There are few things in contemporary movies like the arrival of a new Jordan Peele movie. They tend to descend in ominous and mysterious ways, a bit like an unknown object from above casting a shadow that expands and darkens as it approaches.
No, the writer-director’s third movie is almost here. After Peele’s singular debut Get Out, about the possession of black bodies and the fallacy of post-racial America, and the follow-up to it, U.S, a monstrous story of doubles and social mirrors, the well-kept secret Nope brings a new set of horrors and disturbing metaphors. For Peele, who writes through filmmaking and sees the conversation a film generates as one of its main ingredients, Nope is far from a finished project.
“The movie is over,” Peele said in a recent interview. “I’m still writing it.”
It’s Peele’s most ambitious film yet, a flying saucer horror that delves into the nature of the show and the desire to document it, a multi-threaded theme that spans the history of Hollywood and Nope, itself. Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer play a brother and sister in a family business of horse wrangling for film productions. Their California ranch is visited by a strange and violent force in the clouds that they strive to capture on film.
Nope, which opens in theaters Friday, also expands on Peele’s self-conjured mythology. His films are very loosely linked (some fictional establishments appear in several of them), and now even encompass a Nope theme park ride at Universal Studios Hollywood. The dark world of Peele is more and more ours.
For Peele, as he recently said on Zoom from Los Angeles, Nope is about reaching a kind of Hollywood movie that was once unattainable. He deliberately opens the film with Eadweard Muybridge’s 1887 photographic study showing a black rider on horseback. It was one of the first moving images. But while the name of the horse and its owner were recorded, the name of the Black jockey is unknown.
“I feel like this is the first time anyone would allow me or anyone else to do this movie. And that’s why he had to take advantage. I had to go as big as possible,” Peele said. “I was like, ‘Let’s go.'”
Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
The Eadweard Muybridge loop looms over Nope; your characters are said to be descendants of his unnamed rider. For you, what does it mean that the elimination of black men was there at the base of cinema?
It’s a sad part of this industry. It was something I was learning at a good time for me in this story. I felt like five, 10 years ago, I would never have been able to sell this movie to anyone. So I’m juxtaposing this origin story of the movie at the same time that I’m trying to make a story that’s scary and light-hearted and adventurous and everything that I love about the movie. I thought it was very fitting that that starting point was recognized and that it had ancient implications for our main characters.
Do you think of your movie as an antidote to that movie?
Yeah. I’ve been trying to put that together. It’s a sequel, it’s an antidote, it’s a reboot, it’s a response to the way movies started and continue.
Kaluuya and Palmer’s characters work on movie sets and Nope focuses on their attempts to capture something on film. For you, nope is it about the film industry?
It became very meta very quickly. Making a movie is basically like chasing the impossible, trying to bottle up something that doesn’t exist. I was inspired by movies like King Kong and Jurassic Park that are really about the human addiction to show business and the presentation and monetization of that. The meta part is that you’re commenting on this notion at the same time that you’re trying to use it and trying to create something that people can’t look away from.
Why do you think when writing Nope your thoughts went back to the beginning of the film?
Part of Nope’s world is flirting with real Hollywood and the Hollywood that takes place in my liminal dreams and nightmares. In real life, of the prominent Hollywood horse trainers, I am not representing any African-American. The Haywoods are a very invented family and notion. It was fun weaving Hollywood fiction with reality and trying to do a seamless dive into what’s real and what’s not.
A poster for Sidney Poitier’s 1972 Western Buck and the Preacher is seen in the background of several shots. Was it an important movie for you?
It’s the first movie that I know of that had black cowboys represented in it. The myth that cowboys were just white guys running around is just not true, but we don’t know that because of Hollywood and the romantic view of a very brutalized era. The film shares a spirit.
Ever since I saw your movie, the clouds have taken on a sinister appearance to me. What led you to build your film around that image of a motionless cloud?
The beauty of the sky is fascinating: the first films, in a way. Every now and then you will see a cloud that sits alone and is too low, and it gives me this vertigo and this sense of Presence with a capital P. I can’t describe it, but I knew if I could bottle that up and put it into a horror movie, it could change the way people look at the sky.
How much were you thinking about Close Encounters of the Third Kind?
Yes, Close Encounters is something I think about a lot, as is Signs by M. Night Shyamalan. These are visionary directors who have taken flying saucers and science fiction and brought magic to the way they tell those stories. I wanted to throw my hat into the ring with one of my favorite subgenres, UFOs, and do it in a way that only I can.
When the US government declassified a video of Navy pilots encountering unexplained aircraft, something your movie references, how did you react? Did those images affect you?
It was. She made it very real, very in the moment. I guess that’s one of the reasons I can proudly say this movie is based on a true story. But the thing that stressed or scared me the most about all of this is that you would like to think that when real evidence of UFOs on video comes out, something will change in our lifestyle, it’s not really business as usual. It simply proves that there is a desensitization to the show. We are addicts and we are over our heads with this addiction. We have evidence of UFOs or UAPs (unidentified aerial phenomena), but the interest of the general public goes further. It is very interesting.
It sounds like you mean movies as spectacles, but were there also political dimensions to that? You developed this film through some very tumultuous times in American life, including the Capitol riot on January 6.
Attention can be a violent thing and our addiction to entertainment can have negative consequences. I think sometimes if we pay too much attention to the wrong show, it can give it too much power. If we’re fixated on the wrong show, it can distract us from what’s really going on. There really is a human need to see the invisible that our entire society is based on. And in so many ways we see it. In the last five years, we seem to have gone from seeking the show to being inundated by it. And that’s the environment in which I wrote the film.
There aren’t many filmmakers with as much freedom to make original studio films as you. You have had the opportunity to join the main franchises. How focused are you on creating your own movies from the bottom up?
Nothing is more rewarding than being able to lead the charge on something that comes from somewhere deep and get the support of a team on something like that. I feel like if I were working on someone else’s property, I would owe someone else something. Other than that inspirational centerpiece, it just doesn’t seem that fun to me.
Have you been tempted?
Yes, there has been temptation. Of course. And there is temptation. There are so many things that I love. And yet, when I’m faced with my favorite properties, it still doesn’t get over what I haven’t written or figured out yet.
Do you get asked a lot about a sequel to Get Out?
I get asked a lot. Never say Never. There is certainly a lot to talk about on the left. We’ll see.
After Get Out, he suggested that he would embark on a series of genre films that tackle big social issues. Three movies, where do you feel you are in that project?
I feel like I’m going to the races. I just don’t know if I could limit the number of movies I have that are mine. I’m starting to lose sight of what I’d be doing if I wasn’t making movies like this. So I would say that the project has been extended.