Murder, He Wrote

Knives Out writer and director Rian Johnson tells Dominic Corry about the intricacies of whodunits, the joys of over-analyzing movies, and—yes—Star Wars.

They say casting is 90 percent of directing and it was really true in this case.” —⁠Rian Johnson

From Hercule Poirot’s debut in an Agatha Christie novel in 1920, to the hard-boiled detectives of the 1930s, to the Pink Panther comedies, the whodunit was a perennially popular film genre—until its decline in the 1980s, when true-crime re-enactments took over. But, with Knives Out, writer/director Rian Johnson (Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) is on a mission to reaffirm the whodunit’s rightful place on the big screen—and casually reinvent the form while he’s at it.

Knives Out has a gobsmacking ensemble, with Christopher Plummer (as writer Harlan Thrombey, the victim), Ana de Armas (as Marta, Thrombey’s nurse and confidant), Daniel Craig (as Benoit Blanc, the famous private detective who shows up to query Thrombey’s apparent suicide), and Lakeith Stanfield (as the investigating Lieutenant Elliott). Making up Thrombey’s extended, entitled family are Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Riki Lindhome, K Callan, Katherine Langford and Jaeden Martell—all well fed by his wealth and determined to protect their piece of it.

It’s a Rian Johnson movie, so Noah Segan shows up as well, in perhaps his meatiest role yet, as a cop working with Stanfield. There’s also a delightful cameo from Frank Oz.

Rian Johnson directs Ana de Armas on the set of Knives Out.
Rian Johnson directs Ana de Armas on the set of Knives Out.

Despite the lack of big-screen whodunits of late, there’s no shortage of audience enthusiasm for them, as evidenced by our ‘Murder Mystery’ Showdown, a great starting point for anyone looking to delve into the genre. Letterboxd members who have already seen Knives Out are very much enjoying what they see, with the film boasting a giant 4.2 average rating (at time of writing).

This is one of those films where you can just tell how much fun the cast is having, an aspect that Letterboxd member Wes nails in his review: “I’d really, really, really like to believe that Rian Johnson gathered all these actors in this giant house, hid some cameras everywhere, hit record, and none of what we saw was fictitious.”

Demi Adejuyigbe writes—in his charming Letterboxd review of the time he lunched with Johnson (!)—that the film is “absofuckinglutely phenomenal”. He marvels at how Knives Out stays one step ahead of what we expect from a whodunit: “How do you fool an audience that has come to be fooled? Johnson is so deftly able to get that joyful, wondrous reaction out of me by expertly controlling every aspect of the script and the direction in a way that makes it clear he sees the entire process as a symphony that he’s conducting, where the audience is just another instrument being played.”

Or perhaps Patrick Willems best encapsulates the joys of the film when he writes that Knives Out is “a movie as good as its sweaters (the sweaters are excellent)”. (The most popular sweater has its own story, here.)

When we got in a room with Rian Johnson recently, we naturally wanted to learn how he juggled such an impressive ensemble whilst navigating the twists, turns, and more twists of Knives Out’s plot.

Chris Evans and Ana de Armas wearing sweaters, Rian Johnson not wearing a sweater, on the set of Knives Out.
Chris Evans and Ana de Armas wearing sweaters, Rian Johnson not wearing a sweater, on the set of Knives Out.

You’ve often talked about your lifelong love of the whodunit genre. How did you go about making your own?
Rian Johnson: It’s very interesting, the whodunit genre. It’s one of my favorite genres. I love all the things about it. I also kind of agree with Hitchcock. Hitchcock hated the whodunit genre. To Hitchcock, the danger of the whodunit is: it’s a lot of build-up for one big surprise at the end, and that’s not very satisfying or fun. That’s why he was all about suspense. He would give the audience information early and then you’re in suspense and not just crime-solving. He would also mislead the audience, so you’d think you’re getting all the information early. And enough so that you’re leaning forward, you’re not sitting back. That’s Hitchcock’s whole deal.

So for me, what was interesting is: can I put the engine of a Hitchcock thriller in the middle of a whodunit? Have a whodunit that then turns into a Hitchcock thriller that turns back into a whodunit? That was kind of the starting point for me, from a genre-wonk point of view.

So then I started filling out, okay what would that actually mean? I’m talking around it because I don’t wanna spoil anything, but, okay if we did this and then that could be interesting. And then I started zooming in bit by bit and filling out what characters I would need for what plot points. All the details come later but it’s as ‘big picture’ as that.

Jamie Lee Curtis, Christopher Plummer, Don Johnson and Michael Shannon in Knives Out.
Jamie Lee Curtis, Christopher Plummer, Don Johnson and Michael Shannon in Knives Out.

Were there ever any alternative outcomes in play?
Not really, because I didn’t really work, like, “if this happens, then that happens, then that happens”. I worked it like a satellite map. I zoomed back. I work in little notebooks and I have to draw one line and see the entire plot along that line. So it’s not like a game of Clue where I can pick out different solutions at the end; it’s kind of set because the shape of the whole thing determines a different kind of ending from the very inception of it.

Watching this, I thought about your film The Brothers Bloom, as that’s another ode to a somewhat specific genre—the con-artist film—in which your affection for that kind of film was also evident. How challenging is it to write and shoot films in genres you grew up loving?
Any time I’m attacking a genre it’s because I deeply, deeply love it. The heart of it for me is always trying to distill the thing I love about it and set that as the goal-post and then find my own way to it. Whether it’s the con-man movie with The Brothers Bloom, or Star Wars as a genre, or this, it’s always about trying to get to the heart of what I love about something and then trying to put that on the screen so the audience will have as pure an experience of it as possible. And sometimes to give the audience the purest experience, you have to shake it a little bit, because… we’ve seen so many versions of it over the years that the audience can kind of ignore it. So sometimes you have to put it in a different context, like with Brick, with film noir or something. But the intent is always to give the audience the most sharp and vivid experience of what’s at the heart of it for me.

This film is a blockbuster of chemistry. Was it difficult to cast?
Once we got Daniel on board, no. Once he was the centerpiece, I think everyone wants to work with him so it was like a snowball. Because then we got Michael Shannon, and everyone wants to work with him. And Lakeith Stanfield. So, no, the cast came together very, very quickly, just like everything else in this project. With these actors, my job is easy. They show up on set, they clicked in so easily. They’re such pros. They say casting is 90 percent of directing and it was really true in this case.

Lakeith Stanfield, Noah Segan and Daniel Craig in Knives Out.
Lakeith Stanfield, Noah Segan and Daniel Craig in Knives Out.

Speaking of Daniel Craig, his character is a microcosm of the film in that he is not in any way like any detective that has come before, yet you cannot help but think of precedents. Were you consciously trying to make him unlike Hercule Poirot?
When I started writing, I actually kinda got myself in trouble because I was thinking too much about Poirot. I love Poirot so much and I think I was thinking too much like: how do I make my Poirot? And so I started doing all this sort of quirky stuff, and throwing all these quirks in there, like maybe he has an eye patch and a peg leg maybe. It was just silly. And so finally I said “this is so stupid”, and I pulled all that stuff and I just said: “I’m gonna write this character very straightforward. The way that he needs to be for the script. And I’m gonna give him a Southern accent, because then he’s a fish out of water in New England. And then whoever I cast, I’m gonna believe that they’re gonna inhabit that character in such a way that he’ll be unique.”

I think what Daniel found—that is exactly what is at the heart of Poirot—is Daniel found kind of what’s funny about the character. Beyond the accent. He found the self-inflated, clownish aspect of him, while still maintaining a humanity and an intelligence, which is really what Poirot is. It’s why Peter Ustinov is my favorite Poirot—he gets what’s funny about the character. And like Columbo or like Miss Marple or any of the great fictional detectives, it’s that element that makes you not quite take him seriously until it’s too late and they’ve solved the whole case. I think that’s what Daniel keyed into more than anything else.

This feels like a film that people are going to pore over the details of, as they did with Looper.
I love it because that’s part of what I love about those kinds of movies. First of all, let’s separate them, because with time-travel movies, the notion that a time-travel movie can make sense is absolute nonsense. So time travel is much more like the spells in Harry Potter than science, and anyone who thinks otherwise is fooling themselves. Except maybe Shane Carruth. Shane is the one person who can actually figure out time travel. Everyone else, it’s kind of like a fantasy element more than anything else.

Ana de Armas in Knives Out.
Ana de Armas in Knives Out.

So with Looper, I felt like I had to have it make narrative sense, but I didn’t feel the pressure of it having to work in every little detail, because it can’t. Whereas, it’s a little different with a whodunit because every screw has to be tightened and I can’t leave any loose ends. I do want people to be able to re-watch and dig in. But I’ll be a little more sad if they find things that don’t make sense. I’m sure they will, but it’ll actually make me a little sad if they do, because I’ll be like: “I messed up there”.

How do you feel about your films being subjected to that kind of scrutiny?
I think it’s fun! That’s the thing: for a certain kind of moviegoer, that’s the pleasure you get—it’s almost like the kid who if you hand them a radio, you’re gonna wanna take it apart. If that’s what someone loves about watching a movie then I think that’s fantastic. I’ve done that with certain films. I’ve watched them over and over and tried to analyze, so I get [that] that’s part of the pleasure of it.

How are you feeling about your Star Wars experience?
As a filmmaker, as a Star Wars lover, it was the best experience of my life. Everything about it. Writing it. Making it. The people I got to meet. The places I got to go. The experience I had putting it out. The last two years interacting with the fans has been so rewarding and so fantastic.

I feel like I always have to say that the bad part of that gets written about a lot because it’s interesting to write about. From being in the middle of the hurricane, I can tell you that 95 percent of my interactions with fans are absolutely lovely. That’s not to say they all even like the movie—some of them don’t, or some of them have issues with the film—but they’re all engaged and respectful and so deeply engaged in it in a way that when you make movies you only dream that people will engage with something that you made on that level. So no, for me, the whole thing top-to-bottom has been the most beautiful experience I can possibly imagine.

Rian Johnson directs Joonas Suotamo on the set of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Rian Johnson directs Joonas Suotamo on the set of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Something that I know in my bones from being a Star Wars fan since I was five years old: everybody has a slightly different version of what Star Wars is to them, absolutely. That’s why I’m excited that stuff like [new Disney+ series] The Mandalorian can exist. The more Star Wars stuff we make, the more there’s gonna be a spectrum that gives different people the things that they want. But we also have to recognize that nothing is gonna give everybody what they want, and somebody is always gonna be upset.

What George Lucas did originally was make a movie that was straight from his heart, and expressed exactly what this world was to him. And expressed emotional truths in this world in a way that was resonant for him personally. I feel that every filmmaker who comes to Star Wars, that’s their job. Their job is not to take a survey and to see what is going to have the broadest demographic appeal. Their job is to speak from their heart and make a thing that resonates with what Star Wars is for them. And I think the more diverse filmmakers we have doing that, the more diverse Star Wars movies we’ll have, the more people will hopefully be happy and the less yelling there’ll be all around.

Knives Out’ is now in theaters. Comments have been edited for clarity and length. With thanks to Studiocanal.


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