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 revisits the sequel to Knives Out, Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion.
You probably don’t know this, but Netflix has a side project where they bring in filmmakers behind Netflix Originals to record commentary tracks. It’s called Watching With, and the concept is fantastic for fans like us who love hearing deep dive thoughts on a film. It’s a necessity for the streamer as they unfortunately don’t release most of their titles to physical media, and I can’t help but wish they’d use it more often. The last film to get a director track was Alice Wu’s excellent coming-of-age rom-com, The Half of It, from way back in 2020, and now — finally! — Netflix has released another Watching With entry.
Rian Johnson’s Knives Out (2019) is a fantastically fun whodunnit that has turned into a franchise, and the first follow-up hit the streamer last year. Glass Onion brings back Benoit Blanc and an ensemble of bad people, worse people, and the murder that ties them all together. It’s another twisty mystery, this time with some big structural shifts along the way, and the filmmaker sat down recently to record a commentary… so of course we gave it a listen.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for Glass Onion.
Glass Onion (2022)
Commentator: Rian Johnson (writer/director)
1. The film’s “fugue structure” of starting the film and playing it out only to rewind and play it again from a different perspective, was the first idea that came to Johnson when he began to conceive the sequel. Part of that was seeing Blanc (Daniel Craig) solve the crime in the first act, before it’s even happened, thereby deflating the host.
2. Claire Debella’s (Kathryn Hahn) assistant is played by Johnson’s assistant, Adele Franck. The folks on the zoom call with Leslie Odom Jr. are all friends of Johnson.
3. The W is silent in Jessica Henwick‘s name?!
4. Johnson and Henwick thought that Peg (Henwick) would resent Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson) so much that her wardrobe should be as unfashionable as possible, hence the fanny packs.
5. The idea of the puzzle boxes was integral to the film’s opening as Johnson believes “one thing with a whodunnit that can be kind of deadly is the introductions.” He adds “you have to introduce everybody at the beginning, you have to get a sense of who they all are and kind of set the stage for the mystery.” Knives Out did this via opening interviews, but here Johnson enjoyed seeing each character in their home environment first.
6. Duke Cody’ (Dave Bautista) introduction originally panned to the right to reveal that his garage backdrop was a blue screen fake.
7. The puzzle box is a practical creation courtesy of the film’s propmaster, Chris Peck. Hinges, puppeteering rods, and such were digitally painted out, but the box and puzzles are real.
8. Yo-Yo Ma’s brief cameo was shot months after filming the party scene in which he appears (via movie magic).
9. Johnson loves playing fair with audiences in the sense of telling them what his plan is and then doing it. “It’s something that Christopher Nolan does incredibly well. One of my favorite movies of his, The Prestige, the fact that it tells you watch carefully, listen closely, and the first thirty-seconds of the movie explains what the entire movie is going to be.”
10. Benoit Blanc’s introduction was a reshoot. He was thrilled to gather this motley crew for Benoit’s zoom call as he loves the idea of them being his friend circle. They originally shot the scene in Blanc’s office, but they decided to ground him a bit more and reshot it in the bathtub. “And I love that hat.”
11. Johnson asked composer Nathan Johnson (his cousin who’s scored four of the director’s previous films) to find inspiration in Nina Rota’s score for 1978’s Death on the Nile. “It’s an amazing, beautiful, lush theme,” and the composer took it to heart and delivered a big, romantic score of his own.
12. The dock in Greece was the first scene shot for the film. “A big part of an ensemble working in a movie like this is tonally everyone playing it about the same level,” and Johnson loved seeing the talented actors watch and gauge each other. The scene was originally much longer, but they skimmed it down to the essentials so they could get to the island quicker. It’s still something of a riff on The Last of Sheila (1973) which also starts on a dock.
13. Ethan Hawke was in Budapest on a Marvel gig during this part of the shoot, so they “were able to lure him” and his family over to Greece for a one-day shoot.
14. Janelle Monae‘s introduction on the dock was choreographed “like a dance,” and Johnson told her the inspiration for the door and turn towards camera was like a duel in a western. Her performance in the first half of the film is modeled somewhat on Mia Farrow in Death on the Nile.
15. The yacht’s captain is played by the actual captain who did not want to be in the movie. “I had to beg him.”
16. The island shot is a blend of composites, and it was actually filmed on the mainland of Greece at a place called Villa 20, Amanzoe. “If you’re lucky enough to go stay, you can hang out on this beach.” The villa’s owners would want him to add that everything garish was added for the film.
17. Yes, that is Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the daily dong. “I just asked him to say the word dong into a microphone.” It’s also a nod to “the noonday gun” from Evil Under the Sun (1982).
18. “Poor Kathryn,” he says, adding that Hahn was excited to be a part of a big murder mystery movie where everyone is dressed to the nines… only to discover that her character is a schlub dressed in beige.
19. Johnson mentions a handful of deleted scenes, adding “someday we’ll figure how to get it out there.” This is, of course, one of the downsides of streamers not releasing their original content to physical media.
20. Henwick was prepping her own short film while working on Glass Onion, and Johnson is endlessly (and understandably) impressed by her.
21. Two of the inspirations for Blanc’s look and demeanor are the great French filmmaker Jacques Tati and Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955). Regarding the high-waisted trousers, he adds that “you kind of have to be Daniel Craig to pull that look off. I think if I hiked my trousers up that high I would very quickly look like a character from The Wind in the Willows.
22. Most of the interiors were filmed on sets in Belgrade including the dining room, atrium, and Miles’ (Edward Norton) office.
23. The various paintings hanging around the main atrium, including the Mona Lisa, were painted by local artists in Belgrade.
24. Burning the Mona Lisa at the end is less about destroying a piece of art and more about Andi/Helen’s (Monae) necessary act of disruption.
25. Johnson found himself getting insecure during the editing phase realizing how long the film takes before the murder. He hopped onto iTunes and revisited films like Death on the Nile, The Last of Sheila, and others and realized that they also go over an hour before a body hits the floor. “If you’re keeping the audience engaged and giving them interesting stuff and interesting characters, there’s a natural grace period that an audience gives you. If you earn their trust, they’ll stick with you awhile. But then you better give it to them… or they’ll kill you.”
26. “I find one thing that’s very useful is watching movies while shooting.” One example of a found inspiration is the shot at 52:45 where Miles, the character speaking at the time, leans into darkness leaving Blanc in the light. It’s a riff on a moment in Citizen Kane (1941) where Orson Welles’ character is speaking with sincerity in the dark while those around him are illuminated. “In the middle of a shoot, it’s very easy to get kind of distracted by the carpentry of a film set, by just the process of making your shots, making your days. It’s easy for me to lose track of what the power of the thing is going to be when it’s actually put together as a movie.” Putting on films that inspire him remind him to be open to discovery and looking for things that will surprise you.
27. “Dave Bautista, who I want to sing the praises of,” he says before doing just that. He compliments the actor’s vulnerability, depth, talent, and adds how excited he is to see more filmmakers give him dramatic roles.
28. Tensions rise just before the hour mark as Claire (Hahn) and Duke (Bautista) confront Andi/Helen and call her a loser. Johnson had showed early cuts of the film to friends and family, and one of them suggested that the tension here could be tweaked, referencing the firecracker scene in Boogie Nights (1997) as an example. He took the opportunity in post-production to add in those “Mona Lisa pops” of the phone dings and case closing/opening.
29. Johnson points out that he’s playing fair with viewers during the scene that ends with Duke’s murder. You can clearly see Miles take Duke’s gun, you can see him swap drinks, and you can see the phone on the table in front of him disappear from one shot to the next. He leans into the tropes of the genre’s tropes, adding “if you’re going to a murder mystery, having these beats you recognize as murder mystery beats, I love those.”
30. There’s a handkerchief over Duke’s dead face, both out of respect for the dead and so they could have Bautista’s stunt double lay there instead of the actor.
31. The lighthouse light sweeps through the place after the rest of the lights go out, and it was accomplished using extremely powerful lights inside a rotating drum with a slit cut into it. They had to get the shell spinning immediately after turning on the light as it would otherwise catch fire due to the bulb’s intensity.
32. That’s Norton’s silhouette at 1:07:47 as the person firing the gun.
33. The rotating shot after Andi/Helen is shot originally didn’t include Miles until the end, but Johnson felt that made him seem to suspicious so they digitally added him in at 1:08:31.
34. Blanc takes his jacket off after Andi/Helen is shot, in part because there’s a visible “dot of Jeremy Renner’s hot sauce” on the pocket.
35. Johnson thinks it’s important to remember that Blanc is not the protagonist of the Knives Out films. “Spending too much time digging into his backstory, life, or all of that, is not that interesting to me. I want him to serve his function as a detective… but it’s pretty fun getting a little glimpse of Blanc’s life with his partner, Philip, and when I thought about who it would bring me the most joy to see Blanc have as his partner, Hugh Grant, you can’t beat it.”
36. “This is a scene where we kind of put it all on the table,” Johnson, just as we see Andi’s dead body on a morgue table/slab. Well done, sir, well done.
37. Johnson felt that part of the appeal of doing a film with the fugue structure and reset at the halfway mark was in keeping things interesting for the audience in that back half. He knew simply showing the same scenes from a different perspective wasn’t enough on its own, so he wanted to add something more powerful. “Where I landed was on heart, on empathy. Basically, into this wasteland of terrible characters, you have someone to root for.”
38. The reset kicks off with a long scene between Helen and Blanc, and he felt it was okay to slow things down after a fairly frantic section of the film as audiences would be mentally re-calibrating everything they had previously seen. “We wanted to be totally clear to the audience what’s happening watching forward.”
39. The restaurant scene at 1:18:30 between Blanc and Helen was originally interrupted by the arrival of Birdie and Peg. They almost see each other, and Johnson adds its a fun bit that was cut for pacing. Side note, this scene was filmed on the same Greek isle where Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter (2022) had just finished filming.
40. The flashback to the gang of friends meeting Miles for the first time sees him show up dressed like Tom Cruise’s character in Magnolia (1999). That was Norton’s choice, and he didn’t tell Johnson beforehand. “The idea behind it is that Miles has never had an original thought in his life.” Johnson’s only concern was that it would get him in trouble with Paul Thomas Anderson…
41. Johnson is very happy with the pool chat between Claire and Lionel (Odom Jr.) — “I am off to the side directing from the pool. I got in the pool to direct. “I’m directing from a swimming pool, I’ve made it!”
42. A few scenes initially featured a running side bit involving Helen’s kids including a panicked phone call about blue poop (due to Blueberry PopTarts). It was meant to help audiences land on Helen’s side of things, but Johnson quickly realized audiences were already there.
43. A closer look at Miles’ various glass sculptures reveals several references to The Beatles.
44. The ‘A’ symbol on the surfboard at 1:41:10 is from Johnson’s feature debut, Brick (2005).
45. That’s Johnson’s hand cameo holding the Jeremy Renner hot sauce.
46. He almost cut the close-up of (CG) hot sauce dripping down Helen’s face and into her nose, but an early preview audience loved it so it stayed in.
47. Hudson’s take on Birdie, much to the delight of Johnson, was that she was someone who “understands every third word.”
48. The known paintings around Miles’ home are obviously reproductions, but apparently the deal with those licensed images is that after filming has wrapped you have to destroy them. This was sad news for “Edward ‘Sticky Fingers’ Norton.”
49. While both Knives Out and Glass Onion feature money as a motive for murder and wealthy elites being knocked down a few pegs, Johnson doesn’t find that alone to be all that interesting. “To me the interesting thing about this is… the notion of the power structure, within groups of people, and what people will do to protect that structure and what it takes to break that structure. That to me is so much more interesting than the notion of something as simple as ‘eat the rich.'”
50. Henwick accidentally looks into the camera lens at 2:03:12 as the camera was supposed to pan down with the glass sculpture she smashes onto the floor. This was just a practice run, though, where she wasn’t supposed to actually smash it… she looked into the lens just as she realized her mistake.
51. Shooting the slow motion scene was made slightly difficult because “it’s so, so hard to know that you’re shooting in slow motion and not act in slow motion.”
52. Regarding the demise of the Mona Lisa, he references a quote from John Cleese about a bit in A Fish Called Wanda (1988) where a character kills some dogs. Cleese was asked how he gets away with that without the entire audience turning on him, and his answer was that it depends largely on the casting of the dogs. “And that’s kind of how I felt about the Mona Lisa. It needed to feel like a sacred cow,” and Da Vinci’s famed painting fit the bill exactly.
53. Yes, Johnson did have Monae sit and smile like Mona Lisa for that final shot.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“One thing that I really love is telling the audience what you’re going to do, and then doing it.”
“Stephen Sondheim, Angela Lansbury, Natasha Lyonne, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, all kind of with a connection to the mystery genre.”
“This island doesn’t exist.”
“Very proud of myself.”
“In some ways I feel like the movie is more designed to be watched a second time than the first one.”
“Who can resist a good butt joke?”
“Insert shots make a movie.”
“No one screams like Kate Hudson, a great comic screamer.”
“Pace is not all about speed, pace is about engagement.”
“I’m gonna keep praising Janelle Monae. If you didn’t show up for some Janelle Monae praise, you’re in the wrong commentary track.”
“Now we start playing the Back to the Future 2 game.”
While I’m not nearly as enamored with Glass Onion as I am with Knives Out, the film still has its fun. More importantly, at least for this column, Johnson’s commentary is as sharp, detailed, and entertaining as always. The guy loves movies, loves making them, and loves all the people who help bring his vision to the screen. He talks almost non-stop until the end credit roll and shares anecdotes, technical details, and various motivations as a storyteller, and it’s a great listen.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.