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Nope Jordan Peele

Jordan Peele: ‘Black people have a different relationship to sci-fi’

The director gives the inside scoop on his new film, Nope – a surreal, subversive horror that defies all expectations

In 2014, before he was a groundbreaking genre filmmaker, Jordan Peele wrote a tweet: “Dreamt that a baby chimp attacked some people then ran to me and hugged me all scared. I woke up with tears streaming down my face.”

At the time, Peele’s followers probably thought the guy from Key & Peele was smoking too much weed. Eight years later, cinemagoers can empathise with the visceral reaction. In Nope, Peele’s third feature, a Korean kid on a sitcom set witnesses a chimp massacre his co-stars before offering the child actor a fist-bump. “I’d completely forgotten about (that tweet),” Peele tells Dazed with an amused expression, in early August. “It really shows you that my films come from somewhere inside – I don’t even know where – and it’s about trying to piece together the best movie I can make from it.”

When the chimp, Gordy, with human blood streaming from his mouth, beats a beloved TV star to death, you may internally find yourself yelping the film’s title out loud. The second thought might be: what does this have to with the rest of Nope? Although Peele, 43, has written and directed an expensive, crowd-pleasing popcorn movie that’s already a smash in America, it doesn’t spoonfeed the viewer. The Gordy murder spree is a flashback in the memory of Jupe (Steven Yeun), a supporting character, and its connection to the surrounding scenes are thematic and reliant on post-screening cogitation. It goes to show the storytelling risks big-screen auteurs are allowed after box-office hits like Get Out and Us.

The stars of Nope, otherwise, are OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer), a sibling duo – he’s stoic, she seemingly drinks coffee for two – who claim to be the great-great-great-grandchildren of the first-ever movie star. In 1877, a white photographer, Eadweard Muybridge, captured a Black man, Alistair E. Haywood, riding a horse in 12 still images, which were compiled into a two-second sequence (a 19th-century GIF) called The Horse in Motion. On a Californian ranch, OJ and Emerald advertise their horse wrangling services by mentioning their Haywood heritage; when the pair suspect a stationary cloud is actually a spaceship, they decide to test if filmmaking really is in their DNA.

In 2014, perhaps the year Peele subconsciously came up with Nope, a Key & Peele sketch titled “Alien Imposters” starred Peele and Keegan Michael-Key as Black action heroes who use their Blackness to uncover aliens on Earth. (In a line foreshadowing Get Out, Key quizzes a white man, “Would you let me date your daughter?” The friendly response indicates he’s a creature from another planet.) Tellingly, OJ and Emerald never consider informing the authorities; they instead befriend a tech expert, Angel (Brandon Perea). Are Black people simply better at identifying UFOs?

“What we did in Key & Peele there was apply the Black experience, and what we know about how people treat us, to a sci-fi premise,” Peele says. “Black people in the genre have a different relationship to it. One thing no one ever screams in my movies is ‘Call the cops!’ We know why African-Americans aren’t the quickest to call the cops.” He laughs. “Sometimes we might want to deal with the UFO first!”

In a subversion of Spielbergian tropes, OJ and Emerald aren’t interested in communicating with aliens, they just want to grab the first snapshot; likewise, Jupe, who hasn’t learned from the chimp attack, also identifies UFOs as primarily a cash grab. “The film is about our addiction to attention,” Peele explains. “Mine, yours, the media, the film industry. I know that my job is to tell big stories, and I felt like I couldn’t ignore the truth of what I do.”

The spaceship, I note, resembles the kind of camera setup you get at junkets, and perhaps, like the chimp dream, it’s also an extension of an inner fear? “You have a good imagination and brain,” he says, politely. “I’ll give you that.” I also ask if Nope belongs to the same universe as Being John Malkovich, another comedy-thriller about fame, human-chimp relations, and strange objects falling from the sky. “People have connected Get Out to Being John Malkovich through Catherine Keener. I would welcome and honour any connection Spike Jonze would allow me to.”

The more pertinent link with Being John Malkovich, Peele concedes, is that he majored in puppetry at Sarah Lawrence College, and expected to be a puppeteer, not a comedian or filmmaker. Although the spaceship is a CGI creation, it unfolds in the sky, layer by layer, like a gigantic puppet. “It’s us allowing something to evolve a bit, to show you how it wants to be. A big part of how we designed the finale was something that felt like it could exist on this epic scale and organically evolve.”

Nope also continues Peele’s fascination with spatial awareness. The “Sunken Place” of Get Out and the “Tethered” of Us visualised underground worlds. In Nope, though, Kaluuya and Palmer are forever fixated on activity above that is captured on 65mm with IMAX cameras; the cinematographer, Hoyte van Hoytema, is a sci-fi specialist known for Tenet, Ad Astra, and Spike Jonze’s Her.

Yet Peele resists the comic urge to take the sci-fi too far. In a popular Key & Peele sketch called “I Said Bitch”, the pair are afraid to mention “bitch” in public; as the premise heightens, they end up floating in space, still terrified of uttering the word. Nope, instead, remains oddly believable (there are scientific advisors named in the end credits), even when the action is jaw-dropping, spectacular, and involves beings that don’t exist. Two specific inspirations Peele is willing to name are Akira and Neon Genesis Evangelion.

“Those two are the best [of anime] in my mind,” he says. “Anime and manga have a different sense of character, a different sense of world-building, a different sense of revealing and twists. I’m very inspired by that storytelling.” Did NGE influence the spaceship? “I will say… y… y… y…” He pauses, unable to think of a way to avoid the question, then laughs. “Yes, absolutely. The Angels of Evangelion are truly some of the best creature designs of all time. It’s very important for me to create something very unique as well, but I went into it with this knowledge that there’s a minimalist spectacle that we haven’t seen photographically in film.”

Likewise, OJ and Emerald are trying to become the first Black filmmakers to document a UFO on camera, and the parallel to Peele’s milestone-reaching trajectory is apparent. Moreover, while Muybridge, a white man, became a celebrity for The Horse in Motion, the Black jockey’s name was never known – Peele invented “Alistair E. Haywood” for Nope.

“There’s a connection I feel, obviously, with this jockey, this forgotten character, who doesn’t have a name that’s been passed down,” Peele says. “I created a name, a fictional account, a mythologising of this person. It felt like the film was about my ability to reclaim that lost soul, and those that have been erased and exploited. This film is, in a way, a meta expression of trying to get that impossible shot.”

Nope is in UK cinemas on August 12