Knives Out 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.

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