Fresh off a well-deserved, scare-the-money-out-your-pockets box office weekend for his horror film Us and a PaleyFest panel for his forthcoming revival of the iconic Twilight Zone, Jordan Peele scaled down the spectacle and participated in the Upright Citizens Brigade’s Q&A series in Los Angeles. In a conversation moderated by UCB co-founder Ian Roberts in front of UCB training center students, Peele talked about his career and his role as a black auteur in a renaissance for underrepresented voices in Hollywood.
Considering the audience was filled with UCB improvisers and aspiring TV writers, producers and filmmakers, the majority of the conversation focused on Peele’s journey from aspiration to Sarah Lawrence College to Mad TV to Key & Peele to Get Out to Us. He even went into detail about the time he auditioned for Saturday Night Live during the 2008 writers strike with an impression of Barack Obama and then had the opportunity to fulfill his dream of being on the iconic show, but his contract with Mad TV wouldn’t allow him. He may not be bitter now, but back then he admitted that he was less than pleased — but all seemed to work out for him in the end.
Peele said that directing was merely in the back of his mind throughout his comedy career in comedy. “I think I forgot about directing the day I didn’t get into NYU,” he said. “Maybe it wasn’t for me.” Still, he noticed that there was a lack of black directors and it weighed on him. As he moved through Mad TV and Key & Peele, pieces started to come together and he had a realization that in order to do exactly what he wanted he needed to produce his own things. He also had to direct — and thus his dream of being a director rushed to the front of the line.
To avoid spoilers, there was not much talk about Us — but then again, if you haven’t seen Us by now, what are you even doing with your life? However, there was plenty of talk about his creative process on an iconic sketch comedy show and two stellar films. And like any good artist, his creative process involves a lot of self-doubt — and that’s where the weed comes into play. Peele laughed saying that he smokes lots of weed: Because of all his self-doubt, he partakes in cannabis to “push himself to his loving side.”
Get Out established Peele as an auteur. He pointed out how the social thriller reflected his experiences as a black man in white spaces. With Us, he gave us a straight horror with less social commentary. But with a black cast, culture and music folded into the narrative, it contributes to the minority representation needed in a predominantly white industry — especially with horror films. He doesn’t necessarily feel a pressure to put black actors on screen nor does he feel that he should be limited to what kind of films he can make. Instead, he recognizes his platform and what he can do to move the needle when it comes to inclusivity and moving the industry forward.
“The way I look at it with what I can do with my films is that I get to cast black people,” said Peele. “I feel fortunate to be in this position where I can say to Universal that I want to make a $20 million horror movie with a black family and they’ll just say yes.”
He continues, “I don’t see myself casting a white dude in a lead of a movie — it’s not because I don’t like white dudes. It’s because I’ve seen that movie.”
“We are in this time when there are so many great black directors right now,” he said. “The renaissance that has happened has proven myths of representation in the industry are false.”
With his first two films, Peele has become a foremost auteur of our time. His experience with improv and comedy are a large part of why his storytelling and filmmaking skills are so sharp, focused and celebrated. During the Q&A, Peele shared at least one secret to his filmmaking.
“I plan, plan and plan — but then I know the best things come with the unplanned,” he said. “The fun part is when things get f*cked!”