Rian Johnson on Knives Out: “Agatha Christie had a modern sensibility”

The director of the new star-studded murder mystery talks about Daniel Craig’s melodious accent, his favourite whodunnits and what he’s planning next. 

James Mottram

Rian Johnson on the set of Knives Out (2019)

Rian Johnson on the set of Knives Out (2019)

With every film he’s directed, Rian Johnson has put a distinctive twist on tired tropes and familiar genres. After subverting expectations with a film noir in a high-school for his debt Brick (2005), he refreshed both the con-artist and time-travel movie, respectively, with his next two features, The Brothers Bloom (2008) and Looper (2012). Most recently, his entry into the Star Wars canon, Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017), was playfully divisive in its attempt to move away from the nostalgia the saga has become steeped in.

Now he returns for his fifth film as writer-director, Knives Out. A fiendish murder-mystery that puts a contemporary spin on the whodunit genre, the story unfolds after mystery novelist and publishing magnate Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found with his throat cut on the night of his 85th birthday. Leading the investigation is Louisiana sleuth Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) as he investigates Thrombey’s dysfunctional extended family – Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette and Chris Evans included.

Knives Out feels like a real love letter to Agatha Christie. How much of a devotee are you?

When I was younger, there was a run of Agatha Christie adaptations. They’ve gone in phases.

There were the goofier Miss Marple British-based ones they did at first. And then in the 70s, Murder on the Orient Express started this run of the all-star cast in a big extravaganza. Those were the ones I grew up watching, and the ones I really loved as a kid were the ones with Peter Ustinov as Poirot and he’s still my favourite Poirot.

But those were not parodies, they were not goofy. They had a sense of humour and a cheeky sense of self-awareness, but they were straightforward whodunnits and Ustinov in particular… he got the essence of what’s important about Poirot to me, which was a clownish-ness, almost. That element of the detective that puts the suspects off-guard and makes them not take him seriously until it’s too late.

Despite the Christie influence, Knives Out feels very contemporary. How did you approach giving the film a modern sensibility?

Christie had a modern sensibility for her time. That’s always interesting to me; stuff that has become gilded, getting back to the essence… stripping off the veneer basically. Christie’s characters… now they seem like dusty tropes, the old colonels and butlers. But when she was writing, those were types in society; they were caricatures but they were very present types that people would recognise. “I have an uncle like that,” someone would say.

Similarly, Brick, the first movie I did, was for me trying to strip away the veneer of years and years of film noir and get to what I experienced reading Dashiell Hammett’s books in a raw way.

How did you envisage Daniel Craig’s character, Benoit Blanc?

The general thing I was aiming for with him was the thing I talked about with Poirot. All of these detectives have some sort of thing that makes the suspects not take them seriously until it’s too late. And so that’s where the accent came from, that’s where the self-inflated [sense of ego]… he refers to himself in the third person a little too easily. A lot of the character, what’s on the screen, I also wrote it in terms of the character’s function in the story, and Daniel brought a lot of what’s funny about that character.

You alluded to his very particular accent. Where is it from?

It’s a Mississippi accent, technically. It was in the script as a Southern accent and we did a lot of back and forth… I gave him the reference of this historian Shelby Foote, who does a bunch of narration in Ken Burns’ civil war documentary [The Civil War, 1990] – it’s a very soothing Mississippi accent. I knew I wanted it to be soothing to listen to, not twangy and annoying. We worked on it from there.

Knives Out (2019)

Knives Out (2019)

Daniel aside, you gather several generations of wonderful actors, Christopher Plummer, Jamie Lee Curtis and Michael Shannon among them. How did it feel bringing them together?

It’s true, it’s spread out generation-wise. And that was also really fun on set. One of the nice things about shooting in a real house: the whole cast got on quite well, so in between takes they wouldn’t go back to their trailers. They would go down to the basement of the house to the rec room and hang out. It was cool seeing this broad swathe of actors across the generations – Katherine Langford and Jaeden Martell up to Christopher Plummer and Frank Oz – all trading war stories and listening to each other.

The mural of knives on the chair forms an arresting visual motif throughout. Where did that idea come from?

I had that idea really early. I think it was in the script and I wanted a religious icon made to frame up the people. It’s really great. But we worked on it and worked on it. It took a long while actually. Finally, a few days before we started shooting, they found this circular industrial barbecue grate, and mounted all these knives on it.

Did you toy with titles before you landed on Knives Out?

Knives Out had always been the title. Ever since the Radiohead song came out, it stuck in my head. That turn of phrase seemed like a great murder-mystery phrase.

If you put Knives Out on a double-bill, what would you show alongside it?

It’s not strictly a whodunnit, but maybe Sleuth. Or The Last of Sheila. That was a 70s whodunnit, written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins. It has the most 70s cast of all time – James Coburn, Diane Cannon, Raquel Welsh and Richard Benjamin.

Sondheim was a mystery nut. It’s the reason I have Benoit Blanc singing a Sondheim song. I had to get him in there. Sondheim would do all these mystery parties for all his friends. Invited them on a tour and gave them a mystery to solve. And so this is about a rich author who invites all his friends to do a mystery party and then a real murder happens. It’s fantastic.

Now you’ve finished Knives Out, are you going back into the Star Wars universe?

I’m still talking to them [Lucasfilm] about that but I also have a few things of my own that I’m cooking up. I’m not quite sure what’s going to happen next.

Presumably you felt less pressure on Knives Out than on The Last Jedi?

It’s true, but it’s funny how to a certain extent you’re always in a bubble while you’re making something. That was even true with The Last Jedi. It’s not like every day you feel the pressure. You’re in your little hole with your people making something you care about and you hope is good and the outside world does vanish.

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