The 33rd Santa Barbara International Film Festival celebrated the five Academy Award-nominated directors – Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk), Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water), Jordan Peele (Get Out), and Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread) – and honored them with the Outstanding Directors of the Year Award for 2018, at the Arlington Theatre on February 6th. With Get Out (available on Blu-ray/DVD), Peele told the story of a young African-American man who went to meet his white girlfriend’s parents for a weekend that quickly turned from friendly to a nightmare, while exploring societal and racial themes in an emotionally moving way, brilliantly wrapped in the horror genre.
During individual panels and a group chat, these directors discussed pushing boundaries in their storytelling and how they are inspired by the work of their colleagues. Peele talked about why humor is effective in exploring the subject of race relations, whether he’d ever considered acting in the film, how much the success exceeded expectations, and whether he’d consider making a sequel. He also talked about how even though awards season appears competitive, he’s just enjoying getting to eavesdrop on the conversations of his fellow nominees, along with the impression that fellow nominee Paul Thomas Anderson’s film, Phantom Thread, made on him.
Here are the highlights of what he had to say during the Q&A.
Question: Many of us came to know you through Key & Peele, and it has been a recurring theme of your work to use some degree of humor to approach the subject of race relations. When did you figure out that that was an effective way of doing that?
JORDAN PEELE: I realized, in the middle of [Get Out] and looking back at Key & Peele that, “Holy shit, I’m obsessed with race!” It hit me. I’ve had this obsession with African American identity, with the representation of my perspective and the black perspective, and with the broadening of what that means and what is regarded as the African American perspective in pop culture. For a long time, there were very thin avenues with which you could explore the African American perspective.
The writing of this script predates Key & Peele, but you had been thinking about and working on Get Out for many years. Did your Negrotown sketch influence the film?
PEELE: I can’t take the entire credit for Negrotown. I never though I’d say that sentence. That was a beautiful collaboration between all of the writers. Sketches happen many different ways, and that was one that we all wrote. The notion that I was insistent on infusing into Negrotown was the element of police brutality. [For people that don’t know], Negrotown was a sketch about a guy who’s hit by police and he ends up going to this mythical place where all the black people live happily, and it was this musical thing. It was an achievement of the whole [Key & Peele] team. The connection is that I love to take a big, impossible risk with the premise and work backwards from there. If someone says, “You can’t do a horror movie about race, in this way and in these times, when there’s so much actual pain and suffering from racism,” I want to try to still package that in a way that everybody in the audience has a good time. That’s why it took so long.
Had you ever thought about playing a role in Get Out?
PEELE: It crossed my mind, a couple of times, but no. I wanted to direct this and I needed actors who were better than me. I have to say, in working with the actors for the movie, I did feel like, in talking to them, I had to become the character, as well, to an extent, so that I could access the emotion that I was asking them to access, in order to describe what I was looking for from the scene. It was a very emotional process, for that reason. I felt what the characters felt.
This movie exceeded all expectations. Did the reception for it exceed your expectations?
PEELE: The best part about it, really, is that I started seeing art inspired by the film and inspired by the idea of the Sunken Place, which started to resonate. Putting a name on that feeling was needed, and I started seeing all of this art come in on my Instagram. People were tagging me on Instagram with beautiful art, just jumping off of that concept. A lot of it was Daniel Kaluuya’s face, crying. The conversation surrounding the movie was fascinating. That iconic image of Daniel worked the way it did because we don’t really have that image portrayed much, of a black man, scared and vulnerable, accessing his darkest trauma. It almost felt like black men haven’t been allowed to be vulnerable in pop culture, in that way. This is why horror movies are important. This is the way that we face our fears. To not explore all the images out there and to not have the image of the vulnerable, frightened black person out there, people aren’t hearing that we are afraid and that we are in pain. It’s very connected to the lack of a substantial response, when it comes to violence against black people by cops. If we don’t put these images out there and if we’re not allowed to put these images out there because they’re being silenced or taken away, and we’re being called sons of bitches for kneeling down, then that’s what the Sunken Place is.
A lot of people are clamoring for a sequel. Is there any chance that could happen?
PEELE: I’m definitely open to it. I love the world of this movie. But to be honest, I would never do a sequel, if I didn’t think it was going to beat the original.
You’ve been making the rounds, as a nominated director, this awards season, along with Guillermo del Toro, Paul Thomas Anderson, Greta Gerwig and Chris Nolan. When did you guys first meet?
PEELE: I knew nobody, but the first person I met was Greta. There’s definitely an actor to director bond that we have. And I’ve met [Guillermo, Paul and Chris] in the subsequent weeks. It feels like there’s a competitive nature to the season, but it’s not like that. These are heroes of mine, and I get to sit and eavesdrop on their conversations. That’s how it feels.
Since you’ve probably gotten to see them, by this point, what was your impression of your colleagues’ (Guillermo del Toro, Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson and Greta Gerwig) nominated films?
PEELE: Phantom Thread really fucked me up. I loved each of their movies for distinct reasons. They’re all masterpieces. By the way, I should point out that when I met Paul about three weeks or a month ago, I was like, “Dude, I loved Phantom Thread so much!” And he was like, “Really?! How did you see it?” I was like, “On a screener!” And I just saw his face go, “Ohh,” and I realized that I’d lost Paul, forever. There’s a scene in the movie where Woodcock is at the New Year’s Eve party, and the emotion, the psychology and the visual beauty of that moment are working in harmony, in a way that is just a pure cinematic moment that you almost can’t describe. I get choked up, thinking about the character, who is looking for the woman he loves and he realizes there is a rift between them that may never be mended and may never make sense. This beautiful moment of searching for this person he loves and simultaneously realizing that he needs to let go of her in some way, I’m not sure if that’s how he was thinking about it because that might be my shit, but it was one of those moments of realizing, “This is cinema!”