Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke star in Jordan Peele’s horror film “Us,” about a family facing invaders during a summer getaway.
AUSTIN, Texas — Midway through filming “Us,” Jordan Peele’s much-anticipated second feature film, the comic-turned-director discovered he had a deep fear: His main star, Lupita Nyong’o.
In between shoots, Nyong’o, seeped in character and dressed in her murderous red gown, would use her creepy movie voice to ask Peele for on-set requests, such as better snacks for the actors.
“Lupita scared the s*** out of me!” Peele told an audience Friday following the world premiere of “Us” at the Paramount Theater in downtown Austin.
That was one of a series of insights and behind-the-curtain confessions Peele and the cast of “Us” shared with an appreciative audience. The movie was featured as the opening film of the nine-day SXSW Conference and Festivals, which began Friday.
“Us” tells the story of an upper-middle-class black family who, while on vacation, suddenly finds itself warring with evil doppelgängers of mysterious origins. It’s Peele’s second film, following the critical and box office success of “Get Out,” which won Peele an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
“Get Out” was made for $4.5 million and earned $176 million in domestic ticket sales alone, according to boxofficemojo.com. “Us” is expected to surpass those numbers when it opens nationwide later this month, with an projected gross of $40 million its first weekend.
If its buzzy premiere in Austin is any sign, “Us” is on its way to similar blockbuster status. Hopeful theatergoers began arriving at the Paramount three hours before the screening, standing in a line that snaked around three city blocks.
Samuel Williams, visiting SXSW from San Francisco, arrived at the Paramount with friends about two hours before showtime. He said he was a big fan of Peele and Nyong’o but it was the movie’s promise of insight into society he was most excited about.
“I like the message of ‘Get Out’ and how multilayered it was about various experiences in the U.S.,” he said. “I know ‘Us’ is going to, similarly, give us a look into the world of — and the horrors associated with — different points of views of the U.S. It should be really fun.”
Unlike “Get Out,” which slowly seeps into its scary premise, “Us” takes less than an hour to shift into full horror mode, when the evil, red-robed family breaks into their victims’ home, wielding menacing gold scissors and communicating in grunts.
The film’s actors played both characters — the evil murderers and their unsuspecting victims — and Peele said he shot those scenes separately. Shooting the normal family was fun; but when it came time to shoot the evil characters, the mood turned noticeably darker, he said.
“It was a crazy experience,” said Peele, answering audience questions along with the main cast. “Every one of these people on stage developed two characters, and not just in a two dimensional way, but three, four dimensional way. I really got everybody’s individual crazy out of them. For that, I’m forever proud.”
The audience shrieked and laughed collectively throughout the film, as it veered between grisly horror scenes and funny interactions between members of the leading family.
In trademark Peele fashion, “Us” is layered in symbolism and even biblical references, as when a man early in the film holds a cardboard sign reading, “Jeremiah 11:11.” (“Therefore, thus says the Lord, Behold, I am bringing disaster upon them that they cannot escape. Though they cry to me, I will not listen to them.“)
That number — 11:11 — reappears later in the film as the time on a digital clock, just before the carnage begins. Later, a carnival worker is seen wearing a Black Flag T-shirt, a punk rock band of the 1970s and ’80s whose logo was four vertical black bars.
Ten-year-old Evan Alex, who plays the family’s young son, as well as his evil twin, Pluto, said it took time to get used to the movie’s horror premise.
“I’m very scared of this film: blood, scissors — nope,” he said. But as he got to know his fellow cast members better, things changed. “Acting is like playing around with your friends,” he said.
Peele said he began writing “Us” at a time when deep divisions and fears plagued the U.S. “Whether it is the mysterious invader we think is going to come and kill us, take our jobs, or the faction, that we don’t live near, that voted in a different way than us, we’re all out pointing the finger,” he said.
He added: “I wanted to suggest that maybe the monster we really need to look at has our face. Maybe the evil is us.”
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.
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