Rian Johnson Wants ‘Poker Face’ To Be A Good Mystery And A Great Hang

Though he’s dedicated to the New York Times crossword and an avid puzzle creator when it comes to the Benoit Blanc mystery films (Knives Out and Glass Onion), writer/director/producer Rian Johnson is less concerned with twisty tricks and shocking reveals when it comes to his and Natasha Lyonne’s new series, Poker Face (which debuts with its first four episodes today on Peacock). Oh, the show will deliver on those things (and a ton of famous guest stars), but the most important thing for Johnson is that he crafts a character, in Lyonne’s nomadic and hazardously curious Charlie Cale, that you want to hang out with. Someone clever, funny, and idiosyncratic. Someone classic, but also fresh. And they just gotta have a cool car. The car is key, especially for a road show like this, which Johnson compares to Highway To Heaven and Quantum Leap (though there are no angels or time travel here). Another comp? Columbo and, of course, people will tie it to Knives Out, which is fine by Johnson even though these are two distinct things.

When we spoke recently via Zoom, the image of the car was centerstage, a blue 1969 Plymouth Barracuda, right behind Johnson. I complimented it, he remarked on the full-size Muppet (Gonzo) that lives on a shelf over my shoulder in my office, I asked if he’d confirm the Muppets would be a part of “Knives Out 3,” and he (jokingly) ended the interview. Thankfully, I won him back over for a conversation about the trait Charlie shares with Ana de Armas’ character in the first Benoit Blanc mystery and why Charlie’s unique quirks serve as mere decoration to draw attention to the marvel that is Lyonne’s ultra-captivating amateur sleuth. We also discussed the notion of winning in a procedural (a word Johnson isn’t scared of), nostalgia, and his formula for success when writing mysteries.
What are some shows that you feel inspired this?

Rockford Files, Magnum P.I. to some extent, but also, oddly, Quantum Leap because it’s a roadshow where every episode is kind of an anthropological deep-dive into another little microcosm world, into another little kind of space. But also The Incredible Hulk, moving from town to town. You got to walk on that dusty road at the end of them. Or Highway to Heaven.

I was just going to say.

I think there’s DNA from a lot of stuff kind of mixed into it, and it really is just the pleasure of that group of TV shows where I spent so much time sitting on the carpet in front of the family TV, watching reruns when I was growing up.

Obviously, there’s a difference between doing something that has some brush strokes that are reminiscent of certain shows versus, all of a sudden, “Rian Johnson does Father Dowling Mysteries or Murder, She Wrote!” What’s the right amount of nostalgia for something like this?

I mean, I try and avoid all nostalgia at all costs, but I guess that’s because of how I define nostalgia. To me, nostalgia means pleasure taken in remembering a thing that you liked through the lens of where you’re at now. Whereas what I’m really trying to do with this (or also with the Benoit Blanc Mysteries) is I’m trying to actually deliver the pleasure that you got back then when you experienced it, and deliver that in as vibrant and present a way as when you first experienced it back then. But in that context, that means not being afraid to use the tools that those things used back then. And so that means we’re going to be delivering the tropes of the genre. We’re going to be delivering the basic pleasures of it, just hopefully in a way that feels vibrant and feels real, which I guess can be defined as nostalgia in a way, but to me it’s a very different thing. I don’t know if that makes sense.

It does. And I agree. I’ve thought a lot about nostalgia lately. I don’t know, I think it’s somewhat of a toxic thing. Hard to innovate when you’re weighed down by it, I think.

Yeah. I mean, it’s also something I indulge in and something I take pleasure in. I don’t think it’s necessarily an unhealthy thing to take pleasure from.

Maybe it’s a question of how precious someone is with it. The difference between enjoying something or fixating on other people and how they’re enjoying it, and, “No, that’s not right, you’re ruining my childhood” and that kind of thing.

Oh, policing other people’s pleasure. Yeah, that bleeds into a whole other realm of badness.

Yeah, exactly. I am curious about the construction of this character. She has these quirks. She has this very amazing wardrobe, the car, the Barracuda. Can you tell me about developing the surrounding details of Natasha’s character?

I think that that’s one realm where Natasha and I let ourselves just kind of be led by our basic taste and let ourselves sink back into some of the trappings of that period. I think that’s the thing where we glance closest to the notion of nostalgia, is we let ourselves have this thing have kind of a little bit of a retro feel. I mean, it’s very much set in the present day. There are cell phones. There are all the things you’d see today, but Charlie’s vibe is very much that of someone you’d see in a Roger Corman movie or in an Altman movie, I guess. That’s all just kind of the design of it.

To me, the real work and the meat and potatoes of it was actually figuring out who the character of Charlie was. And because thinking about those shows that we’ve been talking about, the reality is, like with Columbo, for instance, I don’t watch Columbo for the mysteries. I watch it to hang out with Peter Falk. And there are not a lot of actors who have the kind of charisma and presence on screen where they alone can anchor a show to where you’re going to come back every week just to hang out with them and watch them win. And I guess it was when I became friends with Natasha and saw her work in Russian Doll and recognized that she had that, that I kind of honed in and approached her to kind of create the show together. That, for me, is really kind of what makes the character tick, I guess.

I’ve only seen the first four so far. I may be off on this, but you mentioned the character winning. For this kind of story, why is it important that they always win? Is there ever a thought to maybe shake things up and have them not win?

I won’t give anything away. It is a possibility. Everything’s on the table.

This has to do with the idea of them winning, but it has more to do with the idea of setting a pattern and paying that pattern off every week. It’s almost a contract with the audience. I mean, for me, really the genre that I was excited about doing is the genre of TV as I experienced it growing up and the notion that there’s something really pleasurable about tuning in every week and kind of walking into a room that you recognize, about a familiar pattern that you can get used to and that you know what you can expect with that pattern repeating every week.

And within that context, there are going to be surprises. We’re going to delight you. We’re going to kind of play with expectations here and there. But we have a contract with you that this is the format of the show. And when you tune in, you’re going to get the pleasure of seeing how this format’s going to play out this time. And that includes her, quote-unquote, winning at the end. Now, that doesn’t mean we’ll always do it, and we reserve the right to pull the rug out every now and then, but that’s kind of the bigger picture in my head of, for lack of a better word, although I don’t think this is a dirty word, the procedural element of the show.

Natasha’s character being able to tell if people are a liar, that’s similar to Ana de Armas’s character in Knives Out. What is it about that specific kind of special skill that is such a great fit for a detective story?

For very different reasons in both of those, it was kind of the perfect obstruction and superpower for each of those people. With Marta in Knives Out, it’s a character we care about. She’s in a situation she can only get out of via lying, and so taking away her ability to lie felt like the ultimate “make life hard on your main character” thing. And similarly, Charlie (in Poker Face), she’s on the road. Her life is constantly threatened, but she has this good heart, and so the hardest possible thing you could throw at her was having this extrasensory thing that is going to let her know, send an alarm up, when something’s off, and knowing that she’ll kind of be drawn into it because she hates seeing the little guy gets screwed.

So for me, it’s less of kind of a philosophical thing of being interested in lies. It’s almost more that in each case, it was a great kind of dramatic tool to throw as many banana peels in front of the main character as possible.

There’s a resurgence of the kind of detective genre, the whodunit genre, you may have observed this. Are you watching these and, I’m curious, are you the type who tries to race the story and figure out who is behind the murder, or do you just kind of let it play out?

I’m a junkie. I watch everything. I watch anything that’s vaguely a whodunit, and there’s so much good stuff. I really enjoyed Chris (Miller) and Phil’s (Lord) show. The Afterparty was great. I thought See How They Run was super fun, and Bodies Bodies Bodies. And it’s been really fun (seeing) stuff coming out. But the second part of your question, no, absolutely not. Maybe for the first 20 minutes, I’ll be kind of trying to put it together, but at a certain point, I’m very happy to kind of step back and let the story carry me along, which I think really informs how I approach writing my own murder mysteries. I think a big key to how I try and come at them is to never assume that the clue gathering and the solving is going to be entertaining the audience, and to always give it a dramatic spine that is actually going to carry the audience through, with either a thriller or a more basic, fundamental, dramatic engine than the audience trying to solve a puzzle.

Has that always been the case, as a viewer?

Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. And it’s not like it’s a conscious decision of, “This is my theory of who done it, so thus I will watch them this way.” The reality is just when I’m watching them, it just happens. Your brain gets fatigued after about 20 minutes, and you realize if the writer is worth their salt. And given most of the stuff I was watching were Agatha Christie adaptations, I knew that she was, so I will never be able to guess this solution. And so at some point, the detective’s going to explain the thing I never could have guessed. I could randomly point to one of the people and say they did it and maybe be right or not, but kind of who cares?

The first 4 episodes of ‘Poker Face’ are now streaming on Peacock with new episodes premiering Thursdays