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The Mad Science Behind ‘Get Out,’ ‘The Big Sick’ and More Oscar Movies

The horror-film wheels of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” really get greased in the film’s pivotal home brain-transplant scene, in which Dean Armitage (Bradley Whitford) deftly scalps the head of a blind art dealer in preparation to swap his brain with that of captive Chris Washington (lead actor nom Daniel Kaluuya).

The real horror, however, might be that brain transplants are actually possible in the real world.

Jordan Peele fell down an internet-research rabbit hole in 2016 after news broke that Italian surgeons had successfully grafted the head of one chimpanzee onto another’s body. He started researching the concept, and found a New York Times article from way back in 1982 when a scientist at New York’s Mount Sinai hospital grafted one piece of a mouse’s brain successfully into the head of another’s. That experiment is eerily similar to Whitford’s own home skull switcheroo.

“It all just kind of scared me,” he says, adding that he was particularly fascinated with how the surgeons at Mount Sinai left intact the piece of the brain that is connected to the central nervous system, just as the Whitfords do to their victims in the film.

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“The brain actually heals itself; it has a remarkable ability to overcome that kind of trauma,” he says.

It’s not just brain surgery that gets wacky in “Get Out.” Hypnosis, and the idea that objects as simple as a teacup and spoon can wield immense power over the human psyche, also play a pivotal role.

Catherine Keener visited a hypnotist in her preparation for the role as hypnotherapist Missy Armitage, recording the session and watching it later to inform her performance. And while Peele admits that real hypnotherapy is more complex than his film presents, he says he made sure his film offered a wink at the old-school pocketwatch-making-you-sleepy tropes to compensate.

“I felt like we could sort of have our cake and eat it too, and still bring that idea to the film that having something to focus on [a pocketwatch, a teacup] would create, as Missy says in the movie, this state of ‘heightened suggestibility,’” Peele says.

“Get Out,” like many of this year’s screenwriting nominees, is packed with science that is one part mad, and one part materially sound.

Much of the charm of “The Big Sick” is that Emily V. Gordon’s illness and coma were real-world occurrences, but to pump up the drama of the script, she admits that the sudden onset of the sickness was exaggerated.

“Once I was hospitalized, the movie pretty much follows my actual story,” she says. “But in reality I was sick for a few months leading up to the ‘Big Sick.’ But movie Emily’s illness comes on pretty quickly in the weeks that she and Kumail are broken up. We changed this because showing her illness would have cut too much into Emily and Kumail’s relationship and breakup, which has to happen quickly.”

Her quick recovery from adult-onset Stills’ disease also got a bit of the Hollywood treatment. “In reality it took me months to recover from that hospitalization, and it’s a condition I deal with to this day,” she says.

And what about Guillermo del Toro’s humanoid amphibian in “The Shape of Water”? Scientists say the idea is less, ahem, fishy than one may think.

There are several creatures that can breathe both above and under water, just like Doug Jones’s CGI-enhanced Amazonian god. As LiveScience noted in a December article, lungfish have both gills and lungs (hence their name), while there are species of turtles that, thanks to seriously equipped backsides, can extract oxygen from water through contact with their posteriors.

In that same article, Jonathan Losos, a professor of organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard University, also discusses a theory called convergent evolution, a real-world phenomenon in which two species (like, say, humans and fish) that are utterly unrelated still evolve in a way that they share certain traits.

“Hollywood certainly hasn’t violated any rule of evolution to produce a biped that evolved to be convergent with humans and share a lot of features,” Losos says.

And while del Toro is a virtuoso at handling on-screen monsters he told reporters backstage after the Golden Globes that “The Shape of Water” is at its core about love and the experience of an outsider — subjects that are eternally human and real.

“The important thing about fables and fairy tales, they were created to address things that you cannot address as easily … as you can with parable,” del Toro says.

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