Atop the coffee table inside the house where Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Prods. lives sit some very on-brand periodicals — titles like Heavy Metal, Fangoria and Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone Magazine. The Twilight Zone issue is a gem. It not only boasts a photo-realistic illustration of a human baby with a cat head but also a David Lynch retrospective covering his career “From ‘Dune’ to ‘Blue Velvet’” and a special report that takes readers “Inside the New Horror.” The magazine is dated 1988. Its owner was 9 years old when it was published.
Thirty years later, it’s a pretty good emblem for what he’s up to.
The Monkeypaw house is an unorthodox place for a production company. First of all, it’s, yes, a house — balanced precariously on a Hollywood hillside, tucked into a residential neighborhood. Peele sits on the balcony of the upper floor, under the Hollywood Sign, a view that recent New York transplants in his company still gawk at. It’s from that perch that he’s running a mini empire, having leveraged the surprise success of feature directorial debut “Get Out” into a power position as a producer. Fueled by the box office returns of that film, along with an Oscar for original screenplay, he’s become one of the entertainment business’s most sought-after creators.
“‘Get Out’ is the beginning of a movement of representation in genre of social relevance in fun movies — of elegant, artistic movies that also can have great box office potential,” Peele says. “It’s the same in television. I think people recognize that if you’re going to make something in this subgenre, we’re the experts.”
The guy from “Key & Peele” is now a top-tier filmmaker able to get almost any TV show he wants made — and he’s crafting a company in the mold of Steven Spielberg’s Amblin and J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot to power his ambitions. He’s about to begin production on “Us,” his next feature as director and writer, and has five current or forthcoming series at six networks or platforms, a brand-new first-look deal at Amazon Studios, an animated feature and a Spike Lee joint with his name on it.
Little is known about “Us” other than that Universal plans to release it next year and it will be a socially minded thriller with a relatively modest budget (though not so modest as the $5 million spent on “Get Out”). That intersection — of smart genre entertainment and social consciousness — is where Peele is building his company and his future as a producer, filmmaker and creator. Listen to him talk about any of his projects long enough, and you’ll begin to see where their DNA shows a shared ancestry with “Get Out.”
“Genre is important to me because that’s what I love to watch,” Peele says. “Every now and then, a drama will really get me, but for my money, I look to cinema, I look to television as an escape. And that means an escape from reality. I think one of the things that we try and do is provide an escape for our audience — but to not let that allow us to shut our eyes to what’s really going on in the world.”
Peele is one of only four African-Americans ever nominated for a best director Oscar. He also has proved that he knows how to make money at the box office. There is little doubt that if he wanted to, he could make big-budget spectacle pictures — or leave genre behind for the naturalistic small-bore storytelling favored by the Oscar voters who might someday give him a directing award. But by staying on the course he charted with “Get Out,” Peele can do what few in the business ever have a chance at — something new.
“Get Out” hit theaters after epidemic police violence against African-Americans became a fixture of national news and as President Donald Trump’s race-baiting began to increase in volume and shamelessness. When any of his projects come to television next year, they will do so in the wake of the Muslim travel ban, the dissolution of thousands of families at the U.S.-Mexico border, sexual abuse allegations against some of the media’s highest-ranking men and God knows what else.
“There has been a lack of imagination in Hollywood, which sets us up to bring in really new, creative ways of storytelling,” Peele says. “The imagination, especially, when we talk about representation, has been dull. For years and years and years, there’s this preconceived notion that diversity presents a struggle for projects. Well, the truth is, we haven’t invested in diversity. We haven’t invested in artists. So there’s a lack of courage, and I think, when you take leaps and you bring courage and confidence to projects, it works.”
That Peele’s projects are inclusive makes him a sound investment at a time when media companies are, more than ever, being taken to task for inadequate representations of women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals and people with disabilities. But Peele isn’t making shows about a Jewish boy killing Nazis, a woman cutting her abuser’s dick off and black people fighting monsters in the segregated South just so his corporate partners can score diversity points. He’s doing it because it’s fun.
“I think when you entertain first, you can get at something socially profound or intellectual much easier,” he says. “I think people prefer a story to a lecture or a history lesson. At least I do.”
What made “Get Out” so transformative was that it turned country-club racism into artisanal popcorn fare. “I think what Spielberg did with ‘Jaws’ is quintessential,” Peele says. “It’s totally terrifying, but it still feels like an escape.”
|Brenden Spangler (far left), Alex Kim, Win Rosenfeld, Matthew A. Cherry, Jordan Peele, Kamil Oshundara, Ian Cooper, David Torres, Brittany Klesic, Olivia Denuit and Chris Rosati are among the staffers at Peele’s Monkeypaw Prods.
Art Streiber for Variety
Peele’s most recent project is “BlacKkKlansman,” the based-on-a-true-story feature, released Aug. 10, about an African-American police detective in the 1970s who goes undercover as a KKK member. Peele served as matchmaker between production company QC Entertainment, which had the screenplay, and director Lee. For his trouble, he netted credits for himself and Monkeypaw. The film won the Grand Prix at Cannes and is Lee’s best-reviewed work since 2006’s “Inside Man.”
Peele remembers calling Lee, with whom he had never spoken, to talk about “BlacKkKlansman.” Lee told him that he was on his way to see “Get Out” for a second time, in a theater in a predominantly black neighborhood. He had seen it a few days earlier with a mostly white audience.
“I thought, ‘This is dope. This is the best way this can start,’” Peele says. He takes little credit for “BlacKkKlansman” beyond connecting Lee to the material.
Instead, television is where Peele has been spending the bulk of his “Get Out” creative capital, the medium where he made his career as a sketch comic — first on “Mad TV,” then on “Key & Peele.” The former is best remembered as having been less than the sum of its parts. The latter was a two-hander built around Peele and fellow “Mad TV” alum Keegan-Michael Key that broke ground coming from the perspective of biracial comedians.
“Key & Peele” ended in 2015, having in five seasons won a Peabody Award and two Primetime Emmys, and spawned a comedy bit (Luther the anger translator) that President Obama would co-opt for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Since then, television has grown so creatively dominant that feature filmmakers follow their Oscar wins with series deals. Peele followed his with nearly half a dozen.
“I would love to take the Pepsi Challenge with any other production company in Hollywood,” says Monkeypaw president Win Rosenfeld. “We sold five shows in about eight months — to series. No pilots.”
The list of projects for which Peele and Monkeypaw have secured greenlights since “Get Out” premiered last year may indeed be longer than any other producer’s over the same period. It includes “Lovecraft Country” at HBO with Abrams and Misha Green; “The Hunt” with David Weil and documentary series “Lorena” from Joshua Rofé at Amazon Studios; “Weird City” with Charlie Sanders at YouTube; and a relaunch of “The Twilight Zone” with Simon Kinberg for CBS All Access. TBS also renewed the Tracy Morgan comedy “The Last O.G.”
On the film side, in addition to “Us,” Monkeypaw is producing “Wendell and Wild,” a Henry Selick-directed animated feature that will reunite Key and Peele as voice actors.
Peele also set a first-look television deal with Amazon Studios in June. The agreement was finalized after Amazon picked up “The Hunt,” about a group of Nazi hunters in 1970s New York, and “Lorena,” about domestic-abuse victim-turned-vigilante Lorena Bobbitt.
|Art Streiber for Variety|
Landing Peele became a top priority for Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke after she took over the e-commerce giant’s entertainment division this year. Her meeting at Monkeypaw with Peele and Rosenfeld was one of her first in the new job.
“I went up there and really gave them my heartfelt, passionate spiel about what we represent, what my ambitions for Amazon are,” Salke says. “We had a good conversation about great television and what the components of that might be and how to entertain people while still being original and socially relevant. That really began a series of conversations where I was pursuing him.”
Peele’s was the first of several deals with high-profile talent — including Nicole Kidman and Barry Jenkins — that Salke engineered for Amazon. The NBC and Fox veteran compares Peele to the likes of Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Murphy. “I knew he was very prolific; I knew he was very original,” she says. “Not unlike Ryan, he wants to be where no one else is.”
For Peele — who also has a feature deal at Universal — the first-look agreement with Amazon allows him greater freedom than a potentially more lucrative overall deal with a TV studio might. He also views Salke’s under-construction Amazon as simpatico with Monkeypaw.
“I think Jen and I just saw eye to eye in our mission statements and what we’re interested in doing,” he says. “I think we’re both passionate about content that is both elevated and socially meaningful but not at the sacrifice of fun.”
In Peele’s office at Monkeypaw are his Oscar, one of his Emmys and the chairs that Catherine Keener and Daniel Kaluuya’s characters sit in as the latter descends into “the sunken place” — the psychological prison that black victims are forced into by white predators in “Get Out.” Down the hall is Rosenfeld’s office. The two men have known each other since high school. A veteran nonfiction television and digital-media producer, Rosenfeld moved from New York to Los Angeles last year to oversee Monkeypaw as Peele began to run the awards-season gauntlet. The company had no staff to speak of. Rosenfeld planned to fill his free time with consulting work.
“Then ‘Get Out’ did what it did,” he says.
Monkeypaw now has more than 20 employees. The structure is purposely non-hierarchical. Peele, Rosenfeld and creative director Ian Cooper are the leadership. Everyone else is, title notwithstanding, on an effectively even playing field. “We spent very little time, but some time, considering a normal structure,” says Rosenfeld. “Then we said, ‘F— that. Let’s get cool people we like here.’”
One of those people is Cooper, a mixed-media sculptor, who also knew Peele when they were teenagers. “We’ve been since adolescence really interested in things that scare us and exploring that in a way that is earned and grounded,” Cooper says.
Rosenfeld describes Peele’s brand — the Monkeypaw brand — thus: “Our films and our TV shows are the underdog turning into a badass. That’s the root of it. We’ll start with a normal person who’s dealing with the actual evils of the real world. Then when the monster comes in, it’s really potent, because killing the monster is cathartic for that character.”
|The success of 2017’s “Get Out,” starring Daniel Kaluuya, yielded enough creative capital for a string of film and TV projects.
Courtesy of Universal
Such monsters abound in “Lovecraft Country,” a story of African-Americans in the 1950s Jim Crow South encountering creatures from H.P. Lovecraft’s horror novels. Peele brought the project to Abrams just before “Get Out” became an awards darling.
“This was before he became Jordan Peele the phenomenon,” Abrams says. “He was just Jordan Peele the insanely talented comedian and storyteller. What I loved about it, and what when I saw ‘Get Out’ I was blown away by, was that he was doing what Rod Serling did, which is take stories of race and class and politics and fundamental human strife and tell them through genre.”
Serling is another touchstone for Peele. Of all his television projects, he says, he was most reluctant to take on “The Twilight Zone.”
“I was terrified,” Peele says. “Why would I ever jump into the most established, pristine shoes in all of the genre? I could rip ‘Twilight Zone’ off and call it something different and not be compared to Rod Serling. So I stepped away from it. And then several months later I got another call.”
That call came from Kinberg, who for years had been attached to a reboot kicking around at CBS Television Studios. Peele agreed to meet, and the two fed each other’s enthusiasm for reviving a show that routinely tops lists of the greatest in TV history — and whose one-hour anthology format is largely out of fashion in the serialization era, save Netflix’s “Black Mirror,” which has become the contemporary standard-bearer for “Twilight Zone”-style storytelling.
“The realization, for me, was that it was an opportunity to attempt to continue with Serling’s mission,” Peele says. “If we approach it without ego and sort of bow to Serling, that will hopefully suffice for our fellow ‘Twilight Zone’ fans but also bring back a show that I think is needed right now. Because it’s a show that has always helped us look at ourselves, hold a mirror up to society.”
Peele has resisted — but not ruled out — stepping into Serling’s on-camera presenter role for the revival. The new series will have someone in that job, speaking directly into camera, teeing up each episode. But Peele worries that his face is too associated with comedy, that his presence would undermine the serious work he’s putting in to do right by Serling’s legacy.
Serling used entertainment to get at real-world horrors, and created something beloved in the process. Peele tries to accomplish the same in everything he does. He’s doing a lot. And he wants more.
“We can make projects that take courage to produce,” he says. “When we can give companies a bit of the courage to do something new, something special, something bold and novel can really come from it.”