INTERVIEW: RIAN JOHNSON STAYS SHARP FOR “KNIVES OUT”
by DAN LYBARGER SPECIAL TO FILM THREAT | November 26, 2019
A lot has changed for Rian Johnson in the last decade.
When he arrived in Kansas City in 2009, he was promoting his second film, the comedy The Brothers Bloom, after having made his debut with the neo-noir Brick, which had a budget of $500,000. The film he was presenting seemed like a major leap because it cost 40 times as much.
Since then, his dreams and his projects seem to have only gotten bigger, and they aren’t confined to any particular genre. His time travel adventure Looper cost slightly more than The Brothers Bloom, but it was released by Sony and earned $176 million and rave reviews. It also pulled off the formidable trick of making Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis convincing as the same hitman at different ages.
He also directed three of the most memorable episodes of the AMC meth-peddling drama Breaking Bad (“Fly,” “Fifty-One” and “Ozymandias”) and added his own unique spin on the Star Wars saga with The Last Jedi.
“…you just have to do what you’re most interested in doing, do something that you care about and do something you believe in.”
Johnson’s latest move, Knives Out, takes him into yet another genre, the Agatha Christie murder mystery. A cop (LaKeith Stanfield) and an eccentric private investigator (Daniel Craig) question the heirs of a recently-deceased mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), because each of his relatives has something to gain from his demise. The film opens this Thanksgiving and debuted to a warm reception at the Toronto International Film Festival this year.
We met 10 years ago in Kansas City.
Johnson: Oh, my God. I remember being there. That’s awesome.
You were plugging The Brothers Bloom. Would you say your career has taken a different turn since that time?
I don’t know about a different turn, but I guess just the fact that I’m still able to make movies is that’s a happy thing for me [laughs].
Why do you think you’ve been able to survive with some of the changes in the market?
The easy answer is because I have a fantastic producer Ram Bergman, and he’s incredible. He’s really the reason that I’m still doing what I do. He’s a great creative producer, and he is just fantastic in navigating the business and all the seismic shifts in it.
I remember reading that murder mysteries, like the one you’ve just made, were considered not even worth the trouble because foreign markets don’t want to have all the dialogue to translate.
Yeah, I mean, there’s always conventional wisdom that tells you different things, and I think you just have to do what you’re most interested in doing, do something that you care about and do something you believe in. I grew up reading Agatha Christie and watching these kinds of movies with my family, and I knew it was something that could just be a blast. That’s the main thing for me. It felt without like a really good time to make something that was just really fun.
“…he was kind of a jerk, also. And, he’s just a great actor with terrific a range.”
How can you not love watching Captain America Chris Evans get in touch with his inner asshole?
I had seen him in the play, Lobby Hero—a Kenneth Lonergan play, where he played a jerk. So I knew he had the range, and in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, he was kind of a jerk, also. And, he’s just a great actor with terrific a range. I was really happy he had so much fun jumping into this and doing something maybe a little different than we’ve been seeing from him recently.
This has been kind of a specialty with yours because the way you and Mark Hamil depicted Luke Skywalker. Instead of being this naive guy wanting to be a Jedi, he’s wary of it, and the movie is more about him getting in touch with what drove him to the Force in the first place.
It’s Luke 30 years on. With any genre, whether it’s Star Wars or a murder mystery, what I’m trying to do is kind of get to the heart of what I care about with that genre and what really connects with me about it, and then kind of find my own path toward that.
Whether it’s kind of the fun that I had grown up watching murder mysteries and the way that they can kind of talk about society in just a very sly and very entertaining way. Or whether it’s having grown up with Luke as my hero and now being 45 and being in a different place in life and kind of bring him along on the journey that a lot of us have gone through as we’ve grown up. You know those things are not that far apart to write.
That’s straight from the Christie books, also. Hercule Poirot has a similar thing. I think all the great eccentric detectives in fiction have this thing where the suspects don’t quite take them seriously until it’s too late. Columbo has the bumbling, and Poirot is the fussy little Belgian guy with the weird mustache. Miss (Jane) Marple is the kindly lady serving you tea, and before you know it, you’re being led off in the paddy wagon because they have the whole thing dialed in.
Daniel really tapped into that element of Benoit Blanc. He really found that sort of fun, slightly buffoonish element of him, but when he has to turn the screws, man, he knows how to turn them.
The social commentary you brought into Knives Out is often side-splitting. We are “shocked” to hear that Toni Collette may be an Instagram influencer, but that doesn’t mean she has money.
Surprise. Surprise [laughs]. To me, it was another thing that was exciting about this. So often when we do see whodunnits these days, they’re generally period pieces because they are Agatha Christie adaptations, and I love that. I’m a whodunnit junkie.
I watch and adore them, but I thought it could be really fun to say what would an original modern-day whodunnit looks like in America in 2019. It meant not just giving it a modern skin with cell phones and modern cars. Instead, have all the characters be characters that could only exist in 2019 and have them talking about stuff that’s just happening today.
“…have all the characters be characters that could only exist in 2019…”
You touch on immigration issues. Because of their dad’s success, the Thrombey family has never had to work for anything, so they don’t understand what somebody like the nurse (Ana de Armas) from an immigrant family in the story would have to go through.
Yeah, that’s part of it, and whodunnits have always been very adept at sly talking about class, and it’s usually the kind of the British Upstairs, Downstairs set. It’s mostly been applied to British society just because, again, it’s mostly been Agatha Christie adaptations.
The notion of using those same dynamics and using the fact that with the broad range of suspects, you can look at a cross-section of society. When you start putting the screws on everybody you drill into where the rubber meets the road on different issues. That seemed like really interesting territory to plug into America right now.
On a technical level, I thought it was interesting how Brothers Bloom has a lot of long, wide takes, but with this movie, you have a lot of quick cuts. You need them because you have to feed viewers a lot of information in a short time.
You adjust your filmmaking to suit the needs of the script, and with this, it was snappier. One of the things I love about whodunnit is how much they play with flashbacks and perspective. You can flashback to the same moment multiple times and see it differently.
One of the things I enjoyed about your company 10 years ago was that you actually looked forward to taking heat for your films. You were waiting for Rex Reed’s take on The Brothers Bloom.
Do you think that’s another reason why you’ve survived because you took a lot of heat for The Last Jedi even though the movie was a critical hit and made money hand over fist?
The majority of what I got for The Last Jedi was love. I know that it’s fun to write about all the bad stuff. It’s fun to paint the picture like that. The truth is the last two years 95 percent of my interactions with fans, even online and even on Twitter have been absolutely lovely. That’s not to say all of them liked the movie, but they’ve all been wonderful and engaged on a level that you pray to God is with the stuff you make.
“The majority of what I got for The Last Jedi was love.”
It’s a glorious start and a space where people are passionate, and I know, unfortunately, the trolls and some of the bad stuff that’s really fun to write about and get clicks but I always feel like I have to stand up for the fan base and keep repeating, “Please don’t characterize the entire Star Wars fan base based on this very small section.”
You’ve also succeeded with another franchise, Breaking Bad.
With Breaking Bad, you’re dealing with the writing that is just phenomenal, and you’re dealing with actors who are just at the top of their game. I was gonna say, it’s hard to mess that up [laughs].
For me, the pressure I felt was just living up to the material, coming in and trying to get [Vince Gilligan‘s] vision up on that screen as powerfully as possible. But for me, that was just a joy. That really felt like I got to show up and just do the fun parts. I felt pretty lucky to be able to do that.
| DAN LYBARGER