Knives Out director chats about his love of the murder-mystery genre, the challenge of making it contemporary and his next foray into that galaxy far, far away
Just five films into his career, Rian Johnson has been on a remarkable trajectory. Even before he rattled Star Wars fans with 2017's divisive The Last Jedi, he'd regularly toyed with audience expectations. Subverting the film noir (2005's high-school-set Brick), the con movie (The Brothers Bloom) and the time-travel tale (Looper), Johnson's original spin on tired tropes is what's got him this far.
He's at it again with Knives Out, a murder-mystery that takes us back to the era of all-star Agatha Christie adaptations from the 1970s. 'Even though there haven't been many recently, it's odd how much affection there is for the genre,' says Johnson. 'Audiences love the puzzle box aspect – can you solve it? Combined with big colourful characters, all getting accused of murder … what's not to love?'
Sitting over coffee on a quiet morning at London's swanky Chiltern Firehouse, the 45-year-old Johnson admits it's an idea he's been playing with for a decade. He's entirely at ease that Kenneth Branagh beat him to the punch, reviving Christie's Hercule Poirot with Murder on the Orient Express (and is now hard at work filming Death on the Nile). 'In my mind, the more the merrier – it's a genre, as a fan, I eat up.'
Johnson's film, however, is a true original – as much Colombo as it is Christie, with a bit of the Stephen Sondheim-scripted 1973 tale The Last of Sheila thrown in. All set around a rural retreat, it concerns the murder of a successful mystery author Harlan Thrombrey (Christopher Plummer) and his greedy family, who – naturally – all have motives for bumping him off. Needless to say, nothing is quite as it seems.
'The heart of it is the fun of this self-righteous, back-stabbing family,' says Johnson, who has a riot casting them: Jamie Lee Curtis as Thrombrey's daughter, Don Johnson as her husband and Avengers star Chris Evans as their son; Michael Shannon as Thrombrey's youngest and Toni Collette as his superficial wife. Such characterisations ensure the film feels very up-to-date – and no mere empty homage to dusty old country house mysteries.
Additionally, It star Jaeden Martell plays a Republican-supporting grandson, adding a contemporary spin. 'It was important to me, especially if we were going to be making it about 2019, and about all the ways that we're yelling at each other, that the movie essentially had a good heart,' says Johnson, citing the role of Blade Runner 2049's Ana de Armas as Harlan's kindly nurse.
Of course, every mystery needs a detective and Johnson has Benoit Blanc, a southern gentleman sleuth played by Daniel Craig, Mississippi accent and all. The James Bond star 'was the first piece of the puzzle,' says Johnson. 'Once we got him, he's obviously actor-bait. It became a much more attractive thing for other people to jump into. But he also had a very specific window where [upcoming] Bond [film No Time To Die] had pushed, so we had a few months to shoot it.'
Arguably, Craig and Johnson haven't enjoyed themselves this much on a movie in years. For the director, it was a soothing balm after the pressures of Star Wars. 'The Last Jedi was a fantastic experience, front to back, but it was also four years and after spending that long in something, it felt really good to get into something totally different.'
He will be stepping back into the Star Wars universe, with a planned trilogy of films that 'steps beyond the legacy characters'. But don't expect that anytime soon. All Johnson will say is he's 'figuring out schedule-wise when all that stuff is going to happen'. Well, everyone needs a little mystery in their lives, don't they?
Cast: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Christopher Plummer
UK release: 27 November 2019
When mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Plummer) is found with his throat slit, puffed-up private detective Benoit Blanc (Craig) gets on the case. A wickedly knowing, flamboyantly bitchy take on the whodunnit, with a great cast, bags of style and a splendidly outrageous comic turn from Craig. Bloody good fun.