Rian Johnson On His Delightful Murder Mystery ‘Knives Out,’ And The Past And Future Of ‘Star Wars’

Knives Out premiered here at the Toronto International Film Festival over the weekend and, frankly, it brought the house down. There is literally no house still standing. (Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but, still.) Director Rian Johnson put together an all-star cast to tell the story of a delightfully hammy Danial Craig, as Det. Benoit Blanc, who is hired to solve the mystery of the murder of a wealthy author, played by Christopher Plummer. It’s both an old-fashioned murder-mystery throwback with stars-a-plenty (there are literally so many, listing them all out right here would be too much of a task) and a drop-dead hilarious comedy. It’s one of the best movie theater experiences of 2019.

I met Johnson at his hotel here in Toronto so he could take us through the complicated process of putting something like Knives Out together. (And the complicated process of discussing a whodunit movie without giving anything away — I promise we do not.) But, not surprisingly, during this fairly in-depth conversation, Johnson gets wary (his word) when the subject of Star Wars is brought up. He knows at this point that anything he says can cause a minor internet shitstorm, whether it be the original trilogy, his own The Last Jedi, or his still mysterious future trilogy that no one outside of the halls of Lucasfilm knows anything about – and here all three of those things are discussed, so, watch out.

But, in the end, it sounds like what Johnson really wants to do is make more murder mystery movies, with Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc returning, a la Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. And that sounds like a pretty great thing.

Feeling good? The Knives Out premiere seems to have gone well.

I’m feeling really good and it was really, really fun. I mean, the crowds at this festival are just phenomenal. And also I had like 40 family members there. It was a party. It was fun.

You knew you had a crowd-pleaser, right?

We had done like a couple of test screenings. We did a test screening in Orange County. We also took it out to Texas and did a couple of tests to see how it plays. And yeah, it played very well.

Is there a moment where you know if this gets a laugh, it’s going to be a good night?

If this hits? Well, the whole bit with the mom hearing the crime show in the kitchen. But, also honestly, I think being able to introduce the movie helped it, which I guess is the equivalent of, with real audiences, putting the trailer out. I think audiences knowing that they have permission to laugh. Knowing that, oh, okay, this isn’t a crime movie. This is actually something we can have fun with. That’s a big deal.

Daniel Craig in this movie reminds me of George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove.

Oh my God!

Because we don’t see him like that much.

He raged. He raged! The Big board!

Doing the wacky face and mugging for the camera.

That was the thing on set, we talked about it. I mean, we didn’t really rehearse per se…

For a movie like this that’s actually surprising. Then again, you have so many famous people, getting them together would be difficult.

That’s what I’m slowly learning. With Brick, my first movie, we were all kids and so we rehearsed the hell out of it. We all had time on our hands. And realizing the more famous and established your casts get, nobody has time.

It’s actually surprising you got this many people together just for the shoot.

Well, what helped was how quickly it came together. And they pushed the Bond movie and Daniel had a break in his schedule. So it was literally like five weeks.

What do you do if that doesn’t happen with Bond?

We just wouldn’t have made the movie that winter, probably. But, yeah, basically it was like, okay, five weeks from now who wants to come to Boston for five weeks and make a movie?

I’m assuming there were people you wanted who couldn’t fit it into that time frame?

Yeah, there are always. Then you get to the end of the process and you can’t imagine anyone else in the roles.

So, this is a surprisingly tough movie to talk about because so many things I want to ask might tip off the ending?

I know. I’ll just stare with a blank face.

So I’ll word this carefully, but there’s something you do pretty early in the movie that stops the audience from trying to figure out who the murderer is, which also allows the audience to relax and have fun.

So, I love whodunits. But I also do kind of fundamentally agree with Hitchcock that with whodunits, it’s just one big buildup to a surprise. That’s the anti-Hitchcock movie. And he always thought that just doesn’t work great for a film. So, for me, you take kind of a Hitchcock approach to the meat of the movie and still have all the pleasures there of a traditional whodunit. And so the various machinations in the movie were all attempts to kind of do that.

Well, this particular technique worked. I stopped trying to figure it out.

Yeah, that’s the thing. God, it’ll be so much more fun to talk about this when we can actually talk about the movie.

Since we can’t, here’s my fake joke question.

What do you got?

Well, not giving too much away, but when Yoda shows up in The Last Jedi, I thought it was a great moment. But then when you have him show up again in Knives Out, I thought it was egregious. I’m not going to tell you how to make movies, but it’s weird you did that.

Let me tell you something I’ve learned, Mike. You have to service the fans. Hey but we do have Yoda in this movie though! He does show up! Frank Oz is in the movie.

Yeah, that’s why I was thinking of him.

Did you recognize him?

Oh, yeah, of course. And he’s great.

Did you know Emmet Walsh was going to be in the movie?

Now that was a surprise.

Although it’s kind of a sad story why he’s in it. Ricky Jay, who was like a dear friend of mine, was going to play that part. And he passed away just a few weeks before he was supposed to come out to do it. So that’s why, if you look on fridge, we put a picture of Ricky up there as like the caretaker of the place before Emmet, and Emmet had been friends with him. Emmet was very sweet. He had been friends with Ricky and he came out at the very last minute and did it. After we wrapped, Emmet threw his hands up to the sky and looked up and said, “You would’ve done it better.” It was really, really sweet. Yeah. So Ricky’s in the movie in spirit.

That’s a great tribute.

And Emmet, he comes to set and he passes out three things. He passes out steel pennies. He passes out a two dollar bill and tells you don’t spend it and you’ll never be broke. And he passes out his resume, which is a single sheet of paper, single-spaced, listing every movie he’s been in. So I framed my two dollar bill from him.

I suspect there’s a story around everyone in the cast.

I mean, all of the casting is being influenced by Agatha Christie novels. So, the casting was, to a certain extent, trying to capture that. It’s just kind of the fun test of, first and foremost, who do I think would be really great in the part? Also, who would I just kind of squeal with delight when I see them show up on screen.

There’s a line in the movie about a mystery author who had the whole plot in his head before he wrote it. Is that how this worked?

I had this basic idea. I had that basic thing for about ten years. The past five years I kind of, in earnest, started really honing in. Okay, how would this actually work? But, for me, the actual tougher part was, okay, how do get a real heart into the movie? Getting these characters to actually be things in you besides “the clever button.” That was actually the bigger challenge.

I felt there were scenes in this movie that had some spite behind them. Like from you about the internet. There’s an edge.

Yeah. Although I wouldn’t frame it as like for me personally.

You have a literal Nazi in the movie who learned to be one from the internet.

That’s not really unique to anything I went through. That’s kind of anyone who’s on the internet these days. And, for me, it was that and all of the stuff in the movie that has a little more bite to it in that way. I mean, it all springs from Agatha Christie had all these character types like the dusty old colonel, all the types that are calcified now. She was writing about types who were very present when she was read. She was writing about British society. And so the idea was we’re going to do a modern day American murder.

And you can’t have the dusty old Colonel.

No. And also you don’t want to just give it kind of a modern-day wash. You have to actually plug this into the world that we’re in today. So that meant plugging into character types today. And the world of 2019, hopefully it’s everything that’s funny and weird about it, but also everything that pisses us all off about it, is plugged into this and, in that way, it felt very cathartic.

So I’m just going to make a statement.


Apropos of nothing.


Younger people are surprised to learn The Empire Strikes Back wasn’t the consensus “best Star Wars movie” until maybe even the ’90s. It was polarizing for quite some time.


The trajectory of The Last Jedi reminds me of that.

I’m a little wary to talk about that, because I don’t want to sound like, I don’t know, like I’m defending anything or something.

I don’t think you have to defend anything.

So, I’m a little wary that even I answer one question about it, and not on you, but then a thousand other outlets suddenly pick it up and it’s like, suddenly, it looks like it’s just all talking about Star Wars.

Right. As opposed to everything we just talked about before this.

That’s the thing. But, as a kid, I distinctly remember being disappointed by The Empire Strikes Back.

Was that the first one you saw?

That was my first one.

Me, too. Because you couldn’t just “watch Star Wars” like now. It’s whatever was in the theater at the time.

I think my dad took me when I was really young to see A New Hope. Yeah, no, I remember, especially in the context of Return of the Jedi, which as a kid I adored. And so, yeah, I remember very vividly. But then Empire slowly became my favorite one. Look, man, same about you, we were in our twenties when the Prequels came out.

The weird thing about Empire was I had the toys before I saw it. All the older kids had been telling me how fun the original Star Wars is. Then Empire is released and my parents take me and it’s like, what the hell was that?

Luke gets symbolically castrated by his father.

As a little kid it’s like, I thought this was supposed to be fun?

Yeah. It sticks. That’s why that’s the one that, even though at that time I had that reaction to it, it stuck in me and it resonated with me. I remember the Prequels, that acrimony of the prequels. I think people forget exactly the tenor of the danger. We remember because we were in the thick of it. So, I mean, I don’t know. I think that anything with a passionate following always has a passionate following and Star Wars is that, even more so. You can’t be angry at one side of it when it’s also the reason the positive is so passionate, you know? It’s all part of the same thing and it always was like this basic thing. That’s why I love it.

So here’s a lot easier question.


Your upcoming Star Wars movies, how do they end?

[Laughs] I’ll tell you exactly how they end! An iris shot to a blue credit.

So, look, I realize how guarded you are about your upcoming Star Wars movies, but do you know exactly what they are yet? When they are set. Exactly what it will be?

I’m where I can’t say anything about it. Still completely in process with it.

Does that ruin your process if you say anything?

It’s just, I don’t know. “It’s a process” means it’s a process. So that means it could change, it could shift. There are a bunch of moving parts with it.

So say three years ago if I asked that same question about Knives Out would it have been the same answer?

I probably would have given you some answer and then it would’ve been totally different from the movie that came out. You know, it’s something that you write and you work on.

Look, my main goal here is to have people start tweeting at you again.

[Laughs] That’s not how this works.

Do you think you’ll do another Knives Out-type movie?

I’ll tell you, the truth is I had such a great time working with Daniel Craig and I had so much fun doing this on every level, from writing it to making it. I’ve never really been interested in doing sequels, but this, the idea of doing more of these with Daniel as his character, is not sequels. It’s just what Agatha Christie did. It’s just coming up with a whole new mystery, a whole new location, all new cast, whole new mechanics of the appeal of a mystery and everything. It’d be a blast.

Wouldn’t that be great if that’s your legacy? Like 30 years from now, “the Agatha Christie of our time.”

Who just dabbles in other genres.

People would say, “Isn’t it weird he did Star Wars? Then he pumped out 79 murder mystery movies.”

I would be so thrilled. And I don’t want to jinx it by starting into it, because I want to see how this does but … yeah. Yeah. I’ve been crossing my fingers I get to do more of these.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.