Ads for the new film “Keanu,” which combines kitten cuteness and gangster hardness, proclaim it as coming “from the visionary minds of Key and Peele.” That would be Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, stars of Comedy Central’s sketch television show “Key & Peele,” which concluded its fifth and final season in 2015 after having grown to have an unexpected cultural impact that garnered fans including President Obama for their on-point sketches on masculinity, identity and race.
But it is also from the mind of Peter Atencio, who directed both “Keanu” and virtually every sketch in every episode of the show (except for some in the final season), making him a key but often overlooked component in the team’s success. Though he admits he can sometimes be sensitive about the relative lack of recognition for his contributions, he also knows that the work is very much the creation of the two performers who had their names in the title.
In “Keanu,” Rell (Peele) becomes extremely attached to a stray kitten he takes in after his girlfriend leaves him. The cat, whom he names Keanu, is snatched by drug-dealing gangsters, and Rell enlists his cousin Clarence (Key) to help get him back. Soon the two meek Angelinos are passing themselves off as violent hitmen as they infiltrate the criminal underworld to rescue Keanu.
On “Key & Peele,” the nature of the show was such that the style changed from sketch to sketch, with Atencio proving himself particularly adept at mimicking the look and style of certain film and television genres, placing the characters created by Key and Peele into worlds that seemed appropriate and believable. In “Keanu,” he credibly drops two schlubs essentially into the world of an action movie.
Atencio, 33, stands well over 6 feet, with a broad build. He is given to wearing ballcaps and bulky jackets. In an article on Key and Peele in the New Yorker, writer Zadie Smith said Atencio looked “like a visiting weed dealer.” (He now includes that in his Twitter bio.)
Originally from Colorado, Atencio had already directed two low-budget features before joining the “Key & Peele” crew. One, 2005’s “Night of the Dog,” was co-directed with fellow employees at the ArcLight Cinemas movie theater in Hollywood, his first job in L.A. (The April 27 premiere of “Keanu” was held at the Cinerama Dome, and Atencio introduced the film by saying that this isn’t the first time he’s stood before an ArcLight audience holding a microphone.)
Atencio first met Key, who then introduced him to Peele, as the pair were first pulling together their show. Atencio lobbied hard with executives at Comedy Central to direct every sketch as well as the stand-up segments in-between.
“Everyone was like, ‘This is a really bad idea,’ ” Atencio said. “It took the first season for them to be like, ‘This isn’t totally crazy.’ For me, it was great being able to play with style, play with genre.”
“Choosing a style that was going to be consistent and was going to guide the whole more was probably more nerve-racking than anything else,” Atencio said. “I had to pick something visual and live with it, to decide what fit the story and character arcs that lasted 90 minutes rather than four minutes. And it’s something I really prefer doing, ‘Oh, right, this is really fun, and I like it.’ ”
That initial disconnect between a tough-guy crime thriller and the cuddliness of a kitten, as well as the changing behaviors of Rell and Clarence — as they shift from timidity to mock bravado to actual toughness — is actually right in line with what Peele and Key were exploring on the television show.
“It’s sort of a symbol for the comedy that Keegan and I have done on our show, the duality about what we put forth in the work versus what’s really going on inside of us,” said Peele, who co-wrote the screenplay along with Alex Rubens. “You don’t even have to intellectualize it to get it. There’s something simple and iconic in it that would sum up everything about the Key and Peele voice.”
The cat served a practical purpose in storytelling too. Peele said the initial cat-less idea for the film was “ ‘Three Amigos’ meets ‘New Jack City,’ ” but in the writing there was a struggle with why the two characters would remain misplaced in the criminal underworld. Adding the cat gave them that reason — and allowed Atencio to play with the contrast of an adorable kitten amid scenes of wanton mayhem.
Ultimately, seven cats were used during principal photography — in part because the kittens would grow quickly and change size — with another used for pickup shots done later in Los Angeles.
“I definitely knew from the beginning I wanted everything to be done real with the cats,” Atencio said. “I think part of being a director is asking for stuff that people tell you is impossible, and you’re like, ‘We really have to figure this out’ and then we all figure it out.”
After “Keanu,” the Atencio, Peele and Key partnership is being put on indefinite pause. Though they are now eager to branch out to do projects of their own — Atencio is directing the pilot for the Amazon comedy “John-Claude Van Johnson,” starring Jean-Claude Van Damme — they are also all leaving the door open to work again in the future.
“It feels like the end of a chapter in what we hope will be a very, very long book,” Key said. “I can guarantee we will never be out of each other’s lives.”
Key paused and folded back into the self-awareness that marked the work of Key and Peele and Atencio by adding, “That book thing sounded real poetic. Put that quote in.”
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