Interview | Jordan Peele, ‘Get Out’ and Social Thrillers

There is a thin line between comedy and horror, and Jordan Peele gracefully walks that tightrope in Get Out, the new horror thriller that stars Daniel Kaluuya (Black Mirror) as a young black man who suspects his girlfriend’s white family has sinister, racist intentions. Jordan Peele wrote and directed the film, which he describes as a “social thriller,” a horror movie that highlights and capitalizes on our cultural anxieties.

It’s heavy stuff, and fans of Jordan Peele’s comedy show Key & Peele or last year’s hilarious film Keanu may be surprised by just how brutal and terrifying Get Out really is. And yet the film’s social commentary parallels Jordan Peele’s humorous work. It’s clearly the product of the same creative mind, a mind that is producing exciting new stories on a regular basis.

I knew we’d have a lot to talk about when I got Jordan Peele on the phone last week, so let’s not waste any more time. Get Out is in theaters this weekend, we tried to avoid spoilers but we had to vaguely allude to some twists, and we talked a heck of a lot about the comedy genre, the horror genre, and the future of what’s scary.

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

Also: ‘Get Out’ Review | Let the Righteous Outrage In

Crave: You spent so much of your career making people pee their pants with laughter. What’s it like making them pee their pants with fear?

Jordan Peele: Pretty satisfying! I’m such a horror geek that it’s a dream come true, to be quite honest. Yeah, it feels amazing. I want more.

So is this the next phase of your career? Are you gunning to be the next Master of Horror?

Hey, you know, I wouldn’t presume to label myself that but yeah, I’ve got four more movies in the social thriller category that I want to make.

As I was watching Get Out it really struck me how many similarities there are between the comedy and the horror genre. So much of Get Out could have been played for straight laughter but just knowing that there’s a violent undercurrent completely shifted everything we were watching on screen.

That’s right. I mean, you could take a different score and put it on Get Out and it could be seen as a comedy in some ways. They are so close. It’s just a little bit of tonal precision that decides the genre of a movie sometimes.

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

Is that difficult to modulate on the set or is that something you can do mostly in post?

Being in comedy for so long is, I think, a part of my skill set that I’m confident about. Because with comedy you end up studying what’s going to make people laugh. You study what’s not going to get the laugh. So with something like Get Out you just don’t want people laughing for the wrong reasons, so you just have to be very conscious of where the moments of levity are and where they’re not.

You say you’ve spent a long time studying what makes people laugh and you say you’re a horror geek. Have you spent a long time studying what makes people frightened? What have you discovered along those lines?

Oh yeah. I’ve discovered that the unknown is probably the most powerful device in horror. When an audience is given enough rope to use their imagination, to fill in the gaps of what’s going on what’s lurking there in the dark, we can do a pretty terrifying job. So my first rule of horror is don’t show the monster too fast.

You do eventually show the monster. I don’t want to spoil it for anybody by discussing it in too much detail. But when you talk about letting the audience use their imaginations, the audience knows there is something deeply wrong is going in Get Out. How much responsibility do you have to surprise them? To get really far ahead of them?

I feel like the responsibility of a film like this, that bites off very serious social issues and a true human demon, which is race… I feel like this film had the responsibility to allow the audience to try to figure out what’s going on and then to subvert their expectations. So, to give them something different. That’s something that we would do on Key & Peele fairy often, which is use what the audience’s presumptions are against them.

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

As we discover in this film, the racists in this movie… their racism has evolved in an unusual direction. I know you can’t talk too much about it but can you give me some sense of what your idea was behind that?

I mean, you’ve kind of hit the point within the question, which is this movie and the very issue of race is about that which we assume about each other. It was important for me, for this movie, to be different than what we assume, and yeah, I feel like the only way to pull something like this film off is to have a twist, to have a deeper meaning. Because I knew this was the type of movie that, coming into it, it’s sort of impossible to imagine how this could be pulled off with any sort of taste or any sort of justice to the real horrors that it’s about. I let the audience try to figure that out and then, after they’re done trying, show them they’ve been watching something different than they knew they were watching the whole time.

Obviously I admire Get Out for tackling a difficult and relevant issue. In the wake of 9/11 horror responded with the so-called “torture porn” genre. What do you think the horror genre is going to do now? How do you think the horror genre is going to respond to these powder keg times we live in?

Well, I can tell you… I don’t want to give away any of what I have planned, but I feel like I’ve been developing several films in the category of “social thriller.” So hopefully I get to do more, but I think people want to engage in conversations about these issues. Since the internet took hold of our society we’ve seen, really, a crazy decade-and-a-half, comparable I think only in modern history way television affected the ‘60s and early ‘70s. Technology that makes the world smaller creates a sort of ripple effect for both good and bad change. So what I intend to do with my movies is address the different human demons, racism being the first one, and that’s what Get Out’s about.

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

So you’re saying you want your different films to tackle different issues? The next one won’t be about racism, and you’ll create some sort of canon?

Correct. I’ve identified these social monsters that I feel don’t get discussed or pinpointed, and my next film would be about a new one. Not race.

You’ve used the word “social thrillers” a lot. That’s a genre term that I don’t if everybody’s familiar with. I know you can’t tell me about the films you’re working on but you can you tell me about some of the other films you think of a social thrillers, that maybe you look to for inspiration?

Yeah. I think I’ve coined the term “social thriller” so I wouldn’t expect you’d find other movies discussed in that regard. It’s definitely the type of film genre, of horror, that I think I am equipped to pull off and I’m sort of obsessed with. But retroactively I would say The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby. They’re films about gender, they’re films about realizations and dealing with justified fears that arose in the women’s lib movement. They’re about men making decisions for women’s bodies. But they’re also entertaining popcorn flicks. So that’s what I want to do.

My last question. Just personally, be it in movies or real life… what is it that scares you?

[Thinks.] People. I think, and it goes to this whole horror thesis I hope to get to explore, but there’s nothing that’s scarier than what people are capable of when we get together. The way we can use fear, the way we can scapegoat, the way we can value those closer to ourselves more than we value people further from ourselves, or the other. I think human beings together are capable of the greatest things on Earth but also capable of the biggest atrocities.

Top Photo: VALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty Images

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.