When GET OUT became a social phenomenon, there was discussion of its Oscar chances. I didn’t know about categories like acting (excellent) or directing (startlingly refined for a first film) but I KNEW I was looking at a superior piece of screenwriting.
ALL art is a matter of self-expression. Successful art integrates craft into this equation, as “craft” is the specific language an artist uses to communicate that sense of “who am I?” or “what is true?”
According to Jordan, he began working on the script About eight years ago, starting to actually write it about four years ago. And in-between…emotional/mental integration.
- He started with a desire to create a film that he could direct. This implied scale (he wasn’t going to get a ton of money for his first effort. Nor did he WANT a ton of money–that would have been a level of responsibility that inhibits creativity.)
- He chose an idea that touched something deep enough within him to excite him. That meant something intensely personal. Why? He was going to have to live with it for years. Dream about it. Go to sleep thinking about it, wake up in the morning thinking about it. EMOTIONAL ENERGY.
Remember: the “wall” was that he didn’t have much experience directing (some sequences on Key and Peele, I believe), and that meant doubt from studio backers as well as “the voices in his head”–and trust me, EVERY artist has doubts. Impostor syndrome. Pretender voices. You have to not only believe you can do it (within your resource circle) but that you SHOULD do it (it aligns with your values).
The “what” was to become a director, to move his life forward. The “why” was some combination of personal ambition, artistic vision, social awareness and emotional pain.
Once he had the clear vision, and a powerful stack of motivations, THEN he could look at the “how”:
- Select a story from the flurry of ideas in his mind.
- Work with it. Play with it. Turn it around and around. Is it a story that can be told visually? Does it have emotional power? Does it hold his personal truth (“who am I?”). A social external truth? (“what is true?”)
For YEARS he did this, absorbing thousands of hours of film, television, and written word, looking for the “language” with which to express a core notion:
“A young black man with a white girlfriend meets the parents. Although on the surface all is well, underneath lurks a nightmare.”
Is this a universal fear? Sure. Remove race from the equation, and you simply have the fear of rejection, of losing identity, of the doubt that those who claim to love us really do, or that we can love but not “fit in” to the new family.
Basic, universal stuff. What happens when you personalize it? Jordan, being biracial, HAD to have experienced fear of rejection by both black and white communities, that sense of “who am I? What am I?” LOTS of room for discomfort, because nothing makes us more vulnerable than love.
If you want to get positively brilliant about it, you would just ask: “did he view the premise through the eyes of potential investors?” The people who he would ask to pony up 4.5 million? They are the surrogates for potential audience. This is one of the most important reasons NOT to put your own money into a movie: if you can’t convince investors, your chance of convincing and audience to come out en masse is NOT good.
What was there here for white audiences? The answer is obvious once you look at it:
- They can associate with the universal fear of rejection and danger. Simply looking at Chris as a human being, absent race, does this.
- On a social level, the question of race allows them to feel the discomfort of the situation in a new way, identifying with Chris as he experiences the danger of being a black man in a white world, controlled by the actions of white people (note the first instance of this: Rose and the cop. Chris is damned near irrelevant in the power-play between two white people. He has stepped out of his world).
- The audience also gets to ask an important question, the mirror image of the question Chris asks (“is it safe to trust?”). Their version of that question is: “can we really communicate with each other? Can we move past the pain and enter the realm of trust?”
There is SO much pain associated with racial issues in America, and I don’t think it was really open to discussion until late in the 20th Century.
I know that Jordan asked himself questions like “will anyone let me make this? Can it possibly succeed?” And the period of incubation, of turning it around and around in his mind, testing images, dialogue, sequencing, timing, and more, he was looking to “solve” a creative Rubick’s Cube, following a thread of emotion, seeking to gain skills and understanding that would take the TECHNICAL knowledge needed to translate his vision and raise it to the level of “unconscious competence”, the place you have to have ANY skills if you want to create with them. As long as you are mumbling “1-2-3, 1-2-3” you aren’t dancing. But if you do it long enough, you’ll find yourself just flowing with your partner and moving with the music. No counting. THAT is dancing.
But you have to break it down to get there. Four years of turning it around and around in his mind, until everything worked. Technical, creative, logistic, philosophical, emotional. Everything aligned.
Then he just had to write it down. Polish it.
Then he had to market it to the people who had the resources to help him make it. Which means that AS he was writing it, he was making connections. Proving himself. Making money for investors. Being totally professional so that adults would trust him with millions of dollars of their capital.
And in threading that series of moving needles, created something that was close to his heart AND had serious social impact, encouraging a discussion of painful social issues that have been long ignored or marginalized. The cherry on the sundae is that he is a world-class comedian, skilled at knowing the precise moment to release tension with a laugh. And that is VERY close to triggering a release through scream.
It is really so satisfying to deconstruct a victory. So much more interesting than looking at a failure and doing an autopsy on what went wrong. Study a half-dozen successful people and you’ll start seeing patterns, things that successful people do over and over again. Look at people in different times and places, of different genders or ages or resource circles, in different arenas, and you’ll see deep patterns that apply EVERYWHERE. Then you can begin to apply them in your own life.
In truth, the world makes perfect sense if you discard the notion of innate genius, except perhaps the genius of constant action, sustained focus, the ability to CARE enough to get up day after day, week after week, month after month and constantly be aware you have to grow and learn and stretch. To listen to the “pretender voices” that keep you dissatisfied without letting them cripple you.
I don’t care WHAT you want to succeed at. Jerry Pournelle’s words still ring in my ears: “once you’ve mastered one thing, you know how to master anything else.”
Jordan Peele’s journey to the Oscar is one hell of a story, really. Studying excellence is always valuable. But studying it when it applies to a favorite entertainment is just sublime.
Congratulations, Mr.Peele. So damned happy for you and proud of you. You’re doing the work, dude.
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