'Knives Out' Director Rian Johnson On The Beauty Of A Killer Monologue And Crafting A Mystery Evocative Of 2019 [Interview]

When I sat down to speak with director Rian Johnson the day after his new murder mystery thriller, Knives Out, closed Fantastic Fest 2019, I had one question on the top of my tongue. That question: "What defines a Rian Johnson movie?" After all, Johnson has spent his career leaping between genres, from grim modern noirs like Brick to quirky comedies like The Brothers Bloom to serious-minded science fiction like Looper and even giant blockbusters like Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I had a theory about this. One that tied straight into Knives Out, which is unquestionably one of the year's straight-up most entertaining movies.

But before we got there, we talked about other things. We talked about the differences between Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie. We talked about the beauty of a detective's final monologue. We talked, spoiler-free, about the unique perspective from which the film takes place. Perhaps most interestingly, we talked about how Knives Out was designed to be a movie specifically set in 2019, a period piece before any time has passed at all.

Our full conversation begins below.

I think a lot of people, especially online, are saying, "Oh, this is Rian Johnson returning to the Brick format making another mystery." But when I'm watching it, I'm thinking that Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie couldn't be more different in how they structure their mysteries. So how is Brick and Knives Out different in the same that Chandler and Christie are different than each other?

That's the key to it. There's so many different slices to the detective genre. To me, the whodunit is a very specific cul-de-sac of the detective genre. It's very distinct from the detective fiction of Hammett and Chandler and the stuff that film noir came out of. It's kind of defined by – I'd say there's a moral certitude to the whodunit genre that doesn't exist in the Hammett stuff. Whereas it tends to be more of an antihero detective in Chandler and Hammett, in whodunits, there's a pleasing moral certitude to the detective coming in, there's been a murder, and you know by the end that the good guy is going to solve the murder and the bad person is going to go to jail for it. Then of course there's all sorts of tropes that you can use, or not, of the big cast of suspects and the locked door and the person who everybody wanted something from who ends up dead. But I think that element, that's it's just more of a pleasing straight shot morally, is the big thing.

I feel like in this case – and not to undervalue what Daniel Craig is doing here – but in the case of an Agatha Christie hero or a Knives Out hero, the detective is the broad personality who exists to make the reader feel smart and satisfied as opposed to being the troubled guy you can relate with. Am I correct in that?

Yeah, absolutely. 100%. That's why, with the best detectives in the whodunit genre, there's always a slight clownishness to them. On one hand, it's to throw off the suspects so they don't take the detective seriously and it's too late and they're going to jail, but it also, there's a sense of fun to these guys. It's rare that there's a whodunit where there's a dark, troubled detective. It's usually more like Columbo or Poirot or Miss Marple, who's kind of the pleasant old lady serving you tea and asking questions because she's a curious woman.

Columbo is the one I kept thinking about even more than Poirot, because with Columbo, people don't take him seriously until he has them, and [in Knives Out], here comes the guy with this deep Southern accent, hanging out in the background, seemingly doing as little as possible until he begins to wrap it all up.

My hope was that partway through the movie, you'd be thinking, "Oh, is he just going to end up being not really...?" Gosford Park kind of does that a bit. Stephen Fry shows up as the detective, but he's completely incidental to the case and doesn't end up doing anything useful in it. I love that movie dearly.

I love how you film Daniel Craig. For the first half of this movie, he's filmed often out of focus in the background, and even during big sequences, he is in doorways behind the action. The visual language here lets him be an observer. And as a guy who explains that his detective method is to see where the truth lands and follow through, that's an interesting way to literalize and stylize a guy whose biggest strength is that he's an observer.

Absolutely, that's he's taking everything in. That's the danger of the detective, I guess. That's the thing. They're always keen-eyed. That was also, first of all, knowing that I wanted to get around to the library scene at the end where the detective explains everything. I knew he was going to be center stage for a big chunk of the movie, so letting him kind of lay back at first was very intentional.

The thing I was thinking during this – and I hate to compare a movie I really loved to a book I really don't like – but Ian Fleming's The Spy Who Loved Me, which told a James Bond story from the point of view of somebody who was not James Bond. It's this woman in a hotel room, Bond comes in and out of her life throughout the novel and they ditch that completely for the movie.

Interesting. I started reading a couple of Ian Fleming's books. I've read Casino Royale, but I haven't read The Spy Who Loved Me.

If you're a completionist, it's worth it. It's more interesting than good. But Ana de Armas, she's the real lead here. The detective comes into her life and we get to see everything he's doing essentially through her perspective. She's our real character, the one who has the growth and has the action happen to her. But I was going to ask if you'd read The Spy Who Loved Me, but I guess not. (Laughs)

Now I guess I have to, yeah.

At what point did you realize that you had to put her at the center of this story?

That was always a structural thing I knew I wanted to do with it. Big picture, boring genre mechanics-wise, it was to avoid a boring lull in the movie when we're with the detective and just gathering clues and just waiting for the solution. I wanted to give the movie an engine that was closer to a Hitchcock thriller. That meant having a point of view of somebody who there could be a threat that we would feel against, that we would sympathize with them, and that means basically having the point of view of somebody who's not the detective. It's hard to talk about without giving too much away, but there was something in the construction of it that I wanted to do that required the detective being, like you said, an outside observer for lots of it.

Speaking of structure, one of the things I found really interesting was for a movie that's as deliberately old-fashioned in its set up here, one thing it does is that when a character lies – in the first half of the movie, especially – we flash back and get another scene and we see the truth of their lie. We're aware of the truth before most of the characters are, which allows us to be in on the mystery and playing detective that even the detective himself can't. At what point did you realize that we're going to start feeding these bread crumbs early?

That's one of the things where, as much as I adore the whodunit genre, I do fundamentally agree with Hitchcock. The danger of it is that it usually hinges on surprise and not suspense. I do agree with him that suspense is a much stronger engine for a movie. What you said there is exactly the Hitchcock approach. As opposed to, "Oh my God, this person was lying the whole time!" being the punch at the end, revealing it so that you're engaged with it. So you know, "Why did that person lie in this way?" Suddenly the gears are turning. That, to me, seemed more fruitful for a lot of reasons.

There's a line the movie about Christopher Plummer's writer character where all of his plots arrive fully formed, which is what all the best bullshit artists say.


So when you're writing a mystery, do your plots arrive fully formed?

Not fully formed, no. I think the thing that does kind of spring into existence, it's not the plot. Because plot to me means all the intricacies of what happens when, and that takes a lot of work. (laughs) There's a lot of sweat equity put into that. But I think what does spring to mind is the basic concept of it. The essential, "Oh, here's the big shape of what the mystery is and what the solution is and how it's going to play out." On some very big meta level, there is that thing that's usually a Eureka moment. There's usually one idea.

One thing that you said at the Q&A last night really stuck with me was this idea that I got to be with these characters, and the types of characters you see in these classic whodunits, at the time, were very modern reflections in the people you saw.


Here, you have characters who are very archetypal of 2019. In twenty years, people will say, "Oh, this movie is set in 2019." How do you write those characters and direct actors to say, "We want to play with an archetype that's not fully formed yet"? Do you think about that?

Absolutely. That's something I was really conscious about coming into this. Wanting to emulate Christie in that specific way. So yeah, I very purposefully said, "You know what? Let's do the equivalent of the grumpy old colonel and the maid and the butler who maybe did it from back then, let's do the equivalent of that today." That mean just drawing a broad range of types, of caricatures, of different types from 2019. Each of the actors, the trick was – the other important thing to me was, I love the movie Clue, but that this wasn't Clue. This wasn't a parody. This wasn't about parodying a type of movie. This was a genuine shot at trying to do a good mystery. That meant the characters, for however much they are types and however much they're inflated, style-wise, still had a foot on the ground and felt like real characters. That was the thing with the actors. With Toni Collette, it was like, "Yes, this is a lifestyle guru who, yeah, we can pinpoint who this is, but at the same time, the character you're playing cares about this for this reason and actually has this relationship to these people." That's what great actors can do, is play up the fun of all that stuff and still make you believe it's a real person on the screen.

One thing this movie does share with Clue is I feel there's nothing more satisfying – and you may agree with this – than the final twenty minutes where the detective monologues and explains how it all happened. Clue has that madcap thing where he's literally running across the entire house with people following him, it's a very screwball thing, but what pleasures do you take in writing that type of monologue, and what had to be there in that speech?

The whole thing was predicated on having that scene at the end. I agree with you, that's my favorite part of every detective movie, is the last twenty minutes. That's another fun thing: I went back and watched some of my favorites and timed how much – there's some of these movies where it's like half an hour of solid explanation at the end. I love all the flashbacks, I love the interaction of him describing it with the flashbacks of what actually happened now that you've seen several versions of it. All of that stuff, to me, kind of unweaving the whole meta puzzle of it all, is like candy. I knew I wanted to get around to that here.

What does the editing room look like for scenes like that? What kinds of conversations go into crafting, "OK, how do we keep this monologue interesting for fifteen minutes? How do we bring in these flashbacks?" Put me in the editing room, because I can't imagine it. I'm not smart enough.

No, the thing is, what we shot and what we cut together is very much on the page. If it cuts away to a shot of some flashback, it's in the script saying "cut away to the shot of this flashback." So for the majority of it, we shot and cut it together the way it was written. Otherwise, I think we would have lost our minds. But then you're constantly always looking for – and there's plenty of stuff where it's like, "God, can we cut away?" A lot of the stuff we're talking about is stuff that we'd filmed, so there are plenty of instances where we're like, "Well, he's saying this. Should we cut to a little flash of this?" Anything we could find where we could illustrate what he's talking about by actually cutting to it, that was a big lesson in this, was how much that helped.

It's my job to overthink things –

Me too. (laughs)

(laughs) – and to overthink filmmakers and their choices. I was looking over your filmography leading up to this interview and revisiting some of the movies and I started asking myself, "What is a Rian Johnson film?" I was looking at each of these things and you can tell me if this is total bullshit, but here's what I think a Rian Johnson film is. It is a well-loved genre that is being interrogated in the most loving way possible. Knives Out, Star Wars, Brick – it is a type of thing we think we've seen a thousand times before, but it's being dissected right in front of us by somebody who loves it and wants to understand why it works.

I'm writing that down. I love that. (laughs) When you're anyone who makes stuff, if you start thinking of it in terms of, "What is the type of thing I make?" then you're dead in the water. You just kind of have to follow your nose and make what's interesting to you the way you make it. But that's a really beautifully put – look, I would aspire to have somebody look at the movies I've made and describe them like that, so that's lovely.

There are so many people who say, "I want to pay tribute to this movie, this genre, or this thing that matters to me as an artist," but the result is often an imitation.

I think for me the key is, to whatever extent I'm consciously thinking about this stuff, to me – like for a whodunit. The key is to really investigate myself and get to the heart of what I love about this stuff. To get to the core of what is it that really makes me happy when I sit down and watch a whodunit. And then, it's not even trying to flip anything on its head or turn it around, it's literally just taking that, what hits my pleasure buttons, and saying, "OK, I'm not imitating the how of how they got there, I'm doing my own thing that's going to get to that essential pleasure of it for me." That, inevitably, if you're telling something with your own voice and not copying a specific path but trying to get to a specific destination, you're going to forge your own path. It's just inevitable.

I promise not to ask Star Wars questions, but I feel like this belongs in many ways: what I find pleasurable about The Last Jedi, pleasurable about Knives Out, and pleasurable about Looper is that they are asking the right questions. They're not interested in saying, "Here is something reheated. Here's what you love." They're movies that ask, "Why do you love this in the first place?"

That's the question I'm always asking myself when I come into this. Really trying to get at the heart, as opposed to – it would feel boring to me to kind of do karaoke with these things. That doesn't seem like that's worth anything. Really trying to get to the heart of why I love it, and also then, in the telling of it, explore something that, right here, right now, feels like it matters and is on my heart.

This may be something you want to dodge specifically, but earlier this year, when I saw Jordan Peele's Us, on the staff at /Film we talked about how it felt like one of the absolute first films that is a reaction to Trump. Not necessarily that it's an anti-Trump screed, but that it was produced in the mindset of him being President of the United States right now. I feel like [Knives Out] feels like – it's a blast, it's a fun movie, it's a good time first – but that's present in the same way that certain period pieces would have different specters looming over them. Is that something you thought about at all?

Yeah, very much so. To me, this didn't feel like it was worth doing if it wasn't actually plugged in to 2019 and plugged into the culture that we're all living in right now. And look, if you're living in 2019, you go home to your family for Thanksgiving, you're sitting around the table, after a few glasses of wine, what does everyone end up arguing about? It's inevitable, and it would have felt weird, frankly, to have a family in 2019 and not have this stuff be a part of it and to not have this be something that the movie has on its mind. If it's about today, it has to be about today.