As a writer, actor, comedian, and now director, Jordan Peele has pretty much done it all. He has written for shows such as MadTV and the film Keanu, and has done voice acting for animated programs such as Bob’s Burgers and more recently, Big Mouth. Since 2012, he is probably best known for his work on Key and Peele, a show in which he starred alongside Keegan Michael Key. His directorial debut horror film Get Out premiered at Sundance and quickly gained critical acclaim and recognition, ultimately earning Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Picture.
Now, being only one of three people in the history of the Oscars to receive nominations in all three major categories for his feature directorial debut, Peele plans to continue his directing career, possibly doing more within the horror genre. First, he’s passing forward some lessons learned during his first time. On the occasion of the Academy favor and Get Out being back in theaters, we’ve gathered some of these tips for success, which can be followed whether you’re a first-time director or aspiring horror-filmmaker.
Write for Yourself
When embarking on your first film, being primarily concerned with making something people will want to produce seems important. However, Peele advises keeping that as an afterthought. When asked for advice during a Reddit AMA in 2017, he told fans:
“First off, write your favorite movie that you haven’t seen. Don’t worry about whether it is going to get made. Write something for yourself. After you have that draft, then worry about what you need to do to sell it. I also say, as a director, enjoy yourself, and if you take the time to take a breath and have quiet moments for yourself and just say ‘how the fuck did I get here, this is awesome.’ That will seep into the work and people will feel the joy.”
Watch a video of the AMA here for more:
Watch the Classics
While you want your work to be original, drawing from the classics can be a great source of inspiration. Especially for horror filmmakers. Peele’s personal favorites, as he told No Film School in 2017, include The Stepford Wives, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and Rosemary’s Baby:
“It’s a great way to learn how to reinvent modern ideas. Stylistically, ‘Get Out’ is a throwback to the ’60s, one of my favorite times for film. They really knew how to wind tension tighter and tighter.”
Tell Your Truth
Putting part of yourself into your film is necessary if you want your work to resonate with others. When asked about the more autobiographical aspects of Get Out in an interview with Film Independent in 2017, Peele emphasized the importance of putting his own emotions and experiences into his work :
“I think the only way to, the only way I will ever attempt to create anything again is to be vulnerable with my own emotions. In some way it has to be autobiographical. If you’re telling a story and you’re not bearing part of your soul or telling your truth, I think that you’re not doing that right, as well. Certainly, that’s the case for me. And I think when I invented that party sequence, that was a huge moment for me of saying, ‘You know what, these fears, justified or not justified, however they come, these fears of mine, I’ve never seen them portrayed in film.’ You know the whole process of figuring out what this movie was about was about digging deep and exploring my fears first, and trusting that if I got that across, that we’re all human. We’re all made up of the same emotions, and that, this is what you sort of find in comedy too, is if you put your truth out there, however specific it feels, however much you feel like ‘this is just me. No one else is going to relate to this. No one is going to care.’ That’s not the case. People are drawn to truth like magnets in art, I think. It’s really easy to see in comedy because when something feels true, and when something rings true, you get a laugh. And if it doesn’t, you don’t. And it’s just that simple.”
Watch the rest of the interview here:
Create a Universal Fear
The difficulty with making a horror film specifically is that different things will frighten different people. Peele struggled with this concept when writing Get Out but found that allowing audiences to experience the character’s own personal horror can make a fear feel universal. In an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross in 2017, he said:
“Every great horror movie comes from a true fear, and ideally it’s a universal fear. The tricky nature of this project is that the fear I’m pulling from is very human, but it’s not necessarily a universal experience, so that’s why the first third of the movie is showing, and not in an over-the-top way, in a sort of real, grounded way, just getting everybody to be able to see the world through my protagonist’s eyes and his fears.”
Give Room for Thought
With Get Out, Peele was able to create a socially relevant story that stuck with audiences and kept them talking long after they left the theater. However, while it can be important for your work to help get the conversation going, Peele never set out to force a message onto his audience. He told The Verge in 2017:
“One hundred percent. I had a front-row seat, obviously, in ‘Key & Peele,’ realizing the power of sketch to help start and inform conversation. I’m a true believer in story. I think when you just tell people to think, people tend to get resistant and defensive, and feel like you’re accusing them of not thinking. But when you tell a story, and you draw them in through allowing them to see through the eyes of a different person, and when you can affect their feelings and emotions — whether it’s making them laugh, or making them scared, or making them scream, or making them cheer — then you have them on a starting point, already, to think about why they had those visceral reactions. The way I look at it is, when you allow people to submerge themselves into a story, they will react by thinking through what it’s about. That’s just so much more fun and effective, I think than a lecture.”
Subvert Audience Expectations
An important part of the comedy and horror genres especially is being able to keep your audiences on their feet. That being said, there is an art to creating effective twists and subverting expectations in a fun and clever way, which Peele explained in an interview with the Santa Barbara International Film Festival Cinema Society in 2017:
“Comedy is where I’m from and the process of doing sketch comedy, you know, week after week on ‘Key and Peele,’ very much became about this idea of jujitsu, of judo. If you can predict what and where an audience is going to go, or what they think you’re going to do, you can use that momentum against them. So all over this movie, I knew I wanted to have reveals. I knew I wanted to have twists. But most importantly, you know I figured if an audience thinks they know what’s going on and whether they like it or they don’t if you can show them that they’ve been watching something completely different the entire time, I think they have a respect. And there’s a real intellectual catharsis that comes with that and it’s fulfilling for an audience. You know, in this, there’s a few big ones. There’s the Rose reveal, which was a very difficult thing to hide that Rose was evil because it’s like you looking on paper she’s bringing him there. To expect an audience not to think that is almost impossible. So I had to kind of direct her and write that as if it was a different movie. As if it was this love story and to try to convince the audience to root for the two of them to escape together. Or to think at its worst that something was going to happen to one of them and that was the was one of the most fun reveals to protect. But I think the big one was to subvert the expectation that the type of racism we were watching was going to be what we usually associate as racism.”
Watch the rest of the interview here:
What We Learned
Although horror and comedy may seem like two completely different genres, they actually have a lot in common. The art of subversion is something important to master for both and when done right can improve the quality of your story overall and heighten the viewers’ level of engagement. At the heart of every great film, no matter the genre, is a message, something that you draw deep from within yourself. But give your audiences the opportunity to interpret that message and continue the conversation you started.
If there isn’t room for thought or discussion, the film may not have as strong of an impact on viewers or have a long life after its theatrical release. While focusing solely on impressing potential producers with your work is tempting, be sure to write what you love and what you would like to see represented on screen, and the rest will eventually fall into place if you have enough passion and motivation for your project.