“I’m obsessed with giving the audience something they don’t see coming,” Jordan Peele says of the ambition of his breakout feature directorial debut, Get Out. That declaration certainly encompasses Peele’s emergence as a sought-after filmmaker.
While his long career was defined by a progression through improv troupes and MADtv to becoming half of the Emmy-winning sketch show duo Key & Peele, everything changed with Get Out, the socially conscious horror movie best described as Stepford Wives with a Black Lives Matter undercurrent.
The film cost $4.5 million to make, and grossed over $214 million worldwide, to trail only The Exorcist in highest-grossing R-rated genre films. It was a true sleeper that built on word of mouth, fueled by rave reviews and a 99 percent score on the review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes.
So while the industry expectation of Peele hinged on his industry persona as an affable writer and performer of socially relevant sketch comedy, he had different dreams forged in childhood, despite the lack of black directors. “I wanted to be Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, Stanley Kubrick, David Cronenberg, Ridley Scott, James Cameron and Hitchcock,” he says. “I’d wanted to be a director since 13, and horror and the suspense thriller were the most powerful genres to me. They always scared everything out of me, but it wasn’t until then that I got mature enough to mentally separate myself, and look at these films as powerful artistry.
“And then, I found comedy and performing, and it took me by the hand on this amazing ride,” the writer-director continues. “And I thought, ‘OK, maybe directing these kinds of movies was just never meant to be.’”
Peele continued to devour genre movies, and is encyclopedic about the way horror evolved from a “stalkercam” POV—with unkillable villains stalking promiscuous teens—to the “torture porn” wave that followed 9/11, which served a certain helpless feeling in audiences. He then spent five years outlining and writing his first film, one that filtered his life and sensibilities.
Besides delivering on the obligatory grounded horror and twists of the genre, there was humor, social awareness, and a subtle undercurrent of the prejudice a black protagonist might feel when going to meet the white parents of his girlfriend.
That last part reflects Peele’s reality, but not—he says emphatically—his own experience (Peele’s wife, comedian and actress Chelsea Peretti, is white). Without giving too much away, the weekend portrayed in Get Out includes moments that pull the rug out from under the viewer in satisfying ways, akin to scenes in his touchstone films—from The Sixth Sense to Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead. By the end of the weekend, protagonist Chris Washington is running for his life.
But here comes the SPOILER ALERT part, to explain how Peele veered from a clever polemic climax and instead chose to please the audience as the best genre filmmakers do. After Chris gets through his ghoulish nightmare experience, he is met with flashing police lights amidst the carnage of his girlfriend’s demented family. The ending he chose was uplifting, but it wasn’t the one Peele originally shot. That one was more like the original, abandoned, conclusion of Fatal Attraction, in which the fingerprints of Michael Douglas’s character were found on the suicide knife of Glenn Close’s bunny-boiling stalker/mistress. Douglas’s slick married philanderer was spared a life sentence only because test audiences hated the ending and wanted to see Close’s character killed in a final clash.
“I won’t go too deep into it because it will be on the DVD coming out soon, but I will give you the exclusive scoop,” he says. “Chris ends up in prison.”
Turns out, Peele changed his mind partly because of how audiences responded, but also because of the political climate in the Trump era.
“I wrote several endings, but the first one I shot came out of my frustration with living in the Obama era and this sentiment that because we have a black president, racism is over,” he explains. “You know, we don’t need to talk about it, or deal with it. I wrote that before Trayvon Martin, and Black Lives Matter, before this ‘woke-ness’ conversation started. In that original ending, he doesn’t get shot, but it [was] this idea that for me, the movie was an allegory for this prison industrial system that is an abduction of black people, black men, and specifically our ability to neglect the fact that we were locking up black men for the majority of their lives for possessing less drugs than I was smoking while I was writing this movie.”
“So the original purpose of the movie was to call the system out and say, ‘Look, you guys know as much as I do, that when the cops show up at the end of a horror movie, it’s usually a good thing.’ Here, it is not, and we all know why, and I brought it around to [Chris in prison].”
Peele notes he would have preferred to see the scrapped Fatal Attraction climax, with Douglas’s character squirming on the hook. “He was a real antihero,” he says, “and he should get what is coming to him.” But he came around to feeling that Chris deserved better, and so did the audience—white and black—rooting for him.
“Too many people said, ‘I don’t think that is the way the movie should end.’ So we had this other [ending], and by the time we finished the movie, we tested it in a post-Black Lives Matter era. The conversation I was looking for had started, and it was a painful time. It still is for many of us, but by the time we tested it, white people and black people alike, nobody liked the ending, and I got it. People didn’t need a wake-up call anymore. They needed a hero, and they needed an escape.”
He believes, in hindsight, that he made the right choice. “[The original ending] would have been much less successful,” he says, and he also leaned on genre rules to leave the audience upbeat, even if he also admired one of the most shocking endings in horror—in George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead, when the black protagonist is mistaken for a zombie and coldly shot in the head and burned.
“I wanted to give the audience what they want,” he says. “I didn’t want to be their antagonist. I wanted to challenge them, show them something different, bigger and deeper.” He wasn’t the only one who felt it. “Jason Blum said to me, ‘Buddy, you got to change the ending,’ and he was right. You test, and then you talk to 20 or 30 of the audience members. Both black and white audiences said, ‘Why would you do that to us?’ It clearly felt to them that I was pushing my agenda on them. And also, the moment the cop car comes up, I realized that the audience has done all the work for me. They jumped to the conclusion that that was the first ending, and I realized the second that happened, the whole first ending was null and moot.”
So how does Peele use his newfound currency at a moment when major studios are dangling tentpole pictures before him after everybody but Blumhouse and producer Sean McKittrick spurned his script, partly fearing his comic instincts would be to turn the film into a Scary Movie-like spoof? He is moving at the same deliberate pace he has his whole career, a steady climb that included auditioning for and getting the offer to play Barack Obama on Saturday Night Live, when rival late-night show MADtv was on its way out. Fox, which still had him under contract, wouldn’t let Peele go.
“It was considered me going to the enemy,” he recalls. “It was soul-crushing at the time, but now I look back at it as the best thing that ever happened to me.” Post-MADtv, Peele peeled off with castmate Keegan-Michael Key for the Comedy Central sketch show Key & Peele. In a recurring skit, Peele played Obama delivering genteel, politically correct rhetoric, with an agitated and animated Key playing Luther, who provides the “anger translation” of what Obama really means. The skit’s truthful undercurrent resonated with the President himself, and became a viral sensation. Being recognized that way by Obama himself meant as much to Peele as any validation he ever received, including his hit directing debut.
“It felt like the last embrace you would ever need,” he says, “to the point of, where do we go from here? I mean, [Obama] is a guy who not only did we feel like he brought the country a sense of stability and compassion and wisdom that we had been lacking [for] a long time. I don’t want to speak for everybody, but he brought the African-American community something that, just like the idea of me making this movie, I didn’t think was possible.”
And when his presidency did seem possible?
“I was amongst the ones who were like, I want this, it’s important but I can’t get my hopes up—and then it happened and changed every possibility. For Keegan and I, being biracial and discussing what a biracial identity meant, and with this sketch, giving the President a voice he knew he couldn’t do, and having the President tell Jimmy Fallon, ‘You know, those guys are pretty good; those things Luther says, that’s pretty much what I’m feeling.’ We loved getting the Emmy for our show, but, holy crap!”
As for his own movie future, Peele believes he’ll stay in the genre lane, directing scripts he writes himself, at modest budgets. When I tell him that while watching Get Out it occurred to me that his deft mix of thrills and laughter to lighten tension is exactly what was missing in most of the DC tentpole superhero films, he smiles like it’s not the first time he has heard that. He won’t talk about the films he is being offered, but acknowledged, “That’s where I am right now, that’s the question. But my general feeling is, the big tentpole superhero movies and all that ultimately won’t fulfill me. Those are movies that are going to get made, and get made well, with or without me.”
Peele says he won’t make a Get Out sequel merely to cash in, but only if he can pull a James Cameron—“His sequels were always better”—and will likely try to replicate the situation he had with Blumhouse and his producer, Sean McKittrick. McKittrick, says Peele, was the first person who embraced his genre vision, as others didn’t understand the subtext. Peele didn’t initially intend to direct, but realized while writing that only he understood the balance between scares and polemics, and Blum and McKittrick quickly agreed, promising him full creative control as long as he came in on budget—which he did.
“The best thing I can do with this new trust from the industry for me is to retain a sense of the control that I had here,” he says, “because the movie benefitted from having a fresh perspective and a fresh face. So I wouldn’t want to jump to something so big that all of a sudden I’m having to argue my way out of notes I don’t agree with. I want to keep that autonomy, and just be able to continue to push forward in this genre, and represent my values within this genre.”