Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan speaks with director Rian Johnson about assembling actors from huge franchises, Marta’s immigration storyline, and expanding the Knives Out universe.
One of the select movies that’s not a sequel or reboot this holiday season is the crowd-pleasing whodunnit Knives Out, from director Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) .
The modern-day Agatha Christie-inspired flick follows the investigation of a murdered mystery-writer (Christopher Plummer) and the family with motives to take him out. Leading the investigation is Benoit Blanc, played by Daniel Craig. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, it’s best to experience this one in a crowded theater and enjoy the twists, turns, and gasps with a lively audience.
I had the pleasure of chatting with director Rian Johnson about what it was like to work with this A-list cast firing on all cylinders, how he adapted the house as a setting, and whether he’d ever consider expanding the Knives Out universe.
Awards Daily: You and nearly your entire cast are associated with established properties like Avengers, James Bond, and Star Wars. How did it feel to get this group together for something entirely original and new? Did it feel like a palate cleanser?
Rian Johnson: (Laughs) I don’t know. Maybe with Chris [Evans] and Daniel [Craig], who were probably the two in the cast who were making the biggest left turn from what they just did previously or from what most people know them from. For me, it was less about how the audience was gonna see that turn and more about how I could tell both of them we were going to have so much fun doing it. With both Chris and Daniel, I could tell they were chomping at the bit to cut loose and have fun doing something very, very different from what they just did. With Daniel cutting loose with his crazy accent and big comic performance, and Chris getting to play an absolute dick—I think they were like little kids jumping into a muddy sand box. They just loved it. I think that translates for the audience, which is fun.
AD: It totally does! This is your first film project since Star Wars, and you wrote and directed both. Did you feel less pressure with this film? And if so, did that at all add to the tone of it?
RJ: Not really. It’s weird with Star Wars—I think I had a uniquely left experience making the Star Wars movie I did. It was just a wonderful creative experience, and I felt really supported and really had wonderful collaboration with the folks at Lucasfilm. And I’m not just doing that puff piece talking up all the people I worked with—it wasn’t a creative experience I would characterize with overbearing pressure. It felt like a really joyous, creative time of getting to the heart of what Star Wars means to us. I do think there was something really nice about making Knives Out very quickly. Star Wars was four years of shooting. This, I started writing in January  and wrapped by Christmas of last year. Just being able to blaze through and not be precious about it—I think that felt like my feet leaving the earth a little bit.
AD: Knives Out is such a fun film that I think everyone can enjoy. But it also has some sly political messaging, in dealing with Marta’s family immigration situation. Was this purposeful? Did you want to insert social messaging in there?
RJ: Well, I wanted to plug it into 2019. That seemed like a really interesting thing to me, especially because this genre is so well-suited to examining society, and it’s what Agatha Christie did with it back in the day. It wasn’t like she was writing overbearingly message-y or politically conscious books, but she was always engaging with contemporary British society and examining it through the lens of the spectrum of characters she drew as her suspects. It’s odd [because] that element of it has been lost. Usually when we see a whodunnit these days, it’s a period piece set in Britain, usually an adaptation of an Agatha Christie book. And I love the adaptations of the books. I’m a whodunnit junkie. But to me it seemed like it might be interesting and fresh to get back to that and apply it to America today. Again, one of the strengths of it is that you can do that and not do it in the context of a message movie or a finger-wagging thing. You can do it in the context of a very fun genre that is just adept at having that layer to it as well.
AD: It adds stakes to it. It makes the stakes even greater, which is why we’re so invested.
RJ: Exactly! That’s a good point. Keeping stakes was another important thing, having it never tip over into a parody of whodunnit, always having it work as a movie.
AD: What was it like having this cast play off each other? When they’re all on screen together, they’re electric. I can’t remember a cast like this in a movie in a long time.
RJ: It was so much fun. The days on set, when they were all there together and we were doing the big group scenes, those were really fun days. Firstly, the vibe on set and what you feel on screen, with everyone having a blast, that’s a genuine reflection of the set. In between takes, they wouldn’t go back to the trailers, they’d go down to the basement of this house and tell war stories with each other. They’d play charades and stuff. It was crazy. It felt like summer camp. On set, they’re all such incredible actors, and they were all just feeding off each other. It was a true ensemble. For me, it makes my job very easy as a director. I can just get in there and make little tweaks, but really everyone snapped into what they had to do very quickly. I got to enjoy the show.
AD: The house is also such an integral character. How much care did you put into finding the right location and setting? Did you write it in the script that way and did you have to make changes?
RJ: I wrote the script first essentially. They were scouting for the house while I was writing the script. I wrote anything that called for specific geography—I just wrote that first. Then, we either did tweaking to the story to figure out how exactly to make it work with the geography of the house, and we also did do a couple of builds on the stage. There’s an upstairs hallway that has a trick window, and that was a build on the stage. Anything where we needed some very specific geography, we would build that. But for the majority of the house downstairs and the exterior, we just figured out how to make it work from the script.
AD: Are you interested in expanding the Knives Out universe and possibly doing a sequel?
RJ: Dude, I’d be thrilled if Daniel and I could get together every few years and make a new Benoit Blanc mystery. I wouldn’t even think of it as a sequel, it would just be doing what Christie did. A whole new mystery, a whole new location. Let’s make another murder mystery with this character. Daniel and I had so much fun working together. I’m all for it. I think that would be a blast.
AD: Without ruining the ending, I love that the song you use is “Sweet Virginia” by the Rolling Stones. Was there a particular reason why you used that song?
RJ: I had had that song in my head while I was writing. I don’t know what it was. The lyrics are not on the nose, but there are a few things in the lyrics that feel right for it. But also just the vibe for it. It felt like a great, tonal goal post to set. I want you to walk out of this movie with a smile on your face, kind of bobbing your head as if you’d just been to a really good party. Leaving the audience with ‘Sweet Virginia’ felt like the perfect way to capture that.
Knives Out is now playing in theaters.