep. And almost on kind of on a whim, I chose Alabama. Because we had to make a decision. I figured, they don’t have thousands of projects there like New Orleans or Atlanta so maybe we’ll be able to get our choice of crew and everything here. It presented a whole series of challenges because the film infrastructure there wasn’t too developed, although it’s improving, certainly. But it was hard to get locations; people didn’t have any contacts. [good ol’ boy accent] “What? You want to make a Hollywood film here?” But at the end of the day, I can’t imagine having shot it anywhere else. All those square pegs in the round holes ended up shifting how I thought about the world of the movie.

Just take the house, for example. It was originally written as a mansion, with the privileged angle as more of a foreboding presence. The house was going to loom over him. But of course, we couldn’t afford the mansion. So we had a more normal house … Still a beautiful, idyllic house with a lot of space and a sense of privilege. But it doesn’t have that looming presence, and I think the movie is better for it.

 

Oh, completely. You’re not tipping your hand that way. The comfort that you feel in that environment is such a huge part of that first act and the setup for what’s coming.

The same thing is true for the family itself. The parents, Dean and Missy … in the original script they were more stuffy, stereotypically WASPy, less down to earth. But when Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener signed on, it helped me evolve the characters into really these seemingly warm, liberal, intellectuals. I mean, what would the film have been if it wasn’t that? 

Right, exactly. It’s so much more subversive that way.

For every single role cast, I looked at it less as me teaching the actor how to be the character I wrote and more like bringing the character and the actor towards one another. Like, what is Caleb Landry Jones’ version of Jeremy? That’s another character where the original conception was this normal sort of overeducated, cocky, preppy guy. But Caleb has this real “creepazoid” factor. So that’s when I realized, “Okay, Jeremy, he’s not the dude I originally thought. He’s more of the kid who probably tortured animals when he was younger.” So we moved towards that.

Almost all the characters were that way, I would say, with the exception of Chris and Rod. That casting was pretty straight down to exactly what I had planned the characters to be like.

Right. Well, I mean, they’re the “normal guy” anchors of the story. They’re not the ones surrounded by the genre elements that you’re playing with. But just to sort of track back a little bit and talk about the development of the project, after Key & Peele wrapped, and everyone is wondering, “Well, okay, what next?” how is Get Out where you gravitated? Because I’m sure everybody was expecting you to keep going in the comedy direction.

Yeah, well, I’ve been a fan of this genre for so long. To be honest, making horror films was my first dream before I discovered comedy. So that was always kind of bubbling up. In 2008, after MADtv, I went into this period of my career where I really got to ask myself, “So, what’s next? If I could do anything in the world what would I do?”

So in that state, I started writing a wide variety of projects, just with the goal of getting better as a writer. Those sort of gestated for awhile. After a couple of years, Get Out just sort of rose above the rest as the thing that was the most ready. So by this time Key & Peele had started. Towards the middle of shooting Key & Peele, I had a general meeting with this guy, Sean McKittrick at QC Entertainment, and I sort of pitched Get Out offhandedly. He said, “I want you to write that script. Let’s write it. We’ll buy it.”

So I wrote it, and then kind of realized halfway through writing it, “Hey, I’ve got to direct this too. No one else can do this.” So the reality of it was, knowing that this was coming and was something I really, really believed in, that was the reason I told Comedy Central, “We’ve got to end the show.” The last two seasons of Key & Peele we did one after the other. It was a grind. By the time Key & Peele was over we shot Keanu and then I went straight into Get Out. But people would always ask me, “How come you stopped Key & Peele? You were on top! Why would you walk away from that?” And my answer was always, “Well, I think when people see this movie they’re going to wish I had actually been doing this for the past 10 years.”
 

So how did the money
come together? Did Sean finance it?

QC took it on to fully finance it. I developed the script with them and/or for them. About eight months to a year later, they were putting their feelers out for a partner. There were several production companies that we went to. Some of them just plain didn’t get it and told us to fuck off. But Blumhouse, they really got it. It was a perfect match. I mean, what an amazing brand for a horror thriller to go out under, and what an amazing track record they have of utilizing their Universal slots and working with Universal marketing for wide release.

If it came down to it, QC was prepared to finance it. But it was a perfect strategic alliance. As soon as Blumhouse came on, their infrastructure really helped provide me with a lot of stability as a first-time director.

Something producers always talk about is the importance OF “casting the crew” and finding your department heads and finding your principals. How did you go about that process?

It came together in what I would imagine is a fairly typical way. You get a bunch of recommendations, you look at their work and you see who’s the best and who’s available. So Toby Oliver is my DP; he’s a guy who had done such beautiful work, just a great reel and very consistent aesthetic. Also, he’s from Australia, and the way they work in Australia really trains the cinematographers to work on lower budgets, so they work faster.

Interesting. Bruna Papandrea talked to us at length last year about how there’s really strong government backing for low-budget film in the Australian system.

That’s right. So one of the ways I was looking at this was that we needed to populate this movie with talent that’s better than what we can pay them. [laughs] So we found our way to Toby, who has paid his dues pretty hardcore in Australia but is a relatively fresher presence here, trying to build his U.S. portfolio. So I’m basically getting a super-experienced DP for a little bit less than what one might think we would have to pay to get somebody with that talent. The same with the production designer, Russell Smith. He’s a guy who has worked on much bigger-budget films but who was at a place where he wanted to do something smaller. So it felt like he was willing to come down a couple of steps to do this film.

That was the approach all across the board—everybody involved, along with being brilliant at what they do, was looking at some reason that they might be willing to do something a little below their pay grade, whether it was because they believed in the project, or they were looking for something like this on their resume for some reason or just because they fundamentally “got it.”

In terms of “getting it,” the tone of the film is really precise. It has to walk a fine line in terms of giving you the stuff you expect from a genre horror story, plus a kind of social commentary angle that can’t get too heavy or else you lose the fun of it. How important was it that the folks you brought on inherently understood that balance? Or is that more like something that you felt you would bring to it, given the people with enough skills to execute the thing?

It felt more like the latter, honestly. I mean that’s my role, right? And as I would continue to talk about the film in terms of what it is and what it’s not, over the course of that, people arrived at a better idea of what their role in it is. But, to be honest, there weren’t a lot of reference points I could give.

Right. I was just thinking that.

Yeah. So I can give them an idea, like, “This is The Stepford Wives. This is Scream. This is Shining. This is Halloween. This is Night of the Living Dead.” I want to take pieces from all of those things, but most importantly, I want the thing to feel real. I think the part that I knew I couldn’t necessarily count on anybody to fully wrap their head around was the proportion of thriller to comedy. If it’s one notch more comedic, it’s a totally different film. It’s a parody. And if it’s one notch too serious, then all of the sudden we have something that may just be too upsetting and hard to watch. So that balance was something that I knew I had to be very careful about.

Did you do a lot of rehearsal with your cast in terms of getting them to hit these notes? How much leeway did you give them to find their “zone,” given that you had to have a pretty good idea of the bull’s-eye you were going for?

I had conversations with all of them before we got to Alabama. They came out probably a week before we shot. There was one day and night where Catherine Keener suggested we all go to a house and just sort of get to know each other. She had done that with a project before, and it turned out to be really a great decision. Basically, we were just hanging out with the family, and you can sort of see and feel the actual dynamic between the actors develop. That continued to inform me as to who the characters were to each other. So by the time we were in front of the cameras, we had done a lot of the building of who the Armitages were. It was quite collaborative in that way, having that lead-in.

It’s got to be hugely validating, the success of this film. Stepping back a little, what do you take from the fact that, hey, it turns out the audience was actually ready for this movie and ready for this story, which is not something anyone would’ve necessarily predicted even a few months ago?

It’s very validating, very inspiring. I feel like, in the future, as a writer or a filmmaker, I can do what I did with this one, which is write my favorite movie that doesn’t exist. But also as a producer, it helps inform and validate what I’m trying to do with Monkeypaw Productions, my production company, which is to find ways to explore representation and genre, and to explore stories that involve untapped voices, untapped identities. It turns out, those aren’t crutches. They’re actually what the world wants right now. Because these are the stories we’ve been neglecting for many years.

So the big lesson for me is that you can commit to leads in films that aren’t established celebrities. You can commit to the type of stories that never would’ve been thought of as producible five years ago. And if you take those bold leaps of faith and trust your instinct and trust that the reason story is such a powerful art form is because when it’s good it’s just good, the conventional wisdom doesn’t matter. If the story is really great, people will turn out for it. I mean, you look at The Exorcist, which is maybe the most successful horror movie of all time, a massive and deserved phenomenon. And it has some of the most depraved, crazy moments in the history of Hollywood.

Yeah! It’s amazing, the parts of that film that are now ingrained in the common culture.

Exactly. And it’s because the storytelling is so perfect that it transcends what we think is “okay” or “allowed.” That’s another reason I love horror.

I have to say, your timing is weirdly perfect. I mean pretty much by acclamation, you were the best “Obama” of the Obama era. But now the Obama era is over, and just in time for the election year, you’ve moved into horror.

[laughs] That’s right. We had a laugh and now it’s time to quake in our boots.

does it mean something different to you to be doing socially conscious storytelling, whether in horror or in comedy, now as it did two years ago?

It does feel more important now. And specifically because we have an administration that used fear as a tool to get its power. To me, when that happens it means we’re in a time that’s being led by fear. And so that means we’re in an era where we need to address our fears. We need to deal with our fears. The best way to do that, for me, is horror/sci-fi/comedy. It’s with these genres where it’s expected for us to get into these uncomfortable areas and to enjoy those uncomfortable areas. To me, genre is one of the most transformative and important aspects of storytelling. I feel like the fact that we hadn’t had a horror movie about race for 50 years—let’s say, since Night of the Living Dead—isn’t just a symptom of the problem—it’s part of the problem. We haven’t been able to invite white people to see the world through the eyes of a black man who has fears. I mean, that’s empathy. That’s walking a day in someone else’s shoes. And when we don’t have that, we’re going to be coming at the conversation from two different places. We’re not going to be able to understand each other’s point of view.

Now black America has watched many films through white people’s eyes, and we cheer for Liam Neeson. We love ourselves some Bruce Willis. But the opposite hasn’t happened as much. And I think it’s important that it happens in not just dramas and slave narratives and stories we have a comfortable distance from but that it happens in fun movies that take place right now. 


- This article originally appeared in the June/July issue of Produced By magazine.

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