Knives Out, which opened this week, shakes off the dustier conventions of the whodunit genre to tell the tale of a fabulously wealthy mystery writer (played by Christopher Plummer) who meets his untimely demise following a family gathering to celebrate his 85th birthday. Enter famed detective and all-around odd duck Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, armed with a thick Mississippi drawl), who deploys his formidable powers of deduction to finger the greedy guttersnipe who’s snuffed out Gramps. The cast, including Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Toni Collette, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, and Ana de Armas, is a knockout. Here, Rian Johnson, who wrote and directed the movie, discusses how he devised his flawless puzzle of a plot, and his experience shifting from the all-consuming work of directing Star Wars: Episode VIII to the lightning-fast journey of making his latest film.
Rich families in grand houses behaving like lunatics has been a bit of a theme in movies this year (Parasite). Your film shows how extreme wealth can narrow our view of ourselves and the world.
A big theme in the movie is the narrative of the self-made man. There is a very human, and specifically American, tendency to mythologize our own stories in ways that maybe give us more credit than we deserve. Especially when you use that as an excuse to kind of dismiss the ways that the system is set up, or unfair, or slanted in different ways. It’s a weird binary thing, where the instant you start talking about being the recipient of good circumstance or privilege in some way, there’s this reaction in us of: Wait a minute, I worked hard to get where I’m at! It’s the notion of: Relax. Both can be true at once. It’s not taking away from the fact that you were talented and worked hard to get where you are to also say: Yes, and all of these other factors also played a big part in it. The notion that if someone else isn’t able to get where you’re at, it’s due all to one, and not at all to the other, is a false one.
There’s been a lot of focus on your use of political dialogue in the film. But I doubt there’s a family in America today who could get through a gathering without some hot-button political discussion.
A big motivation was to take a traditional whodunit and set it in 2019, and to me that meant: O.K., this is going to engage with the culture, and these are going to be characters who are not just modern versions of Colonel Mustard and Professor Plum but characters that could only exist today. So, if you’re going to do that, I mean, yeah, any family in America after a couple of glasses of wine, what do they end up arguing about? It would be bizarre if we ignored the thing that everyone is arguing about today.
When it comes to whodunits, the standard by which you’re judged is whether the final reveal astounds. You play with that expectation by having a big reveal early on. How far along were you in crafting the puzzle when you came up with that?
That was the basis of the entire thing. The initial idea was not a plot-based one, not a character-based one; it was a conceptual idea. It began with thinking about the whodunit genre, which I love. I agree with Hitchcock that the potential weakness of the genre is that it’s all a lead-up to the surprise, and that’s a weaker engine than suspense, which is always built on empathy, where you care about a character, and so you’re leaning forward to see whether or not they can get out of the situation they’re in. So, it started out as: Can you put the engine of a Hitchcock thriller into the middle of a whodunit movie, and still have all the pleasures of a whodunit?
Agatha Christie’s books are always rooted in the fact that, despite her larger-than-life characters, the motivations are always very human.
In Christie, traditionally, there’s a chunk of time where you’re getting to know each of the suspects and their relationship to this powerful person whom they all need something from, who you know is going to get murdered. And what’s very interesting is your sympathies are rarely with the person who’s going to get killed. What you’re seeing is that your sympathies are with all of the suspects who have a motivation for killing the person. And it’s a very Hitchcock, muddy thing, because what Christie taps into with each one of them is something that we can sympathize with in terms of motivations: The victim is screwing over all these people, or holding something over their heads. It’s all things that we can completely relate to; that’s why they work as motivations. And so all of these suspects, having them be human, having you relate to them in a way, like to Michael Shannon’s character and how he’s helpless like a rich man’s son. It takes a very good actor to be able to give a performance, as all the performances are in this movie, that are this big and still have them feel like they have one foot on the planet Earth and you can still relate to them.
This is the second film in recent memory in which Daniel Craig has played a character with a very broad Southern accent, the last being Logan Lucky. It’s such an intriguing choice, because Daniel Craig is so very British.
For me, it had everything to do with just trying to give Benoit Blanc some of the hallmarks of what I consider great detectives in this genre. And one of them is that he doesn’t fit in. There’s something about him that makes the people around him not take him seriously. And so if we’re going to be in old money New England, giving him a Mississippi accent seemed like it had a lot of potential.
The house is thoroughly strange. What did you want the world of the house to feel like?
The reference I gave my production designer, David Crank, and David Schlesinger, my set decorator, was one of my favorite movies: the 1972 version of Sleuth. Laurence Olivier’s character in that is also a mystery novelist, and the house is very much like the inside of his brain.
Christie believed one ought to be able to write a book in three months. I know you wrote this quickly. Do you think the genre sort of demands it, because you have to be in command of your puzzle from the top?
This was the fastest writing I’ve ever done. I sat down in January to write it. I wrote the entire thing to a finished draft in six months, and we wrapped the movie by Christmas, which is head-spinningly fast. And that felt so good in terms of the immediacy of: Write it now, make it tomorrow, finish it the next day. That’s kind of what it felt like. Especially after spending four years having a great experience making Star Wars, but still four years of process for that film.
Miss Marple and Monsieur Poirot appeared in many stories. Will you do the same? Will Benoit Blanc find a new murder to solve?
God, I hope so. Yes, if this movie does even slightly well. If I can convince someone to let me do it. Daniel and I had such a great time working together, I feel like if we could get together every few years and do a new Benoit Blanc mystery, I would be the happiest man on the planet.
The interview has been condensed and edited.
Emily Poenisch is a writer based in L.A.