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AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
When you've got a Jordan Peele movie, there are bound to be some surprises. And so in this episode, we're hitching a ride on horseback into spoiler territory for "Nope," the filmmaker's third feature film. The Spielbergian thriller stars Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer as siblings and horse wranglers living in a small California town where things get weird, people disappear and a threat must be stopped. I'm Aisha Harris, and in this spoiler-packed episode of NPR's POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR, we're talking about "Nope."
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HARRIS: Joining me today is Morning Edition producer Marc Rivers. Hi, Marc. Welcome back.
MARC RIVERS, BYLINE: Hey, so good to be here.
HARRIS: And also with us is writer, NPR Music contributor and co-host of the "Bottom Of The Map" podcast, Christina Lee. Welcome back to you, too, Christina.
CHRISTINA LEE: Hi, Aisha. Thanks for having me. I'm scared.
HARRIS: And rounding out the panel is iHeartRadio producer Joelle Monique. Hi, Joelle.
JOELLE MONIQUE: Hi. I'm excited to be here. This is going to be a good one.
HARRIS: Excited and scared. We've got a range of emotions here. It's going to be great. So on Friday, we aired a spoiler-free episode about "Nope," and here's a refresher in case you need it. Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer play OJ and Emerald Haywood, who are siblings and ranchers working in the family business of horse wrangling for film and TV productions. Their dad, Otis Sr., played by Keith David, is killed unexpectedly by strange objects falling from the sky. And here's the first big spoiler. It soon becomes clear there's this saucer-like object that's been hovering over their ranch for months. Seeing an opportunity to make some money off of a photo of a UFO, they attempt to document it in action with the assistance of Angel, an eager electronics store employee played by Brandon Perea.
Michael Wincott plays Antlers Holst, a filmmaker who still shoots on actual film. OJ and Emerald recruit Antlers to document the UFO. Steven Yeun plays Ricky "Jupe" Park, an amusement park owner and former child star who witnessed a notorious chimpanzee attack on the set of a TV sitcom. And Jordan Peele, of course, wrote and directed the film, which is out in theaters now. So I guess we should start with the very first scene.
RIVERS: The chimpanzee.
HARRIS: A chimpanzee with a bloodied face. And it's kind of roaming around this ominously empty soundstage - like, a TV soundstage. What did you all make of this opening scene?
MONIQUE: Yeah, when he started knocking on lady's shoe, I was like, this is not for me.
HARRIS: Right. I forgot to note, you can see a person's foot.
HARRIS: You don't see the rest of the body, but you see a person's foot who's lying on the ground. Yes.
MONIQUE: Yeah. This is one of those scenes where it's sort of impressive how violent it feels because you don't see that much. The body is obscured by a couch. You see some blood on a shoe. You see the chimp is covered in blood. But, you know, all the actions are just directly off-screen or obscured on-screen, which is really interesting way to sort of dive into this movie where you don't think you're going to see a chimp at all. And then it breaks the fourth wall. And that was when I yelled nope for the first time. I was like, absolutely not. No. No, I don't like it.
What a great introduction to a film that ends up being so much about animal behavior. Because, you know, as you said, you assume it's a UFO because it's shaped like every UFO you've ever seen. And then, to me, there's one twist in this film, and it's when Daniel's character, OJ, comes out and is like, it's not a ship. I was like, what do you mean it's not a ship? What else could it possibly be?
RIVERS: It's like, record scratch. Like, wait, what? Yeah, yeah, yeah.
MONIQUE: Exactly. And then you - oh, it's an animal. Now we're in "Predator" territory. The obvious first comparison is "Jaws." But then you also get a bit of "Poltergeist."
MONIQUE: But then you even get a little bit of "Heart Of Darkness," as you start getting into, like, what are these creatures and our relationships to them? And what does it mean to be this far out in nature? - which plays, like, a huge sort of role in the setting of the film. I mean, everything comes back to that chimp. And for it to just keep recurring throughout the film is - I mean, true chills. Truly.
RIVERS: I think it was just, like, the strangeness of the setting that really kind of unnerves you. Like, being on this soundstage, the bright lights, what you don't see in the composition - like, it's so unsettling and just, like, throws you off. And you have no idea where it's going to go. And Peele has, like, a tendency to kind of start his movies, like, twice, almost. Like, you'll have, like, an opening scene and, like, a second opening scene. And you're wondering how the two are going to connect. And, like, with this one, you have the chimpanzee, and then you have this - you're, like, looking through some kind of, like, tubular opening, like, into what's going to be - what's a screen. And you're just like, what am I looking through? What is this?
RIVERS: And, like, how is that going to connect to the chimp?
HARRIS: There is this layer - and you see this in the trailer - there's a big connection that we learn about between the Haywoods and one of the earliest depictions of a moving image, which is a Black man on a horse. And they claim to be the descendant of that Black man on the horse. And so, like, there's this connection to film history, I think, in a way, that's also connected to this alien body. It's so weird. (Laughter) Christina, what did you make of the chimp and what we learn about the chimp later on?
LEE: Oh, God. OK. Well...
LEE: First of all, I will say, in the spirit of POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR, typically what makes me happy on any given week, if it's not music, it is sitcoms. Sitcoms are, like, my comfort zone. And so to see the depiction of my comfort zone just, like, literally violated...
LEE: ...Was, like, horrifying. I was like, oh, my God, how am I supposed to unwind from this when I get home, you know what I mean? So the image in and of itself is really, really striking. And I think it was really smart for Jordan Peele to begin on that note because it immediately lets you know that, like, he's not slacking. Like, Jordan Peele is really a master of misdirection, having you think that the film is going to be about one thing before saying, like, hey, you know what? Guess what? You were, like, completely wrong. And so that was the first signal, in the most violent way possible, to let you know, like, hey, any expectations that you had going into this film - like, you're probably wrong about that, too.
I was not expecting the chimpanzee to sort of be at the heart of this movie. But I think the way that Jordan Peele uses the chimp in addition to the presence of horses and even the alien as well - it kind of brings to mind something that he's talked about in general with this films, which is to, like, you know, explore his own deepest fears. But it also kind of got me thinking about, like, where his mind might have been after making "Us" in particular. Rabbits play a really prominent role in that film. And he's talked about how he loves kind of using animals because something that we typically associate as, like, cuddly and benign and something that we ultimately have control over has, like, this unsettling quality in this context because you start to realize that you don't actually have control, that these animals can't quite be 100% tamed.
Even though I feel like in the context of, like, Hollywood and all the ways that this film sort of explores that, humans are constantly trying to tame what cannot be tamed. It just brought up all these different themes that I wasn't necessarily expecting for a film that was purportedly going to be about aliens, and, therefore, I guess, there we extrapolate as science fiction. And it is more about how we reckon with what's truly primal.
HARRIS: Yeah. The nature element, I think, is the big theme here. And like you mentioned, there are the rabbits in "Us." There's also the deer in "Get Out." I think - sort of what we talked about in the previous episode in our discussion around this - this is a movie that I think a lot of people probably expected there to be - in the same way that "Us" and "Get Out" were - to be, like, super heavy on the social commentary. And it's there, but this is not, like, a - necessarily a social issue in terms of race or class. This is more about nature and the environment. And that's brought to the forefront here.
And so the chimpanzee - we later learn what's going on in that scene, which is that the Steven Yeun character, who was a former child star, he starred in this '90s sitcom about a chimp named Gordy. And at one point during the show, his instinct kicked in, and he mauled a couple of cast members. And the young-version Jupe - when he was on set, he witnessed this happen. And there's that connection there because now as an adult, Jupe has kind of tried to tame this UFO alien thing - whatever - in a way, and it kind of comes back to haunt him. And this is one of my critiques of the movie. It's just purely personal. It was just, like, I could have used more Steven Yeun.
MONIQUE: Oh, yeah.
RIVERS: I think he had the most interesting arc...
RIVERS: ...Especially set against Kaluuya's character. It was like, here's this guy who witnesses a spectacle - was a spectacle of violence - committed by this animal. And instead of trying to understand how that, like, made him feel or understand, like, what it meant, I am going to try to profit from it and exploit the next thing.
RIVERS: That presents such an interesting contrast to Kaluuya's character, who - you know, he loses his father in this way that's initially inexplicable, and he just wants to find out what happened. He does not want to necessarily profit off this business that has been left to him. But he is still kind of grappling with the tragedy in a way that Yeun, like, doesn't seem to be.
RIVERS: I wanted more of that. I wanted more. I want him to, like, pull out that thread more. And, like, when Yeun is quite spectacularly dispatched, I was very sad. That was the saddest part of the movie for me.
HARRIS: Yeah. Sort of moving forward, when Keke Palmer's character comes in - Emerald - she arrives on set while OJ is preparing a horse for a commercial. And so there's this moment that the movie actually comes back to later and I think kind of - I was a little muddled on what exactly - if this was actually connected or not. But there's a moment when he's handling the horse on the set of this commercial, and there's some sort of, like, helmet-y (ph) thing, or there's a mirror thing that, like, the horse suddenly looks at, and then the horse kind of kicks back and goes wild for a moment. And then we see it again repeated when we're in the mix of the climax. And there's a guy who rolls up on a motorcycle who - I think the joke is that he's from TMZ. I don't know if he's actually from TMZ, but...
RIVERS: Do people from TMZ dress like this? Like, that's what I'm kind of curious about.
HARRIS: In the future, I don't...
RIVERS: He has this, like - kind of, like, helmet. And, like, he looked like he, himself...
RIVERS: ...Could have been an alien.
HARRIS: Right. But, like, then that sort of - I saw a connection to that. I don't know if maybe I'm making this up, but, like, the helmet resembled that silver sort of, like, mirror-like thing that set the horse off. And I don't know what exactly that connection was that they were trying to make. But did that confuse you or...
RIVERS: Well, I feel like one of the kind of motifs in the movie is, like, image and sight and gaze and just, like, what's being seen. And, like, we kind of realize towards the start of the movie that Daniel Kaluuya's character - he doesn't look anybody directly in the eye.
RIVERS: And, like, that kind of thing comes back in the movie when you realize that the UFO, which was supposed be this great creature - if you look up at it, like, that's it for you. You're...
RIVERS: ...Going to get sucked up - because the movie is also, in a way, about movie making. One of the running things is when Emerald and OJ decide - or when Emerald decides that she wants to profit off this UFO thing, she talks about getting the perfect image.
LEE: The Oprah shot.
RIVERS: Exactly. So, yeah, I think there're definitely just, like, underlying notions of just seeing and sight and imagery that's kind of threaded throughout the movie.
LEE: Yeah, absolutely. Because, I mean, especially if you read into animals, there's so many that interpret looking straight on at you as, like, sort of a source of aggression.
RIVERS: Like a threat.
LEE: As a threat.
LEE: So that was something that immediately came to mind as, like, the horse is, like, looking at its own reflection and as we're coming to understand, like, what the alien's trigger is. I also thought it was all sort of a response to how Keith David, who plays Daniel Kaluuya's and Keke Palmer's dad, Otis Haywood Sr., - how he ultimately dies. Because what happens is that shrapnel is sort of, like, flying from the air. And it happens to be a nickel that sort of completely just, like, takes out his eye.
RIVERS: I have a question for y'all - is this opening Bible quote...
HARRIS: Oh, yeah.
RIVERS: ...Where it says, I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle. And Steven Yeun's character also talks about, you know, are you guys ready for a spectacle, to the audience. I almost think it was, like, bait to kind of overthink the movie.
RIVERS: What'd you guys get out of that?
MONIQUE: OK. So to take it back to the monster - 'cause essentially this is now a monster movie...
MONIQUE: ...I think that there's a lot of intention put into this creature that we don't ever get to understand or get its insights, right? Like, it - mostly what we know from it is it's hungry. But then OJ makes this implication that, like, not only does it not want to be looked at, but it's acting territorial. He takes this from a lesson his father taught him. What makes that so much more sinister is the fact that it hides in a cloud that doesn't move, a thing you could super easily miss. It will have me looking up at the sky with questions for a very long time to come.
MONIQUE: I think that maybe that quote is about the monster - right? - this idea that you might think it's a spectacle, but it's looking down on you. Again, to go back to this thought of, like, eyesights and eyelines and stuff - it could dump its - like, the trash it can't consume anywhere. Why did it come right back over the house where it knows these people are hanging out, where it sees the horses? Is it demonic? Is it an evil creature? Is it a creature actively trying to get these people out of the house and off of this land? I don't know. But I think that was - to me, at the end of the movie, I was like, maybe that's what the quote was referencing back to, is, like, we are the spectacle for this monster in the sky.
HARRIS: I think that's a pretty good interpretation. That's better than I could have thought of on my own. That scene where the monster sort of dumps all over the house and there's, like, blood raining down on them...
HARRIS: ...It was giving me, like, very "Poltergeist"-y vibes of, like...
HARRIS: ...It's just consuming the house and consuming - attempting to consume the family. And I do think to some extent, Marc - I do kind of wonder at the same time, is that just Jordan Peele kind of screwing with us? - 'cause, obviously, like, Jordan Peele has talked about wanting to make spectacle in the film. So, like, it works thematically.
RIVERS: He's also talked about, like, the danger of spectacle, right?
HARRIS: And I think it's very apt, especially for, you know, this sort of social media/political circus world that we live in, where everything has to be the most ridiculous on TikTok or whatever in order to get people to pay attention. And I do think to some extent there is that sort of cult of personality and cult of attention that he seems to be commenting on, especially through Jupe and through Emerald as well. And we haven't even talked about Angel, who's like - (laughter) who is the electronics store guy.
RIVERS: My favorite thing about Angel is just, like - immediately just, like, oh, yeah, they're aliens. What next?
HARRIS: Yes. Yes.
RIVERS: It might be indicative of the times. I just felt like every character in the movie was just like, yeah, they're aliens, obviously. Like...
RIVERS: ...Now what do we do? You know?
HARRIS: Yeah, that idea that, like, many people are tapped into these conspiracies or these theories now. Of course, in this film it turns out to be true, but - (laughter) what did you all think of his character? - 'cause he, I think, even more so than Keke Palmer was very much, like, the comic relief in this film. It worked for me. I don't know about you all.
RIVERS: He was very quirky. He was fine.
MONIQUE: I mean, listen. I saw this with an East LA crowd. And when he goes on his rant about his girlfriend just did a pilot with the CW, the audience was pretty laid-out - just this idea of here's a guy who's going through a breakup and has had this moment of, my partner is now moving beyond me, and I'm still working at Fry's, which I think is a very LA experience of, like, I'm in the middle. And so, I think, as he progresses, you know, he runs into this cinematographer character.
HARRIS: Yeah. That's Antlers.
MONIQUE: There's a little bit of, like, Old World, New World with - you know, the old, grizzled cinematographer has created a camera that he can hand-crank and records on film so he doesn't have to worry about these dark spots that the creature creates. If we haven't mentioned already, the monster in this movie...
HARRIS: Yeah. We haven't even talked about that. So this is another thing where I was a little bit not sure about the logistics. But it seems like at certain points whenever the monster is, like, within range or, like, is close by, the force field - like, you lose your Wi-Fi. You lose your power. And it wasn't quite clear to me how you get it back other than it going away. Were there other...
MONIQUE: It's a proximity thing, right?
RIVERS: That's - I think - that's what it seemed like. I thought logistically that didn't make - towards the end, it didn't make the most sense. Like, I felt like it just, like - power was just going off and on for, like, dramatic convenience, almost. Like, when is it most convenient for the power to be off? When is it most convenient for the characters for the power to be on, you know? So that - I was along for the ride for that, but I didn't try to, like, think too much about it.
LEE: Yeah - 'cause does it have to make sense?
MONIQUE: It gave stalking vibes of, like - again, "Jaws", I think, is the most direct comparison for the film. But, like - you know, this shark is super smart. And how is it knowing, like, where we are? And, like, it's testing us now.
MONIQUE: As much as they're learning about it, it's learning about them to some effect. And so OJ makes a comment about - at the end - that it's sort of, like, testing the grounds and the limits. And so that was my thought process - was just, like, oh, it knows it's turning the power on and off.
RIVERS: To that, I was just like, if you say so, OJ.
RIVERS: Like, I can't be too sure. But all right, I believe you.
MONIQUE: I like the electronic store guy in that I think he's a solid representation - if this is a movie about filmmakers on the fringe, then I think he's an interesting stand-in for this guy who's trying to break in without actually having a plan or any direct drive to do it - just wants to be in that scene and is willing to latch on to anyone. You know, when they meet, he's - they're trying to get the, quote, "Oprah shot." And I think that's - maybe more than aliens - what gets him intrigued, is I can be a part of this big plan.
MONIQUE: And then at the end, you know, he gets this great moment of - where the cinematographer is like, I'm going to run up this hill and get the perfect shot. You don't deserve greatness. I'm not taking you with me. And it just - it feels very much to me like an old-school versus new-school Hollywood conversation. And I thought it was intriguing.
LEE: I mean, it all seemed very meta. I think that was the one term I kept coming up with, like, as I'm walking out the movie. And this is the movie that seemed to most engage with whatever thoughts Jordan Peele might have had about Hollywood in particular. I mean, there was this self-aware quality to it where - again, kind of just, like, going back to how the movie sort of interacts with, like, animals and these animalistic forces and how the alien sort of, like, ends up being one. It kind of felt like Jordan Peele was sort of, like, wrestling with his own fears and, like, being just, like, super, super explicit to that to where you have Keith David, like, saying in a flashback, like, guess some animals aren't fit to be tamed.
With this movie, in particular, with this being Jordan Peele's, like, third movie, he's now, like - maybe there was some larger questions he had about the very industry that he works in that I don't think he's gotten to explore with his previous two films. It was more so about, like, breaking genre convention and presenting new twists on, like, what we kind of know. I feel like here it was more so, like, commentary on the industry as a whole.
HARRIS: Yeah, he definitely occupies a very unique space as a Black director of these types of films. Obviously, he has predecessors, but they weren't exactly making these types of films. And they haven't necessarily had the same box office success as tied to their identity as a filmmaker as he has. To me, that just must come with a lot of pressure. I imagine some people might come away from it saying, oh, it's kind of slight compared to the other two films, or it's not quite hitting the same notes.
But I think that this is a movie, clearly, where he wants to just flex his filmmaking muscles. There's just so many great shots in this film, especially later on in the film when the alien is sort of hovering over him. It reminded me a little bit of "Twister." It's, like, hovering over him. And OJ is on his horse, and he's, like, kind of trying to outrun it. And the way the camera sort of pans up and then pans back down - just the way he's able to make these shots work are just so...
HARRIS: ...I think it's evoking that sort of sense of wonder that I think he does such a great job of capturing here.
LEE: And you notice, like, sometimes with the camera, the way that sometimes it would trail, like, Daniel Kaluuya especially was, like, shaky. I think that was something that really struck me. It was very much from, like, a very voyeuristic point of view. So I feel like, once again, he's sort of making the viewer feel, like, really complicit in, like, OK, but you can't help but to look up either...
LEE: ...Pulling us into that sort of mind state in the same way that, like, with "Get Out," you were, like, being plummeted into Daniel Kaluuya's point of view.
MONIQUE: Yeah. The movie was shot by Hoyte van Hoytema, and there's the - a moment - specifically when he's in the car and you're trying to see in the corner. And I saw, like, a lot of people in audiences do that head tilt thing where you're trying to see beyond what the camera is actually showing you. And all of your energy sort of pulled up into the corner of the screen. And it gives you this feeling - in a way, I think, again, that's just very unique - that something is behind you, which I think typically is done with a lot of, like, sound that feels like it's right behind your ear or, like, very slow pans to give you that sense of, like, oh, God, what's coming?
To do it up and to, like, the corner - it's just - again, it's a unique feeling that makes you kind of want to go outside and be, like, OK, are all of these clouds moving? And are we safe here, really? I think this film did a lot to sort of push the boundaries even in, like, the creature design and the movement of that creature.
RIVERS: It's, like, this, like, jellyfish type thing. Like, just...
MONIQUE: Yeah. There's times where it looks like a cowboy hat, not going to lie. It's just like sitting over...
HARRIS: I kept thinking it was the inside of a cowboy hat.
RIVERS: A sentient cowboy hat.
MONIQUE: That was the vibe. It's, like, cloth-like. And then there's one point toward the end where it starts to, like, split for the first time. And I was like, is that an error? Like, was there a mistake? And then when they come back to it, it's, like, unfurled itself, and it's - I forget which dinosaur it is from the first "Jurassic Park" movie where it, like - the sides of its neck unfold...
MONIQUE: ...And it, like, shimmies and hisses at you.
HARRIS: Yeah, yeah.
MONIQUE: It gives you very much that vibe but in, like, nonuniform shapes, which is very weird. It's, like, green. So you're like, I know in nature, if you start seeing neon colors, usually that's a good indication you need to dip immediately.
MONIQUE: This is a violent thing. And then it keeps going until it's almost angelic, I want to say.
HARRIS: Billowing, almost like a - like sails.
MONIQUE: Yeah. And it's beautiful.
MONIQUE: And you're like, I would maybe walk into this thing because what is it? It's - I really felt, like, true awe for a little bit, which I think is so rare in movies. But you don't get a moment of just, like, what am I looking at? Like, this is so strange and cool. And I think just from that perspective, Jordan has really nailed down, like, how do I keep you guessing throughout the film? And why is it important to be guessing throughout a film? Like, there's something that really triggers a - not just an emotional response, but, like, a - I guess a cerebral one where you're really, like, trying to think through the next steps of what could be happening. And I think it just makes watching a movie much more interesting.
HARRIS: Yeah. Well, obviously, we could talk about this probably for even longer, but...
HARRIS: Well, we want to know what you think about "Nope." Find us at facebook.com/PCHH and on Twitter @PCHH. And that brings us to the end of our very spoiler-filled show. Marc Rivers, Joelle Monique, Christina Lee, thanks to you all for being here and parsing through all of the many things that are going on in this movie.
LEE: Thank you, Aisha.
RIVERS: Thanks, Aisha.
MONIQUE: Thank you.
HARRIS: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. This episode was produced by Rommel Wood, Taylor Washington and Mike Katzif and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides our theme music. I'm Aisha Harris, and we'll see you all tomorrow.
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