37 Things We Learned from Rian Johnson’s ‘Knives Out’ Commentary

"Michael Shannon was also the stealth VIP of improvised zingers. Michael Shannon is very funny."
Poster Knives Out

Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter we open the silverware drawer and get the Knives Out.

One of 2019’s more positive success stories was the arrival of a Rian Johnson‘s premiere Whodunit, Knives Out. He and a fantastic team of creatives both behind and in front of the camera delivered a winner that made bank at the box-office and found critical acclaim as well. Happily, it’s pretty great too.

The film just arrived on home video and comes packed with fantastic extras including a feature-length making-of documentary that’s almost as long as the film itself. It also includes two commentary tracks — one with Johnson in the theater, blasphemy I know, so we’re ignoring it, and one recorded a week into the film’s release. It’s an expectedly entertaining and informative track, so of course we gave it a listen!

Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for…

Knives Out (2019)

Commentators: Rian Johnson (director/writer), Steve Yedlin (director of photography), Noah Segan (actor)

1. The opening shot required the two dogs to run from one trainer to another, but they initially had trouble getting them close to the camera. They ultimately had to build a little ramp so the dogs wouldn’t slide directly under the camera.

2. The opening inserts are inspired by 1972’s Sleuth, and the shot at 1:25 of Jolly Jack the Sailor is a direct reference.

3. They had to digitally paint out some of the blood they used on set for that first appearance of Harlan Thrombey’s (Christopher Plummer) dead body at 2:08 in order to secure a PG-13 rating.

4. Marta Cabrera’s (Ana de Armas) apartment was filmed in a building once frequented by a young Whitey Bulger.

5. That’s Joseph Gordon Levitt narrating the true-crime segment on we hear on Marta’s sister’s iPad in the kitchen.

6. Johnson acknowledges that despite numerous edits and attempts to shave it down, the script’s opening interrogation sequence (complete with flashbacks edited in) was “always a really tough read.” He would have people read it and adds that “I never didn’t get the note that ‘boy those first thirty pages are rough, and then it kicks into gear.'”

7. Johnson met Segan on their first film, Brick (2005), and they’ve remained friends and co-workers. “I finally wrote you a role that gets to the soul of Noah Segan.”

8. It was Toni Collette who picked the Roxy Music song that her character Joni Thrombey dances to early on.

9. They wonder if anyone notices that Meg Thrombey’s (Katherine Langford) shirt at 10:34 features a diagram of lady bits. “That might have been how we kept our PG-13,” adds Segan.

10. The beats with Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) playing a piano key periodically were originally written with him sitting behind Lt. Elliott’s (LaKeith Stanfield) chair and tapping it with his foot. Once they were on location, though, Johnson realized that the geography of the room afforded him the better option of the piano.

11. “I had written into the script that Blanc speaks with a subtle Southern accent,” says Johnson, and after they all finish laughing he explains that Craig researched accents and became attached to historian Shelby Foote’s cadence and drawl. “So it’s kind of that, it’s a little Foghorn Leghorn, and it’s also a little Harlan Pepper which is Christopher Guest’s character in Best in Show, which is funny because Christopher Guest is Jamie Lee Curtis‘ husband.”

12. The most impressive digital trickery will always be the work we don’t notice, and to that point the shot at 17:21 is a perfect example. It’s a simple insert of a family photo on a shelf showing Richard Drysdale (Don Johnson), his wife Linda (Curtis), and their son Ransom (Chris Evans), and it was added to ensure audiences could put a face to a name as characters were talking about Ransom before we’d actually met him. It was accomplished by shooting the framed photo in front of a green screen and then comping in one of the wide shots of the room — slightly blurred as it’s background — behind it. Works beautifully and you’d never know it was “faked.”

13. The Man Who Would Be King (1975) is one of Johnson’s favorite movies, so between takes he would try to get Plummer to talk about working with the legendary John Huston.

14. Segan and Stanfield pitched Johnson (jokingly) on a spin-off for their detective characters called Okay Cops. “And the tag line is ‘They’re fine.'”

15. They had to re-shoot the shot at 30:22 of Walt Thrombey (Michael Shannon) smoking his cigar on the porch because the character in the window behind him was too clear — it’s later revealed that it’s Marta, so they further obfuscated it by having Craig’s stand-in don the robe instead.

16. Johnson acknowledges that while the film’s first act has been “very arch… to this point” what follows comes down to the scene between Plummer and Armas. “They have to come in and land a real emotional connection between these two pretty quickly, and then they have to land this scene on an emotional level or the whole movie doesn’t work.”

17. Working out the mechanism by which to handle and explain Marta’s switching up the drugs is the script element that kept Johnson frustrated the longest. “I need something where both she and the audience crucially need to believe that she has messed up, and through her error has killed him, but it needs to be something that I can effectively undo at the end of the movie.” He says he went through lots of overly complicated variations before settling on the finished element.

18. Johnson and his wife “are big Hallmark movie fans,” and he wants to know if Danica McKellar has done a mystery film.

19. It was Don Johnson’s idea for his character to hand his empty plate to Marta as if she was the maid during the immigration conversation. It’s a great beat.

20. The painting of Harlan wasn’t finished until after filming wrapped, so every scene showing it is an effects shot.

21. Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow is the first book that Johnson ever gave Segan… who has not read it yet.

22. Johnson decided early on that he wanted a PG-13 rating for the film, so he had to remove the f-bombs from his original script. He also originally wanted Plummer’s throat slice to be “a very expressive, expressionistic red splash” towards the audience, but the MPAA gave them an R which forced him to drop it completely.

23. The great Ricky Jay was originally set to play the role that is now embodied by the equally great M. Emmett Walsh. Jay died during production, so they added a black & white photo of him at 55:06.

24. The film’s key greensman, Butch McCarthy came up with The Menagerie Tragedy Trilogy on the day of filming after Johnson asked the cast and crew for suggestions.

25. Many of the family’s first names are lifted from 70s musicians to help Johnson remember them while writing. “Joni is Joni Mitchell, and her ex-husband is Neil, Neil Young. Richard and Linda are Richard and Linda Thompson. Walt and Donna are Walter Becker and Donald Fagen from Steely Dan.”

26. Johnson’s cousin, Nathan Johnson, composed the film’s score, as he’s done for all of the director’s films “except Star Wars, which he understood.” It was the composer’s first time using an orchestra, and he delivers.

27. “You had sex with my grandpa, you dirty anchor baby!” was an improv by Jaeden Martell who plays young Jacob Thrombey, but it was lost in the scene as multiple characters are talking and yelling. It was Shannon who approached Johnson and told him that Martell had a killer line, so they made sure to go back and capture it.

28. They recorded the commentary one week after it opened in theaters, and Johnson’s thrilled that Evans’ white sweater has entered the public consciousness.

29. Patton Oswalt contacted Johnson after the film opened to ask if the needle drop of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” at 1:21:47 was an intentional reference. Apparently the song is (possibly) about a groupie Lightfoot had experience with named Cathy Smith — who’s best known for being the one who gave John Belushi a fatal injection of heroin and cocaine in 1982. “And Patton, who is brilliant in his thinking in terms of 3D chess is like ‘was that a crazy reference to Marta?'”

30. Yes, that is a Brick reference at 1:32:59 in the form of tunnel graffiti on the wall to the left.

31. Ransom makes a Baby Driver reference during the car chase, and since Johnson felt “there’s no way we’re going to top anything in that” he decided to go the opposite route and deliver a silly chase.

32. Segan recalls the scene where his character grabs Evans’ upper arm “and I could not find purchase… his arm muscle was much larger than my hand.”

33. Johnson was happy to get a Stephen Sondheim reference in via Blanc’s singing a song from Follies in the car. Apparently the legendary musical theater composer was a big fan of mysteries and puzzles. “The character in Sleuth that Laurence Olivier plays… is based on Stephen Sondheim.”

34. Johnson contemplated cutting Blanc’s doughnut speech, but Craig convinced him that it was good. Watching the actor deliver it sold him on keeping the entire thing.

35. That last glimpse of Harlan’s portrait at 2:04:13 is tweaked a little “leaving everything feeling okay.” He’s now smiling.

36. Don Johnson’s black eye at 2:04:44 is a visual effect added in post-production. The shot right before of Marta holding the coffee mug at 2:04:33 is also an effect — “originally you could read the writing on the mug, and we realized it tipped it, the last shot didn’t have the same impact if you’d already seen the words… and so our effects guy basically moved her hand so it was covering the words so we got the final little reveal.”

37. Another of Johnson’s cousins, Mark Johnson — “It’s a family operation here!” — did the title credits and based the font on an Agatha Christie series of paperbacks. Zack Johnson is another cousin, and he painted the cast paintings for the end credits.

Best in Context-Free Commentary

“I play Trooper Wagner, the heart of the film.”

“If you keep your eyes peeled you’ll see the leaves come and go over the course of the movie.”

“Here’s your Hamilton moment.”

“Ah! Puking into the pig!”

“Daniel can’t whistle.”

“Anytime you see an actor eating in a movie, pity that actor.”

“Jamie Lee Curtis for James Bond. Start the hashtag.”

Final Thoughts

Knives Out is a fun film due as much to Johnson’s writing/direction as to the glorious cast, and the commentary is almost as much fun. Johnson’s tracks are always filled with appreciation and anecdotes making for entertaining and educational listens. Watch the film, watch the doc, and listen to the commentary!

Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.

Rob Hunter: Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.