'Knives Out' Director Rian Johnson And Star Michael Shannon On Blending Comedy With Mystery And Giving Everyone Their Christopher Plummer Moment [Interview]

Whether he does it on purpose or not, writer/director and renowned cinephile Rian Johnson has a genuine gift for selecting a genre in which to work, pulling said genre apart to see what makes it tick, and then putting it back together in new and interesting ways to make something that feels genuinely fresh, even though he's using familiar tools of the trade. He says he's just trying to make the best version of whatever sandbox in which he chooses to play, and I'd say he's accomplished just that with film noir (Brick), heist movies (The Brothers Bloom), time travel (Looper), and even the Star Wars universe (The Last Jedi, and let's be honest: Star Wars is its own genre at this point).

With his latest and arguably greatest work, Knives Out, Johnson strolls through the world of murder mysteries, crafting a modern, Agatha Christie-style whodunit with a family full of lying suspects and just as many false leads, as private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, wielding a razor-sharp Southern accent) investigates the murder of world-famous crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who is found dead at his estate just after celebrating his 85th birthday. Blanc interviews every member of Thrombey large family and the house staff to get to the truth, which may not even be the truth the true killer realizes it is. 

Among the exceptional cast are Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Ana de Armas (playing Harlan's personal nurse, who appears to be the only trustworthy person of the bunch, so much so that Blanc uses her as a sounding board for his various theories), Katherine Langford, Riki Lindhome, and Michael Shannon, as Thrombey's eldest son and the head of his publishing empire. There are also curious police officers on hand, played by LaKeith Stanfield and Johnson staple Noah Segan, who allow Blanc his dalliances through their cast because the man tends to get results.

Knives Out is flawlessly and precisely written, and the twists and turns are many and arrive frequently, to such a degree that I would consider the following interview something of a risk if you want to go into the film free any spoilers, although I think I do a fairly good job keeping things spoiler free; even so, you've been warned.

/Film caught up with with Johnson and Shannon in Chicago during the recent Chicago International Film Festival, during which we discussed their history and love of whodunit murder mysteries in every form, the possibility of Craig's Benoit Blanc returning for future adventures, Shannon's emotional memories of working with the recently deceased Robert Forster, and Johnson's future in the Star Wars universe. We cover a lot of ground. The interview itself is edited together from three separate talks with the pair, including two Q&As that were moderated by the author, and a separate sit-down interview the following day. Knives Out is now playing nationwide.

You got Frank Oz in this movie, which means you've worked with Yoda twice.

Rian: Yes, this is technically a Star Wars crossover.

I've known you almost as long as you've been making movies, from the first time you came to Chicago with Brick, and in all the conversations we've had about films in every genre, I don't think murder mysteries like this ever came up. How far back does that love of these stories go for you?

Rian: I have wanted to do a whodunit forever. I was a big Agatha Christie fan when I was a kid. I was a corny enough person to never have thought it was corny; I unabashedly love the genre. For me, I always wanted to do an Agatha Christie-style story, and you can probably see in this movie, besides her books, the movies I was watching as a kid Christie adaptations, with Peter Ustinov as Poirot—Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun were the two big ones—and they had all-star casts, and the tone was slightly cheeky and self-aware, but it wasn't a full-on comedy; it wasn't Clue or Murder By Death—I loved those movies too, but it was important to me that this was an actual whodunit and not something made to make fun of them. And for that, you need to get great actors and actors who can do performances that are this big but still feel like real people.

Michael, what is your history with these type of stories, either as literature or films?

Michael: It was fun to do it because I'd never done one before. They don't really make movies like these anymore, except Kenneth Branagh is remaking the Agatha Christie ones. I can't say I've poured through all the Christie novels; I remember seeing the films when I was a kid—I really remember that movie The Mirror Crack'd.

Rian: With Angela Lansbury and Elizabeth Taylor.

Michael: When I was a kid, I liked to read Encyclopedia Brown; that's about as much as I did.

Rian: Oh yes, I loved those books. I'd read them at the kitchen table. They were great.

Even in the best whodunits, the formula is that it's two hours of misdirection and false leads, and then you get those last couple of minutes where the truth comes out, often based on clues that we were never given until that moment. And what you do is select your genre and you subvert it in a lot of way. You still use the tropes but you use them differently. At the very beginning of the film, we know how our victim dies, so that's not where you're going with this. Talk about the decision to let that information free so early.

Rian: That's where it all started. Every genre that I've ever done is one that I deeply, deeply love, and for me, it's about boiling it down to the essence of what I love about it and get that up on the screen. Also, a lot of the genres I love have well-established tropes to them, like Brick for example, the first movie I did, which is this film noir set in high school, and I set it in high school for a lot of reasons, one of which was to wake up the audience's senses, so that you can't put it in the film noir box. You have to readjust your brain a bit, and say "What is this?" and lean in. The entire purpose is not just to give a twist, but your senses are awoken and you get the real punch of the genre.

With the whodunit genre, that's very much what I was trying to get at. It's something I deeply love, and I was trying to get all the pleasures out of it into a form that feels like it could still surprise you. If you read any of Agatha Christie's books, she's subverting, inverting, pulling stuff even in very early books that people were pissed off about because they said it was unfair of her to do. It's very much in keeping with what I love about them.

Hitchcock always said about whodunits is probably true, which is that the potential weakness of them is the middle section of the movie, where you're just gathering information, and at a certain point you think "I'm never going to guess this; I'm just going to hang out until the detective explains it to me." It's more about surprise than suspense, and Hitchcock cared about suspense. So the initial idea [with Knives Out] was to take the engine of a Hitchcock movie and put it in the middle of a whodunit and still get all the pleasures o a whodunit. Basically, hide the whodunit behind a Hitchcock thriller. 

The other interesting thing to me, and I know this is kind of wonky, is that Columbo does the same thing—this owes a lot to Colombo. The idea is if you do the Columbo thing, you have genuine emotional sympathy for the killer and wanting them to get away with it, then the mechanics of the murder mystery become the antagonist of the movie, and that becomes the bad guy—the fact that you know the detective is going to solve it, and that was really interesting to me, especially if you also have a sympathetic detective.

Were you nervous about telling a version of this story where the truth behind the death is revealed so early? It's a bit of a risk.

Rian: Oh, I was terrified. Remember that game Mousetrap, where you build the trap? The best laid plans of men and mice. You show it to an audience and hold your breath and hope that it works. It is a weird narrative gambit that the thing tries. Also, it's less of a risk than you think because the purpose of the whole thing was to take the onus off of clue gathering and "Can you guess it?" and put the onus where it belongs, which is "Here is a character you care about who is in peril, and are you going to lean forward and worry if they are going to be able to get out of this or not?"

It's interesting that you don't tell the story through Blanc's eyes; you tell it through his Watson, through Alma, and she becomes the central figure as they search for the killer.

Rian: That's another misconception about the whodunit and a very understandable one. It's the reason Watson exists or Capt. Hastings. Most times, you are not discovering the story through the detective's eyes; you're experiencing it through someone who is adjacent to the detective and one step behind the detective. Same with Columbo—you aren't watching those episodes through Columbo's eyes; he's almost like the killer in a slasher movie. You're with the killer, moving from room to room, and then he turns the corner and suddenly Columbo is there. He's the lurking presence getting closer and closer, and that's really important because you need somebody to be the audience's proxy, because the audience can't be caught up with the detective. They have to be one step behind, so the need somebody else to see the story. The way this movie is specifically structured, Blanc is as much a threat as he is a protagonist for most of the movie.

I wanted them all to be guilty because they're all terrible people, even the kids. Michael, do you get a particular charge out of playing characters who are this reprehensible?

Michael: I don't know. I like to work and I was very flattered that Rian called me for this and came to me. I was so excited to work with this cast; it's always about the company you keep. It's pretty remarkable to show up on set every day, surrounded by these people. I don't really think Walt is reprehensible; he's just not fully formed. Like a lot of families with a strong patriarch, they each struggle to find their own identity and find their own way in the world. I've never told a story like this in a genre like this, so it was exciting. We all hung out in the basement between set ups. As antagonistic as everybody seems to be on camera, we were all very good friends. That basement was like a whole other movie.

Rian: Every time I would go down there to get something out of my bag, I would want to just hang out. It was like 10 of the best actors working today sitting around shooting the shit and telling war stories.

Michael: But to answer your question, I'll admit, lately I've been responding a lot more to the people making the films and no so much the characters. When I sat down and met with Rian, I was immediately struck by his charm and intelligence and enthusiasm in telling the story. It seemed like something that would be a lot of fun to make, and it was. I do love Walt and his relationship with his father. He really loved and adored his father, but he realized somewhere along the line that he wasn't as significant as his father was, and he didn't know how to deal with that. That was a really interesting thing to portray.

The way you write, you do an incredible amount of research, work it all out in your head, before you ever start typing. Where did you begin with this film? What were the elements that you dove into before the writing began?

Rian: For me, it's always in two parts. First is having the plot or genre or conceptual idea that's interesting, then it doesn't really get rolling until there's something personal or a theme that I have on my mind or my heart that clicks with the first part. It's like two gears snapping together, and when both of those things serve each other, that's when you're really off to the races.

About 10 years ago, I had the initial idea for this. There's a murder mystery, but you tip who did it and care about that person, and almost want them to get away with it. So then you get nervous about whether the detective is going to catch them. And then the idea of turning it back into a whodunit at the end, which is another kind of misdirection because you've forgotten you're watching a whodunit, so I spring it on you. So over the 10 years, I've been chewing on it. So when I sat down to write it last year, it came really quickly.

Is the first thing you put down on paper "I suspect foul play."

Rian: Yes, it practically writes itself [laughs].

There is definitely a commentary angle to some of this story and these characters. There are a few Thanksgiving-style family fights here.

Rian: Yeah, yeah. We just say it. We don't say He Who Shall Not Be Named, but we do say everything but. My feeling was, fuck subtlety. This is what everyone is arguing about right now, this is what we're all talk about. It's funny, we think of Christie's books as timeless now because they're encased in amber, but I've been recently re-reading all of her books, and she was very much writing to her time. You can pick up any book from her multi-decade career and instantly know when that book was from. Her very first book opens with Captain Hastings—the sort of Watson character to Poirot—taking about how he's just come back from the front. She was always very clicked into the time she was in, and that was part of the inspiration for this, to do that with today.

When you get a script like this, where the language is so important, what does that do to you? I really want to sit down and read this at some point.

Michael: Oh yeah, it's a great read, and it would probably make a great novel. It's very rich, and all the character are rich right on the page. You almost feel like no matter who did it, it's going to work. Nevertheless, you're excited to have your own personal version of this story. It was almost be exciting to see a whole other cast cover this story.

Rian: I want to do a version where you play every character [laughs].

Daniel Craig's Blanc could easily have other mysteries to solve. You've never done a sequel of one of your own film, but could you imagine continuing his adventures?

Rian: Man, I had so much fun doing this, and if we can do a new Benoit Blanc mystery every once in a while, I'd be the happiest man. I'd love to do that again.

You've never shied away from films with larger casts. When you begin the actual casting process, do you start to get excited to see particular actors actually interact or come to blows? If so, were there a couple in this film that you were eagerly anticipating?

Rian: I was excited to see Michael and Chris Evans go head to head. I thought that would be really fun. But it was also fun bringing people together who have worked together before, like Mike and Jaeden Martell made a movie together [Midnight Special]. It's fun putting new combinations of actor together and fun for me casting some of my favorite actors on the planet and having them do things that maybe we haven't seen them do before. I'd also worked with Evans before, and I really like him a lot. It's such an interesting group of people. Getting to see Lakeith every day; that guy is like from outer space, and he plays such a straight man here. And seeing Toni do her thing, having fun. A lot of times, she's asked to get real upset about something. After seeing Hereditary, it's nice to see her have fun.

I also like that everyone got their Christopher Plummer moment too. Michael, was that sequence key for you?

Michael: Yeah, and I don't know if you were planning on doing coverage or not, but you started watching it in that one set up, and you were like "It plays like that." We did it a lot of times, and I didn't want it to end. It was nerve wracking when you shoot something in one shot because there's nothing to cut away to and every single moment has to be perfect.

Rian: I had planned on covering it, but if you look, their scene is one shot, and I didn't get any coverage of that. I watched it and thought, "I don't want to give myself the option of cutting of it." I don't think you knew when we were doing that; I didn't tell you. I didn't know until after I saw it.

Michael: Didn't you end up using the first take?

Rian: I don't know. I can't remember. Sometimes that happens. You have a better memory than me, so it might have been. I do remember it was dead on from the beginning, but we did some more just for fun.

Michael: That was the highlight, for sure, getting to work with him. And anytime you get to spend time with the older generation of actors, those you look up to, because you don't know them. It was very meaningful.

You came out of a project that was massive and you were under the microscope every step of the way, was it nice to step back and do something mid-budget where, if something goes wrong, it's on you and the people you selected to be in this. Is that a comfort or more nerve wracking?

Rian: It doesn't feel different in terms of mine or not mine, pressure or no pressure. Hopefully anything you do, whatever size it is, feels like yours and you have that pressure on yourself to make it good. What felt nice about this is that we made it really quickly. I started writing this in January of last year and we wrapped by Christmas; that's really fast. And coming out of Star Wars, which was an incredible, fantastic experience, but it was four years of making one movie, so it felt really good to hit the gas and put one out there and not get precious about it.

It's my understanding that Daniel Craig was the lynchpin with this. Walk me through the chronology because I know that Bond got pushed back, and that freed up the time you needed to work with him.

Rian: Yeah, Daniel was the first one we cast, and Bond has pushed three months, so he had a window, but the window started in about six weeks, so we put together thing really quickly. Michael was the second person to sign up, and once we has Daniel and Michael, everybody wants to work with them, so that attracted a lot of people. You're actor bait [laughs]. Once they saw that Michael signed on, people saw that this wasn't a Murder, She Wrote thing, this was actually something that has real talent going to it.

Michael: Yeah, you came out to my neighborhood, and we got together. At the time, I was living in Red Hook; I've moved since then. I've had a lot of good deals go down there. I'm nervous now that I've moved; it might be the end of my career. Just having seen the film for the first time, the visual style, the cinematography, the production design, that house are incredible. I would say that was 50 percent of what you're drawn to watching this film, the way it looks.

Why was it important to you to get Craig for this role?

Rian: First of all, he's an incredible actor with great range. I knew just from meeting him a few times that he was funny and had a sense of humor, which are really key. I also got the sense from how excited he was about doing it that he was going to really relish jumping into the sandbox and playing and having fun. And like I said, Michael was the second person to say Yes, and I'll never forget when you seemed interested in this, I said "Really?" [laughs] Everyone showed up ready to play, and to a certain extent, that's the other nice things about doing a murder mystery: everybody knew what we were aiming for from the start. We didn't have to take time to find it. You can just show up and have fun on set. And you can see that with Daniel on the screen. And it's made to be seen with a crowd; I'm really looking forward to that Thanksgiving weekend crowed, people going with their families. It will be a great way to blow off some steam.

I love the opening shot of the pitch-black house with the dogs running down the path—it's like evil Downton Abbey.

Rian: I'm putting that on the poster.

Let's talk about Ana de Armas. I've been a fan of her's for a while, since he days in Spanish films, and she's made this incredible transition into English-language movies. How did you land on her, because the actor who plays that character has to be the one you cast the most right.

Rian: Absolutely. I wasn't really aware of Ana. Our casting director, Mary Vernieu, brought Ana to my attention. And you're right, it was really tricky because you've got this cast full of movie star, some of the best actors working today and also doing these very big characters. It's a lot to step in the middle of and potentially be the center of the movie emotionally. So it was critical, and every single day we were on set with Ana, I was so thankful that we had found her. She's really special, and she learned to speak English a ridiculously recent amount of time before, like five or six years ago, so a very recent transition into English-language films. I think she's extraordinary.

Michael: Very early on she had to do that scene with Christopher Plummer. Before I showed up, she'd already shot it, and I asked it about it, and she said "Yeah, I think I did okay." What radiates on the screen is very genuine; she's not manufacturing it.

A few of the actors here are very much playing against type. Was that something you wanted to do with people like Chris Evans or Toni Collette, show them in roles doing something we'd never really seen them do before?

Rian: I love casting actors that I think are incredible. For me, it's always interesting to get them to do something that I haven't quite seen them do before. Because they're great actors, I know they can do it, and I'll be surprised on set and it's something different for them. It's fun all around. I can't imagine casting an actor because they're a type; it's always first because they're a great actor and I think "I wonder what it would look like with this person doing that. It be it would be really fun." It's more like that.

You mentioned that this isn't a parody of murder mysteries, but it is very funny at times. Did you find that you had to balance the humor so that we weren't laughing too much at certain points?

Rian: If the humor is coming from the right place and the situations, it's always going to feel right. But yes, it was something tonally that we had to figure out and balance. And I'll also say that the day that one of the big comedy guys figures out how funny Michael Shannon is at improv comedy, that person will get to look like a genius. Basically, all of the funniest lines in the movie, Michael just shouted out on the day, and I was like "Did he just say that?" Someone get Judd Apatow on the phone.

Michael: Well we've all argued with our family, right? It generally is the best source of comedy, family arguments, ironically.

I would argue with Michael in The Night Before with your friend Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of his funniest roles ever.

Rian: I don't think I've seen it.

Michael, there was a film at this festival last year called What They Had, in which you played Robert Forster's son, it was set in Chicago, and he just recently passed away. What do you think of when you think of him?

Michael: It's a little surreal for me because my father died...my whole initiation into Chicago was through my father. He moved here when I was a little boy, and he taught at DePaul University downtown, and that's the whole reason I started coming here. And then he died, and then we shot What They Had here in Chicago, and Robert Forster played my father, and then he died. So when he died, oh man, it was rough. And I won't say that Robert Forster and I were best friends; I did two movies with him, and he was a very sweet and kind man. 

He did something no other actor that I've worked with every did. He brought a present to everyone at work—in the cast, in the crew—he brought a present for my wife, whom he'd never even met. He was one of the kindest, sweetest and most grateful actors, which sounds strange because you'd think all actors would be grateful, but a lot of actors are not, including myself, but he was. He was a lovely person, and I'll miss him very much.

Rian, in everyone of your films, you've tackled a different genre and made it your own. What genres are still left for you to conquer?

Rian: Michael, can you sing?

Michael: You betcha!

Rian: I'd really like to do a musical. Enough prep, a little alcohol...

Last question, Mr. Johnson: do you know what you're doing next?

Rian: I've got a couple different things I'm working on.

But are you still doing these Star Wars movies? I don't relish the idea of having to wait four years for you next movie.

Rian: [laughs] There are no updates on that right now. I'm still working with them on it.

Good to know. That's about as much as I thought I'd get out of you. Thank you both so much. Best of luck with this.

Rian: Thanks so much.