Cast: Lupita Nyong'o, Elisabeth Moss, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex
Director: Jordan Peele
Genre: Horror, Thriller
Running Time: 116 minutes
Synopsis: After sending shockwaves across contemporary culture and setting a new standard for provocative, socially conscious horror films with his directorial debut, Get Out, Academy Award®-winning visionary Jordan Peele returns with another original nightmare that he has written, directed and produced.
Set in present day along the iconic Northern California coastline, Us, from Monkeypaw Productions, stars Oscar® winner Lupita Nyong'o as Adelaide Wilson, a woman returning to her beachside childhood home with her husband, Gabe (Black Panther's Winston Duke), and their two children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), for an idyllic summer getaway.
Haunted by an unexplainable and unresolved trauma from her past and compounded by a string of eerie coincidences, Adelaide feels her paranoia elevate to high alert as she grows increasingly certain that something bad is going to befall her family.
After spending a tense day at the beach with their friends, Kitty and Josh Tyler (Emmy winner Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker) and their twin daughters Becca and Lindsey (Cali Sheldon, Noelle Sheldon), Adelaide and her family return to their vacation home to discover the silhouettes of four figures standing in their driveway. Us pits an ordinary American family against a terrifying and uncanny opponent: doppelgängers of themselves.
Release Date: March 28th, 2019
Creating Terror, Times Two
Before he had even finished making Get Out, his Oscar®-winning 2017 blockbuster that delved deep into issues of race and privilege in America, writer/director/producer Peele was already developing the idea for a new film that promised to be even more terrifying, and just as psychologically incisive, as the one he was making at the time. "The idea for this movie came from a deep-seated fear in doppelgängers," Peele says. "I love doppelgänger mythologies and the movies that have dealt with them, and I wanted to make my offering to that pantheon of 'evil-double' films. I was drawn to this idea that we are our own worst enemy. That's something we all know intrinsically, but it's a truth we tend to bury. We blame the outsider, we blame 'the other.' In this movie, the monster has our faces."
Doppelgängers, or mysterious doubles of living people, are almost as old as storytelling itself. They appear in almost all folklore and mythology, reportedly reaching as far back as ancient Egypt in the form of "ka," a physical manifestation of a spiritual double that shares the memories, experiences and feelings of its living counterpart. These early narrative archetypes were the progenitors of so-called "evil twin" characters that have appeared in literature throughout history. With few exceptions, it's seldom a good sign when doppelgängers pop up in a story.
"Doppelgängers have always been a source of fear," Peele says. "It's connected to your sense of mortality, I think. You can't both exist, so one of you has to go. Throughout mythology, doppelgängers often represent bad omens or are a foreshadowing of one's death. I wanted to pinpoint, and then develop the story, from that primal fear."
That quest to pinpoint our root fears, and what they might represent, led Peele to some provocative places that not only plumbed the depths of the human psyche, but also America's national identity. "I tend to draw inspiration from my own fear," Peele says. "At some point I ask myself, 'What's the scariest thing for me, personally?' In this case it was the idea of seeing myself. And then I think about what that's really about, about why seeing yourself is so scary. No one really wants to look at their faults, their guilt, their demons. We all want to look elsewhere." That inclination to project our own fears, anxieties and anger outward is also an endemic part of American culture. "This country, and how this country looks at the world, we have a fear of the outsider," Peele says. "It's built into the fear of everything from terrorism to immigration. One of the great core horror films that carried a powerful social message is George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead. That movie was about race even though they don't really talk about race in the film. I wanted to follow that approach with this movie."
While Get Out confronted unspoken truths about race in America, Us takes on America, and the American dream, itself. "This film is operating on multiple levels," says producer Ian Cooper, who has known Peele since they were both teenagers. "On the surface, it's a terrifying thriller, and you can watch it that way and enjoy it, but beneath that, it's about how the things we think we've gotten away with come back to haunt us. And beneath that, it's about how, in American culture, we often claim that 'the other,' some group outside of ourselves, is the problem. With this script, Jordan has given us an 'other' that is a terrifying force to be reckoned with, and it is ourselves."
The film centers on an American family, the Wilsons, who come under attack by doppelgängers of themselves, referred to in the film as The Tethered. And while Us is not overtly about race, it does subvert historical tropes of the horror genre and its typical depiction of black people. "The film is about an American family trying to live the perfect American dream, and then realizing that the American dream is perilous, insecure and unsustainable," says Winston Duke, who plays Gabe Wilson. "I look at the American dream as another character in this film that succumbs to the dangers of the horror-thriller genre and becomes a hapless victim. Whereas audiences typically experience black characters as the first casualties of the plot, Jordan take a revolutionary position, making the American dream the central victim of the film instead of the people of color."
That, Cooper says, is one of the many things in the film that will defy audience expectations. "What's remarkable is that Us centers on an African-American family in 2019, but their race has nothing explicitly to do with the plot of the film," Cooper says. "Obviously, that's a huge change from Get Out, but this story is really about humanity and about being an American. The genius of Jordan's writing is that when audiences see the Wilsons, a black family, and the Tylers, a white family, in the film trailer they are conditioned to imagine what might be occurring in this story, but that's not what's actually occurring. The Wilson family is not unlike Richard Dreyfuss' family in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. They're just an American family with problems and loveable aspects to their dynamics, but they aren't relegated to having to be ambassadors for their skin color."
Peele anchors the story around Adelaide Wilson (Nyong'o) who, as a child in 1986, wanders off from her parents (Yahya Abdul-Mateen Ii, Anna Diop) during a family outing to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk and finds herself in a dark funhouse hall of mirrors called Vision Quest. While alone, young Adelaide (Madison Curry) discovers, to her horror (and ours) that what seems at first to be her reflection is in fact a hostile doppelgänger of herself. She escapes, but she has no words to explain what she has seen, and no one, certainly, would understand or believe her if she did. Over the years, Adelaide tries to bury the memory, but when, as an adult, she returns to Santa Cruz with her own family, it becomes clear that her past will not let her go.
"I love making films that are terrifying but also fun," Peele says. "Adelaide is a woman who has a trauma in her past that she has been dealing with throughout her life. She now has kids, a husband and sort of the perfect American family, but that trauma is still lingering in her subconscious. When she comes back with her family to the house she grew up in, she's returning to the location of her original trauma. She starts to sense that something is wrong. That nightmare she had so many years ago is coming back, and it's coming back for her family."
Peele's script inspired and intrigued his filmmaking team, and the ideas behind it proved to be even more expansive than those in his first film. "I heard an early version of this story from Jordan while we were working together on Get Out," says producer Sean McKittrick. "To me, it is even more ambitious and intellectual than Get Out was. It's mind-blowing, thought-provoking and a lot more terrifying, in the traditional horror sense. I often describe it as an R-rated Amblin film. It's about a family facing a dark version of themselves and having to fight for their own survival. The themes are more about what we've become as a country and involve a kind of karmic retribution for how we're treating each other. So it's more esoteric, and a deeper dive intellectually, than the obviousness of racism that we explored in Get Out."
Us also provided Peele and his team with a broader cinematic canvas than they'd had for Get Out, which was set primarily in one location. "The idea was to pivot a bit from Get Out, ratcheting up the scale and widening the aperture of the narrative," Cooper says. "Get Out was an intimate experience for the audience. It was focused on the character of Chris and his experience in that house. Whereas with Us, Jordan had this idea to take the intimate notion of a doubling of self and widen it out to a family. It's about recognizing how something that is problematic in oneself could radiate out to your partner, your children, your friends and possibly, beyond that."
What's most remarkable, however, is that the film manages to be intellectually invigorating while still being a thrilling, terrifying cinematic experience. "It's like a popcorn art film," Cooper says. "It is esoteric. It's complicated. But it feels as urgent and experiential as any great thriller. The beauty of this film is that Jordan affords the audience a real potential for introspection without it feeling like you're doing homework. The magic of his filmmaking is that he basically gets to make an art film, but it lands as a blockbuster."
In many ways, Peele is crafting a new genre all his own. "There's no reason that movies that gross a certain amount of money have to be only superhero films," Cooper says. "There's an expansive potential to Jordan's style of filmmaking, which both subtly unravels the fabric of our culture, while revelling in it. He's able to do that in a uniquely satisfying way wherein audiences feel like they've been on a rollercoaster. My hope with Us is that people leave the theater, just like they did with Get Out, wide-eyed, nervously laughing, incredulous, scared and thinking about what it all might mean"and most importantly, what it might mean about themselves."
Producer Jason Blum, who has built a filmmaking empire by knowing exactly how to scare the hell out of people, says Us confirms that Peele is a creative force to be reckoned with. "What struck me about the script for Us was the same thing that stood out for me when I read Get Out, which was how incredible and powerful and original the writing was," Blum says. "The script was deeply, deeply unsettling and unlike anything I'd ever read before. There was no movie to compare it to. It was just extraordinarily original. First and foremost, Us is an incredibly entertaining scary movie, but it's also really about something. It's provocative and unsettling, and it's tackling this idea that our own worst enemy is ourselves. It's like nothing anyone's ever seen before. It's incredibly suspenseful and it makes you feel very, very uneasy."
That may be an understatement. "This is not going to be the feel-good movie of the year," says Tim Heidecker, who plays Josh Tyler. "This is a film that is going to sit with you for a long time and probably make you think about who we are as a country and what kind of people we are."
What's certain is that audiences won't be prepared for what's about to hit them. Us is a film packed with dramatic twists and shocking turns. Whatever expectations audiences may have when they enter the theater will be upended by the time the credits roll. "This is a movie that keeps revealing itself to the audience," Cooper says. "We keep peeling back these layers, so the audience never really knows what's coming, even if they think they do."
That, Peele says, was exactly his intent. "I'm curious to see what the audience sees in the film," Peele says. "There are specific ideas that I'm exploring and trying to say with this film, all relating to our duality as human beings, and the guilt and the sins that we bury deep within ourselves. I'm most excited to see how audiences will react to the end of this film. It gets pretty crazy at the end."
To say the least. "The ending of the film will probably cause some…discomfort," Cooper says, laughing. "Jordan loves making films that you feel compelled to immediately see again, and I think that will definitely be the case with Us." At least one member of the cast had to take their word for it. "I didn't read the ending," Heidecker says. "I wanted to see the movie in the theater like everybody else will. Everyone is going to want to see it because you are going to want to talk about it with everybody else. You don't want to be the dope who's left out of that conversation."
Finding Humor Amid Horror
Most traditional horror films are heavy on gore and short on laughs, but Peele, who initially built his career in comedy, sees an organic connection between the two genres. "Horror and comedy are both great ways of exposing how we feel about things," Peele says. "That's what a catharsis is to me, when you have an emotional reaction watching a film and then you're left to ask yourself, 'What was that about? Why did I react that way? Why did I laugh? Why did I scream? Why did I cheer?' One of the reasons I love genre films is because they push these visceral, involuntary reactions that can ultimately teach you something about yourself, if you want to look."
Woven into the frightening fabric of Us is an organic humor that rises out of the natural dynamics of family and friendship and from the absurdities of our always-plugged-in modern lives. That, Peele says, is a key ingredient for an ideal audience experience. "The comedy that emerges from a tense moment or scene in a horror film is necessary for cleaning the emotional palate, to release the tension," Peele says. "It gives your audience an opportunity to emotionally catch up and get prepared for the next run of terror. With horror, you don't need to go much further than the truth to get a laugh. I don't like to tell jokes, or to write something with the purpose of being funny. I like to write something that feels true to a character and true to the reality of the situation. That way, the audience never gets taken out of the moment, or out of the genre."
That mix of humor and horror is an essential part of Peele's filmmaking magic. "Jordan has created this unique brand of filmmaking that no one has done since something like The Twilight Zone," says Elisabeth Moss, who plays Kitty Tyler. "It's incredibly entertaining, and brutally scary, but with this little twist of humor. It makes you see things you didn't see before, or makes you see them in a different way."
Both the horror and comedy genres have the ability to challenge how we think and how we see the world in ways that traditional drama cannot. For that reason, they are ideal formats for socially conscious storytelling. "Great horror is often grounded in reality, which is the way I love to do comedy as well," Peele says. "It allows something crazy to be going on, but it's married, as best as possible, with reality. I don't see myself moving far from horror any time soon."
That's music to producer Blum's ears. "One of the most exciting things for me is that Jordan wanted to follow Get Out with a genre movie," Blum says. "A lot of directors who have a success with a scary movie as their first film want to do something else for their second, so I was excited that Jordan wanted to stay in this genre, but with a much bigger canvas."
Indeed, horror is a genre with seemingly endless potential, and Peele has packed Us with hidden references to some of his favorites. "Early on, I asked Jordan which films were influencing this story or had inspired his imagination," says Nyong'o, who plays Adelaide Wilson. "He created a list for me of films to go through that ranged from Dead Again to A Tale of Two Sisters, The Shining, Alien, The Birds. That was very informative, not just for how he was framing this world, but also for specific moments in those films that he pays homage to in Us."
Peele also cites Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, A Nightmare on Elm Street and the Japanese film Suicide Club as some of his favorites, but it's Ridley Scott's Alien that holds a special place in his heart. "Alien was the most ingeniously designed film I'd ever seen," Peele says. "Not only does it still hold up today, but the ground that it broke in creating an elegant, singular monster, a new type of environment, was just…it's just movie magic." Now, he has created an elegant, singular monster of his own.
American Family, American Nightmare
The Wilsons and The Tethered
When we first meet the Wilsons"Adelaide (Nyong'o), Gabe (Duke), Zora (Wright Joseph) and Jason (Alex)"they are an ordinary all-American family en route to a little summer getaway at the childhood home of Adelaide in Santa Cruz. Like most families, they are close and loving, but they do have a few issues. "What I love about the Wilsons is that they're functional and dysfunctional at the same time," Nyong'o says. "Both Gabe and Adelaide are parents who are very invested in their family, and in making it work."
For one early scene, Peele and his actors quickly established the Wilsons' group energy and intra-family dynamics. "The first time we see them all together is at a breakfast table, and it's all jokes and digs and all of those things that make a family a family," Nyong'o says. "People are taking sides, ganging up on each other. You get a sense that Gabe and their daughter, Zora, are aligned to each other; there's an affinity there, a special bond. The same goes for Adelaide and their son, Jason. You see these natural dynamics of a family, and it was really heartwarming, as an actor, to be a part of that; to see Gabe and Adelaide strive to find cohesion at all times."
The breakfast table scene was the first scene that was rehearsed with all four actors, and it helped shape the evolution of their characters and the film itself. "A lot of how these characters came together was by me listening to the actors," Peele says. "When we first got the cast playing the Wilsons together, we went to the house where we were shooting and had them explore and learn and feel the house, and then we sat down and rehearsed the breakfast scene. This was just moments after they were all meeting for the first time, although Winston and Lupita have known each other for years. But how their dynamic evolved in those first couple of hours told me a ton. In fact, it was almost more informative to see them interacting as themselves, when they weren't rehearsing, than anything else. Winston or Evan just started telling bad jokes, and that became a sort of bonding element for the family."
Indeed, all four actors rank this as among their favorite scenes in the entire film. "I really enjoyed the family scenes because there was just this camaraderie, this rhythm, to the family dynamic," Nyong'o says. "It felt so real. Jordan was creating this naturalistic dialogue with the family, so we often had free reign to ad lib and add things. You really had to be on your toes in those scenes, and you had to really listen because anything could be said, and you needed to be able to react appropriately. There was a freshness and a danger to those scenes that I loved."
That early scene was particularly helpful to the actors playing the Wilson kids: Wright Joseph and Alex. "That scene was definitely my favorite to shoot," Wright Joseph says. "We think we really nailed the family effect in that moment. Adelaide and Gabe are like, the best parents ever. Jason and Adelaide are a little more connected, similar to Zora and Gabe. They always know what the other person is thinking. That's how Gabe always seems to figure out what's wrong with Zora. He's a really great dad."
The dynamic between the young actors helped them refine not just who their characters were, but who they were in relation to other members of the family. "The Wilson family is this regular family that ends up having this really crazy thing happen to them," Alex says. "They all have different roles that they play in the family" Adelaide is the leader, Zora is the warrior, Jason is the wizard and Gabe is just kind of the loveable fool"and they don't really connect. But when their doppelgängers show up, they're forced to actually become this really super team."
The adults working with Wright Joseph and Alex were deeply impressed by their younger co-stars. "Our brilliant casting director, Terri Taylor, has a real knack for casting children," producer McKittrick says. "Shahadi and Evan are incredible young talents. They completely understood what they were doing and what the story was, and what their character needed to do. They also brought an unbridled enthusiasm to set every day." Nyong'o witnessed the power of that enthusiasm on a daily basis. "It can be nerve-racking to think about working with kids because they're extremely honest and unpredictable," Nyong'o says. "But Shahadi and Evan were just the warmest, most present kids."
But the Wilson's lives are changed irrevocably when, after a day at the beach, four shadowy figures who look almost exactly like them appear in their driveway.
These doppelgängers, referred to by the filmmakers as The Tethered, are intent on killing the Wilsons. This required all four actors to play dual roles: both the Wilsons trying to save their own lives, and the people trying to end them. "It's quite tricky to have actors play their characters in competing or confrontational ways," producer Cooper says. "Jordan and his actors really talked through the development of their primary characters and, as they did that, little seeds of problematic aspects of the nature of those characters began to pop up. They then used those seeds to help grow the doppelgänger versions of their characters."
The Tethered can anticipate the thoughts, feelings and actions of the Wilsons, but, for reasons that eventually become clear, they are not exact duplicates of the Wilsons. They are unique characters unto themselves, with their own thoughts and emotions, and their own way of communicating. "The doppelgängers don't speak," Cooper says. "But the sounds they make seem as though they are mimicking the rhythms and inflections of their 'other.' They also sound like a being that has never truly used their vocal chords. All of that was really exciting grist and liberating for the actors. Each one of them contributed to help build a kind of collective culture of the doppelgängers."
The Tethered also move differently than the Wilsons do, in frightening and almost inhuman ways. "For the doppelgängers, we developed a list of movements that hover somewhere between creaturely and animal-like, human and sympathetic, but also completely foreign, all at the same time," says choreographer and movement consultant Madeline Hollander. "For each of the characters we had a vocabulary of references that aligned conceptually with their characters. We went through motion notes for all of the characters. We would make a list of references for different positions, movements and postures, or how they would jump off or on the table or land on all fours."
Developing two versions of a single character was a great artistic challenge for the cast. "These dual roles were a big draw for the actors, I think," Peele says. "I mean, when do you get to do that?" But it proved to be a significant logistical challenge for him and his filmmaking team.
"The hardest thing about shooting this movie was figuring out how to have the same actor playing two characters in the same scene," Peele says. "That takes a lot of planning and scheduling. You have to go through an entire process of wardrobe and makeup to get the characters turned over, so that means you generally have to do one side of the scene one day, and then do the reverse the following day. It was an enormous challenge but a fun puzzle to figure out."
In one scene, glimpsed in the film's trailer, all eight characters are in one scene and in one place"the living room with its glowing fireplace"at the same time. "The most challenging scene was 'the fireplace scene,' as we call it, which is the first meeting between the two Wilson families – The Tethered and The Untethered," Peele says. "We shot it over several days, and often it was a weird mishmash of which performer was playing which role at a given time." He laughs. "You can imagine how completely frustrated my AD was with that scheduling process."
To help organize all that, and to formalize the distinct personalities of The Tethered, Peele gave each doppelgänger her or his own name"Red (Nyong'o), Abraham (Duke), Umbrae (Wright Joseph) and Pluto (Alex)"even though their names are never spoken on-camera.
"This film was such a challenge, because I never met my scene partner," Nyong'o says, laughing. "I was really quite nervous about that, and concerned about how that was going to work, but having a director like Jordan, who's also a great actor, was very helpful."
The end result is unlike anything captured on film before. It's a bone-deep examination of the duality of all people, and a testament to the talent (and endurance) of Peele's cast.
Adelaide Wilson and Red
The film's central character is Adelaide Wilson, a woman hiding an inexplicable childhood trauma from her past who discovers that her attempts to push down and suppress the incident now threatens to destroy not only herself, but her husband and her children. Her doppelgänger, Red, is also the leader of The Tethered family and is the driving force behind the attack on Adelaide's family, known as The Untethering. For such an expansive and complex dual role, Peele and his fellow filmmakers quickly turned to Lupita Nyong'o.
"We've admired Lupita for so long, and as we were thinking about casting, we were shocked to realize that she's never been the star of a film, but has instead always played these amazing supporting roles," producer Cooper says. "So we were excited at the opportunity to have her as the anchor at the center of this film. Lupita is someone audiences feel they can access and have an identification with; she's someone you want to spend time with, but she's also so good at turning the screw a bit and making you feel suddenly alienated from her as well. That duality in her performance was perfect for this film, on multiple levels."
Nyong'o has vivid memories of her first meetings with Peele about the roles. "At first, every time I spoke to Jordan about these roles, I felt like I needed to sign up for philosophy, psychology and sociology courses at a university to be able to play them," Nyong'o says, laughing. "He's so detailed and, in my first reading of the script, I knew there was more significance to it than I had caught onto. It wasn't until I spoke to him that I realised how much he was investigating and trying to unpack in this one story within the horror genre."
"One of the themes Jordan said he was interested in exploring was the sense that one of America's biggest flaws is being unable to recognize its own demons," Nyong'o says. "That is a powerful thing to be able to do, because it's what real self-acceptance is: the ability to recognize both your most noble and your most destructive sides." The idea intrigued her. "We cast judgment on people," Nyong'o says. "We decide who is good and who is bad. But the truth is that we all possess that duality. That's a really powerful statement to make, for us to recognize that evil is not an external force but is very much part and parcel of our experience as human beings."
Peele also gave her a warning before she agreed to take on the dual roles. "One of the first things Jordan said to me was, 'Lupita, you're going to be very tired,'" she says, laughing. "And he delivered on that promise! I feel like I've made five films, and we've only just made one. This was a really intense and all-consuming film to be a part of."
As she set about creating Adelaide, Nyong'o had to simultaneously create her opposite, Red. "When it came to creating Adelaide and Red, I needed to honor the specificity with which Jordan had written these two characters," Nyong'o says. "Our story begins when Adelaide is nine years old, and she is quite the precocious character. Her deepest flaw is that she is unwilling to face her own fears. She stubbornly tries to rise above them instead. Of course, at nine, it's mainly her fear of Michael Jackson's Thriller that she's unwilling to admit." She laughs.
Red was a different story. "Red is really a manifestation of the fears of Adelaide," Nyong'o says. "So I wanted to explore these two characters both as separate entities, but also as parts of one whole. In their mannerisms, I tried to make sure that there was a throughline for the two, but clear distinctions. Adelaide and Red are really two parts of one self, which is something that this film explores. Oftentimes, we feel that the monster is from outside of ourselves"outside of our borders, outside of our homes. But in this story, the monster, though externalised, is really within our very selves. It's about embracing that, or at least recognising it."
"Jordan was very specific about who he thought these two women"Adelaide and Red"were, but he was very open to further exploration," Nyong'o continues. "He saw Adelaide as being very cool. She's really in pursuit of normalcy, and she has a very successful mask. Those were really poignant ideas to me."
To develop Red, Nyong'o and Peele spent a lot of time discussing her psychology and how that would manifest in her movements and behaviors. "Jordan often used the word 'queen' to describe Red," Nyong'o says. "He said Red has a precise elegance to her, a smoothness and an infinite patience. Those words governed the way I went about creating that character. For Adelaide, her whole demeanor, her whole character is built around naturalism. Whereas for her doppelgänger, Red, I used a more stylistic approach to her mannerisms and her whole physical execution. It was fun to have those contrasting motivations because it's not an easy task to play two characters in the same story, especially two characters who are as closely linked as these two are."
"One of the words that Jordan used to describe Red, and her movement was, 'cockroach,'" Nyong'o continues. "That was so helpful to me, to help root Red in the energy of a cockroach. Cockroaches scurry, and it's so hard to hit them, but they can also be so still that they can go unnoticed. They are also very resilient."
Switching between the two roles in a given scene required some planning and a solid strategy. "The challenge with scenes between Adelaide and Red was which side to shoot first," Nyong'o continues. "In the end I discovered that the best thing to do was to always shoot the character who was dominating the scene first, because then I could bank that and react appropriately as the other character." Peele himself would often take whichever role Nyong'o wasn't playing at the time and play it off-camera. "He really got a kick out of that," she says. "And it was really helpful to me because he does such a good job of mimicking that I didn't have to watch the playback. I could just focus on the role I was playing in that moment."
"It was definitely a challenge," Nyong'o says. "But it's also extremely interesting to prepare both sides of a conflict in a scene, to be both the hero and the villain and to pursue both of their objectives as truthfully as possible. That was an incredible gift to be able to experience. As an actor, you're always responding to external stimuli; but by playing both characters, I had the benefit of understanding each character's internal life as well, plus the challenge of figuring out what is being revealed and what is not."
The contrast between Adelaide and Red in Nyong'o's resulting performances dazzled her director, producers and co-stars. "Adelaide is the protagonist and the matriarch of the movie," Peele says. "She centers the audience and is our emotional connection throughout this movie. But, when Lupita was playing Red, something entirely different happened. She would walk into the room and you could feel it ice over. Lupita has this amazing anticipatory presence as that character. Within moments of meeting Red, you know that she holds all the cards." There's also no doubt that Red is the mastermind of what is happening to the Wilson family. "The day of The Untethering is an event," Peele says. "It's about severing the connection between the two entities, through murder. It's an idea of Red's that she's been preparing for for quite some time."
Watching the film, the distinctions between Adelaide and Red are so precise and detailed that you find yourself forgetting that it's the same actor playing both roles. "When she is in her doppelgänger, Red, she truly is a different person, almost physically," producer McKittrick says. "You can't even tell sometimes that it's the same actor because Lupita's performance is so strong. The film gives these actors an exciting opportunity to explore the darker side of their characters, which is what the movie also challenges you to do as a viewer."
For her fellow cast members, working with Nyong'o often felt like the best possible masterclass. "Adelaide and Red are incredibly uncomfortable skins to inhabit, and Lupita does it with a lot of grace and strength and color," says Duke, who has known Nyong'o since they attended graduate school at Yale together. They also co-starred in Black Panther. "She makes bold choices, and it's just beautiful to watch. She's always very prepared, and she's a generous scene partner. We had a lot of fun just knowing that we could trust each other."
The actors playing her kids learned as much from watching how Nyong'o worked and collaborated with the cast and crew as they did from watching her performances. "Lupita is so professional and she's so kind to everybody," Wright Joseph says. "She treats everyone equally, and I love that about her. She is like a real mom. She sticks to what she's doing, and when it's go time, it's go time, and then when we're off set, we can play." She laughs. "That's really cool, and I like seeing both sides of her like: Working Mom and Fun Mom." Adds Alex: "I'm really happy I got to work with Lupita," he says. "She's so kind, and I've learned a lot from her. She's done all this formal actor training, and it really inspired me to want to become a better actor like her. So I practiced some exercises with her. It was great. I really hope I get to work with her again."
For Peele, Nyong'o proved to be an ideal creative partner in bringing this new world, and these characters, to the screen. "Lupita achieves an amazing duality with these roles," Peele says. "She throws herself into the emotion of a character like no one I've ever worked with. She's so committed and thorough in how she prepares. She has such emotional places she has to go with her characters, so to have her toggle characters from one day to another was a big task. I told her ahead of time, 'Look, I'm going to beat you up in this movie; you've got to be prepared for that.' And she was a real trouper. She gave me everything."
Gabe Wilson and Abraham
Adelaide's husband, Gabe, is the patriarch of the family, but he's also the "fun" parent. In a way, he's Adelaide's opposite. He's not big on structure and rules, and he's often the antidote to her fears and anxieties. "Gabe is this fun, charismatic character," Peele says. "He's kind of a goofy dad, but he has an enthusiasm and spontaneity that makes him the spirit of the family. He often doesn't think before he acts, though, and that has been a bit of a strain in his relationship with Adelaide."
For Duke, it was an opportunity to play a man with a lot of layers and complexity, even if, at first glance, it's hidden by his easygoing attitude. "I love Gabe's spectrum," Duke says. "He isn't just one thing. He's not an action hero. He's not just comedic. He's a full human being who has needs, desires, flaws, strengths. He's a father. He's a husband. He's a man. With this role, I knew that I had the opportunity for drama, comedy, anxiety. All of that made him really attractive to me."
At the time Duke was cast, he was coming off the blockbuster success of Black Panther and his role of M'Baku, which has become a touchstone for a generation of moviegoers. "Winston is so funny and such an amazing performer," Cooper says. "Jordan and I talked so much about M'Baku in Black Panther and how although that was a supporting role, he low-key became everyone's favorite character. Every time I talked about the film with my friends and colleagues, we would talk about how much we love the movie, and then someone inevitably would go, 'You know, my actual favorite character is …' And we'd be like, 'You're about to say M'Baku.'" He laughs. "So there was something really fun about leveraging everyone's excitement for that actor and then completely upending audience expectations with this role." Duke did not disappoint. "The way Winston brought Gabe to life is so funny, and at times embarrassing, and at times truly emotional and heroic," Cooper says. "Gabe is smart, but shortsighted. He's in love with his family, but he doesn't take their immediate cues all the time. Winston is most certainly inventing a new archetype with that character."
To build Gabe, Duke worked with Peele to develop a thorough backstory and character profile of him. "Jordan and I had a lot of discussions about what kind of guy Gabe was, what kind of father he was," Duke says. "I wanted an all-American-dad scenario, where, if this were a sitcom, you would tune in to see him and this family every week. I think we achieved that. Gabe makes me think of the fathers I know. They're just trying to do the best that they can. They don't know the right thing all the time, but they'll be darned if they're not going to try to rise to all of the occasions that require a great father and a great provider and a great listener. My feeling was, Gabe's father wasn't in his life, and he had to fight and scratch to get everything in his life. So he believes that American dream narrative that if you work hard enough, you can do it. He doesn't come from a background of means. Everything Gabe has, he has worked for, and that's why he's so interested in imparting that knowledge to Zora: Work hard. Don't give up. Don't quit."
As the family arrives in Santa Cruz at the beginning of the film, Adelaide isn't the only character feeling anxiety. Gabe doesn't share her past, but he has real concerns of his own. "Gabe is the heart and soul of this family," Duke says. "He's playful and spontaneous. He keeps this family buoyant on their toes. We thought of him as a man who's trying to be the father that he never had, so he is overly present; and this summer is a big deal." As part of that effort, he buys a speedboat that has seen better days, hoping for some bonding family outings on the water.
"For Gabe, this summer is about trying to get the family back on track," Duke continues. "He's not going to lose his family even though his kids are growing up and they're getting to the age where they don't find him as funny anymore. They're getting their own needs and desires and are being distracted by life. He wants to save his family. Gabe buying that boat is a symbol of that. It shows that he's still good, he still has everything under control, and he's going to save the day."
Gabe and Adelaide have a good marriage, but it's not without its flashpoints and friction. "The relationship Gabe has with Adelaide is one of extreme passion," Duke says. "He passionately loves his wife. There's a lot of love, but it's a love that is one-sided sometimes and can be oppressive, and isn't one that is rooted in deep listening. He doesn't always consult Adelaide on things. If Gabe had really spent a lot of time listening to her, observing her actions, body language and the way she reacts to things, he'd have known a little bit more about his wife."
All of that is thrown into high relief when Gabe and Adelaide are confronted by The Tethered. "Gabe's need to live in a fantasy of what an American marriage, and an American family, is"that's his driving force," Duke says. "And then everything changes. My favorite line in the movie is, 'The world's not going to end. It's just going to be different.' It's a metaphor for what their family structure is going to be, and what their family is going to look like, in the aftermath of what they're going through."
For Peele, Duke was the perfect choice to play Gabe. "Winston doesn't know it, but he basically is Gabe," Peele says. "Winston thinks Gabe is based on me, but when I met Winston it was like, 'Ok, yes. Just do that.' Winston is that dude. He's a fun mash-up of how I originally saw the character and all the qualities that he brought to the role. You can't separate the two."
Gabe's doppelgänger, Abraham, is a different story, however. "Abraham is a terrifying presence," Peele says. "He's big, hulking, single-minded and psychopathic. And he's completely devoted to Red's cause." Abraham's eyesight is bad, and his relationship with Red stands in sharp contrast to Gabe and Adelaide's. "Abraham is really a partner to Red," Duke says. "He's there to make sure everything works. He's there to make sure that everything is achieved. And because he doesn't have great eyesight, he has to listen. He has to be present, even more than Gabe is. It was a lot of fun to kind of interrogate both characters and see how they would relate to each other, and then explore what things made each of them 'them.'"
The arrival of The Tethered causes a shift in Gabe and elevates aspects of his personality that haven't always been visible. "Gabe is the fun dad who gets caught up in a violent scenario that every fun dad, myself included, never expects to be caught up in," McKittrick says. "So we get to see the patriarch of this family realize that he is fallible and might not be able to protect his family." This change in Gabe is particularly noticeable to his daughter, Zora. "When the doppelgängers invade, Zora sees a different side of Gabe that's really startling for her," Wright Joseph says. "She sees her father's fear for the first time and doesn't know what to do. She wants him to regain control, so she can feel safe again."
For his co-stars, Duke proved to be a daily joy to work with, finding the humor in even the most sinister situations and keeping the set loose and lively. "Winston was always joking and having fun on set," Wright Joseph says. "Unless he was playing Abraham...then he just stayed in character and didn't talk all day." And Duke found an ideal audience for his on-set humor in Evan Alex. "Winston is so fun to work with," Alex says. "Our characters, Jason and Gabe, don't have that vibe as father and son, but Winston and I, we talk to each other and make jokes a lot. He's really funny." He laughs. "But when you're short like me, never let your guard down around him or he'll lift you over six feet up in the air."
He brought just as much joy to his adult co-stars. "Winston's so cool," says Moss, who plays Kitty Tyler. "You just want to hang out with him, that guy. I didn't have that many scenes with him, but he and Lupita and the kids, they're just so great together and seemed like a real family, the four of them, even when the cameras weren't rolling. That was very cool to see."
For Nyong'o, her long friendship with Duke became a critical part of their on-screen marriage. "Winston and I have known each other since we were in graduate school together," Nyong'o says. "And, of course, we'd had this short stint together in this little movie called Black Panther. We're extremely close. We bicker like siblings; we're like an old couple. So there was the comfort of knowing that he's someone that I trust personally, and also someone whose artistry I really admire and respect.
"Winston is just such a rambunctious character," she continues. "He's so warm and so unafraid. He's a courageous actor, and a generous one, so it was great to just trust our chemistry and to play off of it. Our on-screen marriage got deep really quickly."
Zora Wilson and Umbrae
Shahadi Wright Joseph
To play Zora Wilson, the willful teen daughter of Adelaide and Gabe, the filmmakers needed to find a young actor with presence, poise, intelligence and someone with the ability to play not just Zora, but her Tethered, Umbrae. They ultimately found her in Wright Joseph, who went through multiple auditions before landing the role. "For the audition, I was given some sides that were completely terrifying," Wright Joseph says. "Zora is an awesome character. She's powerful. She's independent. I'd never played a horror character before and wasn't sure how I was going to do it, but my dad helped me shape the scene so by the time I went in for the audition, I felt ready to play Zora."
Peele and his producers knew they had to cast both Zora and her younger brother, Jason (Evan Alex) in tandem, to ensure that the sibling chemistry between them felt organic. "Zora and Jason's relationship is kind of like my sister's and mine," Wright Joseph says. "We love each other and then we fight and then we love each other and then we fight." She laughs. "It's a whole thing." The filmmakers saw that connection between Wright Joseph and Alex from the moment they put them in the same room. "With Shahadi and Evan, we were in love with them when we auditioned them individually," Cooper says. "But in, I think, the third round, we put them together for a scene, and in that moment, Jordan said, 'That's my movie.'"
Over the course of production, Wright Joseph and Alex created a unique bond all their own. "Shahadi and I connected the most because we worked together the most, and we hung out together on our days off," Alex says. "She was my best friend on set, so it was really fun acting the scenes where Jason and Zora don't get along."
For audiences, especially those who have spent time with teenagers, Zora will feel very familiar. "Zora is a very relatable 13-year-old," Peele says. "She's a little snarky, she's smart and she's hitting a point in her life where she wants to be taken seriously as a young woman, but she's finding a bit of resistance from her parents as she tries to break out of that box."
Wright Joseph understood the character immediately. "Zora is 13, so, like me, she's always on her phone," Wright Joseph says, laughing. "She's really chill and relaxed when we first meet her, but her attitude is also kind of bored and 'over' her parents, like, 'Dad, bye.'" She laughs. "But then the night her family is attacked by doppelgängers she's almost in denial that it's actually happening. The Wilsons are such a normal family that she can't really process the situation."
When The Tethered arrive at the Wilson home, however, Zora is confronted by her doppelgänger, Umbrae, who is anything but a normal teenager. "Umbrae is probably the scariest one in the bunch, for me personally," Peele says. "She has this creepy smile, and she's weirdly obsessed with Zora in almost a respectful way, even though she's going to try to kill her. Umbrae holds a lot of menace and may be my favorite character in the movie."
To bring Umbrae to life, Wright Joseph worked with Peele and choreographer and movement consultant Madeline Hollander, to craft Umbrae's personality and physicality. "Jordan told me that he wanted Zora's doppelgänger, Umbrae, to be intrigued by Zora even though, you know, she's trying to kill her," Wright Joseph says, laughing. "Umbrae's character is sleek and powerful, strong and scary, and she does whatever comes to mind to get the job done. I thought it was important to portray. I have some friends like that, so I took some aspects of their personalities and added them to my performance."
To help distinguish Zora and Umbrae, Wright Joseph modified her posture and movements, depending on which role she was playing. "Jordan wanted Zora and Umbrae to be completely different in their posture," Wright Joseph says. "So I would make Zora slouch a little bit when she's walking, and she runs a bit slower than Umbrae. There are lots of little differences like that between the two characters."
In one major set piece, Zora is being chased by Umbrae, which required Wright Joseph not just to run (a lot), but to run in two different ways. Wright Joseph was eager to do this work herself and trained to be able to do it. "Since Zora is a runner, production requested a video of me sprinting in case they needed to hire a stunt double for those scenes, but I really wanted to do them myself," Wright Joseph says, and laughs. "My dad helped me train on a track near my house. We would stretch before running and record each session to track my pace. I definitely worked on building stamina, and during production I ran on the treadmill, so the preparation was a lot of fun."
Wright Joseph also worked with Hollander on altering her stride and other physical distinctions between the two characters. "I worked with Shahadi on the scene where she is running away from her double," Hollander says. "Umbrae is chasing Zora, and Umbrae has this angular, long, sleek look. She's faster than Zora, so we worked on how Umbrae would stretch herself in really strange ways, and take her time doing it, because she's so confident that she can catch up with Zora."
The running scenes had to be shot over multiple nights, with Wright Joseph playing both sides of the chase. "On the first night I played Zora, and I had to channel all of Zora's energy and fear, thinking that she's never going to see her parents or brother again," Wright Joseph says. "Zora's literally running for her life, and I thought a lot about how I would feel if I were really in that situation"never seeing my family again"and I put all that emotion into the character. On the second night I was playing Umbrae and for her I was just thinking, 'All I want to do is kill Zora. That's my objective.'" She laughs. "I'm running around the car trying to get to Zora, smiling, climbing on top of the car. Then in the scene, a neighbor comes outside and Umbrae turns to look at him, and in the background I can hear Jordan laughing, and I'm thinking, 'Ok. Yeah, this is good'."
Nyong'o, her on-screen mother, found herself captivated by Wright Joseph. "Shahadi has this elegance and a sure-footedness that is moving," Nyong'o says. "To see her transformation from Zora to Umbrae was just so cool. She was terrifying in her stillness."
Indeed, everyone who worked with Wright Joseph was impressed with her undeniable talent and her work ethic. "It was so fun to work with Shahadi because, for such a young actor, she can do anything," Peele says. "She's a true professional, she has an unwavering focus, and she has the utmost trust in her director, which is a gift." And Cooper was struck by her maturity and her adaptability. "Shahadi is probably one of the most professional actors in the film," Cooper says, laughing. "She is so talented, and consistent and aware of herself. I watched Jordan work with her, and she shaped Zora almost in real time. I'm in awe of her talent, especially considering how young she is."
Jason Wilson and Pluto
The youngest member of the Wilson family, Jason is perhaps the most internal and mysterious. He's quiet, intelligent, and seemingly lost in his own head. As a result, he's not always aware of what's going on around him. "Jason is a unique character," Alex says. "He's an observer, and tends to get distracted and wanders off. He's kind of in his own world. He's also really into magic tricks, while most boys his age are into sports. He has a magic ring that he's always playing with."
While Zora is closest to her father, Gabe, Jason is more closely connected to Adelaide, his mother. And for reasons that aren't clear at first, Adelaide is particularly watchful and protective of Jason. "Our characters, Jason and Adelaide, have a special bond," Nyong'o says. "And Evan and I were able to really get to know each other and trust each other. It's always so lovely when you experience the blossoming of a child's acceptance of you as an on-screen mom." Adds Alex: "Jason doesn't really get along with his sister Zora that much," he says, "or really anybody other than his mom. He's definitely a mama's boy."
Jason has some eerie connections with his doppelgänger, Pluto. Jason often wears a mask that he can pull down over his face whenever he retreats within himself, and Pluto wears a full-head hood that hides his face when we first see him. Of all The Tethered characters, Pluto is the most unsettling because he seems the least human. "Pluto is a pyromaniac and a very scary character," Peele says. "He's somebody who fancies himself as sort of a sneaky little animal, so he kind of scurries around. The relationship between Jason and Pluto is…very interesting." He laughs. "You'll see."
Alex loved getting underneath Pluto's skin. "Pluto was the most fun to play," Alex says. "He has a lot in common with Jason. They both wear a mask, and they're both very different from the rest of their family. They're both also very loyal to their moms, but Pluto is more like a pet. He's like a wild animal. He's dangerous and vicious, and always ready to pounce. Unlike Jason, Pluto's not really too bright, and he loves the beauty of fire."
On set, Alex was a live wire of energy and laughter, to the delight of his director and co-stars. "Evan Alex is a ball of energy and so much fun to work with," Peele says. "He's funny, he's smart, and he's extremely professional. It was amazing watching him connect how he and Jason are similar. Evan's somebody who can play distractible, and can seem distractible, but then when you talk to him you realize, 'Oh, this kid is a listener. He's picking up everything and engaging with the character in a very mature way.'"
Nyong'o admired his ability to subsume his own personality within a character in a way that is rare for a lot of child actors. "Evan is hilarious," Nyong'o says. "He has so much sass as a person. So to see him work and transform into this kid who is a little more aloof and reclusive, and the ways in which he unconsciously would do things that were spot-on for his character, was inspiring."
Alex also proved to be an endless source of entertainment for his on-screen sister. "Evan is hilarious," Wright Joseph says. "On set, he was always funny, goofy and so adorable! I don't even know how that's possible!" She laughs. "When he gets into acting mode, we're like real siblings, so there's a huge connection there. We even felt that connection as early as our chemistry read. When we met, I was like, 'Hmm, this dude's pretty cool.'"
One of the surprise gifts for Alex, he says, was getting to work closely with Peele, who became a mentor to him. Their work together on Us has inspired Alex to want to become a director when he grows up. "Meeting Jordan was one of the best things that has happened to me," Alex says. "The advice he gave me was to make Jason feel more like me. If Jason was doing something that didn't feel right for the character to me that we could change it up. He was always collaborating with us and letting us make our characters feel right for us. Sometimes when I wasn't in a scene, Jordan would let me sit with him, and I really felt like I learned a lot. Watching him really made me want to become a filmmaker even more."
The Tylers: A Disconnected Family
On the surface, the Tylers have it all. Attractive, sophisticated, urbane and financially well off, Kitty (Moss), Josh (Heidecker), and their twin daughters, Becca (Cali Sheldon) and Lindsey (Noelle Sheldon), are what Gabe Wilson aspires his family to be. "Gabe thinks that Josh is so funny," Duke says. "He thinks Josh is just everything. Josh has a boat, so Gabe's going to get a boat. Josh has a nice car, so Gabe's going to have a nice car." That does not sit well with Adelaide. "The Tylers are Gabe's friends, whom the rest of the Wilson family tolerates," Nyong'o says. "Josh and Gabe are close friends, but they are also kind of rivals at the same time. It's a functionally dysfunctional friendship because Gabe is always trying to impress and live up to Josh. The Tylers are better off than the Wilsons, and this ignites the competitive spirit that Gabe has with Josh, which irritates Adelaide to no end."
But how the Tylers present themselves publicly is not who they are, and their superficial perfection masks a deep well of anger, disappointment and disconnection. And, as fond of the Tylers as Gabe is, his wife and kids don't share his affection for them.
"The Tylers are Gabe's best friends, but not his family's best friends," Duke says, laughing. "Gabe's friendship with Josh Tyler is a reflection of Gabe's deep need to have an attachment or proximity to what he views as potential perfection. Gabe thinks the Tylers' family is perfect. They're this white, rich, upper-middle-class family, and Gabe wants to hang out with them because he thinks it will rub off on him and his own family. In that relationship, though, the Tylers can be a bit condescending, and it might not be very healthy for Gabe and his family, long-term."
In fact, the Tylers are borderline toxic as far as role models go. "I would call the Tylers alcoholics because they're 'casual drinkers' but they're always finding an excuse to drink throughout the day," says Heidecker, who plays Josh. "That's not a major plot point or anything, but it sets up the dynamic of Josh and Kitty. These are two people with a lot of stuff shoved down underneath them. They're almost like the couple in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? A lot of drinking, a lot of ribbing. They communicate in insults, sort of saying to each other, 'go fuck yourself,' and not meaning it, but also meaning it entirely."
Kitty and Josh aren't exactly in contention for Parents of the Year, either. "The relationship between Josh and Kitty and their girls is not great," Heidecker says. "There's the sense that Kitty sees them as a burden, and the twins are in these pre-teen years. The parents are a bit over them. The dynamic is that they're all sort of barely tolerating each other. And the relationship between the Tyler kids and the Wilson kids isn't great. They don't really have a connection, they're not the same ages, and so the idea of them spending any time on vacation together is just implicitly awkward for everybody. Well, for everybody except Josh, who is drunk the whole time."
When we first meet the Tylers, Gabe Wilson has cajoled his family into spending time with them at the beach. "Gabe aspires to have the life that the Tylers have, with their bigger house and bigger boat and all of that," Heidecker says. "Addy kind of tolerates the Tylers but probably doesn't love spending time with them."
The Tylers are not without nuance and complexity, and they're oddly compelling despite their less-attractive qualities. "It would be easy to make the Tylers into a sort of joke about jaded, privileged white people," Cooper says. "But Tim and Lizzie provide this unexpected pairing that really grounds the dynamic between the Tylers and the Wilsons." Their performances elevate the roles in fresh and unexpected ways. "Elisabeth Moss brings everything we love about her to the role of Kitty," McKittrick says. "She's brilliant, funny, dark, twisted and fun. And Tim Heidecker brings an excellent every-man humor to the role of Josh."
And luckily, the dynamic between the four adult actors was far more enjoyable than the one between their characters. "Tim and Elisabeth are really wonderful, generous scene partners," Duke says. "They are very present and confident, and it's great to be in scenes with people like that because once they're 'on,' you know you have to be on. You owe it to them, and you owe it to yourself."
Duke and Heidecker were also responsible for much of the humor in the film, both on screen and off. "Tim and Winston together were a riot," Nyong'o says. "They both have such great comedic sensibilities, and they just riffed off of one another, and took their bromance to a whole other level. Jordan has this way of creating terrifying moments and infusing them with this comedic element that actually makes the experience more visceral. The characters of Gabe and Josh do that in this story. They make the otherworldly circumstances that we find ourselves in, in this film, that much more relatable because of their comedic contribution."
On the surface, Kitty Tyler, played by Moss, has it all"a successful husband, an elegant home, two beautiful daughters"but she finds herself grappling with deep undercurrents of unrest and anger. "Kitty is a woman who we've all known or met at some point: someone who has a really good life but feels like she never got to be who she wanted to be," Moss says. "Because of her children or because of getting married or whatever she's blaming it on, she never got to achieve her personal goals, and she's very bitter about that."
Kitty's dream was to become an actress, but life and luck interfered, and now, as her daughters Becca and Lindsey are entering their teens, she's staring into the maw of thwarted ambition, regret and a litany of what-ifs. "There's a scene in the film where Kitty is looking in a mirror, in what Jordan described as a sort of 'Marilyn Monroe daze,'" Moss says. "Kitty looks terrible, and she's looking at the worst version of herself in the reflection. It's her worst nightmare, but it is also a representation of who she is inside. Jordan and I made up this story for that scene, where Kitty is imagining that she's the greatest actress in the world and the most famous. She's about to go on stage, or to a premiere or something, and she's feeling her most glamorous. And then she slowly falls apart while she's looking in the mirror. It's the other side of that glamorous movie star role."
Kitty's subsumed rage about her life bleeds into her marriage, and into her relationship with her children. "Kitty and Josh are sort of your worst nightmare," Moss says. "They're a representation of what a relationship/partnership/marriage should never be. There's a chemistry there, but it's not good. They hate each other. They're both unhappy. Yet they rely on each other, feed off of each other. They feed off of this anger and hatred. You can see that, at times, they are (or were) a good couple. Kitty, on top of all that, hates her children. She blames her children for the fact that she didn't become a movie star."
Kitty's vanity, anger and ample alcohol consumption make her unpleasant company, particularly for Adelaide. "Kitty wants to be really good friends with Addy, but that's not the case," Moss says. "The Tylers and the Wilsons are those friends you have where maybe your kids went to something together, or your houses were near each other at some point, so you've become friends. But it's a friendship of convenience. Secretly, Addy and Gabe kind of hate Kitty and Josh, but Kitty and Josh genuinely like the Wilsons. Kitty and Josh are almost foils for Addy and Gabe: They represent the other side of things."
Finding an actor who could convey all of that, and still make Kitty relatable, inspired Peele to seek out Moss for the role. "Early in the writing process, when we were talking about Josh and Kitty Tyler, we thought this was a really poignant opportunity for casting," Cooper says. "The Tylers have a small but really important role in this film. I had been talking Jordan's ear off about Elisabeth's performance in Top of the Lake, which is one of my favorite series of all time. Elisabeth makes that character, Robin, so complex and so real. Throughout her work, from Mad Men to The Handmaid's Tale, Elisabeth brings this strange blend of absolute realism but also a kind of…otherness. What we hoped for in casting her came true in spades. Her performance is this stunning, confounding gem seated in the center of the film."
For Moss, the role of Kitty was a rare opportunity to play the kind of woman she seldom gets to explore. "I usually play the heroine or the strong person or the nice person," Moss says. "So I don't get the chance to do much comedy, or to play funnier moments, so getting to lean into that and play this total shallow bitch was really fun." She laughs. "I'd like to do something like that again." In truth, though, she says she probably would have signed on for any role Peele offered her, just for the chance to work with him. In fact, she basically did.
"I sort of said, 'yes' before I had even read anything," Moss says. "I had a meeting with him and he said, 'There's this part for you, and I want you to do it.' And I was like, 'I don't want to sound desperate, but, 'yes'." She laughs. "He said, 'Well, I'll send the script to you, and you can let me know what you think,' and I was like, 'I don't think you understand: I'm serious. Whatever it is, I'll do it.'"
She did not disappoint, to say the least. "Lizzie does amazing things in this film," Peele says. "The most wonderful thing about working with her is that you can experiment. She has such refined tools as an actor. She'll give you a take that's so beautiful and nuanced and intentionally off balance, and then you ask her to try it another way, and she'll give you a take that is just as brilliant but entirely different. She really brought a fourth dimension to the character of Kitty and cemented who she was."
For Nyong'o, playing opposite Moss was everything she'd hoped it would be. "Elisabeth is an actress that I've admired," Nyong'o says. "She's so arresting, and she brought such a groundedness and depth to Kitty. She is a character that could easily come across as two-dimensional, and Elisabeth brings such a well-roundness to her. Kitty believes she is closer to Adelaide than Adelaide feels she is to Kitty, and you can really sense that in Elisabeth's performance. Elisabeth is extremely present, and I was really lucky on this film to be surrounded by actors who were all team players and invested in their roles and in this story."
That layered complexity in Kitty, Moss says, also represents some of the film's central themes. "On a deeper level, this movie is looking at how we tend to judge a group of people based on where they're from or what they believe or who they voted for," Moss says. "We tend to put one group of people in a box in our minds and say, 'They're good,' and we put another group in a box and say, 'They're bad.' The truth, of course, isn't quite that simple."
Josh Tyler, played by Heidecker, is a co-worker of Gabe Wilson's and, at least in terms of his image, a role model for who Gabe thinks he wants to be. "Josh is a guy who thinks he is rock 'n' roll, so his tattoos and his wardrobe reflect all that, but he's really just a guy who makes a lot of money in advertising," Heidecker says. "He's kind of a douche, a guy who loves money and things, but who thinks he's edgy. He's also a guy who is always on, always joking and being sarcastic, usually to the detriment of everybody around him, and to the annoyance of his wife."
And although Josh and Gabe are friends, their relationship is threaded with a tension, mainly because of Josh's sense of entitlement and privilege. "Gabe and Josh have a relationship as co-workers, but there's a bit of an imbalance there because Josh has a higher position than Gabe does," Heidecker says. "Josh kind of stumbles through life without a lot of obstacles and maybe comes from some money, so he looks down on Gabe a little bit. He sees him as a punching bag a little bit."
For his part, Gabe may admire Josh, but he can also see that his relationship with his family is better than Josh's is. "Josh and Kitty's marriage is dysfunctional, so Gabe can look at them and think, 'Adelaide and I are doing great. We're doing really well,'" Duke says.
For Peele, Heidecker was the ideal actor to embody Josh. "Tim's a brilliant comedic actor and a brilliant actor," Peele says. "He has this perfect ability to be both lovable and douchey at the same time"something that very few people can pull off." He laughs. "And he can dial it either way, more lovable or more douchey, depending on what you need in the scene. It was also fun to work with somebody who has such intrinsic comedic timing, so he can really improvise and add to a scene."
Peele and his producers thought of Heidecker for Josh early in the process. "Tim is someone I've loved as a performer for years, as both a comedian and an actor," Cooper says. "Early on, Jordan talked about casting someone in the role of Josh who was unusual and who would elevate Josh above being a cartoon. Tim had starred in a 2012 film called The Comedy, which is one of the darkest performances created from content that isn't overtly dark. In that film, Tim nails the presumptuous sourness of the straight-white-American-male trope, but he does it in a way that somehow manages to inspire empathy. It's a truly grotesque character, but Tim carves the character into something so multidimensional you can't just vilify him." He laughs. "Jordan joked that The Comedy was essentially Tim's audition for the role of Josh."
At first, Heidecker couldn't quite decide if he should be pleased that Peele considered him for Josh. "Jordan told me that he had kind of thought of me for this part as he was writing it," Heidecker says. "Josh is kind of a dick though, so I don't know what that says about the way Jordan sees me." He laughs. "It is something that I can turn on pretty easily, and Jordan said there would be room for me to make the character my own a little bit, so it wasn't a tough decision at all."
"When I first get a script, I read my lines and see if there are any big words that I might have trouble with," Heidecker jokes. "Or if there are any long paragraphs. I tend to avoid those because those are hard to memorize. Jordan had sent me the script and asked me to meet him the following day, which is a lot of reading to do in one day. I remember thinking that it was very violent and graphic and had a lot of stabbing in it." He laughs. "That concerned me as somebody who has been stabbed. I knew this was going to be one of these movies that my mom can't see. But it does have these great callbacks to classic thrillers. It's about a family being pursued, chased by monsters, essentially."
Heidecker also welcomed the chance to work with Duke, Moss and Nyong'o. "Lupita and Winston are both these incredible Yale-trained actors, with a capital A," Heidecker says. "And Lizzy, Elisabeth Moss, is incredible. She's worked on great television shows and movies for years. They're all way above my abilities. But they are all very nice and easy to work with, and we all have our different strengths. Everyone has been so damn nice. Including Jordan at the helm."
It's such a shame, then, that Moss can't return the compliment. "Tim's not a nice person," Moss jokes. "It's surprising because you think, 'He's so funny and such a genius, he must be a really nice guy.' He's not. He's actually kind of terrible and selfish." She laughs. "Don't work with him if you can avoid it. He's pretty much the worst." All teasing aside, she loved working with Heidecker. "Honestly, Tim's lovely," she says. "This is a different kind of role for him, and that was really exciting to see and get to be a part of. One of the coolest things about being on set was getting to witness Jordan and Tim talk and do bits and be funny with each other. It's like watching two geniuses play tennis: these two great comedic minds going back and forth trying to make each other laugh. That's worth the price of admission. It's an incredible thing to witness."
The girls who play Josh and Kitty's kids got a front-row seat to it all and loved every minute of it. "It is so cool to have Elisabeth and Tim as our parents," says Cali Sheldon, who plays Becca Tyler. "They're both really talented actors and they're also hilarious. We were doing a scene and Tim was improvising, he was just so funny. It's really cool to be able to see them as actual people, as themselves, and then as their characters. It's such a contrast, and it's really cool."
Becca and Lindsey Tyler
Cali and Noelle Sheldon
To play the Tylers' twin daughters, Becca and Lindsey, Peele cast real-life twins Cali and Noelle Sheldon, who started their acting careers as infants, sharing the role of baby Emma on NBC's Friends. The Tyler girls aren't exactly friendly though. Obvious children of privilege and status, they're not exactly "mean girls" but they skirt right up against that classification. "The Tylers see themselves as better than the Wilsons, but they try not to show it," Cali Sheldon says. "Lindsey and Becca don't really like the Wilson kids, Zora and Jason, so they play little pranks on them and are mean to Zora and Jason in subtle ways. They don't like us much either."
Although Cali and Noelle are, and play, twins, Peele wanted to make sure that each girl had her own distinct personality, which impressed his actors. "Even though we are playing twins, Jordan didn't want to typecast us as twins," Cali Sheldon says. "He wanted to explore our characters as individual personalities, but also take advantage of the unique relationship that twins have. So my character, Becca, has more of a California beach-girl vibe, and Noelle's character, Lindsey, is more emo."
The roles required Cali and Noelle to go to some extreme places emotionally, and they more than delivered. "Noelle and Cali Sheldon have this amazing duality to them as performers," Peele says. "They surprise you because as people they're so sweet, and patient and almost timid, but when you ask them to do something crazy, they will go full-on into it. They have a couple of scenes where they really steal the show."
Growing up in a dysfunctional home, Becca and Lindsey have developed a bond apart from their parents. "The dynamic in the Tyler family isn't very good," Noelle Sheldon says. "Kitty regrets having kids because it ruined her career. She could have been a famous actress, but instead, she's just a mom to two bratty teenagers. And Josh is just kind of indifferent to Becca and Lindsey. We're there and he has to deal with us. So Becca and Lindsey have only each other to rely on, really."
And luckily, Cali's and Noelle's personalities are nothing like their characters. "Noelle and Cali are so kind and so sweet," Wright Joseph says. "I don't know why, but I'm fascinated with twins." She laughs. "I love watching them interact. They were always joking that one of them was two minutes older than the other, so whenever they were in an argument, one of them would say, 'Well I'm two minutes older, so ….' They were really chill and cool. The best set of twins I've ever met!" The twins loved working with Wright Joseph and Alex, too. "Shahadi and Evan are really sweet, and so talented," Noelle Sheldon says. "It's amazing because they're so young." She laughs. "I mean, we are, too, obviously, but Evan and Shahadi have accomplished so much and they do such a good job in the film. And they're really nice, to boot."
Even Cali and Noelle's on-screen dad was impressed by them. "Well, I'm prohibited in the state of California from speaking to minors on camera, so I worked with their stunt doubles in all of our scenes," Heidecker jokes. But seriously now…"I loved working with Cali and Noelle," he says. "I have never worked with twins before, and they were very nice."
In a film about doppelgängers, it's no coincidence that the Tyler girls are twins, which the Sheldons understood intuitively. "Cali and Noelle Sheldon were really fun to work with because they very quickly grasped the concept of what their roles were supposed to be, as sort of the living embodiment of the themes of the film," Cooper says. In more ways than one, actually. "One Easter egg in the film is that Josh Tyler has these tattoo sleeves, which we see when he's on the beach with the Wilsons," Cooper says. "We decided that Josh was the kind of guy who would get tattoos of his twins on his forearms, so we used an image of Cali/Noelle when they were sharing the role of baby Emma on Friends as the template for that tattoo."
An Ego-less Vision
Inspiring Creativity and Collaboration
Working on a Jordan Peele film was an experience like no other for most of the cast and crew. Whether seasoned vets or relative newcomers to film production, they quickly found themselves in a working environment designed to inspire their imaginations and welcome their ideas. "Jordan is the best kind of director," McKittrick says. "He is in complete control of his story, but he's also open and collaborative to all the artists that come together to make a film. He's very calm and knows exactly what he wants, but he allows others to throw in ideas."
Peele developed this directorial philosophy and style from his years working as a performer. "Ego gets in the way of great creativity, and the greatest things that humans have created were created together," Peele says. "As a director, I feel that my job, first and foremost, is to have a vision, but also to be receptive to the best idea in the room. If you're too driven with ego or taking credit you can often miss the best choice for the story you're telling. Improv comedy really helps you develop a love for collaboration, and for a collaboration that's as ego-less as you can get."
Even for those who have known him socially for many years, seeing how he works, and the impact of his directorial style, was powerful. "As someone that loves him and cares about him and who has been invested in him as a friend for so long, it's awe-inspiring to see him work with his cast and crew," Cooper says. "Because of his 20-plus-year career as a performer, he has a natural ease with actors, and has an innate ability to gain the trust of his performers. He's able to elicit really compelling performances from his cast without prying it out of them."
His ability to communicate a vision without being closed off to new ideas makes him a rarity. "Jordan is the true definition of an auteur filmmaker," Blum says. "He's a writer, director, producer and his vision is all-encompassing. You can feel that vision in every single decision he makes. That's very unusual. I think he's one of the most talented filmmakers working today. He's very collaborative, and he listens to everyone, but he also has a very specific point of view, and he's able to balance all of that incredibly well."
"What separates Jordan from most other directors working today is he's more talented than most other directors working today," Blum continues. "He's an incredibly original thinker. A lot of directors today look at genre as kind of second-fiddle, and Jordan understands that genre can be as important as drama. Certainly, the Academy confirmed that with his Oscar® for Get Out."
The atmosphere Peele created on set was one of calm, quiet guidance and control, which allowed everyone around him to feel safe to explore innovative ideas and solutions. "He's incredibly soft-spoken as a director," Cooper says. "He's not someone that ever yells, or who even raises his voice. He's really good at hiring people with whom he can quickly develop a shorthand. With each of his department heads, I hear him employ funny 'Jordanisms,' that are specific to that person or department, where only the person he's speaking to knows exactly what he means. That creates a certain quickness and a level of fun to the communication on set, and it accelerates the speed at which we can move."
All of which had a big impact on his cast. "I knew Jordan a little bit before this, just from the comedy circle," Heidecker says. "We speak the same kind of language. It is a bit of a shorthand about improv and acting and directing, as I'm also a director, so we get along really well. I was always giving Jordan terrible ideas like, 'Maybe in this shot you can smash-zoom into me and I can turn to the camera and go, 'Get out!'"
Moss found Peele to be exceptional as a director on many fronts. "Jordan was amazing to work with," Moss says. "He really let me try things and explore, and I saw him do that with other actors, too. All directors say that they're going to do that, but they sometimes don't. Jordan didn't put a limit on how weird or crazy or scary or funny or sad we could be. That's incredibly liberating for an actor because you feel like you can do no wrong."
Nyong'o echoes that sentiment. "Jordan Peele is one of the best communicators I have ever met," Nyong'o says. "He is also compassionate and so calm! I had extensive conversations with him before shooting, and he was always very open and very specific about what he was looking for. Although the work was difficult and challenging, Jordan was providing me, and us as a cast, with a safe space to do some dangerous and wild things. I'm just awestruck by his mind, and how it works, and his attention to detail, and his knowledge of the horror genre, and of film in general."
"Jordan pays homage to the filmmakers and the films that he loves," Nyong'o continues. "You can really feel that in his work. He communicates that and brings you onboard that mission. That's by far the best way to create, when we all know what the vision is. And Jordan is making his favorite movie all the time. That passion, that enthusiasm"it's infectious. I would work with him again and again and again."
That energy and spirit from Peele filtered into every department of the filmmaking team. "When you're working with him, you're joining a creative, brilliant mind who trusts you to help augment the world that he's created," Duke says. "It's beautiful, really. It's such a pleasure working with Jordan and assisting him in ascending to the heights of film legend, where he'll live in perpetuity amongst other prolific directors of cinematic history."
Plus, it's just plain fun being around him. "Jordan is so calm yet assertive," Wright Joseph says. "He doesn't yell. He's like, 'Everything's going to be cool. We're going to do this, and then we're going to try that. Would you like to try it another way?' He's so open to everybody's ideas. It's really sweet. Then when he's excited about a scene, he does this little strut." She laughs. "It's awesome."
Peele's directorial ethos allowed his department heads to develop and evolve ideas with him over time, until they collectively landed on the right idea or concept. "Collaborating with Jordan is truly incredible," says production designer Ruth De Jong. "He's so open and approachable, and that makes for a fluid relationship and very productive conversations. His script is his bible, but he's constantly rewriting and thinking of ideas. There's this constant dialogue between him and the art department and props and set decoration. It's organic, and fluid and wonderful. He's also so calm, and so patient. I don't think I ever once heard him raise his voice. It's an incredible experience to work with somebody who's so focused and confident in what he wants. I can't say enough beautiful things about him."
Scott Wheeler, the department head for Makeup and Makeup Effects, experienced the same thing. "It's always an amazing journey working with Jordan," Scott Wheeler says. "He's very thoughtful. He likes to develop ideas and work on them and rethink them and redevelop them until they're something really amazing. That's a process I really enjoy, and I don't always get to do that with other directors."
Plus, he has a deep knowledge of the horror genre that proved invaluable to the cast and crew. "Jordan is an artist," says Visual Effects Supervisor Grady Cofer. "He takes these important, dramatic themes like free will and social inequality, and then he lets them play out in a horror movie. He loves genre, and he and Ian Cooper are real students of the horror genre in particular. Working with them is really exciting."
Peele's tenure in the industry, working both in front of and behind the camera, has given him an ease with every part of the filmmaking process. "Writer-directors are special animals, because they're uniquely qualified to bring their story to life," says composer MICHAEL ABELS. "Because of his history in the business, he has seen film from more angles than most people get to, and he relates to the different creative crafts of filmmaking better than another person might." Besides, Abels adds, "He's usually not only the funniest guy in the room but also the smartest. Who wouldn't want to work with someone like that? Sign me up."
Subverting Santa Cruz
Horror Takes a Holiday
When it came to finding the perfect location for Us, Peele wanted to avoid the tropes of most horror films. No creepy old houses or campsites in the woods. He wanted sun, sand and an unexpected location, and he found it on the beaches and boardwalk of Santa Cruz, California. "Santa Cruz has a really fun vibe, with the amusement park and the boardwalk, and I love the idea of subverting idyllic locations," Peele says. "I love giving the audience a vacation in the middle of the horror, if I can. Alfred Hitchcock is one of my favorite directors, and the West Coast beach vibe of Santa Cruz reminded me of The Birds and of Vertigo. That location also allowed us to give a little shout-out to The Lost Boys, which is the first movie I can remember to specifically subvert Santa Cruz."
Peele and Cooper's deep knowledge of the genre allowed them to sidestep the predictable and keep the audience off-balance. "I love horror as a genre, and I'm very interested in what it does for us as an audience; but I'm often underwhelmed with how locations are used in a lot of horror writing," Cooper says. "There's an exhausting use of only a handful of tropes in horror locations, such as isolated cabins or sleepy suburban neighborhoods. Those choices feel so predictable and lacking in nuance while disregarding the fact that some of the most terrifying circumstances that we experience in life take place in broad daylight, and in unexpected places. David Lynch's work is a testament to that. Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds and Steven Spielberg's Jaws are two of the most brilliant uses of the beach as a landscape of horror. In the beginning of our film the Wilsons show up at Adelaide's childhood home, and soon thereafter go to a public beach"this largely populated space"the opposite of isolation. We liked that level of destabilization. The sharp contrast of that landscape, that imagery, those colors and textures, was something that really excited us."
The Santa Cruz boardwalk, with its amusement park, added an additional layer to the terror that befalls Adelaide and her family. "The beach itself conjures this high-low tension contrast," Cooper says. "You've got the romantic splendor of the landscape"sand meeting ocean"and simultaneously, the sweaty, seedy underbelly vibes of what goes on at a beachfront boardwalk. The establishing scene in the film takes place in 1986, (a time when Jordan and I were children), so there is also something about accessing that duality between nostalgia and tension that was important to us."
Before they settled on Santa Cruz as a location, the filmmakers wanted to understand the cultural and historical context for the place, which would help inform the tone and aesthetics of the film. "Santa Cruz is one of the few cities with an existing boardwalk and amusement park with immediate proximity to the beach," Cooper says. "I did a lot of research into the history of Santa Cruz and met with people that I knew from the L.A. art world that had grown up there. We talked through the socio-economic issues that have surrounded Santa Cruz over the past 40 or 50 years. Jordan and I felt that there was something embedded in the cultural landscape of Santa Cruz"a sort of unstable, subtly shifting atmospheric mood"that made it ideal as the setting for this film."
Because they needed to capture Santa Cruz both in modern day and in 1986, production designer Ruth De Jong needed to find a way to age the boardwalk back to the late 20th century. "We have a section of the film that takes place on the boardwalk in 1986," De Jong says. "For that, we created over 200 hand-painted signs. We built our own Whac-a-Mole, built our Vision Quest hall of mirrors and made a deal with the boardwalk operators to ensure that all the rides were operable and all the booths were open while we were filming. For the modern-day boardwalk scenes, we primarily used it as is."
In the film, the Wilson and Tyler houses are set in a residential neighborhood on a lagoon that leads into the Pacific Ocean. Santa Cruz does have a lagoon like that, known as Schwan Lake, but it wasn't practical to use as a filming location. "We couldn't use the Schwan Lake lagoon in Santa Cruz, where we were filming, because our oversized boats and other equipment would disturb the natural habitat," De Jong says. "So we discussed Northern California and Lake Tahoe but decided on Lake Gregory in the San Bernardino National Forest. It ended up being fantastic. It was close by, it had the pine trees, it had the right topography, and we were shooting mostly at night. It ended up giving us everything we needed. We built all of our docks: our two hero docks and then a couple of background docks. It doesn't feel like a lake, but more like an inlet from which you could easily head out to the ocean, which is exactly what we were going for."
Embracing the Unexpected
For the cinematography for Us, the filmmakers were seeking a sophisticated look that would elevate the style of the film to a level above what audiences expect with horror films, and they quickly landed on director of photography Michael Gioulakis. "Jordan and I first noticed the work of our DP, Michael Gioulakis, in the David Robert Mitchell film It Follows, which is without question a modern horror masterpiece," Cooper says. "Mikey has this magical way of floating the camera on his subjects, and his instincts about when to quietly push in on something that's happening in a scene are remarkable. He's refined, sophisticated in his shooting style, and it's such an exciting moment in his career to be working together."
Gioulakis sought out opportunities to place the camera in surprising positions and unexpected places. "There are moments, shots, in this film that I'm almost giddy about audiences getting to see," Cooper says. "One of my favorite shots in the whole movie is a close-up of Gabe poking his finger through a tiny hole in this big, black garbage bag and prying it open. He's been unconscious, and now he wakes up and realizes that he's in a bag, on the boat that he bought that morning, now being driven by his doppelgänger, Abraham, and that he's about to be dumped into the water. It's this huge, full-frame shot that Mikey did with just a finger poking through a garbage bag. It's surreal and very scary."
In recent years, Gioulakis has worked with some of the most acclaimed directors in the industry, and his working style was in perfect alignment with Peele's on Us. "Mike Gioulakis is a quiet man who brings a calm demeanor to the fray of a film production," McKittrick says. "Having worked with director David Robert Mitchell on It Follows, and M. Night Shyamalan on Split and Glass; and now Jordan, he's really growing as a visionary of his own."
The Production Design
From Coastal Mid-Century to North Korea
Designing the Look of Us
Us is a film that exists in two dramatically distinct visual realms: the sun-drenched holiday aesthetic of beaches and boardwalks, and the sinister, terrifying feel of The Tethered. It required a design that was anchored in reality, but one that could be twisted into a mind-bending nightmare. And no one was better equipped to achieve both of those aims than production designer De Jong. "The way the Monkeypaw team described the look and feel of the production design they wanted was that they were looking for the natural, lived-in setting of Manchester by the Sea juxtaposed with the surreal world of Twin Peaks," De Jong says. "Those were both projects that I had previously done, so the conversation went from there."
De Jong's experience and expertise made her the ideal choice. "Ruth De Jong is so talented and is someone whose work I've respected so much over the years," Cooper says. "She's a visual artist and a furniture designer, in addition to being a production designer, and there's something about that hybridization of her practice that's really exciting. Paramount for us was that Ruth had never made a horror film, and Jordan and I wanted someone who had no preconceived responses to what a film in this genre should look like. Ruth and her team"set decorator Florencia Martin and art director Cara Brower"were really hell-bent on specificity. They did extensive research into every minor detail in the film. We are such detail nerds, Jordan and I, so their approach was really meaningful to us."
From their first meeting, Peele and De Jong began to brainstorm about the color, style and visual tone of the film's sets and environments. "In the beginning Jordan and I were just digesting the script and having a dialogue about ideas," De Jong says. "The script was very specific, in terms of a color palette, but we ended up going in a very different direction. We just let our ideas and conversations simmer and marinate over time until we both had an 'ah-ha' moment, and then we had a strong direction." The result is a film that looks like no other. "Ruth brought a tenacity and a vision to this film that helped Jordan find the look and feel of this universe that he created," McKittrick says.
The Wilson and Tyler Homes
The first step was deciding what kind of house Adelaide Wilson would have grown up in, and how that house would stand in contrast to the Tyler house. "We wanted everything to be very natural and honest and not contrived, and to ground our families in Santa Cruz," De Jong says. "In searching for the Wilson house and the Tyler house, we needed to find houses that would work for the exterior as well as the interior, so that they're all connected to the beachfront. For the Wilsons, I looked at close to 200 houses. It was really tricky for us because we were shooting this in Los Angeles, not Northern California, where the film is set. I think we had 17 shooting days straight, and 10 of those were at night, and we had to have permits to do that, so that restricts your options. But our fantastic location manager, Justin Duncan, and I just went down a rabbit hole and found a space. Character-wise, it's the home where Adelaide grew up, so we settled on this mid-century home that seemed appropriate."
That decision was born from creating a backstory not just for Adelaide, but for her parents and grandparents. "To design the Wilson home, Adelaide's childhood home, we wanted to build a history of Adelaide's family," art director Brower says. "The family had put young Adelaide in ballet classes, so we started from the idea that her family was very interested in the arts, and in design and architecture. We decided on a mid-century house, and then tried to bring that family history into it. We also wanted to contrast the look of the Wilson home with the Tyler home. The Wilsons are more down to earth. The Tylers are flashier, more contemporary, so that is reflected in the look of their home."
De Jong found the Tyler house in an entirely different neighborhood than the Wilson house, even though, on camera, they both exist on the same body of water. "The Tyler house also required a lot of scouting," De Jong says. "We wanted it to be very contemporary, and a big juxtaposition to the Wilson house. But we had the same challenges that we did with finding the Wilson house"getting permits to shoot at night, etc."but we ended up finding a fantastic place in Calabasas. The topography of the yard was perfect. It was very private, and it gave the illusion that the boat dock was just out of sight."
The Vision Quest Hall of Mirrors
In a pivotal scene at the beginning of the film, young Adelaide (Madison Curry) is visiting the boardwalk with her parents in 1986 and wanders into a hall of mirrors, where she encounters her doppelgänger, young Red, for the first time. Shooting with and through mirrors is technically challenging, and De Jong and her team had to design and build a set from scratch to accommodate cameras and the actors. "We wanted a very specific path that young Adelaide goes down into the hall of mirrors," says art director Brower. "So we did a lot of research on how actual halls of mirrors are built. We found some really good floor plans of how they're laid out and, luckily, it coincided with how Jordan Peele had scripted it. We also knew we wanted trees and murals in the hall, so we went to Clifton's Cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles and found the muralist that had painted their famous murals, and then asked him to do his style of artwork on the walls. I loved that set. We couldn't really see how it was coming together until the day we were going to shoot, when it was fully enclosed with the mirrors, with the ceiling blacked out, with the lighting and the murals. It worked exactly how we wanted it to."
It was a huge technical feat, and a first for everyone involved. "It was like something you would have found in Coney Island in the early '80s, and that was really fun and unlike anything I've done before," De Jong says. "We designed it with two-way mirrors, which allowed the cinematographer to film from behind the mirrors. It was really exciting."
The Secret Set
One of the most elaborate sets, and the one that took the most time to conceive, is also the one about which the least can be said because of its top-secret nature in the film. Suffice it to say that it has some connection to The Tethered, but how and why will not be revealed here. The set is glimpsed in the trailer for Us, and involves rabbits and long hallways that seem to go on forever. From De Jong's first meeting with Peele, the look and feel of that set went through a drastic re-envisioning.
"We went through a pile of research about underground living and communities and bunkers," De Jong says. "Originally it was red brick, but we had discussions with [costume designer] Kym Barrett, and we talked about color palettes and textures and surfaces, and we looked at North Korea architecture and 1980s shopping malls. All of that sort of collided in the final design. There was some really beautiful imagery out of North Korea that inspired me: tile floors, concrete square walls and all very muted beige tones. Jordan and I channelled a range of flesh tones that just felt very disturbing." She laughs. "We used a lot of squares and a lot of lines that repeated themselves in all of the rooms and all of the architecture. It created this very uncomfortable space."
The look and feel of this set stands in stark contrast to the boardwalk and to the more natural tones of the beach and Santa Cruz. "Jordan wanted the color palette of [this set] to be very muted, with lots of creams and browns," Brower says. "The boardwalk is more pastels and pop-y colors." What you won't see, anywhere, though, Brower says, is the color red. "Overall, we stayed away from using the color red throughout the film, so that when you see the red of the doppelgängers' jumpsuits, they really pop."
Expertly designed, the secret set was incredibly dynamic and could be moved and adjusted to give Peele and his team myriad options for how to shoot it. "Jordan and Ruth De Jong and her crew designed this long hallway with multiple rooms," visual effects supervisor Cofer says. "It's like this bleak, World War II-era bomb shelter. The hallway was designed in a modular way, with some of the walls on rollers, so that the team could move and configure them however they wanted. They could line it up so that the hallway ended at a green screen, and then we could extend digitally. That allowed us to create a kind of labyrinth, this endless, complicated maze, and we could adjust it on the fly depending on what we wanted the environment to be."
Blood and Scissors
Horror films, in general, require a lot of blood, but in Us, with some actors playing two characters in a given scene, it required blood to be removed and added as each scene was shot multiple times. That inspired a creative solution. "I've never been on a film with this amount of blood work," De Jong says. "On these sets you have to take away the blood and then you have to add the blood. Our effects team is incredible, and they created these blood mats that are rubber but look like they're liquid. So you can put them down, peel them up, put them down. Really ingenious."
Brass scissors are the weapon of choice used by The Tethered to try to murder the Wilsons, and Peele wanted to find a design for them that both fit the visual style of the film, but that also stood out from everything else around them. "Scissors are a classic piece of horror imagery that has been used in other films, and I wanted to honor that weapon in the best way I could and make it the central image of this film," Peele says. "There's a duality to scissors, both literally and physically: They're a whole made up of two parts, but they also lie in this territory between the mundane and the absolutely terrifying."
The Costume Design
A Silhouette to Die For
Dressing a New Monster
The clothing in Us was just as challenging as the production design because it needed to fuse two seemingly disconnected aesthetics: the natural, casual life of the Wilsons and the Tylers, and the individual personalities of each of those characters and the iconic outfits of The Tethered. It required a costume designer with a depth of experience and deft and subtle design aesthetic. The filmmakers found the ideal match in Kym Barrett.
"Kym brings a wealth of experience to this film," McKittrick says. "She had to create a dual kind of wardrobe for this film and also develop an otherworldly world within our own. That was a real challenge we gave her because the look of certain characters in this film is based on ideas no one has ever explored before."
Peele and Cooper had been fans of Barrett's work for literally decades. "Jordan and I first noticed Kym Barrett's work when he and I were in high school together, sitting on his bed, watching a VHS of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, which she designed the costumes for," Cooper says. "The searing specificity of that costume design haunts me to this day." He laughs. "At the time, I'd never been to Mexico, where they shot it, and she somehow tapped into how to translate Shakespeare through this sort of underbelly beach locale. Nailing the wardrobe on Us was perhaps the hardest part of the filmmaking process. We wanted to develop a look for the family that was authentic and earned for this 21st century African- American family, but that same department needed to create a doppelgänger look that would, we hoped, become iconic"an instantly classic Halloween costume."
The Wilsons arrive in Santa Cruz on a sunny summer afternoon, and the look of their clothing, and every character in those early scenes, reflects that. "For the early part of the film, the color palette I settled upon was California beach and coastal colors," Barrett says. "Sage, sand, a little silvery blue: very coastal, washed-out colors, which helped set the stage for a shocking shift in color."
The key was to give each member of the family a distinct look without the clothes distracting from the character or calling too much attention to itself. "It was important to tread a middle path with the clothing: not tipping into caricature or dissolving into boring nothingness," Barrett says. "I stayed focused on how the clothing served the characters, registered in light and shade, and how the actors felt."
The clothes also needed to transition from bright sun to dark night, and work both in exterior and interior scenes. "Jordan and I had many discussions where we talked about the overall look of the film," Barrett says. "We talked a lot about light and shadow, and how the characters would sometimes be hidden in shadow and then come forward into the frame, disorienting the viewer. I decided to keep the colors and shapes simple and graphic, allowing the characters to almost dissolve in and out of focus."
For each character, Barrett worked in tandem with the cast to help craft their look. "I prefer to collaborate with actors on their costumes," Barrett says. "I think that's the best way to find the authentic look and feeling of a character. Plus, actors come up with really good ideas. You can have a lot of fun working it all out. It's an enjoyable way to work."
Barrett met with Nyong'o in New York to begin the design process for Adelaide. "We talked about the psychological and physical journey of Adelaide," Barrett says. "We decided that Adelaide is someone who doesn't want to be noticed by the world and people around her. Her clothing reflects that. It's a simple palette, an every-California young woman/mother."
In one flashback scene to Adelaide's teen years, Barrett needed to design a ballet costume for a dramatic scene that would be worn by Teen Adelaide (ASHLEY Mckoy) and her teen doppelgänger, Red. It turned out to be Barrett's favorite costume in the film. "We had a great time giving Ashley McKoy, the actress playing her, something that could evolve between two parts of the story," Barrett says. "Ashley was excited and enjoyed wearing it so much. That always makes you happy, as a designer to see the actor embrace and enjoy what they wear."
For Gabe, Barrett wanted something relaxed and casual. "Gabe is a fun character to dress because he's kind of the joke-y Dad," Barrett says. "He's a person who thinks that nothing bad is going to happen to him, so when it does his physicality and instinct take over. I didn't want his costume to be noticeable beyond his moment of realisation."
Compared to the Wilsons, the costumes for Kitty and Josh were slightly more mannered and intentional. The Tylers are people who give a lot of thought to appearances and how they look. "Kitty is, in some ways, a modern-day Marilyn Monroe who never got the chance to become an actress," Barrett says. "She's living in her own imagination of what she thinks a mother should be and what she wishes she could've done with her life." And Josh is interested primarily in presenting an image of success, even if he's not happy with his life. "Josh, like Kitty, is someone who had aspirations for a career other than the one he ended up doing," Barrett says. "Money is the panacea for that for Josh, and he enjoys his money. Somewhere in there, there's a kind person, but we don't get many chances to see it."
The design of the costumes for The Tethered played a huge role in the overall look of the film, affecting everything from lighting to production design. "The look of The Tethered was probably the most important design choice we made in this film, because that is our monster," Peele says. "A lot of thought went into those decisions. I wanted to create an iconic look that utilized grounded elements. I didn't want anything too fantastical or over the top. I wanted to allow them to be people."
From the moment she became involved in the film, Barrett began to explore options and ideas with Peele about what that iconic look might be. "What struck me about the script was the very clear, graphic nature of the storytelling," Barrett says. "It made me think of the characters' costumes as simple silhouettes. I wanted them to glow from within the frame without being too costume-y."
Peele had a color in mind from the very beginning. "Jordan wanted to use red for the doppelgängers, and we had to find a costume that could unify a group of people but also leave room for individuality," Barrett says. "So we decided on red work-wear jumpsuits." Peele loved that idea, for multiple reasons. "There's a cult-like element to The Tethered, and the red jumpsuit felt like an iconic choice," Peele says. "Just the idea of being able to utilize a flash of red going by in the darkness to signify your monster was exciting, and it carries with it this connotation of an escaped prisoner or patient. It's also a kind of an allusion to classic horror characters like Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger."
There's also a significant reason why Red might choose an outfit like that for her family. "For reasons we won't disclose, Red is sort of culturally paused in 1986," Cooper says. "So her wardrobe references are things like Michael Jackson's Thriller, Michael Myers' jumpsuit from Halloween, Freddy Krueger's bladed glove. Kym really saw eye-to-eye with us on that and was down to take big-swing risks."
Despite the fact that they share a uniform, The Tethered each have their own distinct personalities, so Barrett came up for a chilling way for each of them to accessorize. "When a doppelgänger kills someone, they take something from the dead person as a trophy and wear it," Barrett says. "Visually, that helps give the doppelgängers their own terrifying individuality."
The Makeup And Hair
The Face of Fear
The faces of movie monsters are usually far from subtle. Think of Mike Myers' latex mask, Jason Voorhees' hockey mask, Freddy Krueger's facial burns or Pinhead's acupuncture alabaster dome. But for The Tethered, Peele needed them to look like their Wilson counterparts, but also have a signature look that was both distinct and unforgettable. To achieve that, they turned to makeup and makeup effects maestro Scott Wheeler, who had first worked with Peele at the start of Peele's professional career, turning him into a Klingon for a skit on MADtv. "What jumped out at me when I first read the script was how the turns in the narrative were very outside the typical horror-film archetypes," Wheeler says. "After reading it again and mulling it over, I asked Jordan questions about the mythology he envisioned behind this story, and then we began to build on that."
To create the look of The Tethered, Peele wanted to go against expectation. "Typically in a movie that involves doppelgängers, there's a gag where you think one doppelgänger is the other," Wheeler says. "Jordan said no to that. He wanted the doppelgängers to look really different than their counterparts because they've lived different lives."
Although the origin of the doppelgängers is a secret, the makeup design for their look is based on where they come from and their living conditions. "They live lives where they have no real control over their actions, so we asked ourselves how that would manifest itself in the doppelgängers physically," Wheeler says. For reasons we won't reveal, he says, "They're a little bit pale, and they're a little bit crazy. We tried to represent that derangement in the eye makeups and made the actors' skin a little bit more pale and gray. From there, Jordan wanted to make the doppelgängers look almost like subtle vampires, so we pushed some of the looks a bit further. The last little element we did, was to knock down the eyebrows of the doppelgängers to give them this sort of blank look."
The effect was exactly what Peele was hoping for. "What Scott and his team did with the makeup on The Tethered was pretty special," Peele says. "We made them paler, and took their eyebrows away and sunk their eyes in a little further. Looking at them, you get the idea that these are people who have been deprived of sunlight."
Wheeler also modified the look of each Wilson doppelgänger in ways that helped reflect his or her character. "There tended to be a little less personal care involved in the look of the doppelgängers," Wheeler says. "We played them a bit more proletariat. Winston Duke's character, Gabe, for instance, has a nicely groomed beard. His doppelgänger just has this biblical beard that he's let grow out. We did that with a hand-laid beard, and we really pushed the limits of shadow and highlight on his face to reshape his face."
Pluto, Jason Wilson's doppelgänger, is also hiding something under his full-head mask. "For Pluto we created a prosthetic burn scar for his face," Wheeler says. "At first Jordan wanted it to look as if Pluto had endured small burns over the course of his life, but then he decided, no, the scar was going to be the result of one big burn. And that's kind of the monster of the movie."
In addition to how eerie and unsettling Wheeler's Tethered makeup looks, it also had the added benefit of being practical. With each actor having to switch between two characters, Wheeler and his team needed to be fast as well as precise. "There were a lot of different makeups to do and a lot of changes to do," Wheeler says. "The most important thing we contributed was making sure we did not make the camera wait because we were making makeup changes. The challenge was to design makeups that we could do quickly, change quickly, and change back quickly, and still convey the message that these are different characters."
Adding to the effect was the hair of the characters, designed by Camille Friend. "A lot of what makes The Tethered The Tethered is their hair," Peele says. "Camille created some unforgettable looks on both sides of the tether." Nor did Friend's talents end with The Tethered. In fact, one of Peele's favorite hairstyles in the film is the one Friend and Nyong'o decided to use for Adelaide. "The choice to put Adelaide in sisterlocks is particularly great," Peele says. "I can't remember ever seeing a central character in a film wearing sisterlocks, and that alone is an important piece of film history – to see real black women's hairstyles represented on film in lead roles."
For his part, Wheeler hopes the work that he and his team have done will contribute to an unforgettable cinematic and cultural experience. "I want people to come away from Us feeling that they've just seen one of the great horror films of the 21st century," Wheeler says. "And I believe most people will. The social issues presented in Us are a bit more abstract than they were in Get Out, but Jordan has upped the ante on the horror aspect of it. He's going to be the great horror filmmaker of our time, and this movie is going to be a wild ride."
The Visual Effects
The Trouble with The Tethered
"The most challenging part of this movie is the fact that there are two of everybody," Cooper says. "And in fact, there are more than two, because you have the actor playing two roles, and then there's each actor's photo double, and then her or his stunt double. So in shooting certain scenes, we would have Lupita as Adelaide, and her photo double, and her stunt double, and the double of Red, and the photo double of Red. Every once in a while you'd show up on set and see six guys as Gabe, including Winston, all wearing Howard University sweatshirts and glasses." He laughs. "You just think, 'What is this movie we're making?'"
Industrial Light & Magic's Visual Effects Supervisor Grady Cofer helped navigate all of that with the filmmakers, helping guide what could be achieved practically, and what could be enhanced digitally, to create a seamless cinematic experience. "Early on I realized that, to execute Jordan's vision, the visual effects for this film would be subtle," Cofer says. "There's nothing really showy about them; it's more sleight of hand."
"The main challenge on this film was creating the doppelgängers and allowing both sets of characters to play in the same scene together," Cofer says. "For this movie to work, the audience has to buy into the fact that everyone has this doppelgänger. So Jordan and I went through all the different methods for doing that. There's a pretty rich legacy of this kind of visual-effects work, going all the way back to, say, Parent Trap, starring Hayley Mills as twins. That film used an old-fashioned, straight-down-the-middle split shot. Jordan took to calling that kind of a shot a 'Hayley Mills.' Every once in a while he'd say, 'I'm thinking this shot is maybe a Hayley Mills.'"
But technology has certainly advanced since that 1961 Disney film, and Cofer was able to offer the filmmakers a multitude of options to solve any potential problem. "There are a lot more contemporary things we can do now," Cofer says. "We could do head replacements, face replacements, where you might have Lupita playing against her stunt double or against her picture double in-camera, and then they switch places. So now I have source material on either side, for both the character and the doppelganger, and we can take the face from one take and graft it on the picture double in another. It's a challenging process, but if executed well, it can be very convincing."
As shooting progressed, they found they could adapt quickly to whatever obstacles presented themselves. "We got confident enough with these different processes, that we could be a little improvisational about when and where to use certain techniques," Cofer says. "It gives you freedom to be inspired by the scene as it develops."
That technical expertise allowed for some groundbreaking effects that are all the more impressive because the audience won't notice them at all. They just make the impossible believable. "There's this great scene where the Wilson home has been invaded by their doppelgängers, and Adelaide's doppelgänger, Red, takes Adelaide's head and presses it against the glass coffee table," Cofer says. "While Lupita was performing both sides of that scene, Jordan noticed that there was a nice reflection of Red's face in the glass top. So he had the director of photography frame down on that space, and we were able to compose Red's reflection right next to Adelaide's face. It created this really interesting spectral image and juxtaposition."
That kind of seamless marriage, where the line between the practical and the digital, was essential to make the film feel utterly real, and utterly terrifying for that reason. "If we do our jobs right, these effects will be invisible and won't be the point," Cofer says. "I'd love for the audience to feel like they've seen a kind of magic trick. I want them to be immersed in the film and accept it as real while they're watching it, and only in retrospect realise they've been part of an elaborate sleight of hand."
One particularly spectacular example of this is the scene where Zora is being pursued by her doppelgänger, Umbrae. "Jordan had this great idea that Zora could run toward camera in the foreground, and in the background you would see a kind of silhouette of Umbrae cross her path," Cofer says. "The camera would then pan around, and you would discover Umbrae by the car. So we actually had three Zoras for that scene: one in the background, Shahadi in the foreground and then her stunt double alongside the car. But as the scene progresses, the two Zoras start passing through the windows, and you actually see both Zora's and Umbrae's reflection. We had to shoot the scene multiple times with and without the car to get all of the performances of Shahadi and all the correct reflections. It really is like making a movie twice."
On most movies, all of the digital effects are done in postproduction, after filming has wrapped. But Cofer and his team were on set most of the time to provide solutions and options in real time. "One of the things I wanted to do for Jordan was give him faster feedback," Cofer says. "So I had some guys with me from ILM on set, and we all had our laptops out, and we were able to just start grabbing footage right off the camera and do temp compositions for him, so he could get a better sense of how things were working." That proved to be a godsend, Cooper says. "Grady was invaluable for lots of reasons, including that he's able to problem-solve in real time, and often with easy fixes," Cooper says. "We could be shooting a scene and see a problem forming, and he would be able to help us correct it there, on the ground, rather than just crossing his arms and saying, 'I'll fix it in post.'"
Despite the technical options available to him, though, Peele often opted to use no visual effects at all. "We did a lot practically with the doppelgängers, and Grady joked that some of those shots are so bonkers that people will think they're visual effects, even when they're not," Cooper says. "We are hoping to flip expectations in that way."
Case in point, why use digital bunnies when you can use real ones? "Jordan wanted the movie to be as grounded and real as possible," Cofer says. "There's one fantastic shot in the movie where you start on a rabbit's eye and pull back to see that this is just one of tons of rabbits in cages. So we started talking about digital rabbit duplication or creating CG rabbits, just throwing out ideas. But Jordan just decided to get hundreds of rabbits and shot the whole thing in-camera." To the delight of Peele's child actors, we might add. "Bunnies are all over the place in this movie!" Wright Joseph says. "Zora wears a sweatshirt with the Vietnamese word for 'rabbit' on it. There's a bunny in Zora's room at the lake house. There's one in the twins' bedroom at the Tylers'. Jordan put all these little hidden things in there. It's so smart."
Cofer's guidance and expertise helped bring a little extra sanity and security to what could have been a logistical nightmare. "We felt super luck to get to work with Industrial Light & Magic, and with Grady Cofer in particular, who is incredible at what he does, and is one of the most fun and exciting people to have on set," Cooper says. "He's the only person, besides Jordan, who can explicitly, with body language, talk about what a shot will do. It's remarkable."
Most of what Cofer and his team have done audiences will never even notice, of course, but invisibility is the point. "They've done digital extensions of sets and have enhanced our scenes with fire, water, blood," De Jong says. "They've done it all seamlessly, and it makes the film so much richer. You won't be able to tell which elements are visual effects and which are practical, and that's really exciting."
Ballet and Backwards Movement
Body Language Times Two
Choreography is not the first thing that comes to mind in a horror film, but Us includes an indelible scene involving teen Adelaide, teen Red, and a complex, inverted performance of the grand pas de deux from The Nutcracker ballet. So the film needed not only a strong choreographer, but an innovative movement consultant who could design a unique style of movement for The Tethered and teach it to the cast. As luck would have it, producer Ian Cooper knew the exact person who could do both of those things: choreographer and movement consultant Madeline Hollander. "As a teenager, Adelaide had been a professional ballet dancer who was on the road to being like a Misty Copeland," Cooper says. "So we knew we had to hire a choreographer to work through those scenes, and Madeline was someone I knew from New York who immediately came to my mind."
"Madeline is a former ballerina herself, and she has danced The Nutcracker some obscene amount of times," Cooper continues. "But she's also a conceptual artist and is someone who stages large-scale performance who is extremely well-versed in both contemporary dance and cinematography, because she shoots a lot of her own work. So it really felt like a natural match."
In the eerie Nutcracker sequence, a flashback in the film, teen Adelaide (Ashley McKoy) is performing a version of the ballet, while, in a separate realm that we don't yet understand, teen Red (McKoy again) is performing the same variation, but in a distorted and disjointed way. This one scene, and how it might be achieved, dominated Hollander's initial meeting with Peele. "The first portion of my conversation with Jordan focused on the two dance scenes in the film that are based off of The Nutcracker, the iconic Tchaikovsky ballet, and in particular, the grand pas de deux variation at the very end of The Nutcracker," Hollander says. "I have performed it for many years, so I know it backwards and forwards, to the point where if I hear the music my muscles start twitching." She laughs. "In The Nutcracker, the character Clara ventures into a land of candy and fantasy that is actually a dark dream realm, so that coincided with some of the themes in the film. Jordan wanted Teen Adelaide to be a dancer who decided to do the grand pas de deux, a dance for two people, as a solo piece. This is essentially impossible and tells us a lot about her personality."
So step one for Hollander was figuring out how to make a variation for two dancers into a solo performance"an almost-impossible task. "So much of that variation relies on the male dancer, the 'Cavalier,' who holds the Sugar Plum Fairy so that she can do these very slow balances, lifts and turns," Hollander says. "And she does these huge diagonal leaps where she runs to one corner of the stage and runs straight for the Cavalier and then jumps into the air and he catches her.
Obviously, that's impossible to do by yourself. So I started looking at ways we could invert that so that the dancer could become Cavalier and the Sugar Plum Fairy, and she could enact the catching and the falling. I figured out ways to create different types of balancing that create the illusion of being partnered, or use the walls. After that we had to figure out how to invert all of that content for a parallel scene: a darker, twisted version of the same choreography."
As teen Adelaide performs this solo variation, teen Red is simultaneously performing it in some undefined other space. And for reasons that aren't clear, Red almost seems to be doing this performance against her will. For Red's performance, Hollander says, "We looked at how to undo things, inverting the body and assigning leg movements to the arms, arm movements to the legs, and imagining that the head is on backwards. We tried to imagine what it would look or feel like if someone's eyes were actually on the back of their shoulder blades or on their knees, and how that would both distort and redirect the movement."
This was no small feat and involved a sizable amount of research. "I started taking clips from the grand pas de deux and reversing them, just to see what the movement would look like," Hollander says. "It turns the choreography into impossible movements, because of all of the balancing and the jumping, and the delicacy of it. Reversing a jump never looks like a landing. And then I pulled references from other films and choreographies and created a kind of Nutcracker comp reel that included everything from The Exorcist to Jerome Robbins to Death Becomes Her and Men in Black. I then stitched these scenes together to create almost a Frankenstein-like choreography that would fit to the music of that grand pas de deux and uphold the feeling of the building crescendo and drama."
To help articulate this idea, and to help explain it to others, Hollander came up with a vivid description for the dynamic between teen Adelaide and teen Red. "I visualized it as if teen Adelaide and teen Red were connected by magnets, and teen Red was directly underneath the stage below her," Hollander says. "In that situation, teen Red would be dragged around, like a marionette being controlled by a force above her, but she would also have some agency and power of her own. We had to figure out how to balance those opposing forces in the choreography."
With that elaborate choreography as a foundation, Hollander worked with McKoy to add some performative elements to make the scene even more unsettling and emotional. "We worked with Ashley, trying to bring out this very eruptive, strange, backwards, distorted movement," Hollander says. "We were working a lot with improv. I would tell her to, every once in a while, just stop, right in the middle of the sequence. Or just walk. Or just stare at the audience. This is something that Jordan asked for and his direction played a huge role in how that scene looks and feels. He wanted these moments where teen Red would come to a stop and wonder where she is. She would interrupt the choreography and just gaze out, even though the music was still going on. Then all of a sudden she would slip back into the choreography and get thrown around again. It was an incredible process."
Adelaide's connection to dance did not end with her teenage years, so Hollander needed to incorporate that history into adult Adelaide's movements. "Adelaide was a ballerina into her teens, and Jordan wanted her, as an adult, to still have remnants of that training, as dancers often do," Nyong'o says. "So I started taking ballet lessons, because it's a very precise art form. That was a challenge, but it became invaluable. Ballerinas experience the world in a very grounded fashion. When you think of ballet, you think of it as being elevated, and almost floaty and fragile. But the truth is, to get to that place of effortlessness, it takes a strong connection to the earth."
Hollander worked with Nyong'o on how someone with that training would move and react, stand or sit or lie on the beach – even about how she would talk about ballet in casual conversation. "We worked on her posture and shoulders and the way that she holds her head," Hollander says. "Ballet dancers have a way of holding themselves that makes it look like the spinal cord is one straight line that goes from the top of the head down through the spine. That can be turned off in daily life, but it would become her default posture in a state of alarm or high alert. Her body would react differently in that situation than a non-dancer's body would. Ballet dancers' reflexes and states of relaxation look very different from non-dancers."
Adelaide's training as dancer, in fact, ended up inspiring a crucial moment in one of the film's most perilous scenes. After The Tethered arrive in the Wilson home, taking the family hostage, Red handcuffs Adelaide to a glass coffee table. Adelaide is unable to use her hands, but she can see a fire-poker just out of reach by the fireplace that she might be able to use as a weapon to free herself. "Dancers are very coordinated with their feet," Hollander says. "So Adelaide reaches for a fire-poker with her foot and grabs it with her toes. That's something that a ballet dancer wouldn't think twice about doing."
Throughout the process of making Us, Hollander was wowed by Peele's commitment to getting every detail right. "It was an incredible experience to get to work with Jordan," Hollander says. "He's really accessible. I felt very comfortable bringing any idea to him. He would take it in and then give honest feedback about whether we should move in a certain direction or not. There was seamless communication and continuous dialogue. I really appreciated that he cared about the continuity and accuracy of everything, from the ballet work and the movement work to the scenery and the costuming, the timing and the characters. It was a very rigorous three-dimensional process, and Jordan's openness to collaboration was inspiring, and rare."
Duality and Discord
Secrets of the Us Score
To craft a musical score unlike any created for a film before, Peele turned to his Get Out composer Michael Abels. "Michael is really capable of creating new sounds, which really aid the ability to scare an audience," Peele says. "He's able to play in the familiar and in the unfamiliar at the same time, so that helps give the film its own character, but his score is not so crazy and out of the box that it takes the audience out of the experience. Michael has an incredible skill set and an incredible mastery of many different genres of music. So we were able to find this hybrid that is this new sound. We also have a great shorthand from Get Out. Plus, he's the nicest guy in the world, and egoless, which is a wonderful quality for a collaborator to have."
Abels said, "yes," without hesitation. "Jordan told me the idea for Us before he even wrote the script, and it was one of those ideas where your mind just fills with possibilities," Abels says. "As an artist, any time you hear an idea that inspires you, that's something you want to be involved in."
To begin the process of composing a signature sound for Us, Peele asked Abels to create an anthem for The Tethered. "I asked him to start with the anthem, and then we'd work from that as the sound for the world," Peele says. "I had a pretty intricate little description of what the anthem should sound like. It should be hopeful but 'wrong,' familiar and unfamiliar. Ultimately, it should play as the dark side of the U.S. and our national anthem and our national pride. It represents the underbelly, the American sins. It's like our cultural doppelgänger."
He also gave Abels one more critical mandate. "The most important thing, Jordan told me, was that it had to be scarier than heck," Abels says, and then laughs. "Actually, he phrased it more strongly than that." So he quickly set to work.
"Sonically, what defines 'scary' is the unfamiliar," Abels says. "It is the things that we can't place, and that we don't expect, that take us to that place of fear." But finding a new sound that evokes real fear is no mean feat. "We wanted to really strike terror into the audience, so you have to come up with something that's unexpected," Abels says. "So I was looking for sound that really rubs you the wrong way." He laughs. "That's a challenge though, to come up with something scary and unfamiliar that hasn't been done before or that hasn't been done in quite this way."
For the anthem, Abels hit on the idea of using choral elements. "Jordan really loves the sounds of voices, and the human voice is an incredibly expressive instrument that anyone can relate to," Abels says. "Voices are also able to create really scary sounds, so voices are used throughout the film. The anthem sounds a little like a march of people preparing for battle, like an uprising maybe, but the sounds are not in a recognizable language. In other parts of the film there are vocal effects like men singing 'grrrr' and women singing sighs of despair, just these really strange sounds. They're designed to really freak people out." He laughs. "There are several scenes in which those voices take you to another place and make you uncomfortable. Voices are very emotionally evocative, so sometimes a vocal sound effect can communicate an emotion in a way that no words or even other instruments could."
Peele loved it. "Michael went away on a little trip, and the first track he sent me was the anthem," Peele says. "The first time you hear it, it's almost like, 'Oh. No. What, no, you can't do that.' Then, as you listen to it more, it becomes more familiar and really settles down. That's my favorite quality for horror scores: You feel that in the lullaby in Rosemary's Baby, with Nightmare on Elm Street, with Angelo Badalamenti's score for everything. At its starting point, the sound in the film feels like it's from a different culture. There's something unfamiliar and 'wrong' about it, but it's also disarmingly uplifting. There's a positivity to it. This movie is about duality in all these different ways, so it's about finding what's scary, even within this beautiful, positive and hopeful palette."
From there, Abels worked to create a complete score, working from a detailed philosophy about how music should, and shouldn't, be used in helping the audience navigate the emotional terrain of a film. "Film music, because it's about emotion and action, can foreshadow better than just about anything else," Abels says. "For a really good scare, though, you don't want any foreshadowing, because that will spoil it. But without foreshadowing, you might not feel the tension of a situation."
For example: "In the beginning of the movie there are scenes where the character of Adelaide is feeling uneasy, and we don't know why," Abels says. "The music in a scene like that foreshadows, and it helps us understand that even though she's with her family on what looks like a beach vacation, something is not quite right. Later on, though, when things really start to go down, there are some really scary moments that we don't want to warn the audience about, so the music can't foreshadow those. In fact, there are several specific instances where there's no foreshadowing in the music at all, and that's deliberate. Jordan and I spent a lot of time talking about the timing, about when to show our hand to the audience, and when not to."
Adds Peele: "What's unique about this score is that it's extremely dynamic, and it represents duality in many aspects. It explores the bold and the loud, and the strong as much as it embraces silences. And the voices in it conjure something both human and unearthly."
As he had with the score for Get Out, Abels anchored the Us score with strings, but with some significant differences. "The basis of this score is a string orchestra, but often they're not playing in the way you would expect," Abels says. "They're playing really close to the frog, the base of the bow, so you hear the scrape of the string more than the actual note. And there are times when they're playing clusters. Clusters are notes that are very close together and don't really belong together, but they're playing them all at the same time to create an ugly sound."
"There are other extended techniques the orchestra is using where you might not even know the sound is being made by a stringed instrument," Abels continues. "We also used a virtual instrument called a Propanium drum, which sounds a bit like an oil can, but it's tuned. It makes this trashy metal sound, but you can also play melodies on it. The Propanium drum has a sound that's both otherworldly but not electronic or like science fiction. It's a sound you can't quite put your finger on, which is why it works well in this film. I tried to really bump up the scariness in Us. Get Out, to me, is more of a thriller, and it's only near the end of the film when things get really bad." He laughs. "In Us, things start to go south much more quickly."
The score features acclaimed solo violinist Melissa White, who plays on the themes for Adelaide and Red. "Melissa is someone I've worked with on and off for more than 10 years now," Abels says. "She's an amazing talent, and she has prepared a couple of my concert works. I also write music for orchestras and for concert performance, and she has been part of a couple of key premieres of mine. She brings incredible artistry, and she's just a joy to work with. She's also a woman of color, which is important to me. Just as Jordan Peele is helping Hollywood figure out how to make diversity pay off at the box office, and as the industry is trying to be more inclusive behind the camera, I want young people, when they hear the music in this film and hear Melissa's performances, to know that these musical careers are available to them as well."
For Melissa White, the opportunity to play such a unique score, and one that accompanies Nyong'o on screen, was a dream scenario. "I've always loved seeing Lupita on the screen as an audience member, but to play opposite her performance on screen and to feel like we're collaborating in a way feels extremely powerful," White says. "It's inspiring to see her in character and to feel like I'm supporting that character from a musical standpoint. It was a very angry character that I was playing alongside of, and I enjoyed the experience. I liked getting to go against the 'norm' of the violin representing the quiet, pretty, romantic. Playing this score allowed me to use a lot of grit, power and contrast in my bow strokes, which was a lot of fun."
Although the score is designed to terrify, one of Abels' favorite sections to record was one set around a scene with Elisabeth Moss' Kitty Tyler. "The ensemble loved playing one particular moment in the score where Kitty is in front of a mirror. For that scene I asked the strings to give me their most romantic, luxurious, dripped-in-chocolate sound." He laughs. "Of course, that beautiful sound is used in a way that only Jordan could twist it, but after a scoring session of dissonant music, it was like a little tasty treat for the string section at the end of the day."
He's excited for audiences to finally hear it. "I hope they're appropriately scared, but I also hope that they love the sound that we've achieved with this score," Abels says. "It's very intimate. It's recorded with a lot less reverberation than you'd normally get in a score. What that means sonically is that rather than sounding like it's at a distance, it sounds much closer to you. That's appropriate for this film because the action and the terror is right in your face. The intimacy of the sound really helps portray that world effectively."
Peele hopes they hear all of that, and perhaps something more. "I want audiences to feel like they are witnessing something of utmost importance, almost a throwback to classic cinema," Peele says. "But I also want them to feel a little put off, in a way, pushed into a new aural space. It's just an absolutely beautiful piece by Michael."
Release Date: March 28th, 2019