'Us' Director Jordan Peele On Being Inspired By George Romero And Universal Monsters [Interview]

Writer/director Jordan Peele looks exhausted when I sit down to speak with him. It's his final interview of the day. A car is waiting outside to take him to the airport. And his new horror movie, Us, had just broken the brains of its world premiere audience at SXSW the night before.

Even with the time crunch – Peele is the kind of interview that demands 30 minutes, not 10 – the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind Get Out managed to talk about his influences, directing his ensemble in terrifying dual performances, and creating a truly tragic monster.

I love the movie. My big concern, my fear going into this interview, is that I'm going to sound like Bradley Whitford in Get Out. "I would have seen Us two more times!" [Laughs] I'm sorry.

I know. This is the horror I've created for white people, that they're going to say something about Obama. No, you're good – just by acknowledging it, you can fuck up two times before we have a problem.

Cool. I'm going to try to make it only once so this goes well.


OK. So the first half of the movie, I'm thinking, "This is Jordan Peele clearly doing his French new extremity. The second half, I'm like, "Oh, he's doing Rod Serling!" I'm always interested in influences. Which of those came first?

I could probably give you twenty things that inspired me in the direction of making this. One of them is Romero and Night of the Living Dead and how pure an allegory that movie was. I wanted to make something that meant more than met the eye, where the commentary and the message is something that requires you to dig and talk about it. Serling is always going to be an influence for me, because I love the reveal, I love the technique of using an audience's – or what I think their expectations are – against them.

I love the classic Universal Monsters because they're all built on this mountain of tragedy. I know when I revisit this movie, when I know where it's going, the whole thing will be far more tragic. How do you go about creating the tragic monster?

It's awesome you bring up monsters, because I love the idea of creating a new monster. In many ways, I think of Get Out as my Frankenstein and this as my Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I think to create a monster, you need to have just as much sort of darkness or sickness going around in your head as you do empathy, and I think one thing that's interesting certainly about the Universal Monsters – if you were to consider this as being in the pantheon of that – is there is this sort of grey area between villain and protagonist. The audience is invited to relate to, or to be attracted to, this outcast of some sort. So yeah, I think being able to look with compassion at a monster as a writer is one of those things that allows you to hit a note that the audience isn't expecting.

I realize this sounds like a bad question – "What does your movie mean?" – but the underlying messages there...it feels like a companion piece to Get Out without saying the same message, about how we don't offer privileges to people and it makes them into something we don't understand or we see as an enemy. Was that part of the core idea at first, or did that evolve once you hit on the doppelgänger idea?

Yeah, the idea that part of having privilege, especially in this country, seems to be that we don't consider it unearned. We have this legacy culture where we don't acknowledge the people who have and do suffer for us to have the things that we take for granted. I think when you look in this movie in terms of nationality, which is certainly my jumping off point, or class, or race, or haves/have-nots, however you look at this movie, the common factor to me is that the haves feel like we deserve. And we confuse the idea of privilege and deserving.

I love how the seeds are planted early with the core family being upset about their friends having the generator and the flare gun, and you subtly plant all those things in there. As a screenwriter, I always love those little magic tricks. You realize, "Oh, those set ups are now paying off." So when you're staring at that blank page, are they part of the process?

All of it. You're always looking for connections, details that, if somebody sees them, if somebody catches them, they'll have a good moment. So from the very beginning, I'm thinking in those terms, to the very moment I'm selecting props and the final moments before we shoot something. I'm thinking about "what has the most meaning? Is there a reference to something I want to pay homage to here?" It's all over for me.

I want to talk about how you directed Lupita Nyong'o, because her two characters are very different, both in how they carry themselves, how they move, and how they speak. Her and the other actors move as if they're attempting to imitate human life instead of having the experience of knowing how to move and speak and interact. What kind of direction did that involve?

With each individual, we spoke in terms of emotion, but we also spoke a great deal in terms of physicality. Especially because Lupita's Red character is the only one of the Tethered that speaks in the movie, besides some sounds here and there. So with Lupita – she just reminded me, early on, I described her physicality as Queen Cockroach. Cockroaches scare me because they're still. The royalty has this erudite air that I wanted this character to have: she's the shit, she's the head of her family and so much more. She took ballet classes to find her physical footing, no pun intended, and she came with this beautifully crafted, perfect physicality. The rest of the guys, I knew I wanted a skittering kid. If you've got an opportunity to let a kid skitter, let a kid skitter when making a horror movie! With Shahadi Wright Joseph, I talked about her character Umbrae in terms of almost having a crush on her counterpart, you know? [laughs] So she has this really creepy smile. It's iconic, and she totally got it. She was like, "Oh, weird!" I'm like, "Yes. Weird. Go for it!" With Winston [Duke], we talked a great deal about Abraham and what he's going through and that character, he evolved that far past where I originally was, which was sort of Michael Myers, inquisitive, and scary.

Winston is so funny in this. The movie is so dark and upsetting, and he comes in and this is some of the best "dad joke" writing I've seen in a movie recently.

Yeah, but he doesn't really have jokes, right? They're all lines that are funny because they're him. He channeled a very real character, and I think part of what makes it pop is we've never seen that character. We've seen goofy dads, but we've never seen this large, alpha, black, familially enthusiastic dude who has that goofy blind spot that all dads have. You just don't get to see it that much.

[The publicist begins literally escorting Peele down the stairs to his waiting car]

I have to ask about the score real quick. The score has a "Tubular Bells" [from The Exorcist] feeling, and I love that. Can you talk for a few seconds on how that score came about before they kick me out of here?

I wrote in the screenplay the idea of this anthem that was like something we've never heard before and weirdly, disarmingly hopeful. Michael Abels, the brilliant composer, he totally got it. He knows all my references at this point, and he goes and he just wrote me something that's challenging. We definitely talked about "Tubular Bells."


Us is in theaters now.