‘Knives Out’: Rian Johnson Solves the Case of the Modern A-List Whodunit
You start with a corpse. A murder has been committed — maybe it’s at a country estate, or on a train, or during a cruise headed to some exotic locale. If the victim is powerful, rich, and possibly hated for a variety of reasons, all the better. You need suspects, each with a motive for wanting said person six feet under. Lastly, and this is important: You’ve gotta have a sleuth. Preferably someone eccentric, with a quirk or a tic; bonus points if you can make the brainiac seem innocent or easily underestimated. (Double bonus points if they have standout tonsorial affectations as well.) Now, drop a lot of clues — red herrings are optional — and conclude the whole shebang with the detective revealing the killer(s) before the assembled crowd. Boom! You have made the sort of murder mystery that critics in the 1930s dubbed a whodunit.
There’s a cozy familiarity to these conventions, especially if you’ve sampled the genre’s golden-age authors like Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Dorothy L. Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, and Rex Stout. Rian Johnson read a bunch of these novels as a kid; he couldn’t get enough of books like The Murder of Roger Aykroyd. Not only that, the Last Jedi writer-director says he’s old enough to remember the comfort-food pleasures of weekly detective shows, a ton of which were predicated on a whodunit-of-the-week template. Why wouldn’t you tune in to see Columbo or Jessica Fletcher unravel someone’s “perfect murder” plans in less than an hour?
But what really struck the filmmaker were the whodunit movies he grew up seeing. He still has a special fondness for those. “The tone was very fun and slightly self-aware,” Johnson says, calling from a hotel room in Paris. “And they’d have the sort of cast where, when every person shows up onscreen, you’re happy to see them. Y’know, oh hey, there’s Michael York! And there’s Jane Birkin and Mia Farrow, having a blast! And the Agatha Christie movies, specifically the ones where Peter Ustinov plays Hercule Poirot — Death on the Nile (1978) and Evil Under the Sun (1982)? Those were touchstone movies for me. To this day, I could watch those once a week.”
It’s one thing to pine for these celebrity-filled Clue games writ large; it’s a whole other thing, however, to spend a decade scheming about how to craft one of your own. Knives Out is Johnson’s original contribution to the A-list murder mystery canon, which serves as both an homage to the old parlor-room puzzlers of Christie, Sayers, et al. and a twisty, clever update of them. Like its ancestors on the page and the screen, the movie (which opened November 27th) has a corpse: a bestselling mystery writer named Harlan Thrombey, found dead the morning after his 85th birthday. It has the ideal location: an old New England manor house filled with hidden staircases, musty dens, and a gathering place tailor-made for a deductive denouement. It has a lineup of potential suspects, from Harlan’s real-estate mogul daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis) and a son (Michael Shannon) who runs his lucrative publishing company to his grandson (Chris Evans), the dictionary definition of an entitled douchebag. A virtual who’s who of fellow stars, including Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Don Johnson, Christopher Plummer, and Ana de Arnas, join in the fun.
And it has a supersleuth, in the form of Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc, a Poirot by way of Lake Pontchartrain who’s blessed with superior investigative skills and a Southern accent that would stop Foghorn Leghorn in his tracks. In a film filled with famous actors playing off of murder-mystery archetypes (the jealous offspring, the flighty heiress, the son-in-law with a secret he needs to stay hidden), the once and future James Bond is the closest thing to Knives Out’s secret weapon. Johnson had seen Craig in Lucky Logan as well as a few theatrical productions, and he’d hung out with the star socially a few times. He passed Craig the script. The actor read it and loved it. But the window of his availability was extremely brief.
“I mean, the whole thing went head-spinningly fast,” Johnson admits. “I’d been thinking about doing a film like this for close to 10 years, but never really had the chance to sit down to write it until January of 2018. It took me six months to get it down on paper — which was unusually speedy for me — and pass the script to Daniel. He liked it but had to start production… and then the starting date for the new Bond got pushed, so we had this very brief, very specific window in which he could do it. When he said yes, we had five weeks to get the cast together, prep the movie, and make it. We just hit the gas and ended up wrapping before Christmas. It was insane.”
As for Craig’s Kentucky-fried accent? “I wrote the character as Southern, but I knew I wanted the lilt to be honeyed and pleasing, as opposed to twangy,” Johnson says. “I sent him recordings of Shelby Foote speaking in a Mississippi drawl. Then he just worked on it — and let ’er rip once he was on set. Plus I had a French tutor named Benoit, and I always liked that name … and Blanc just seemed to roll off the tongue.”
As for the rest of the cast, Johnson claims that he assembled his dream team predicated largely on one simple question: “‘We’re shooting in six weeks, who wants to come to Boston?’ I have a great casting director who assembled a list of people who are potentially available, and we went from there. It also involved one of my favorite things to do, which is to take an actor I like and wonder, ‘What haven’t I seen this person do before?’ We’ve seen Michael Shannon play this intense alpha guy — so what would he be like if he was this very bitter beta male? Or, like, what if the guy who played Captain America was kind of a jerk? Let’s be a little unpredictable here.”
You could say that notion of unpredictability extended to the very notion that Knives Out exists at all — that resuscitating a largely DOA genre and playing it straight might be the last thing you’d expect from someone cashing their chips in after a mega-successful franchise film. Who the hell makes a whodunit not just in 2019, but for 2019?
That was exactly the appeal, Johnson counters. “The idea was never to make a drawing-room period piece or do a parody,” he says. “We didn’t want to just re-skin an old genre but to genuinely do what Agatha Christie was doing for British society back in the Twenties and Thirties. That was the challenge. Class has always played a part in these types of mysteries: the hoary old tropes of the colonels and the butlers and what have you; she was drawing caricatures of the types that were around her back then. The question we kept asking ourselves from day one was, how do we honor these stories but reflect the America we live in right now? How do we come up with the right spoonful of sugary arsenic to help the medicine go down?”
The solution, he says, was to populate his mystery with the kind of rancid one-percenters that would not only fight over a dead man’s inheritance but plausibly threaten to deport Harlan’s first-generation Latin American nurse in order to get it. It isn’t a coincidence that one odious character spouts suspiciously Trumpian opinions and another is an onanistic alt-right troll. Nor is it a fluke that one of the most sympathetic characters in the movie is an immigrant. “Part of what we’re talking about with these types also came from wanting to have an emotional backbone to the movie,” he says. “There needed to be higher stakes besides just, ‘Will the detective catch the killer?’ I wanted the payoff to be more than solving a puzzle.”
“There’s a beautiful consistency in examples of gosh-this-isn’t-like-the-old-stuff-we-loved reaction to new art … you’re not allowed to veer from a strict set of rules, or it’s #NotMyWhodunit.“
In other words, those hoping for the equivalent of a genre museum piece — a sort of trapped-in-amber whodunit — may find their expectations thwarted a bit. Johnson wants folks who hold that golden age of detective novels in extremely high regard to appreciate what he’s trying to do with the form. He also has firsthand experience with moviegoers who lash out when their expectations are not met, which brings us to the topic of fandom. You’ve probably heard that some folks were rather vocal with their displeasure over Johnson’s addition to the Star Wars universe. And while the chance that whodunit purists will petition to have every copy of Knives Out destroyed is next to nil, he’s aware that you run the risk of offending traditionalists whenever you mess around with a codified set of conventions.
“There’s kind of a beautiful consistency in the multiple examples of gosh-this-isn’t-like-the-old-stuff-we-loved reaction to new art,” Johnson notes. “Let’s take Agatha Christie as an example. The whole notion of a ‘classic’ whodunit — as well as the idea that you’re not allowed to veer from a strict set of rules, or it’s #NotMyWhodunit — falls apart once you look at her first big hit, The Murder of Roger Aykroyd. She subverted the conventions of what was a very young genre in such a meta, bold way that people were pissed! They would write her editors, saying “She didn’t play fair here, this is not kosher, this is not cool!’
“Christie knew the old rules well enough to make new ones or bend them to push the genre forward, which is how I still feel about expectations and movies,” he continues. “The minute you start thinking, ‘How do I not betray somebody’s very personal and usually quite random ideas of what should and shouldn’t be in a film’ … first of all, you’ll go nuts. But worse, you’ll make a boring movie. And nobody wants that.
“It’s funny, because I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately,” Johnson adds, right before he gets off the phone to go run around the City of Light. “Not so much the how of it, or the what of Knives Out, but the why of it. I know why I love these types of stories, and every time I told somebody I wanted to make one, they told me why they were so excited about seeing this genre come back. And one of the things that these stories offer is the notion that the world is being thrown into moral chaos over a crime, and you know that by the end of it, an authority figure is going to stand in the library and put things back in place. There’s a comforting feeling [that] everything will make sense by the end. The person responsible will go to jail, and order will be restored.
“That idea felt pretty good in the Thirties, when there was a lot of turbulence and uncertainty in the world, you know?” he says. “And that idea feels pretty good right now, too.”