“Knives Out” is wisely being billed as “A Rian Johnson Whodunit,” as no one would tell this story the way Johnson does. An update of the Agatha Christie ensemble murder mystery, the set-up might be recognizable—a powerful man, the family patriarch (Christopher Plummer) has been murdered. That’s just in the first few minutes of this impeccably twisty movie, and with his own Christie-like detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig in an Louisianan accent), a group of cagey, quirky friends and family members are interviewed, and the cast is one of the year’s best: Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Katherine Langford, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Riki Lindhome, and Jaeden Martell. Johnson then proceeds to flip the very concept of Blanc and his associates (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) finding out the killer, restructuring the expectations for the genre.
Johnson has always been a storyteller with many tricks up his sleeve, back to his high school noir film debut “Brick,” and his underrated 2008 followup “The Brothers Bloom,” which equated his love of a good con with that of a well-told story. In 2012, he grounded the time travel tale with “Looper,” and was later hired to write and direct “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” one of the most innovative in the entire franchise.
The night after the film had a centerpiece screening at this year's Chicago International Film Festival, we sat down with Johnson and Michael Shannon to talk around the big thrills of “Knives Out.” Our spoiler-free discussion included Johnson’s feelings about “The Brothers Bloom” more than ten years later, Shannon’s dreams of being on “Saturday Night Live,” the movie’s emphasis on being a good person and more.
The tricks within this movie reminded me of your 2008 con artist movie, “The Brothers Bloom,” which has since become one of my favorite films. But what does that movie mean to you now?
RIAN JOHNSON: I actually went back and took a look … [to Michael] this is the second movie that I did, with Adrien Brody and Rachel Weisz. That movie has a really special place for a lot of reasons for me, and the experience of making it. I had just been broke in my 20s trying to get “Brick” made, and then for my second movie I wrote this big globe-trotting adventure, because I kind of wanted to have an adventure? You know what I mean? And that’s exactly what it was. It was Ruffalo and Rachel Weisz and we tromped around Eastern Europe like a traveling circus and just did all this wacky stuff. And this movie was really personal to me, and it came out and kind of landed with a wet fart, and nobody saw it. It didn’t get filleted by critics, but it got what I felt was really mixed. And so I sort of felt like I had let everyone down. And it was one of those really personal things where I felt like I kinda failed, and then over the years it has been really nice meeting people who the movie really connected with, and it still is really incredibly personal to me.
I’ve seen “Bloom” many times and I know how meticulous it is with every detail, especially with lighting, color, etc. But as a project that came further down the line, was "Knives Out" more meticulous and less meticulous?
RJ: Well, “Knives Out” is more concise I think. “Brothers Bloom” is like a big sloppy kiss, sort of. This is much more tightly wound, I think. It has to be by nature, by the type of movie it is. It very much is an exercise in engineering in terms of all the plot stuff. But then of course you put great actors in it, and let them go to town having fun, and hopefully you get the best of both worlds.
Michael, how do you like to be directed?
MICHAEL SHANNON: Not the way Rian did it.
RJ: [while pouring coffee] Shut the fuck up, Shannon!
MS: I don’t know. That’s a really hard question, I’m not sure why, you think it wouldn’t be. But look, every part you play is a mystery. You always feel like you’re in the dark, and you could know more about who somebody is. Like you were saying earlier, details. So, I like when directors help you find these details, and they feel like it’s important, too. And you can have a very frank conversation about the character, and what’s happening, and it’s always much more about that than it is, “Could you smile more?”, or “Could you be funnier?” It’s more like, “What’s happening with this guy? What’s he doing?” And that’s very much Rian’s approach, and the people I like to work with. It’s not result-oriented, it’s much more about discovery and trying to figure out who these people are.
Did you give him the full script?
RJ: Oh yeah, for sure.
So you got to read the full thing and know the mystery, but also what your character did and didn’t do.
MS: Yeah. It wasn’t one of those things where they hand you the sides in the morning. That’s a whole fad that I’m ready to see done away with.
RJ: Is that a thing?
MS: Well you know, just the whole super secretive thing. I think you need the script, I think it’s important to have the script.
RJ: You need the context.
MS: And even in a situation like this where you know, it’s not like any of us are going to give it away.
RJ: It’s gone overboard, it’s just become like this game, a secrecy thing.
Have you had to push against that?
RJ: Well, with “Star Wars,” but not something like this. On “Star Wars” I was always pushing back in terms of … because it does just become this self-perpetuating machine of “let’s keep everything secret,” but it’s like, “Well, if we have this group of artists who are actually trying to make this thing, they need to know what they’re making.” The process is the thing that’s important overall, and if we don’t trust these people, why are we hiring them?
Where did the name Walt come from for Michael's character?
RJ: [to Michael] Do you know this? So all the names in the family, to keep it straight, I did them all as ‘70s musicians that I like. His wife in the movie is named Donna, so it’s Walt and Donna, which is Walt and Donald from Steeley Dan. And Joni is Joni Mitchell, and her dead husband was Neil who is Neil Young. And Richard and Linda are Richard and Linda Thompson. It was just a way for me to remember them.
Are you a Steely Dan fan, then?
MS: Oh. I just saw them at Ravinia! Me and my buddy, my friend Guy, we went for his birthday. I can’t say really “see them,” you don’t really see people when you go to Ravinia. You’re so far away.
RJ: And it’s just Fagan now, right?
MS: Yeah, Walt Becker, rest in peace. So I play the dead member of Steely Dan.
RJ: You’re welcome.
Michael, did you audition for this part?
So did you write with him in mind?
RJ: No, I don’t write with anyone in mind. It’s just you get the script done, and it’s like, you sit down and you think, “Who would be good for what?” And then I just sat down with Michael.
MS: He came to my neighborhood. Well, he came to what used to be my neighborhood.
Are we talking Chicago?
MS: No, New York. Red Hook, Brooklyn. And we had a nice lunch?
RJ: Yeah. I remember the beers, I don’t remember the lunch.
MS: Woke up in an alley … I had a contract signed.
I read that you’ve been plotting this out for 10 years, which makes it a similar "out from the drawer" process like how you wrote "Looper." How has your writing style not changed? Does "Knives Out" reflect a growth in your writing process?
RJ: I mean, I guess so. To be fair, I had the initial idea, and it’s always kind of cooking back there, it’s not like I’ve been sitting down and writing for ten years. It was something where it was always kind of there, I was always kind of thinking about it, but it was in the back drawer. But you know, stuff grows in that drawer. I think we believe something is back there, and even if you’re not thinking about it, something is still fermenting and you’re still working on it. But when I actually sat down to work on it, I wrote it very fast for me. I wrote it in like six months.
Do you take a long time to write scripts?
RJ: I generally do, yeah. So this came out really quick. I don’t know why that is.
I remember I did a roundtable interview with you about “Looper,” and you had this great statement from “My Dinner with Andre” about the woman who only eats chicken, as related to audiences only getting a certain kind of entertainment.
RJ: Yes! And she’s starving to death.
Is “Knives Out” at all a direct reflection of that belief? Did “The Last Jedi” affirm that for you?
RJ: Always. To me, true entertainment is something that has got to be satisfying on multiple levels. I don’t know if it’s me getting older or more and more movies, but increasingly, movies that are nothing but just the quote-unquote turn your brain off, go-on-a-ride-type movies, I know there’s a lot of people who love them, I just find them less and less interesting. To me, the stuff that is truly entertaining, the stuff that is fun and awry but also gives you something to engage with, gives you something to chew on. [“Knives Out”] does very much still reflect my belief that entertainment should do that. That’s not incompatible, the notion that something can be incredibly fun and also give you something to engage with, that’s not chalk and cheese to me, that’s two sides of the same coin. So yeah, that’s what I’m always trying to do with stuff. And “Star Wars” has always been that. And “Star Wars” is in many ways the model for that, it’s not just pure escapist fun, but also gives you something to chew on.
I think dialogue is a big part of that with this movie, that’s the action, its entertainment. Michael, were you adding more, aside from the comedy stuff that you’ve previously stated with improvised?
MS: The improv is only in the big group scenes with the family, because it’s really hard to script that kind of cacophony. But all the one-on-one scenes are very precisely written, and you want to get it right because you weren’t going to make it better by screwing it up. So, yeah it was really just in those big group scenes to just descend.
Do you receive a lot of comedy pitches? We’ve talked about your work on “Delocated” in the past.
MS: I’ve done a couple [episodes] of Amy Sedaris’ show. That’s fun. She’s nuts. I love her. Um, I’ve never hosted “SNL,” no one’s ever asked me.
RJ: Dude, you got to! Get on the phone right now! Let’s make it happen!
MS: I just saw David Harbour was on. Come on … I’ve got a leg up on him.
RJ: Michael Shannon on SNL! Let’s start that hashtag, let’s do it. Shannon on SNL.
MS: I saw Lorne Michaels once, at this restaurant, in New York. But he wouldn’t make eye contact with me. I think he’s got a grudge against me.
RJ: Why? What’d you do to Lorne Michaels?
MS: Because I’m taller than he is?
RJ: [laughs] Tell him to join the club. I got over it.
Do you think you’d flourish in that environment?
MS: Well, I want the opportunity to find out.
RJ: I think you’d kill it, man.
MS: It’s scary!
RJ: But in a good way.
That means you have to keep doing big movies and then they’ll put you on the show.
MS: Bigger than this! I’m starring in Rian’s next “Star Wars” movie.
RJ: It’s gonna be all mo-cap.
MS: I’m playing Jabba the Hutt as a young man.
RJ: It’s basically “American Graffiti,” but with Jabba the Hutt.
We’re obviously not going to get into “Knives Out” spoilers, but I love its sentiment overall about being a good person.
RJ: That was really important to me, that the movie always had, for lack of a better phrase, a good heart. Especially with … there’s a lot of nastiness, and there’s all this stuff, but to me the movie had to essentially have a good heart. The truth is that all of the family characters, I think it’s really important, especially with a movie like this, that none of these people are like, “That’s a bad person.” Every one of them you can find your way to, and you need really good actors to be able to draw characters that are this kind of big and do things that are this bad, and still have humanity to them where you can still on some level connect with them. Every single one of the characters, you need to be able to do that with. But ultimately, the movie having a good heart was something that had to be in the breeding from the start. I didn’t want the movie to land in a cynical place.
As two guys that people like working with in this industry, how much value does that sentiment have?
RJ: There are people who are not nice that are successful, but why would you want your life to be that?
MS: They’re usually not very happy. Usually, when people aren’t nice, it’s because they’re unhappy. I mean, not that I am happy.
So, Michael. You’re unhappy …
MS: Don’t make me cry.
RJ: Let’s open the mini bar. Let’s get into it.
But these people in the movie, they’re unhappy.
MS: Well, Walt is confronted with his own shortcomings on a regular basis. He just puts on a sweater and does the best he can.
Does his cane inform any of that?
MS: Oh yeah, I mean. What a loser, you know? He’s literally falling apart. But he …
RJ: He keeps hobbling on.
Did you look at him that way, when he was just in your head?
RJ: Yeah, he’s the youngest in the family. And he’s always kind of lived in his father’s shadow, and he’s not fully formed.
MS: He probably wishes that he was as gifted as his father was. He realized, he woke up one morning and was like, “Oh, I don’t have any real talent or ability, so why don’t I just latch on.”
RJ: And this is the other thing, it’s not like the movie’s a deep character ... but the degree in which that power dynamic exists, in the degree to which Christopher Plummer’s character Harlan I’m sure has always kept his children underneath it--that subtle dynamic of “helpless like a rich man’s son.” That seemed really interesting. And that was also one of the reasons that I was excited to have you in that part. That’s the thing, with Michael and [Jamie Lee Curtis]. It was having the conversations about “What is the humanity of this character? What is the thing that we can relate to?” That’s the thing with murder mysteries, always. For the set-up, it’s not like, “Why do these terrible people want to kill this nice person?” The set-up is always, “Here’s a person in power, and we’re going to meet a bunch of people who have a motivation to kill that person, which you’re going to relate to on some level.” It’s always about finding a little slice of things in ourselves that we’re like, “God, yeah, I get why that person would be motivated to do this.” That’s part of the game that whodunits play.
Did you look at "Knives Out" like a family drama, in that respect?
RJ: The thing as a whole is very much structured around the family. It’s not a family drama in that it’s not playing out in terms of relationships. But growing up in a big family myself—which I should say, I love my family, they’re not at all like the family in this movie—growing up with the family dynamics like in this movie, that sticks with you.