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'Get Out' Sprang From An Effort To Master Fear, Says Director Jordan Peele

Jan 5, 2018
Originally published on January 8, 2018 8:14 am
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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. "Get Out," the satirically funny horror film written and directed by Jordan Peele, has earned a Golden Globe nomination for best motion picture in the comedy or musical category. The film was a hit at the box office and among critics - some of whom wondered why Peele himself wasn't nominated in the best director or best screenplay categories. Daniel Kaluuya, who costars in the film, is also nominated in the best actor category. The Golden Globes will be broadcast on Sunday.

You may know Jordan Peele as half of the duo Key and Peele who had a sketch comedy show on Comedy Central. Terry interviewed Peele last March when "Get Out" was in movie theaters. The film's about a young African-American photographer, Chris, played by Kaluuya, who's dating a white woman, Rose, played by Allison Williams. They go to meet her parents who go out of their way to be friendly and show their appreciation for black culture. But Chris finds something sinister beneath their genial liberal surface.

In this scene, Chris and Rose are on their way to her parents' home. She's driving when the car hits a deer. They pull over and a police officer asks Chris for his ID.


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 had headlight fixed and that mirror.

WILLIAMS: (As Rose) Thank you, officer.


WILLIAMS: 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 the first - 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.

And, 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.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: So why the idea of the white girlfriend with a 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 because there's a lot of jokey asides here, but you'll get the kind of tone of it. 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.


BRADLEY WHITFORD: (As Dean) So how long has this been going on, this thang (ph)? (Laughter) How long?

KALUUYA: (As Chris) (Laughter) Four months.

WHITFORD: (As Dean) Four months?

WILLIAMS: (As Rose) Five months, actually.

KALUUYA: (As Chris) (Whispering) She's right. I'm wrong.

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) 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: You know, 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, 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 he's was wondering, like, who does that? Who puts Edgewood Street close to Edgewood Lane? 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 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 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 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: Do you experience that a lot - that uncertainty? Like, I don't know if what that person said is kind of racist, or am I just, like, projecting that on them? I mean, I've experienced that as a woman a lot. Like, that thing 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 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 like "Get Out," you should absolutely see it. 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 ends up happening is we see that state that you've described as being part of being a woman - I described it 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.

DAVIES: We're listening to an interview with Jordan Peele, the writer and director of the film "Get Out," which is nominated for two Golden Globe Awards. The Golden Globes are this Sunday. We'll continue Terry's interview with Peele after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with Jordan Peele, the writer and director of the film "Get Out." It's earned Golden Globe nominations for Best Picture and Best Actor.


GROSS: 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. When the young man, the African-American protagonist, arrives with his white girlfriend and they're at a party here 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. 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 - I was wondering if there's anything you wanted to say about that (laughter) - about this 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 meaningless - 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 stopped talking about it, it'll 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 because 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: 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: Oh, 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 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 this 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 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 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 Missy played by Catherine Keener. You know, I could just hear the, 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: Jordan Peele, thank you so much.

PEELE: Thank you, Terry.

DAVIES: Jordan Peele wrote and directed the film "Get Out." It's earned Golden Globe nominations for best picture and best actor. The Golden Globes award ceremony is this Sunday. After a break, we remember trombonist Roswell Rudd, known for his big, ebullient sound, who died last month. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

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