'Knives Out' Director Rian Johnson on Making a Whodunit for the Modern World

The filmmaker behind Looper and Star Wars: The Last Jedi walks us through crafting a sharp-tongued mystery, his love of Agatha Christie, and casting Daniel Craig as a brilliant buffoon. 

Rian Johnson Knives Out

Knives Out is more kind-hearted than its title suggests, because director Rian Johnson‘s star-studded whodunit has a real soft side to it. In the world of Knives Out, good men and women stand up to the rich and powerful. In this case, the rich and powerful are the Thrombey family, who lose their minds after the apparent suicide of the head of the family, the beloved and wealthy mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). Without the mastermind behind countless bestselling thrillers alive to keep them afloat, their piggy banks will collect nothing but dust. It’s a story about a fight for money and the truth, with Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) leading the charge for the latter.

For a variety of reasons, it’s a feel-good movie suited for this day and age. Knives Out doesn’t ignore the world outside its primary location, a stunning house in Boston, but makes it a crucial part of the story and the battle between good and evil in Knives Out. It’s a crowd-pleaser with ideas on its mind, not only twists and turns and laughs and betrayals. In the following interview, Johnson tells us all why he wanted to make a relevant detective movie, why Michael Shannon was the MVP of improv on set, and about the art of writing and directing a classic, but new, whodunit.

Detective Blanc is one of those great characters, like Philip Marlowe in The Long Kiss Goodbye, who has such a carefree attitude, but then you later realize he maybe cares the most. 

Yeah, completely. I think that’s something that also comes straight from whodunit detectives, which is a genre slightly adjacent to Phillip Marlowes and the Sam Spades, which is Poirot, Columbo, and Miss Marple. There’s something about them that seems slightly buffoonish. With Columbo, he’s kind of bumbling, but then, “Just one more question…” He’s always knowing. Poirot is this weird, fussy, little Belgium with a crazy mustache, and Miss Marple is kind of serving you tea and the doting old lady. I think that’s a central element to this kind of detective that throws both the audience and the suspects off-guard, and you don’t really take them seriously in a way until it’s too late and you’re being led off to the paddy wagon. It’s why Peter Ustinov is my favorite Poirot portrayer because he gets that essential clownishness, and I think that’s really important.

What else about Agatha Christie’s character work inspires you? 

She gets a lot of attention for her plots, but to me, her character work is brilliant. She does draw characters on the edge of caricature, but she’s doing that across a broad spectrum of society. The way she’s creating a caricature group portrait of the world when she was writing I just find fascinating. It’s something we lose a little bit in her now because every time we get an Agatha Christie adaptation, it’s a period piece most often. What was exciting to me was doing exactly that but for our time, so pulling this cross-section and creating a portrait that’s on the verge of caricature but really it’s America in 2018. That seemed interesting.

While there are many elements in the film that are reflective of today, mostly I found myself reflecting about them more after the credits rolled than while watching it. 

Yeah, I want it to be entertaining, first and foremost. I want this movie to be a ride, so it makes me happy that you didn’t feel like you weren’t getting a lecture during it. I mean, it’s not really a lecturing movie. It’s got some stuff on its mind, it’s got perspective, it’s not subtle at all about that stuff, but it leads with being a rollicking mystery. To me, real entertainment is something that engages your mind on a few different levels, that leaves you at the end feeling, again, something to chew on as opposed to having a really good time in the theater. Yeah, that’s definitely something I tried to bake into this. Again, hopefully, it’s layered in there, so it leads with the entertainment.

Right. I only realized after that it’s a cathartic movie because you see good people win with the truth on their side.

That makes me feel good. I wanted it to have a good heart, you know? Ultimately, I wanted it to end not in a cynical place, and that’s a part of the reason why I picked the Rolling Stones song, “Sweet Virginia.” I wanted the audience leaving the theater bobbing their heads and feeling good. First of all, murder mysteries have that slight fairytale feel where the detective ties it all up and everything’s kind of okay in the end, but I felt like, especially with all the stuff we’re dealing with in this movie, it’d feel really good to come down on the side of human decency at the end. I felt that would be a nice way to end 2019.

Is that the reason why you also used Roxy Music’s “More than This?” Did you want that song to bring out a good feeling in the audience? 

Toni [Collette] picked that. I asked her on set, “What do you want to dance to?” She pulled that out. I thought it was perfect, but then we had to pay to clear it [Laughs].

Is Roxy Music expensive?

Well, you know, worth every penny [Laughs].

A very amusing moment to me is Michael Shannon yelling about cookies. I’m sure this happened often, but were there certain days you were just really amused seeing what the cast brought to your lines?

Well, that’s actually one of the rare examples of improv in the movie. Michael came up and started shoving the cookies in his mouth. “How about more cookies, Hugh?” That was totally Michael. Those were the scenes I just let them kind of go. Michael has a great line he shouts, “I’m not eating one iota of shit.” Michael Shannon was the MVP of coming up with lines that cracked us up. I think maybe because we didn’t expect them from him. Even the cast members, like Jamie Lee Curtis or people who’ve done comedy, Michael would just slay all of us.

But since the story is as intricate as it is, you can’t make many changes on set, right?

Yeah, no, it’s a bit of a jigsaw puzzle by its very nature, so you can’t just get there and start winging it. You know, the one thing I did do on set, especially when a character had to communicate a lot of information, was just kind of check-in on them and make sure to the actors the information was clear and tracked. If it didn’t, I didn’t want to convince them to say anything they didn’t understand. So if it makes sense to them and they can follow it in the scene, then it’ll make sense to the audience. A lot of times I would get in there, we’d maybe figure out a different way to say it.

It’s such smooth dialogue. How do you find that pace and rhythm? Do you read your dialogue aloud?

I don’t read it aloud, but I usually just hear it in my head. Sometimes you’ll read it aloud to make sure you can get your mouth around the words in a comfortable way. Mostly, you hear the voices in your head and let them start talking. It sounds slightly psychotic. It’s one reason why I have to structure the whole thing out first. When I step into a scene I need to know where it’s going and what its purpose is in the whole, and it’s only when I have that dramatic intention very clear in the scene, that I can just let the actors start talking in my head and transcribe what they’re saying. You end up shaping it in the end, but it’s a very organic process writing dialogue. A benign form of demonic possession, I guess [Laughs].

Any lines, in particular, that took more time to shape?

Well, the stuff you end up going over and over is usually not that interesting. Inevitably, it’s the nuts and bolts stuff and the information for the audience. It’s rarely the fun stuff you work over and over again. I didn’t end up working it over and over again, but I did almost end up cutting the one monologue about the donut Blanc gives. The donut hole in the donut hole, that whole little thing. On the page, I thought, “This is kind of silly. Does it work?” And then I brought up to Daniel I was thinking about cutting it, but he said, “Oh, I rather like that.” [Laughs] Okay. Seeing him do it on set, I was very glad I didn’t cut that scene. Thank God.

That got the biggest laugh in the movie. How does the voice you had in your head for Blanc compare to what Daniel Craig brought to it?

You know, it’s obviously different. I hired Daniel to surprise me and show me things I didn’t imagine. Daniel and I, we did a lot of back-and-forth in pre-production about what the accent should be like, and he found some clips of Shelby Foote, the historian, who has a Mississippi accent. That ended up being it. I can’t remember what I was hearing in my head when I was writing, but it was probably, like, Tom Hanks in The Ladykillers. It was probably something different. For me, that’s the joy of casting, to cast people who don’t do the things you had in your head when you were writing but totally surprise you. I’ve heard that version already, so I want someone to take it to another level and elevate it.

After Logan Lucky and Knives Out, Daniel Craig has really shown what a great comedic actor is. 

Oh, I know. I can’t wait to see what he does going forward. He’s got a great sense of humor. Most people probably know him as playing James Bond, and he’s so good at it, you might think he’s a very stern and serious person, but he is the opposite, man. He is just so much fun in real life. Just a warm, funny guy. I had met him a few times over the years, so I knew he had a sense of humor and that sensibility. When he wanted to play this part I sensed how much he wanted to play this part, that he was really looking forward to the opportunity to bust loose and have fun onscreen. That’s something I’m really happy with with the film: you can tell how much fun Daniel (and the rest of the cast) is having. Yeah, it all feeds into he is just so good. I think he can do anything, and we’re just starting to see. I’m really looking forward to seeing more and more of the range this guy is capable of.

Don Johnson has recently had such a great couple of years. What’s unique about working with him?

Oh, Don is such a pro. Because of his years working in TV, and he’s directed himself, he’s a real filmmaker’s actor. He’s really bound to the process and really knows his stuff, in terms of acting to the camera, which is something I really appreciate. It’s something similar I experienced working with Joseph Gordon-Levitt years ago. Maybe it comes with the TV experience, where it’s really defined what you have to do to give a great performance, knowing where the camera is at and how to play to it. He was a joy.

Talking about playing to the camera, how does that apply to Blanc’s introduction when he’s kept in the background? What was the intention with that intro? 

I wanted him blocked off in the back for a bunch of different reasons. First off, it gives him a little build-up, so you’re wondering about him. Also, it’s to give a massive scene in one room a little bit more shape, so the scene has pre-Blanc and post-Blanc. I also find it kind of funny [Laughs]. I think it’s hilarious that, like, the guy you know is going to be the main detective and is this huge movie star, that he’s just sitting in the back silent for however many minutes of the movie. I thought that’d be a really interesting tension for the audience [Laughs], but then a release when he steps into the spotlight.

It plays with expectations, which is huge with this genre. When you’re writing a whodunit, do you have to think more about the audience’s presumptions? 

Yeah, that shapes all of it. You’re thinking in terms of not just expectations of the genre, but… I think it helps not to get too inside your head and meta. I’m usually thinking of which character the audience is seeing through the eyes of in a scene, and that helps me write to expectations but keeping my head inside the story. If something is going to happen in the story or it’s a massive surprise I’m not really thinking, “Oh, how is the audience going to react to this?” I’m thinking, “How is Marta (Ana de Armas) going to react to this news?” For me, that helps keep me grounded. Especially when there are big twists, I’m worried about being conscious of, “Boy, this is really going to throw the audience through a loop.” You get your head up your ass a little bit, so you really have to do it thinking of how the characters are reacting to the story.

I’m a big LCD Soundsystem fan, so I wanted to ask, what was your experience like working with James Murphy on the “Oh Baby” music video? Did you work with Nancy Whang as well?

I didn’t really get to work with Nancy, but I was working with James. I love his music so much, and LCD Soundsystem is one of my favorite bands. It was a blast because I kind of pitched him on doing this short film. I actually asked him if he wanted to be in it, but he passed [Laughs]. It was actually kind of nice because instead of the pressure of having to direct him, he just came and hung out on set all day. We were just two movie nerds hanging out.

He’s the one guy I know of who’s read Gravity’s Rainbow.

[Laughs] My feeling is, he has. I should’ve talked to him about it.

He talks about reading it in Shut Up and Play the Hits.

That’s right! He does, yeah. You can’t say you read it aloud or you sound like an asshole [Laughs].

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.