If you only know Rian Johnson from The Last Jedi (and all the attendant toxic fanboy nonsense that swirled around it), his latest, Knives Out — an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery about the suspicious death of an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery writer — might seem like an odd follow-up. But actually, it’s the Star Wars sequel that feels like the biggest outlier in Johnson’s filmography.
Here’s a quick rundown of the genres Johnson has covered to date: high school-set neo noir (Brick), charmingly breezy con man caper (The Brothers Bloom), French New Wave-inspired time travel movie (Looper), and gigantic franchise movie.
Rian Johnson, right, with Jamie Lee Curtis. Photos by Claire Folger
And despite the fact that it was The Last Jedi that turned Johnson into a household name (and a four-letter word in certain less-savory corners of the Internet) — and even though Johnson has an entire standalone Star Wars trilogy on tap — it’s movies like Knives Out where the filmmaker’s idiosyncratic signature style truly shines. Featuring Daniel Craig as a Hercule Poirot-esque Southern detective named Benoit Blanc doing an act one character describes as “CSI: KFC” and dialogue like “I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you,” it’s a playfully twisty, loving update on the whodunit genre boasting one seriously A-list cast.
With Knives Out hitting theatres this Thursday, I spoke to the filmmaker about making a whodunit for the Trump era, why he might try to squeeze a baseball movie in between Star Wars movies — and hit him with a follow-up question I’ve been meaning to ask ever since I first interviewed him when he was just an emerging indie filmmaker over a decade ago.
I should mention: I actually interviewed you once before.
When did we talk?
It would’ve been about 11 or 12 years ago, at TIFF, for The Brothers Bloom. For a site that’s long since shut down.
No kidding! Oh my God. God bless you, man. Thank you for talking to me about it.
Well, most of what I remember from it — aside from you being very nice — was asking you a question about being an up-and-coming director, and you totally playing it off. Which I completely get.[Laughs.]
But…thanks to the magic of the Wayback Machine, I was actually able to track down that old interview. So you said, and I’m quoting here, “I feel like I could be on the street in a second.”
Oh, sure. At that moment, I could have been. [Laughs.] And I still could be. You don’t take anything for granted.
That was my question — after everything that’s happened in the decade-plus since then, do you still feel that way?
Absolutely. Yeah. 100 percent. You have to just remind yourself that every single thing you get to do, you’re lucky to get to do it. Nothing’s promised in life. Definitely working in Hollywood, nothing’s promised. Here today, gone tomorrow. So, in the words of Warren Zevon, “Just enjoy every sandwich.”
Is it important for you to try and maintain that attitude then, even when you’re working with James Bond and Captain America?I don’t even feel like it’s something I have to maintain. That’s my baseline. [Laughs.] I think it would be horrifying to meet somebody who didn’t feel that way. Because it makes you just appreciate it all. And it goes by so fast, you know what I mean? Even huge projects like Star Wars that take like four years to do, now, it feels like it zipped by in a dream. You just have to try and soak it up and enjoy all of it. And experience every movie as if it’s the last one you’re ever going to get to make.
I know you’ve got the planned Star Wars trilogy in the pipeline, so that could be another 12 years right there. How important is it for you to keep carving out time to make something like Knives Out?
You know, it’s funny. Just for me, there’s not a huge difference between The Last Jedi and this, in terms of my own personal fulfillment or something, or the way that I think about the movies. I can’t imagine doing any movie — whether it was a big franchise thing or something this size — first of all, if it wasn’t the only thing I wanted to do at that moment, and also if I didn’t have a personal way into it that made it feel vital to me. So it’s important to me to just keep doing that, whether it’s with big franchise or stuff like this, or even stuff smaller than this. I just want to keep trying to make stuff that I genuinely care about.
Is that the throughline between your projects then? Obviously, it’s pretty clear there’s no one genre or type of movie that interests you.
Yeah, that’s it. Actually, to the contrary, I really enjoy shaking it up each time. Doing something very different, and having a new challenge each time. But yeah, the throughline is exactly that: it’s just got to be something that I deeply care about, and something that I feel like, whatever’s on my mind or on my heart, or whatever issue I’m grappling with at that moment, I feel like I can get in there and work it out through this, and also play in a movie genre that I love.
Speaking of genre, I know they made another Murder on the Orient Express relatively recently. But still, the whodunit isn’t exactly the most…mainstream subgenre in 2019.
Was there ever a concern that modern audiences might be resistant to that type of throwback Christie-style murder mystery?
I don’t really think about it that way. Because I guess part of that is, [with] any of the genres that I’ve done, there’s always the element of comfort food of drawing from what came before. But what’s ultimately driving me to make it is the thing I have in my head of, “Oh, I’ve never quite seen this done with it.” Or I can get at the heart of what I think is great about a genre, or what I think works for me personally about a genre by putting it in this new context, or trying this new thing with it. If I just did genre karaoke, if I just recycled the tropes of the murder mystery, then I could see it being boring. But for me, there’s always got to be some element that’s making it new and driving it.
What was that for you here?
It was very much setting it in 2019 America. I loved the challenge of doing a whodunit, and I love the genre, but when it really started to click for me was when I thought, most times we see whodunits these days, they’re done as period pieces, because they’re usually Christie adaptations. So the notion of doing an original one, where I could try some interesting story stuff — putting it in America right now, and not making it timeless, not making it nostalgic, having it really be like, No, this is taking place right now in 2019 in the US of A…I’ve always been uniquely good at exploring issues of class, I guess, but in the context of a fun murder mystery ride, applying that…Again, it’s usually in the context of England, where we can, as Americans, feel a bit superior that they have their silly class system, but thank God we’re a class-less society over here — when we’re actually not. The idea of applying thatto America seemed very interesting.
This kind of made me think, in a weird way, of Ready or Not.
Yeah, yeah. I saw that.
It feels like we’re starting to see an appetite for so-called “Eat the rich” movies.
Yeah, a bit. Though I have to say, I wouldn’t describe “Eat the rich” as the motivation I had with this. That’s not that interesting to me. What’s interesting is getting at the very basic human stuff that’s driving people to act terrible. And applying that to a broad spectrum of people. Writing-wise, that’s something I recognize in myself. It’s got to come from a place of self-indictment. Otherwise it’s just going to be didactic finger-wagging.
It feels weird to say that a movie promoting basic human decency feels refreshing but, again, it’s 2019, so…
I know. Hashtag 2019. [Laughs.] That was important to me.
So I know it sounds like you’re relatively booked up for the foreseeable future, but…Daniel Craig seems to be having so much fun doing his Southern Poirot thing. Have you given any thought to spinning this into a whole Benoit Blanc franchise?
I would love to, man. Man, if this movie does alright…If I could get together with Daniel every few years and do a new Benoit Blanc mystery, I would be thrilled. That would be so much fun. And the idea of doing a whole new setting, whole new cast, whole new mystery, the way that Christie would shake it up with every new book…It just seems like that could be a blast.
At the very least, I’m thinking a series of novelizations.
Completely! Yeah. It’s still one of my favorite genres, and it’s not like I feel like, “Oh, I’ve done this now, I’ve scratched the itch.” I could totally see just enjoying taking another crack and doing something different with it.
Are there any other genres left, like the murder mystery, that you’d want to tackle?
Oh yeah. God, there’s so many different types of movies I love. I keep talking with my composer Nathan [Johnson, AKA Rian’s cousin] about doing a musical. I’d love to do a musical someday. I’m a big musical theatre fan. I think that would be really fun. A Western would be really interesting to do. And I’d love to do a baseball movie someday. I love baseball. My wife has turned me into a huge baseball fan. She grew up a Dodgers fan, and now we follow the entire season, and it’s a big part of our lives.
I would totally watch a Rian Johnson baseball movie.
That could be really, really fun. But yeah, there’s plenty.
Thanks for talking to me. We’ll have to do it again in another 11, 12 years.[Laughs.] I’ll see you in 11 years.
And I’ll ask you the same question again.
Perfect. And I’ll repeat myself again. [Laughs.]