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Why Rian Johnson wanted to make Knives Out a modern-day whodunit

Why Rian Johnson wanted to make Knives Out a modern-day whodunit


A movie that’s ‘made to be seen right now’

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Illustration by Grayson Blackmon / The Verge; Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin / Getty Images

Rian Johnson’s new film Knives Out is a devoted love letter to the whodunit genre — from its Poirot-esque detective Benoit Blanc, played by Daniel Craig with an over-the-top Southern drawl, to its apparent murder victim Harlan Thrombey, an aging mystery author who “practically lives in a Clue board.” But it’s also a sharply contemporary project, not an Agatha Christie period piece. Even as Knives Out creates a familiar cozy atmosphere, it draws on present-day archetypes and culture-war conflicts, sketching a modern American family whose motives for murder are instantly recognizable.

For Rian Johnson, who wrote and directed Knives Out after working on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, breaking the whodunit’s comforting and familiar elements out of their “hermetically sealed jewel box” was key to the project. Around the film’s release last week, I spoke with Johnson about reworking old tropes in new ways, dealing with toxic fandom, and Chris Evans’ sweater.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

You’ve talked about how Knives Out is an homage to the whodunit genre that also blends in some elements of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller. Were there any parts of the genre that you’d wanted to leave behind?

There were things I knew I loved about the genre that I wanted to definitely have in the movie — like the sequence where everybody is questioned, and you get to investigate the past through all these different perspectives, and then the big denouement with the detective at the end, where he ties together the whole case. That’s one of my favorite types of scenes in all of fiction and I knew I wanted to do a barn-burner one of those.

I guess if there was anything I wanted to not so much leave behind, but avoid, it was what Hitchcock was referring to with his distaste for them — that it’s a big buildup to one big surprise at the end. It’s clue-gathering, clue-gathering, and then “Can you guess it? Yes or no?” And maybe you can, maybe you can’t, who really cares? That’s why I kind of got in there with the monkey wrench and saw if I could put another engine in the car, to belabor the analogy.

One other motivating factor isn’t really leaving behind something from the genre, but something from recent examples of the genre that I wanted to get away from: they’re all period pieces. I feel like we’ve come to think of the genre as this cloistered little hermetically sealed jewel box, and these stories end up always being either period pieces or “timeless” — if they talk about class, it’s in the context of way back when in Britain. And knowing that Agatha Christie was writing to contemporary British society when she was writing them, the notion of taking this genre and plugging it into contemporary American society seemed like it could maybe yield some fresh things.

When you’re creating these characters, how do you work with an eye toward the fact that there’s an audience that’s very immersed in present-day culture and will instantly understand the references, and an audience that might be watching it years from now, the way we read Agatha Christie novels?

I purposely ignored the second thing that you said, and that was a very scary thing to do. But I very much committed to saying, you know, I’m going to make a movie that’s made to be seen right now. And I don’t know how it’ll age — maybe it will age like an egg on concrete and it’ll be rotten in a few years. But I’m going to make something that is very much right now in this moment, because that’s the one thing that I feel like we never see whodunits do anymore, and it seemed like the most interesting thing to me to try.

You’ve mentioned the whodunit genre’s overall moral clarity, where there’s a killer who’s caught at the end, and in some ways it’s the opposite of a film noir. It seems like there’s a moral clarity inside the plot of Knives Out as well — the characters we initially think are good stay good, and the characters who initially seem bad are actually bad. Was that always part of the film, or did it develop as you were writing?

It wasn’t something I was super conscious of, but maybe it was just me leaning into that element of the genre. I think a lot of people describe the genre as comfort food, and I think that goes beyond just being familiar with it. I think there is something essentially comforting about it. I’m sure that extends to exactly what you’re talking about — sort of the moral clarity of solving the crime and also the notion that we can somehow make sense in a moral way of people’s motivations and that they’ll be consistent. If it’s a fairy tale, it’s a pleasant one.

It’s a little like the romance genre, which is one of the few genres with rules about a thing that has to happen at the end.

Right, very rigid, which fascinates me. I’m very drawn to genres that have hard rules to them, and the whodunit genre definitely is one of them. This is something where you can tell with Knives Out I’m attempting to hit the nail on the head with the hammer at the end. I love this genre, and as many curveballs as I threw during the course of the movie, I wanted to give a payoff at the end that was essentially satisfying for somebody who loves the genre.

It felt like a bit of a contrast with The Last Jedi, which played with expectations in a way that sometimes seemed deliberately unsatisfying.

My intent in constructing The Last Jedi was to bring it around to a point of satisfaction at the end, although in some ways because it was the second film in a trilogy — if you think about The Empire Strikes Back, that’s unsatisfying specifically at the end as well. That’s kind of the job of an act two, to be unsatisfying to some extent.

I do really love engaging with genre, and whenever I do it, I’m not thinking in terms of what needs to be turned on its head or subverted or undercut — I’m thinking exactly the opposite. I’m thinking, “what is the thing that I essentially love about this, and what is the thing that means the most to me about it, and how can I most purely express that on the screen?” Now, to me, expressing that on the screen does not mean photocopying the thing I watched when I was young. It means finding a way to give the audience, in as fresh and electric a way as possible, the actual experience that I am referring to, what I experienced with this stuff as a kid or how this stuff makes me feel.

And sometimes to do that, you have to either veer off the path or kind of clap your hands to wake the audience up out of the daze of familiarity of some of these tropes. But it’s all hopefully for me — at least the goal is — it’s all toward the ends of bringing it all back to what the thing is all about.

Were there modern technological developments that made your job as a whodunit writer harder or easier?

Not really. That was weird! I mean, talking to my friends who make horror movies, cellphones are the bane of their existence. In thrillers, you always have to be up on a hill where you don’t get reception. And I was kind of bracing myself for that, but — and I haven’t really analyzed what it is about the whodunit — that never really reared its ugly head. There was never a point where I was even tempted to say “and they don’t get cell reception here, so that’ll fix something.” For whatever reason, it wasn’t a big issue.

There’s an extent to which the house itself is frozen in time — you’ve got security tapes on old VHS systems and so forth.

It’s the house of an old man, so we do get to step back a bit. But everybody still has a cellphone and people have smartwatches — that’s mostly to communicate the anachronism of Harlan’s place in the world. It’s not to get myself out of any plot jams.

What’s the purpose of Daniel Craig’s character hitting the piano keys during the interview scenes?

It’s just a weird goofy thing. I had written in the script that originally Blanc was going to tap the back of Detective Elliot’s chair with his foot every time he wants him to ask a specific question. And when I worked out the geography of it, I saw that Daniel was going to be too far away for his foot to reach, but there was going to be a piano back there. And so just on the day I said, “This is kind of weird, maybe plink the piano.” And Daniel kind of blinked at me and said, “Well, okay.”

It’s also very intentionally odd, it’s meant to have you say, as Don Johnson says, “who the fuck is this guy?” And because it is a long scene, it’s a scene where you could easily get in a lull of question, question, question. So just to throw a couple of drum hits in there that are offbeat, I think there was a benefit to it there.

One of my friends referred to Knives Out as having a “strong sweater game.” How did that come together?

Well, we were in New England in the fall, and knitwear just kind of lent itself to the vibe. Our costume designer Jenny Eagan, I think she did a fantastic job. She had to make each one of these characters as distinct as the characters on the cards in the game of Clue, but we didn’t want them to feel costume-y — we wanted them to feel modern and to feel grounded, you know? We didn’t want it to feel ultra-stylized, with the exception of Great Nana, I guess. So there’s lots of tweeds and knitwear and it just felt right with the ambience. And then we put that sweater on Chris and were like... yeah. This is going to work.

Did you see the sweater tweet?

Yes! I retweeted it, I thought it was amazing. That made me happy.

It’s been interesting watching not just the meta level of Chris Evans playing against type, but then people who are fans of Chris Evans responding to that and bringing their fandom to it.

It’s interesting, isn’t it? And it’s something where in the casting process, it’s tempting to try and do the math of how people are going to see him in this movie and if that’s going to affect how they respond to the character through the course of the film. It’s tricky, though, because you can never quite predict how that’s going to play into how people watch the movie. At the end of the day, I think you can get yourself in trouble if you try and calculate too much, “Oh, I’m going to cast this person because the audience will think this about them, and this and that.” But yeah, I agree, it’s fascinating. It’s similar to the movie I made a few movies ago, Looper, with Bruce Willis in the main part, where we have Bruce Willis in this role that tips over into a very non-Bruce-Willis-y place.

Toxic fandom has come up a lot since the backlash to The Last Jedi, and you’ve had some thought about how it’s overblown in press coverage — but also obviously complicated, because people are covering a real phenomenon, and it can make people’s lives really miserable when it happens. It’s a conundrum that I can feel really stuck with, as a writer. What do you think a healthy discussion about toxic fandom would look like?

I honestly don’t know. I don’t want to downplay the horribleness of when somebody is targeted with this kind of trolling — it’s serious, really vile stuff, and even the worst of what I got was nowhere at the scale of what women and people of color are getting every single day. I think there’s just a perception that those abusers are a bigger part of the fan base than they are. But the truth is I also... look, I get it, it’s like, it is the story. There’s no real story in talking about the pleasant, respectful conversations people are having about Star Wars, and I genuinely understand that.

I do feel like there are many pieces that specifically point out that this is a small but vocal part of the fan base, and it goes a long way in pieces just whenever it’s mentioned — that this is not a massive raging section of it. But the truth is I don’t know, you’re right, I feel in the same pickle that you do. It’s not like I have a solution for how to talk about it, because it is something worth talking about. But if you talk about it, you’re amplifying it.