Jordan Peele interview: 'All my work is pointed at this idea of humanity’s dark side'

The horror filmmaker talks to Dave Itzkoff about the daunting task of stepping into Rod Serling’s shoes for his new take on ‘The Twilight Zone’

Saturday 30 March 2019 09:39 GMT
'If you can predict where an audience thinks it’s going to go, you can use it against them. And they’ll love you for it.'
'If you can predict where an audience thinks it’s going to go, you can use it against them. And they’ll love you for it.'

The woman in the black-and-white programme on the flatscreen TV is teetering on the brink of madness, delivering a disjointed monologue about parallel worlds and the possibility that our own physical duplicates might walk among us. As the camera hovers above her troubled face and the decades-old audio crackled with the sound of a persistent rainstorm, Jordan Peele sits captivated on a nearby couch. “Beautiful shot,” he says with quiet awe.

Here in his office, Peele – the celebrated comedian turned Academy Award-winning horror filmmaker – is watching an old episode of The Twilight Zone, the classic science-fiction anthology series that he is helping to revive.

On a recent March morning, Peele had, with some calculation, chosen a 1960 instalment called Mirror Image, from the show’s debut season. It stars Vera Miles (Psycho) as a woman convinced she is being followed by her exact double, and Martin Milner (Route 66) as the man who doesn’t believe her until it is too late.

Peele has pointed to Mirror Image as an inspiration for his new film, Us, in which Lupita Nyong’o and her family are besieged by murderous doppelgängers. He also admires the episode, written by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, for its ability to elicit jump scares without relying on supernatural beasts or extraterrestrial beings. In his favourite tales of terror, Peele tells me: “I love human beings as the monster, as the horror.”

This is a suspenseful juncture for Peele, who grew up revering The Twilight Zone, and Serling in particular, for imbuing the show with a social consciousness and using its genre tropes to address the ills and anxieties of Cold War-era America.

Four years after the end of Key & Peele and two years after his directorial debut, Get Out, his hit thriller about seemingly well-intentioned white people who insert themselves into black people’s bodies, Peele is now an executive producer of a new Twilight Zone series. He is also playing the part of its dapper, deadpan narrator, bookending each episode as Serling did on the original.

Peele accepted this on-camera role warily, and was uneasy about bringing back The Twilight Zone at all. He doesn’t easily embrace comparisons to Serling, a singularly influential figure in television who wrote many of the show’s most beloved segments and helped audiences see contemporary consequences in his stories of enchanted artefacts, interstellar travel and nuclear armageddon.

But in this tale of unlikely parallels, Peele has shadowed Serling’s trajectory all along, whether or not he wants to admit it. He, too, has used genre entertainment to convey otherwise unpalatable truths to his viewers, deploying sketch comedy to comment on police brutality or horror movies to skewer self-satisfied liberals.

In his efforts to resuscitate The Twilight Zone, he has been reminded of a valuable lesson that might explain why he is, after all, a worthy successor to Serling’s mantle – an instructive philosophy that Peele says is as applicable to horror as it is to comedy: always be thinking ahead of your viewers.

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“If you can predict where an audience thinks it’s going to go, you can use it against them,” he says. “And they’ll love you for it.”

These days there are many twists and turns in Peele’s life, including the vertiginous path up the Hollywood Hills to an outpost of his company, Monkeypaw Productions. The building is a sparsely furnished Colonial home where Us was edited, and his office is decorated with vinyl dolls of the creepy twin girls from The Shining; a lunch box depicting Daniel Kaluuya’s tear-streaked face in Get Out; and – oh, yes – the Oscar that Peele won for writing its screenplay.

The smash success of Get Out (which took in more than £195m worldwide) has enabled Peele to produce countless other projects, including Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and the Amazon documentary series Lorena, as well as upcoming horror offerings such as the HBO series Lovecraft Country and a remake of the movie Candyman.

Peele, 40, doesn’t carry himself like a budding media mogul. He is dressed today like a stylish cult member, in black sweat clothes and white Nikes, and he speaks softly and haltingly about his accomplishments. “Obviously, I have an ego,” he says, “but I’m in constant attempts to remind myself where I come from and to humble myself. It’s how I work best.”

Before he broke through as a professional portrayer of president Barack Obama and college football players with names like L’Carpetron Dookmarriot, Peele was – and still is – an unapologetic pop-culture geek who grew up on Gremlins, Jaws and Tim Burton movies. Another crucial touchstone was The Twilight Zone: it originally aired on CBS from 1959 to 1964, and his mother introduced him to the reruns.

Peele is pretty sure the first episode he saw was To Serve Man, from 1962, in which humans discover that the titular text of a seemingly benevolent alien race is actually a cookbook. Though time and familiarity have reduced this twist ending to a dad joke, Peele argues that To Serve Man was still bone-chilling. “You tell somebody that and it sounds pretty silly – watch the episode and you’re ready to believe it,” he says.

Us trailer Christmas Day

His pop perspective was shaped by other vintage instalments, also written by Serling: The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street and I Am the Night – Colour Me Black, which dealt directly with societal bias and racism, and cruelly ironic episodes like Time Enough at Last, in which Burgess Meredith plays the bookish survivor of an atomic apocalypse, stranded with a lifetime supply of reading material and a pair of broken glasses.

“I love the ones that, essentially, take someone’s tragic flaw and exploit it,” Peele says. “You set up a character and you show their tailor-made worst nightmare.”

Serling, who died in 1975, envisioned The Twilight Zone as a delivery system for parables with deliberate messages of social justice and allegories of human weakness and folly, coated in a digestible layer of fantasy.

As his widow, Carol Serling, tells me, its sci-fi trappings allowed her husband to avoid creative interference and “get his points across – his social feelings that he wanted to talk about”.

In that era of television, she says, “You couldn’t do this, you couldn’t do that, you couldn’t put the Chrysler Building on-screen if another car company was sponsoring the show, which was crazy. He felt that by escaping into outer space, so to speak, he could get these stories across – and he did.”

The Twilight Zone has already spawned a 1983 movie and two other TV revivals, from 1985-89 and 2002-03 – none regarded anywhere near as fondly as the original series. For the past few years, Simon Kinberg (a writer, producer and director of the X-Men film franchise) had contemplated a new TV incarnation, but couldn’t crack it. Should it tell a serialised story? Feature a repertory cast? Take place in an actual location called the Twilight Zone? These changes felt gimmicky and wrong.

More crucially, Kinberg says: “There wasn’t a feeling of historical relevancy to the show, because we were living in a moment of, at least, perceived stability.”

Then two things happened: first, the 2016 presidential election. Next, Kinberg and his colleagues saw Get Out, which they regarded as a modern-day Twilight Zone in its own right. Soon, Peele and Kinberg were meeting to hash out ideas and realising that perhaps the show’s classic formula didn’t need updating after all.

“In many ways it feels like somehow the wires got crossed and we’re in the wrong dimension – this was not supposed to be like this,” Peele says. “It felt like, if Serling were here, he’d have a lot to say and a lot of new episodes he couldn’t have written back in his time.”

Their new instalments include Nightmare at 30,000 Feet (which has a teleplay by Marco Ramirez, and a story by Peele, Kinberg and Ramirez), an homage, of sorts, to the Twilight Zone original Nightmare at 20,000 Feet and starring Adam Scott as an airline passenger convinced his flight is in terrible danger. Another episode, Replay (written by Selwyn Seyfu Hinds) follows a mother and son, played by Sanaa Lathan and Damson Idris, on a road trip, pursued by a tenacious state trooper (Glenn Fleshler).

What this Twilight Zone shares with Serling’s series, Peele says, is a sense of simplicity – a narrative arc of heightening revelations, “and then, at the end, the pattern is subverted or committed to even further”.

Each episode also requires what he calls “that Serling wink”. “We take ourselves seriously but never too seriously,” Peele says. “It can’t go so dark that it makes us want to curl up in a ball.” (This is one way that he believes The Twilight Zone will distinguish itself from Black Mirror, Netflix’s acclaimed anthology series about technological dystopias. Peele says he was a fan of that show, but “it goes darrrrrrk. Dark dark. As dark as anything I’ve ever seen – and I love that.”)

There was also the matter of getting Peele to be narrator of the new show, to recite an eerie prologue over an adaptation of Marius Constant’s nerve-ruffling Twilight Zone theme, dress in a Serling-esque suit and appear unexpectedly on, say, a TV monitor or in a diner booth to deliver crucial context and moral accounting.

Despite the urging of his fellow producers, Peele says he worried that his comedy résumé would disqualify him for the role. “My initial feeling was, won’t people be picturing, like, Puppy Dog Ice-T?” he says, referring to one of his Key & Peele characters. “Doesn’t that take the gravity out?”

But eventually, Peele explains, this was a situation where he felt he had to set aside his ego and embrace the suggestions of his collaborators.

“I didn’t want to overthink it,” Peele says. “I didn’t want to do an impression of Serling, but I did want to conjure his tone. You can’t just do it the exact way he did. I’ve got to be real. I’ve got to be myself.”

Themes of double identity recur throughout Peele’s work and he’s thought about them since at least high school, when he decided he wanted to be a director and declared he would someday make his own version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. (Looking at his own films now, Peele says that Get Out was his Frankenstein and Us was his Jekyll and Hyde.)

“All my work is pointed at this idea of humanity’s dark side,” Peele says. “We have demons sewn into our DNA. Evolution has brought us to a place where we want to be good, for the most part. But we’ll never be all good. We’ll always have this other side.”

When he turned his attention to the TV screen playing Mirror Image, Peele was fascinated by the strange but economical decision to set its action in a small bus station in upstate New York. He empathised with its protagonist, whose truthful complaints go largely unheeded, and relished a climactic scene in which she sees her double already sitting on the bus she is about to board, smiling back at her through the window.

“That little knowing smirk is so terrifying,” he says, sounding half horrified and half delighted. “It’s one thing to see another you in existence – it’s another thing to see another you that is already aware that you exist.”

At least two Jordan Peeles would seem to be required in the world to account for the volume and variety of work that he has generated recently. Or maybe his productivity is an act of defying his double, of making something before his counterpart can do it first – or before he shows up with more sinister intentions.

“OK, we can deal with this,” Peele says, now chuckling outright. “There’s innately something about a doppelgänger that suggests one of you must die. There’s only space for one.”

© The New York Times

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