AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
At this point, a Jordan Peele-directed movie comes with some hefty expectations - eclectic thrills, unexpected twists and standout performances. Enter "Nope," his highly anticipated third feature about a small California town that bears witness to mysterious events. Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer star as siblings who get caught up in these weird occurrences. It's giving Spielbergian and Shyamalan vibes, and it's sure to stir up a lot of debate.
I'm Aisha Harris. And today we're talking about "Nope" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. Joining me today is writer, NPR Music contributor and co-host of the "Bottom Of The Map" podcast, Christina Lee. Hi, Christina. Welcome.
CHRISTINA LEE, BYLINE: Hi, Aisha.
HARRIS: Also here with us is iHeartRadio producer Joelle Monique. Welcome back, Joelle.
JOELLE MONIQUE: Thanks for having me back, Aisha. Glad to be here.
HARRIS: Yes, yes, yes - glad to have you here too. And last but not least, Morning Edition producer Marc Rivers. Welcome back to you too, Marc.
MARC RIVERS, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Aisha.
HARRIS: OK. Let's get into it. I feel like we have a lot to say about this movie, and it's going to be quite fun.
So in "Nope," Daniel Kaluuya plays OJ - yes, OJ - Haywood, and Keke Palmer plays his fast-talking sister, Emerald. They work in the family business of horse wrangling for film and TV productions. Some odd sightings and happenings occur at the family ranch, and the siblings team up to face the threat to their small California community. The cast also includes Steven Yeun as Ricky "Jupe" Park, a former child star-turned amusement park owner, Brandon Perea as Angel, an electronics store employee who's obsessed with UFOs and Michael Wincott as Antlers Holst, an old-school filmmaker. Jordan Peele wrote and directed the film, which is out in theaters now.
All right. Joelle, let's start with you. What are your thoughts on "Nope"?
MONIQUE: Yeah, it feels very fresh, free Jordan Peele experience. It's got all of the key things I think we love about Jordan's films, which is, like, great world-building, really interesting characters, amazing thrills and that sort of feeling where your brain has to work overtime to figure out what the hell is going on, but in a way where you're not quite lost, but you're just like, I've not experienced this before; it's new. And that is the definition of thrilling. You're just right on the edge of your seat like, what is going to happen next? And that level of suspense is really exciting. I really love watching a Jordan Peele movie for the first time. This is a movie I can't wait to go back and see again - way to create a star vehicle for Keke Palmer. And I don't want to trip into spoiler territory, so I'm just going to say the work that the special effects team did to...
HARRIS: Oh, my gosh.
MONIQUE: ...Craft the main thing...
MONIQUE: ...Boom - mind blowing. Such a good film - I really enjoyed it.
HARRIS: Yeah, I'm so glad you mentioned Keke Palmer because I've been saying for a while now on this...
HARRIS: ...Show and elsewhere that I'm ready for the Keke Palmer. I mean, she's been around for a while.
HARRIS: Forever, forever - she's a former child star. And I'm just so happy to see her here because she's doing some fantastic work here, and I love it. Her and Jordan Peele should collaborate again. Make it happen. Let's go.
HARRIS: (Laughter) Christina, how do you feel about "Nope"?
LEE: I really liked "Nope" as well. I think Jordan Peele does such a good job at paying both loving homage and providing his own twist on classic Hollywood genres and tropes. And so I was super glad to see his take on a UFO movie - emphasis being on his take. And I think with that in mind, given the sort of twists and the way he sort of subverts expectations, I'm also curious to see how other folks are going to react to this because I think in classic Jordan Peele fashion, folks are going to come in, maybe expecting one movie with some hesitation, but then come out feeling like they've seen another.
HARRIS: Yeah, that was actually kind of my exact thought too. Afterwards my partner asked me, you know, what'd you think? I was like, it was good, but it wasn't exactly what I was expecting (laughter), you know? And it definitely doesn't have necessarily the same kind of twists. And it's still surprising. It's just not necessarily...
HARRIS: ...Twisty. But there are a lot of fun things going on there, and I was very on the edge of my seat the whole time. Like, what is happening? Like, I don't understand what's happening, but I'm with it.
HARRIS: I'm on this horse ride, and I'm for it (laughter), so...
HARRIS: Marc, tell me your thoughts. Give them to me.
RIVERS: Yeah, I mean, I think you're right about expectations. I mean, I think, like an M. Night Shyamalan, like a Spielberg, Peele enjoys playing with your expectations. I think it starts out as one movie in a way - or the movie that you might expect it to be - and then, as it goes on, turns into a different movie - a movie I didn't expect. This movie just continues to show just how valuable Peele has become in this Hollywood landscape of, like, someone who makes movies for audience reactions and not in the kind of dominant way as far as, I'm appealing to your nostalgia, but in the way of, I want to elicit fear, I want to elicit laughter - those visceral feelings that are best felt collectively, you know, with a group. And I think this movie is another example of just how good he can be at that.
Again, yes, a thousand times - Keke Palmer - I mean, I - you know, I think we've all been waiting for a movie where she gets to have as much fun in the movie as she gets to have in, like, these interviews and on social media. And I think Keke was just a constant delight.
Interestingly enough, I've started to trust Peele's eye more than I trust some of his ideas or writing. Like, I think he's getting better as a filmmaker. Like, I think he's getting better as a conjurer of mood, as a builder of suspense, the way he moves the camera. But as far as, like, what his movies are ultimately about, this latest one, I don't know how fully developed some of that is. Like, I feel like in this movie he really wanted to take advantage of, you know, using the IMAX cameras, using the scale and just showing just how better he is as just a craftsman. But the plotting itself, I don't know. I'll have to go back for another viewing, but I definitely enjoyed it. It's a big-screen movie, and we definitely need more of those. It was worth seeing for sure, and the people I went with, they were jumping in their seats. They were laughing. Like, it's that kind of movie.
RIVERS: Like, if I'd have had popcorn in my lap during one of these sequences, it had been flung all over the place.
HARRIS: Oh, my goodness. I love scary movies. And as I've grown older, it's actually gotten harder for me to be scared by, quote-unquote, "scary movies."
LEE: Oh, bless, Aisha. Oh, my God.
HARRIS: Even jump scares rarely - they rarely get me. But there's one moment where my partner, who does not particularly enjoy scary movies - but this is a testament to Jordan Peele himself. This is how far he will go to go see a horror movie. He's like, Jordan Peele - that's my limit. But at one point, he jumped and, like (laughter), completely fell back in the seat. And I was just like, wow, this is the power of Peele. He...
HARRIS: ...Is able to craft these moments. And even if you think you know that a moment is coming - because, like, he is using that classic technique of, like, there'll be a moment. You're waiting. You're waiting for something to appear in the camera. And even though you know it's coming, it comes, like, a beat or two even later than you think it will, and it scares you, and it gets you. And I think that's what we are missing, I think, from a lot of these films that purport to be scary - is that extra layer of just, like, taking a moment, taking a breath, letting it sit with you for a few seconds.
RIVERS: Someone who knows how to play you, you know?
HARRIS: Seriously. And then on top of that, I take your point, Marc, about maybe the themes are not necessarily as coherent or as, like, thought out as we think it is. But at the same time, I have to go back to the fact that, like, this is a summer - this is a era of sequels and prequels and franchises. And, you know, we were talking offline about this. There are definitely some, like, Easter eggs, throwbacks to, like, other movies - you know, "Get Out" and "Us" - that you might capture if you're a sharp-eyed person like Joelle. I didn't notice them. But I imagine they're there.
Even though those are there, this is still a very wholly creative and wholly new thing. I was wondering the whole time what is coming next. And even though we've mentioned Shyamalan, we've mentioned Spielberg and there are these sort of homages, I think, in terms of aesthetic and thematically, he's still creating, I think, something completely new out of these things. Another thing that I love - I love the fact that we have Jordan Peele sort of going back and working again with Daniel Kaluuya after collaborating with him in "Get Out." And I feel like this is the early stages of a beautiful, you know, Spike Lee and Denzel or Scorsese and...
RIVERS: Well, see, Aisha; I hope so. But, like, I kind of didn't love Kaluuya in this.
LEE: Oh, my God. Me, too.
MONIQUE: Which part?
HARRIS: Oh, share. Do share.
RIVERS: I think he's one of our great young actors right now. But he seemed overly underplaying a lot of this in a way that - he didn't seem as, like, vividly present and there as he was in something like "Judas And The Black Messiah" or especially "Get Out." He's so good in "Get Out." And here, he almost seemed kind of - and I don't know if this is, like, the direction or - but, like, he seemed kind of tired. He seemed a little sleepy...
RIVERS: ...Especially in comparison to Keke, who's just so, like, vividly there and just constantly just, like - just alive. I feel like he was going for understatement, but it was too much in that direction. Like, you're too stoic here. You're a little too stoic.
RIVERS: There is an emotional loss that happens in this movie that - I don't know. It doesn't land the way I kind of expected it to land because of how much Kaluuya is underplaying it. So Peele should keep working with him. But I think there was a miscalculation in that characterization for me.
LEE: Well, I think a really generous read into Daniel Kaluuya's performance here is that his reaction to the loss that's sort of the inciting incident of the film is that he becomes, like, detached and introverted and sort of unsure of himself in ways that we see in the beginning of the film. So on one hand, I could maybe, like, understand the characterization and the attempts to be a little bit more subtle with the performance because it's also giving, like, this really interesting sibling dynamic where obviously Keke Palmer plays, like, the more outgoing sibling, the one who's, like, very, like, sure-footed, right? So I can understand kind of wanting to create that sort of dynamic.
I think my problem was that in that performance, it was a little bit too subtle, like you said. And then also, I kept trying to place where his accent was. There was one point where I could have sworn he had a twang. But then there was another point where I thought I could hear his British accent sort of coming through. It wasn't as convincing of a performance, I think, as "Get Out" was to where, like, after seeing "Get Out" and seeing Daniel Kaluuya do interviews later on, I was like, oh, my God, this is a completely different person. But Daniel Kaluuya in this one - I wasn't 100% sold in the way that I was with a lot of the other actors in this film.
MONIQUE: It's a great note to say that there's more space for depth in this character. I think that's 100%. I also think, in addition to Christina's thoughts on, you know, dealing with the loss that they're trying to navigate, I also think that this is an interpretation of a very specific era of cowboys, specifically...
HARRIS: I was going to say the same thing.
MONIQUE: ...The John Wayne version. It's stoic. It's, I'm not going to emote too much at you. It's...
MONIQUE: ...Cerebral. And I'm going to just be - I'm going to think up my plan, and then we're going to enact the plan. And I don't have any other options. I mean, he never strays from that initial goal that's set up at the very top of the film. It is a direct line all the way through. I think that's what they're trying to do. But to be fair, I think that there is more range in that space, particularly because this is a modern movie and not a movie in the 1950s. And so we could understand that, you know, that's a human being. And he - you know, he might shed a tear every now and again. He might get frustrated, right? Like, there is not a lot of range of emotion.
HARRIS: Yeah. Joelle, I'm glad you pointed that out 'cause that was my thinking, too - was this is partially a Western. Or at least it's evoking Westerns because...
RIVERS: Sure. Yeah.
HARRIS: ...There's this lineage of the family having worked in the film industry. There's a brief moment - and this is in the trailer, too. But there's a brief moment where you see a poster for "Buck And The Preacher," which is Sidney Poitier's directorial debut. It is a Black Western starring him and Ruby Dee and Harry Belafonte. It is in many ways - even though it was made in the '70s, it's a throwback to Westerns that reimagines Black cowboys. And so Sidney Poitier's character Buck in that film doesn't say a lot, a lot of one-word answers, doesn't show a ton of emotion but is still, you know, giving you something. And I feel like that was sort of an intentional thing on Daniel Kaluuya's part, maybe. I don't know. But I can totally understand why someone - if you're either not familiar with "Buck And The Preacher" or those movies or just aren't thinking about it in the moment, how that wouldn't necessarily translate for you. But I do think there was something intentional going on there even if it wasn't all fully satisfying.
I'm curious. Like, how do you feel this fits in more broadly within Jordan Peele's oeuvre, including, you know, going back to "Key & Peele," in which we started to see his craftsmanship and the way he was crafting thrills alongside comedy. There are some funny moments in here as well. When you've got Keke Palmer, of course there's going to be some funny moments, right? But like, what do you think about how he's progressed as a filmmaker and as this entertainer?
MONIQUE: So I took my friend Drew Jones who's, like, a film critic and a host and stuff. And we were talking about the movie afterwards, and she was saying, you know, I just really appreciate having a Black horror film for Black people that isn't necessarily about Black oppression. And I feel like Jordan Peele sort of started a revolution in filmmaking with "Get Out," where everyone was like, how are we going to make the next - that version of "Get Out"?
MONIQUE: We got - it's got to be about the horrors of being Black in America, which is - you know, "Get Out" was necessary and timely and excellent. Many of the sequels - which, you know, Aisha and I have talked about a lot of them on here...
HARRIS: Yes, we have.
MONIQUE: ...Not so great, not hitting that bar. But he sticks to supporting that audience and telling their stories in ways that I find endlessly fascinating. I mean, in this movie, so much of it is about Hollywood and Westerns. And as somebody who feels comfortable now calling herself an LA girl, like, the experience of being Black in Hollywood is all over this film without the force of, like, white supremacy sort of backing it up. And that's really interesting to me. It's like, what if we took out the white oppression and just showed - their main struggle in the beginning, again, not to give anything away, but they're just trying to figure out how to keep a business that their father started that is based off the legacy of their family. And how do we keep that supported? And these two brothers and sisters, these siblings, have different ideas about how to do that. And Keke Palmer's character wants to go off and start her own adventure, while Daniel Kaluuya's character's like, I got to stay here and make sure this keeps going. And I think you find a lot of Black people in the entertainment industry along those same lines. You know, are we trying to keep our history going or are we trying to create something new? And what is the middle of that? The way he got me to say nope in the opening sequence...
MONIQUE: ...Out loud verbally - like, nope, not doing that. And then it keeps coming up throughout. It feels - for Black folks, we go see a horror movie - if you're fortunate enough to go see it in a theater where people don't mind you talking at it, that is my favorite experience. I'm very open about loving that experience, of being able to have an interaction with the screen with a group of people that you don't know. It's, like, such an amazing experience. And he crafts that throughout - of being able to sort of talk back at the screen and have these interactions that you just don't expect. You're jumping out of your seat. I really think he's found a great way to blend his comedy origins with his deep, deep love of cinema and then tell these stories that no one else is going to tell. I mean, every Black reaction to a movie is - don't go in there. And he plays on that so hard...
HARRIS: Yeah, yeah.
MONIQUE: ...So hard...
RIVERS: Totally. Yeah, yeah.
MONIQUE: ...And in such a winning and rewarding way.
RIVERS: It's always good when the characters actually act pretty intelligently...
RIVERS: ...In comparison to other horror movies.
RIVERS: You know, like, it's always good when they're doing the thing where the audience - you would say, don't do that. They also don't do it...
RIVERS: ...Because they know better.
MONIQUE: Yes. Yes.
HARRIS: Yes. Yes.
MONIQUE: Thank you. Yes. I think it's such a step up from "Us," which I really enjoyed, but I understand how people felt kind of lost. And a lot - I think he's gotten more specific since that sophomore attempt, and I'm really excited to see the next one. Yeah, I just think he's growing all the time.
RIVERS: Yeah. These three movies just - you just have no idea where he's going to go. And that's just a wonderful feeling with a new filmmaker where you kind of trust him to guide you there. Like, wherever they're going to go, you want to go there with them. I, of course, really liked "Get Out" when it came out. But everything that it did, I knew it was kind of going to do - undercutting up so-called post-racial America and, like, fetishization of Black people as, like, a form of destruction. Like, these are all, like, very powerful ideas, but, like, I kind of expected at all.
HARRIS: Did you really?
LEE: And that's just from knowing Jordan Peele and his work?
RIVERS: No, it's just from, like, knowing that I'm going to take, like, a "Stepford Wives," "Rosemary's Baby"-esque (ph) thing but make it about race. From, like, watching...
RIVERS: ...The trailers, I was like - I just kind of knew what I thematically was supposed to get from the movie. With "Us," there was just more for me to talk about with "Us." And I thought that was a step up as far as, like, his craftsmanship. And then I think this one is also kind of a step up, just as far as like, can I create a spectacle? Can I create, like, a summer entertainment? You know, there are some things that I think weren't totally successful, but it shows that he's still trying new things. And he's still going into new places. And I think that's just so valuable in this climate of, like, Marvel and just, like, creative stasis, you know? So...
HARRIS: Yeah. Christina, how familiar were you with Jordan Peele even before "Get Out"? And how did that, if anything, play into sort of how you see him now as a filmmaker?
LEE: I was a big fan of "Key & Peele." I actually wrote the first cover story on "Key & Peele" for Paste magazine, so I was paying attention to his career. I had even seen "Keanu," which is another film...
HARRIS: "Keanu." I love "Keanu."
LEE: I do too.
RIVERS: "Keanu" is fun, yeah. Yeah.
LEE: 'Cause "Keanu" was so, so much fun - so, I mean, going into this, I knew for sure that once the pandemic started, I was like, the only person who's going to get me to a movie theater is going to be Jordan Peele. That was the expectation kind of going in, just for the way that he sort of, like, opens up our collective imaginations as to what is possible on film, just the originality and how he invites fans to really sort of engage in their own way to where we come up with bonkers fan theories as to what to even expect.
LEE: And it all sounds, like, fine and good. And, like, there are a million different ways to sort of justify what this can be about. And Jordan Peele, I think, given his comedic background and given the fact that, you know, he has a background in improv, he is very open to that sort of relationship, too, where obviously he has a very singular vision. So in general, I do think that "Nope" adds to that. I think it only sort of confirms my feelings for Jordan Peele and his filmography.
RIVERS: Comedy requires a really good setup and a really good payoff, a payoff that you don't necessarily expect. And I think you can kind of just see that in the way he constructs his movies, like, how important the setup is to him and how important, you know, what you know at this point versus what you're going to know later is important, you know? So I think his comedic background, it serves him well.
HARRIS: Yeah. Clearly, we had a lot to talk about, and we enjoy this film and recommend that people see it. And there are some surprises we didn't want to get into in this conversation. So you can actually look out for a spoiler-filled episode with the four of us that will land in your feeds next week. And once you have a chance to see "Nope," you should definitely tell us what you think. Find us on Facebook at facebook.com/pchh, or tweet us at @pchh. Up next, we're going to talk about what's making us happy this week.
And now it's time for our favorite segment of this week and every week - What's Making Us Happy? Christina, hit me. What is making you happy?
LEE: OK. So one thing that is making me happy is a book that my friend David Dennis Jr. wrote. It's called "The Movement Made Us: A Father, A Son, And The Legacy Of A Freedom Ride." And it basically chronicles his father David Dennis Sr.'s experiences as an original Freedom Rider. The way that David Dennis Jr., his son, is involved is that he ends up writing letters in between chapters to his father about how David Dennis Sr.'s experiences as a Freedom Rider, being part of the civil rights movement, ultimately had an effect on their father-son relationship. So, I mean, I know this book has been out for a couple of months, but I'm super excited to finally just, like, sit with it now. And it's a really great read.
HARRIS: Thank you. I've heard great things about that. Can you tell us one more time the name of the book?
LEE: Sure. The book is called "The Movement Made Us: A Father, A Son And The Legacy Of A Freedom Ride."
HARRIS: Thanks so much, Christina, for that recommendation. Joelle, what is making you happy this week?
MONIQUE: Oh, my gosh. So many things. But I don't think I could talk about Beyonce's "Break My Soul" anymore without people getting mad.
MONIQUE: So I moved on to a book I'm enjoying. It's called "The Protagonist's Journey." It's by Scott Myers. It's an introduction to screenwriting and storytelling led by character-driven narratives. It's, like, very simple and easy to read but gives a lot of thought, especially if you're in the middle of writing and you get stuck. You can just flip through the pages and be like, oh, here's a great way to generate some new ideas. Scott's an incredible writer. He's worked in Hollywood for, like, 30 years. And so to have all that knowledge in one book - very enjoyable. So, yeah - Scott Myers, "The Protagonist's Journey."
HARRIS: Yeah, two book recommendations. Yes.
RIVERS: Now I feel like a follower because I also have a book recommendation.
HARRIS: Oh, my goodness.
HARRIS: Go for it. Go for it, Marc.
RIVERS: OK. So, yeah, I also have a book recommendation. I think one of my favorite feelings is to find an author that makes you excited about reading, you know? And so there's this Mexican novelist, Fernanda Melchor. She has two books now that recently were released in the English language in the last couple of years - "Paradais" and "Hurricane Season." And she's a bit of a heavy read in the sense that she writes about just kind of ecosystems of desperation and misogyny and poverty that would result in terrible violence.
"Hurricane Season" is the one that I would most recommend. It's centers around the murder of the local witch in this Mexican town - you know, the kind of person you go to if you need your employer to fall down the steps, and you have to drink some kind of, like, potion or - you know, or something like that. You go to the witch. And the author creates all these different entry points through these characters. And she writes in these really long, kind of like William Faulkner-type sentences, the kind of sentences that can lead you across decades and lead you in and out of different physical and psychological spaces. And she makes it just feel as effortless as breathing.
It's not an easy read. There are some passages in here that I had to kind of - I had to put the book down because it was just so disturbing and uncomfortable. But she's such a gifted writer and wouldn't recommend highly enough just one of those books that you'll just be thinking about when you're not reading it. It's really mesmerizing. Yeah, so "Hurricane Season" and also her latest book, "Paradais," which is a shorter and easier to read, but also just as harrowing. So those are my two.
HARRIS: Well, thank you so much, Marc. My happy this week is not a book, but I am talking about the theater. So there we go. Last week, I actually happened to find myself in New York City again, and I saw "A Strange Loop." Have you heard of it? Look, we've talked about it on the show in other episodes, around our Tony season episode. And I finally got a chance to see it. And it is just as fantastic as everything I've heard about it and read.
It is written by Michael R. Jackson. It is about a queer young man, who - Black queer young man - actually, a Black fat queer man who is a usher. His name is Usher, and he is an usher at various Broadway plays, including "The Lion King," which is referenced many times in the show. But he wants to make his own musical theater play. And he's dealing with coming out to his parents, his parents not accepting him, his parents wanting him to write a Tyler Perry play because of the Lord. It is just really fantastic. I loved it.
Usher, along with his six thoughts - the cast is made up of also his six individual thoughts played by six individual actors. And - including, like, self-loathing, and he's got like a horny thought. There's all these things. And if you find yourself in New York, you should absolutely try and go see this if you haven't already. I want to see it again. It is that good. I've been listening to the soundtrack on loop for the last week or so. It is so good. That is "A Strange Loop." I know I'm not, you know, saying anything new here, but it's what's making me happy in this dreary, dreary world that we live in now. So that is what's making me happy.
If you want links for what we recommended, plus some more recommendations, you can sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. And that brings us to the end of our show. Christina Lee, Joelle Monique, Marc Rivers, thanks to you all for being here.
RIVERS: Thank you. This was great.
MONIQUE: Thanks, Aisha.
LEE: Thank you.
HARRIS: And one last thing before we go. We are going to be talking about "The Wire," and we want to know your questions about the series. So what should we talk about? Email us a voice memo with your question about "The Wire" to email@example.com. Again, you can email us a voice message with your question to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This episode was produced by Mike Katzif and Taylor Washington and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides our theme music. Thanks for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Aisha Harris. And we'll see you all next week.
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