Writing Horror: Check-In 1, The Films of Jordan Peele

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For this first check-in, I will be focusing on the research process for developing my horror screenplay. This week, I specifically was taking a look at the films of Jordan Peele. I felt that it was important to start here because arguably he and Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar) are at the forefront of the genre today. Peele especially interests me because of the balance he strikes between comedy and horror, something that also surfaces often in my writing.

For this research, I looked at both the screenplay and the film Get Out, as well as viewing Us. I had a wonderful time observing them, and there were many takeaways for writing within the genre as well as just writing a screenplay in general.

Without further ado, here are the three big lessons I learned from observing the work of Jordan Peele:

 

Lesson 1: Less is More

The first lesson may sound simple, but it is crucial to remember. Take a look how Peele describes the setting immediately following the opening scene:

Screen Shot 2019-06-18 at 11.48.54 AM

See what he does there? Peele is doing two things: economizing details and giving room for a reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps. If you are reading this screenplay, you have all of the details you need to imagine where you are in the story, without being bogged down by every minutia of the apartment or the city. It also saves Peele himself time while writing—why waste your own time describing something the reader can imagine themselves?

Let’s look at another example, but one more specific to horror. This next passage comes from the final scene, where Chris, the protagonist, is murdering his racist and crazy girlfriend:

Screen Shot 2019-06-18 at 11.38.01 AM

What word stands out in that passage? “Psycho.” Using a one-word sentence, Peele is doing two important things—first, he is making his screenplay more personable and entertaining to read. It can be a risky proposition, but he is giving some voice, some authorship to the screenplay itself, and it works well here. Second, he is once again economizing details in an effective and almost funny way. Peele is so good on his first screenplay because he knows that in the end, dialogue and a good story are going to pave the way, not over-attention to detail.

 

Lesson 2: Plant and Payoff can be Very Effective

Plant and payoff is a phrase used to describe when an object or idea appears somewhere in a film and then is left alone until later in the movie when it plays some sort of important role. Think “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane—the film begins with the word, and the meaning is generally held back until the final image of the sled provides full clarity. Peele also has a strong grasp of this concept in his films.

Let’s begin with an example from Us– while the screenplay is not currently available, the film itself has many useful examples. The most obvious example takes the entire film to pay off, and it begins in the opening scene. A child Adelaide meeting her “tethered” other self is the centerpiece of the story, and at the end of the film (spoilers!) it is revealed that the Adelaide that we have known the entire film is actually the “tethered” version that switched herself out with the other one when they were children. This “twist” ending is a great example of a mystery present in the whole film that lurks beneath the main plot until the ultimate scenes, a prime example of plant and payoff effective in horror. It creates a sense of unease at the conclusion of the film as well, another effective tool in writing within the genre.

In Get Out, there is a recurring image of a deer in the film. In the beginning, Chris and his girlfriend hit a deer out on a rural road:

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Then, later in the film, when Chris is made aware of the evil of the family and is trapped and helpless, a deer (the same deer they hit?) appears again:

Screen Shot 2019-06-18 at 12.05.39 PM

While Peele does not make this connection explicitly, he is still effectively communicating a number of ideas about predator/prey and confinement with a plant and payoff technique. Not acknowledging the tool in the screenplay is another clever trick, even allowing a reader to make the connection for themselves, making for an engaging script. Peele’s use of plant and payoff is another technique that manifests itself exceptionally in horror.

 

Lesson 3: Don’t be Afraid to Play Up the Horror (In the Right Way)

Read this passage from the final showdown in Get Out, where Chris is fighting his girlfriend:

Screen Shot 2019-06-18 at 11.37.22 AM

Immediately Peele’s writing stands out. It’s exciting, it’s dynamic, and the horror and its translation to the big screen is evident. He’s not afraid of being a little corny or over-the-top, because this is the exact situation that demands this kind of excitement and detail. Imagine how boring these lines would be if it was all in one continuous paragraph without the ellipses or the exclamation point. Peele takes risks and has fun in just the right ways in this script, as well as in the production of Us.

 

Conclusion

Looking closely at Jordan Peele’s films was extremely valuable because it showed me how I can be a more effective writer both in horror and in all of the other writing that I do. Above all, having a style that you are confident in will take you a long way. Peele owns every line of his scripts and is not afraid to take some stylistic risks, and it makes his screenplay stand out. I look forward to getting my hands on the script for Us when it is finally made public, and I look forward to researching more horror films.

 

Images from:

https://www.amazon.com/POSTER-ORIGINAL-Advance-JORDAN-LUPITA/dp/B07MMZHJNK

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5052448/

Comments

  1. jmmalks says:

    This project has the potential to yield such interesting research, as seen in this blog post! I love the simple and insightful way that you analyze Peele’s screenplay, and, as an english major and writing center consultant, I love the concise way in which you phrase your analysis. It’s refreshing. I have never really thought about a screenplay much beyond the lines that the actors in a movie say. Thank you for opening my eyes. I would love to understand more about how Peele’s screenplays (or maybe just horror screenplays in general) vary relative to those of other genres. That could be a cool way to compare and contrast and/or expand your research. Good luck with the rest of the summer and your own writing!

  2. Sam well,
    It’s very interesting to me how you’ve gone through Peele’s screenplays and pulled out some of the most important examples to what makes his films great. I think the thing that shocked me the most about these screenplays is how different they read compared to how they were eventually shot. I appreciate how Peele writes simply and gets to the point, but I feel as if it would have led to much different (and possibly worse) film had he not been the one to actually direct it. I’m curious, at what point does it become vague because the author has a specific image in mind rather than an example of simplicity for creativity’s sake?

    Thanks,
    YMGA

  3. This looks like a very interesting project! As someone who normally hates horror movies and everything about them, I really appreciate how your analysis makes the screenplay and scenes seem more accessible and engaging from an artistic perspective. I am looking forward to reading more of your posts and following your work throughout the summer. Best of luck with your screenplay writing!