‘Nope’: The Real-Life Bonkers Story Behind That Gigantic Balloon
It’s interesting how the words “fake” and “tethered” keep cropping up in Jordan Peele’s movies. In Get Out, our main guy Chris got roped in by the fake girlfriend/welcoming white family who turned out to be as dubious as one particular TSA agent predicted. In Us, we saw a young girl believing in a “fake” (and real-world) campaign that claimed all it took to fight poverty in America was for everyone to hold hands or whatever. She also had to fight her doppelgänger to whom she was tethered — the one who was faking her own true identity. We’re also pretty sure rabbits don’t exist, so they’re all fake, too.
Note: Major spoilers for Jordan Peele's Nope to follow.
Nope puts the battle between what’s real and what’s fake front and center by using the appearance of a UFO-looking alien monster to delve into our everlasting need to create, capture, and witness the impossible. The movie is as much about the wonders and obsession of capturing life on film as it is about our insatiable desire to experience (and be part of) spectacle and miracles. Also, everyone wants to make money, and exploitation comes into play big time — especially in the character of Ricky "Jupe" Park, the former child actor who survived the Massacre By Ape on the fictional sitcom Gordy’s Home.
Gordy’s attack mirrors a real-world incident where a pet chimpanzee named Travis attacked Charla Nash before police shot the ape. Nash appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show looking like this …
… resembling Jupe’s other surviving Gordy’s Home cast member when we see her at Jupe’s Star Lasso show.
But there’s another historic incident that resembles the tale of Jupe and his Kid Sheriff balloon boy (the one that eventually destroys the hungry sky monster), so let’s dive into the story of the infamous 2009 Balloon Boy Hoax.
The Man Who Liked Chasing Storms
Richard Heene can be described as a jack of all trades, albeit successful in none. He’s been everything from a carpenter to a salesman to a stand-up comedian and a failed board game inventor. He met his Japanese wife, Mayumi Iizuka, while they both attended an acting school in Hollywood because these two wanted to be famous from the start. They married in 1997 and have three boys, just like Jupe and his wife in Nope.
Among his many passions, Heene has always been an avid storm chaser ever since a tornado ripped off a roof he was working on back in the ‘70s. He was, however, no ordinary storm chaser and often mentioned his wild endeavors whenever anyone would listen. He’s claimed to have flown a plane around the perimeter of Hurricane Wilma back in 2005. He’s tried to get people to pay him money so he could ride a motorcycle into the middle of a tornado because some people have no chill. The man seems to be the biggest fan of Twister as he apparently releases all kinds of rockets and inventions into these storms to measure, uh, things. We’re not sure exactly what because he doesn’t really boast about any meaningful findings of these so-called experiments.
It’s one thing for a guy to imagine he’s Helen Hunt in a ‘90s movie, but it becomes quite alarming when you learn that Heene involved his small kids in these dangerous exploits — oftentimes getting them way too close to tornadoes. His proclivity for chasing sky madness was accompanied by his obsession with UFOs and the existence of aliens. He frequently took his kids on UFO-hunting expeditions, and he once claimed to have passed out in a restaurant, only to hear aliens speak to him.
In many ways, Heene was prepping his kids for what would become his biggest ever stunt, apparently all because he wanted to make a name for himself. Naturally, the man soon turned to …
Reality TV, Baby!
After fleeing Burbank, California, where they owed $6,000 in damages on a house they were renting, Heene had to find a new way to make some cash. The stand-up world spat him out fast, and the business where Heene and his wife would make demo reels for actors didn’t prove lucrative enough to go and film funny things in the sky every other weekend.
That is how Richard Heene and his Family Fang got themselves on Wife Swap. To fully understand how unhinged a man Heene could be — actor-comedian Perry Caravello called him “easily excitable” — go ahead and watch this short clip from his time on the show:
Here’s another charming takeout, in which Heene frantically orders his boys and his “swapped wife” into the car so he can go shoot some rockets into a storm.
According to those who knew them, Heene’s wife Mayumi was “subservient” and didn’t have much say in family matters. She went along with her husband’s many exploits, even after a 9-1-1 hang-up had a deputy go to their house and find Mayumi with a mark on her cheek and a bloodshot eye. She’s always stood by Heene, and the family appeared not once but twice on the reality show.
The reality biz seemingly fueled Heene’s desire for fame and fortune, and he pitched a show to TLC featuring him and his many inventions — one of which was a helium balloon shaped like a flying saucer because why get stuck in traffic when you can take a terrifying sky trip to work every day and pray you don’t plummet to a most certain death? TLC passed, but the producer of Wife Swap later confirmed that they were working on bringing the show to life … before the big hoax popped Heene’s dream balloon.
The Balloon Boy Hoax
It’s important to note that Heene claimed his helium balloon emitted a million volts every five minutes to push it left and right as it navigated the skies. That sky beast in Nope emitted a strange electric field, too. Anyway, it was this dangerous balloon element that had the parents of 6-year-old Falcon Heene most concerned when they launched the invention into the sky on October 15, 2009, thinking it was tethered. It wasn’t, and the thing went flying off, all saucer-like. That was when Falcon’s brother apparently decided to tell his parents that the poor kid climbed into the balloon’s basket.
Of course, the media was in a frenzy, and it soon became national news as everyone worried about the poor kid's safety while zipping around in a thing that his father told the 911 operator could totally electrocute him. It should also be noted that Heene only called 9-1-1 after making a phone call to their local TV station, apparently in the hopes that they would send a helicopter to find his boy. We guess the TV coverage was just a lucky bonus. The balloon floated across Colorado for two hours before finally touching down, bringing widespread relief and immediate confusion to everyone watching … because Falcon was not inside his daddy’s deadly flying saucer.
The boy was eventually found hiding in the attic at home and, just like Jordan Peele’s sky demon that couldn't stomach inorganic matter, people started feeling a sick pit in their stomachs. Heene claimed that it wasn’t a hoax, but things just got more bonkers from there. For one, the man just couldn’t stop talking to the cameras, which led to this bizarre interaction outside his home:
There was also the fact that, in the home video, Richard could be seen inspecting the balloon up close before launching it, making people question how he wouldn't have known whether someone was inside of it. The biggest red flag in a long list of red flags happened during an interview on CNN’s Larry King Live when Falcon straight up said that his parents told him it was “part of the show.”
That is one trainwreck of an interview right there — it also explains why Heene felt the need to prep for media questions from that point on — but the entire happening fits into Heene’s constant search for the next publicity stunt. Barb Slusser Adams who worked with Heene on his proposed reality show (called The Science Detective) said that he was obsessed with getting media attention for his then-upcoming show. One of his ideas prior to the whole Balloon Boy hubbub was for them to dress all in black a la The Matrix and go stand on top of some mountain while recording a helicopter “attacking” them. Yeah, we don’t get it either.
Of course, the whole spectacle became a viral meme, ceaselessly mocked and used for entertainment by anyone with a media or online presence, because that's just what we do.
Which brings us to …
Jupe And His Big Balloon In Nope
Nope is all about spectacle, with the sky-sea creature Jean Jacket at the center of it all. Here’s a quick look at ol’ JJ again:
Yep, looks familiar.
There’s also the fact that one of Jupe’s kids is named Phoenix, a mythological bird that we all know is just a fancy version of a falcon spontaneously combusting. And while actor Steven Yeun (who plays Jupe) is a South Korean actor, the Asian-Caucasian coupling in the movie sure strengthens the connection here. Jupe, with his wife and kids in tow, tries to stage a spectacular show featuring a giant sky alien he thinks he can tame … only for Jean Jacket to devour them all.
Emerald (Keke Palmer) untethering Jupe’s balloon boy at the end, however, brings the two balloon boy stories together. The punchline, of course, is that Jean Jacket (who Jupe calls “The Viewers”) can’t swallow the helium-filled balloon boy, and subsequently explodes. God, this movie rules.
Peele hasn’t said anything (yet) about the Heenes’ 2009 stunt being an inspiration for his latest film, but perhaps it’s because he enjoys having us, the viewers, discover these things for ourselves. Anyway, here’s an old video of Richard Heene trying to sell a doorway back scratcher.
Thumbnail: Universal Pictures