After spending the better part of the last decade in the world of science fiction, first with Looper in 2012 and then Star Wars: The Last Jedi in 2017, writer-director Rian Johnson returns to the genre that started his career with Knives Out: a new murder mystery.
But while his feature debut in 2005, Brick, told a neo noir story that happened to be set in a high school, Knives Out is a classic locked-room whodunit. It centers on the apparent suicide of famous crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who appears to have killed himself in his study following his 85th birthday party at his vast, brooding mansion. Although the case may appear cut and dried, a suave Southern detective named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) thinks there is another game afoot: murder.
In our video interview below, Johnson admits that coming back around to the mystery genre was sort of like coming home for him. “Yeah, a little bit,” he says. “It feels nice being able to just write tons of dialogue and just shoot in rooms, regular rooms. But at the same time, it’s interesting. Something like Star Wars and something like this may seem like they’re night and day from each other. The truth is that the similarities are more interesting than what’s different. At the end of the day, the tools are the same, you’re still trying to tell a story, trying to connect to a genre that you love, whether it’s Star Wars or a whodunit, and honor the genre while hopefully bringing some new stuff to the table.”
To fill up his cast of quirky, memorable suspects–almost all members of Harlan’s highly dysfunctional and combative family–Johnson enlisted stars like Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, Toni Collette, Ana de Armas, Jaeden Martell, and Katherine Langford. He also had much to say about the challenge of letting them bounce off each other while sticking to the tone he had in mind.
“It’s a balance on set and luckily this cast is so skilled, they clicked in pretty quickly to the tone, and there was very little pulling back that I had to do,” explains the director. “If anything, I found it was my job to give them permission to go further and to say, ‘No, go for it. Show us how far out we can go.’ It takes a really good actor to be able to give a huge performance and still have it feel grounded enough to work in the context of a movie. And these guys are so good. I found we could push it beyond what we could maybe with other people and it still worked.”
For his two younger performers, Martell (It) and Langford (13 Reasons Why), Knives Out was a chance to work alongside some legendary actors for the first time–in most cases. “I’ve actually worked with Chris Evans,” says Martell, who is also playing Michael Shannon’s son for the second time after doing it a few years ago in Midnight Special. “Afterwards [Evans and I] did a TV show, and actually in my first ever project [Playing It Cool], I played younger Chris, which I brought up. You’re always a little nervous or excited to start a new project and work with new people because these are the people you’re going to work with for the next however many weeks and months. So there’s always a little bit of nervousness, but once you get into it, I think that goes away and you become comfortable.”
Langford agrees with her castmate: “This whole cast, they’re an incredible cast, and people who I’ve looked up to and I think have done incredible work,” she says. “So I was just excited to work with everyone. But I think there was a little bit of nervousness in me that came out with Toni Collette just because growing up Australian, she’s such a national treasure, and getting to play mother/daughter and do so many nice scenes together, that was really cool.”
One way Johnson managed to create the mood of a genuine camraderie in his ensemble was by largely shooting in one location, a New England mansion that almost seemed to leap off the page. “It happens too often where you’re doing a movie and after the cameras stopped rolling, you go your separate ways and you go to your trailers or whatever,” says Martell. “But with this, we were forced to hang out with each other, and we immediately became friends, constantly playing games and laughing. I think that’s what made this movie special in a way, besides the script and story and all the other details.”
“We shot in this house in Massachusetts and it’s exactly what you see in the movie,” explains Johnson. “It’s like a murder mystery mansion. The place was amazing. First of all, shooting out there on location, it turns kind of into summer camp for everybody. So I think it makes the whole cast bond a little more. And then just shooting inside and outside the house, we were really like just existing in that space. I mean, you look around, all this stuff, all this detail that our production designer David Crank built into the set immersed all of us in the world of this movie. It made the whole thing even more of a pleasure.”
As for the characters they portrayed inside that mansion, Martell and Langford had very different tasks. Martell’s Jacob Thrombey, son of Shannon’s Walt Thrombey, is an internet alt-right troll, always glued to his phone. Meanwhile, Langford’s Megan Thrombey is 180 degrees on the other side, a liberal social activist and college student who arguably is the most compassionate member of the clan.
“A large part of what drew me into [the script] in particular was that it’s this big genuine ensemble, an ensemble that has so many different distinctive characters in it,” says Langford. “And within that distinctive family of the Thrombeys, Meg Thrombey felt very much like a heart within the film, or almost a bridge between the wealth and the abundance, and the privilege of the Thrombeys, and then the people who work for them like Marta [de Armas’ character]. It was that relationship between Marta and her, and also that heart that she has, and that bridge factor that really attracted me to her.”
Martell just wanted the chance to work with the director. “I was like, ‘I don’t care what kind of character [it is], I want to work with Rian Johnson, and I want to work with this amazing cast,’” he recalls. “I happened to get a Nazi character, so… no, he’s a very interesting character. He’s far from myself and far from anything I’ve ever played, but the most fun characters to play are these flawed, unlikable and despicable people that you hate, but you have to learn to love because they’re a part of you.”
With Knives Out arriving in theaters at last, Johnson is “kind of figuring out” what his next project is while still waiting to get the greenlight from Lucasfilm on a new Star Wars trilogy. But he admits that he wouldn’t mind returning to the world of Knives Out and spending some more time with Daniel Craig’s “gentleman detective,” Benoit Blanc: “God, man, if I could get together with Daniel every few years and make a new Benoit Blanc mystery… we’ll see how this one does, but if that ends up working, I can’t imagine anything more fun than that.”
Knives Out is in theaters now.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye