Having just wrapped up five hilarious seasons on the forefront of the zeitgeist with their groundbreaking sketch comedy series Key & Peele, it's only natural that the team of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele have cast their gaze to the big screen for their next challenge. And if the new film Keanu, opening today in theaters everywhere, proves anything, it's that the pair, who've been working together since their time on MADtv in the 2000s, haven't missed a step in their transition to the big screen.
The film, a wacky road picture about two friends trying to retrieve the adorable kitten (the titular "Keanu") that's been kidnapped by drug dealers, is in many ways a perfect distillation of the gonzo, anything-goes humor that one associates with the Key & Peele brand. While they were promoting the movie at (appropriately enough) the Cat Town Cafe in Oakland, CA, I had the chance to ask them why this was the perfect project with which to transition to the big screen, and whether they ever thought their show would be as popular as it is. Read on for some highlights of our conversation:
This is your first feature film together. What was it about this project that made you decide to team up on the big screen?
Jordan: We basically needed a way to sum up the style of comedy that we had done on our show, and we wrote this movie as kind of like Three Amigos-meets-New Jack City, where we get thrown into this world we're just not prepared for and not ready for, and then we came up with Keanu as a way to link it all together, give it this emotional stake, and let the audience just fall in love with the mascot of the movie, really.
What's your funniest behind-the-scenes story from the production of the movie?
Keegan: It's interesting because, because of the budget of the movie, there was not enough time to be doing practical jokes, which is what makes me crazy about studio movies. People spend money, production money, to do practical jokes, and we're like, we can't afford that!
Jordan: There was one time, we had a Fourth of July celebration where...
Keegan: Oh, yeah.
Jordan: Somebody bought $300 worth of fireworks and brought it to the place I was renting, and all night, Method Man is lighting fireworks off of my balcony, and I'm such a fan of his, but at some point, I had to be like, that's expensive flooring! It was an amazing night. It was totally fun. I wouldn't have it any other way.
Keegan: We spent a lot of time together as a cast. That's the best part of shooting on location, is that you're away from home. So, people aren't just jetting off to their wives and family. You only have each other, and remember, there was that one firework that he lit that had -- you know those little work fireworks that come out? So, there was one that had a worm firework, but it was in a little cardboard dog's butt, and so, it was like dog poop. And he was like, "Look at that, man, a dog poop," and then he was looking at the dog poop, and then we walked away, and then Method Man goes, "Is that all it does?" Do you remember that one?
Jordan: I don't remember.
Keegan: This thing, he was like, "Is that all it does?" and he walked up to it, and then it went boom! and it exploded.
Jordan: I was probably hiding.
Keegan: So, pretty much, Fourth of July. But behind the scenes was always...I mean, we were shooting a movie in New Orleans in July. So, this was what was happening backstage: (feigning exhaustion) "Uh-huh, just tell me when you're going to say 'action' and we'll be right there." Everybody, just tons of sweat, yeah.
When you were coming up with a concept and a story for this, did you have any humanitarian intent, or did it just sort of evolve after the production with adopting the seven or eight kittens that you used for the film, encouraging rescuing animals?
Jordan: Yeah, I knew pretty early that this movie...it wasn't during the writing process, but once I had the script, I knew pretty early that we needed to preach the adoption of cats with this movie. Of course, we love all animals. I have a dog. We're dog people, too -- all animals in need, but as a joint message, I think Keanu and, "Go adopt a cat!" is a good, easy piece of...
Keegan: Yeah, it dovetails right into it, right into each other.
With training seven kittens to basically do the same thing, what were some of the hardest things that you were trying to get these kittens to do that just wouldn't work on set?
Keegan: Well, the hardest thing sometimes would be the kittens that were trained -- the two or three that were trained to do stationary movement. So, you had to get them to...it's like, you're the camera, and it's to get them to go like this on cue, you know what I mean? It's that moment, and there is one scene, I think -- tell me if this is the hardest because being there, it seemed difficult. April was having a bit of a time with that one kitten to get him to -- because Jordan's in jail, and then there's the Plexiglass, and the kitten puts his paw up, and he puts his hand up on the glass.
Jordan: It's like the E.T. moment.
Keegan: It's the E.T. moment, right, and so, for that to happen, this kitten was just like...
Jordan: I was missing my mark, and April's here.
Keegan: The kitten was perfect, and April's here just going, "Psst, psst, psst! Psst, psst! Action, action!" and the cat's looking at her, and he's looking at her, and he's looking at her, she disappears, and then goes like this, "Action!" Like, it was if he knew what we were saying, that maybe what we should do is tell him what not to do, and then he'll do what we want him to do. That was a tough one for me.
Jordan: It was like a Looney Tunes cartoon.
Keegan: Yeah, it was a Michigan J. Frog situation. But because [Jordan] is such a brilliant improviser, it was fantastic because he would just keep going. The cat would turn around and walk away, come back into frame, and Jordan's just like, "Keanu, what is over there? Yeah, I see it, too. I see that really interesting thing over there, as well." But that was tough. The cats were -- the thing that seems the hardest was the easiest, which was them running while there's explosions happening around it. It was so crazy. You're like, well, that seems like that would be difficult, but it was all the stationary stuff that was difficult.
Jordan: Well, you know, the best thing about a cat video is when a cat does something that's imperfect. It's such a graceful animal. So, any kind of moment you catch with a cat being clumsy or sneezing or something.
Keegan: Sneezing, yeah, falling off a table.
Jordan: So, we set this movie up in a way that we're just going to capture the cat doing what cats do, and put them in the right place, put performances in the right place. Peter did a great job.
So, when you look back at the TV show, it's become kind of ubiquitous. I spend day-in and day-out with college students, and whatever lesson I'm teaching, I find a Key & Peele clip to show. It speaks their language. Did it ever even occur to you that the show would be everywhere when you started doing it?
Jordan: You know, it's hard to see what exactly a sketch show is going to look like in the beginning. I think, if we had to guess, we would have gotten as close, but the thing we certainly couldn't have foreseen is the way it worked online. I've never really seen anything like that, and what we set out to make, a TV show, ended up being this online phenomenon that was the bread and butter of what we did. That's why we have so many families that come up to us and say, "I got introduced to this by my son," "I got introduced by my uncle, my brother," and it's this weird familial experience. So, that part, I could not have predicted.
Keegan: When you look back at it now, it seems obvious. The modular nature of the show would lend itself to the Internet. It's just, you're not thinking about that when your nose is to the grindstone, and you're creating it. So, yeah, I'm just agreeing with him, just extrapolating from it."
Big thanks to Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key for their time. Look for Keanu at a theater near you, and if you want to hear the audio from this interview, plus more movie talk, check out the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast at this link or via the embed below: