Fantastic Fest closed the book on another great year with Rian Johnson’s ‘KNIVES OUT’

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

AUSTIN – Everyone who attends Fantastic Fest arrives with certain expectations. Maybe it’s to enjoy the conversations in between features. Perhaps it’s to catch some quality screenings or extend gratitude to a filmmaker whose work you admire. Maybe it’s the access to fresh merchandise. Or, perhaps it’s all the above. 

Whatever it is, one thing that is for sure about Fantastic Fest: it feels like home. 

Writer-director Rian Johnson on the red carpet at the regional premiere of ‘KNIVES OUT’ at Fantastic Fest. Courtesy of Fantastic Fest. Photo credit: Jack Plunkett.

As Knives Out director Rian Johnson so eloquently put it during his premiere introduction, it’s only after you’re seven hangovers deep and have coated your innards with queso and fried pickles that you’ve experienced Fantastic Fest.

Now that the festival is over, everybody’s suspicions have been confirmed, or expectations have been met, but hopefully, fun was had. From the looks on devotees’ faces on Thursday night, it was nothing short of, well, fantastic.

Of my six years covering Fantastic Fest, I have to say, 2019 might have been the most memorable. The energy had a kinetic boost, and everyone was there to celebrate and support each other, no matter what. Whether it was the cheers from watching the drag queen horror affair in the Highball or the thrill from swapping VHS movies with fellow tape collectors, love was in the air.

So, what better way was there to cap off the week-long film festival than to play a cinematic game of Clue with Rian Johnson and actor Noah Segan? The two descended upon Austin to graciously hand festers back off to the real world with their fun-as-hell Knives Out.

Johnson’s follow-up to 2017’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a whodunit that brings together one of the most impressive casts. The ensemble includes Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Chris Evans, Don Johnson and Ana de Armas, among many other notable talents. And the story revolves around the death of an eccentric family’s patriarch (Christopher Plummer) and the investigation that follows. 

Fresh Fiction attended the film’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. (You can read that coverage here.) But we also didn’t miss Knives Out’s stateside introduction. Johnson and Segan walked the Fantastic Fest red carpet before it’s 7:50 p.m. showtime, and it’s where we caught up with the talents to discuss how the film couldn’t be more fit for 2019 as well as what makes the relationship between Johnson and Segan so lasting. 

Johnson, left, and Noah Segan at Fantastic Fest. Courtesy of Fantastic Fest. Photo credit: Jack Plunkett.

“It was incredible and fantastic to work on Star Wars, but it also was a four-year-long process. It felt really good to jump into Knives Out as quickly as I did,” Johnson said on the red carpet. “That’s the interesting thing about this movie: It happened very fast. I had been cooking it up for the past ten years in the back of my head, so I was able to sit down and write it pretty quickly.”

When asked what sort of impression the film would make if we were to back out and look at his career down the line, Johnson said Knives Out is a classic whodunit that also plugs itself into 2019 America. 

“I think the immediacy of turning it around quickly helped me with that. In terms of how it will fit in later on or age, who knows? I made it very much to be seen right now,” Johnson said assuredly. 

When Johnson’s take on Star Wars came out, it no doubt shook up the game board for Star Wars’ future. Some welcomed it while others took to the internet to drag Johnson through the mud any chance they could. However, Johnson has always maintained his composure and didn’t let the divided reaction consume him. Instead, he’s the type of filmmaker who speaks softly and carries a big pen. Audiences who see Knives Out might detect some of his feelings about the world sprinkled throughout his murder-mystery narrative.

“We’re all living in the same world and experiencing the same or similar things. If you’re online, we’re swimming in the same water. For me, it’s important to have my ear to the ground and experience what is going on. Knives Out is a caricature of the world today. We can recognize it, laugh at it and have cathartic moments,” Johnson said.

For Johnson, whether he’s doing something like Knives Out or Star Wars, he tries to take moments that people are experiencing in the world and adds them to his cinematic stew.

“I only really want to talk about the world through the films I make. I’m not great at lecturing. I would be feeding people a spoonful of salt as opposed to throwing it in the mixture of all the other stuff. [These ingredients] can make the film a little more complicated and interesting,” Johnson concluded before stepping into his screening.

Noah Segan portrays Trooper Wagner in ‘KNIVES OUT.’ Courtesy of Fantastic Fest. Photo credit: Jack Plunkett.

Noah Segan has been a part of every movie Johnson has made. Whether that’s the gunslinging baddie Kid Blue from 2012’s Looper or an X-Wing pilot from The Last Jedi, it’s apparent the friends have created something special together. That relationship blossoms further in Knives Out, where Segan portrays Trooper Wagner.

“What’s so crazy about my character in Knives Out is that it is [the role] most like myself,” Segan said. “I always play the creeps and bad guys [in Johnson’s films]. In this case, I think there was something about this goofy dad energy I have that popped up and we rolled with it.”

Segan said, of course, he would be in anything Johnson directs, but it’s icing on the cake that his scripts are so sharp. For Segan, there’s no real reason to step outside Johnson’s writings. As Segan stated on the red carpet, “If it’s not on the page, it’s not on the stage.”

“The big takeaway from working with [Johnson] is there’s no substitute for writing a great script. You really have to trust your gut, and that comes down to who you surround yourself with,” Segan said. “To work with your friends and people whom you love, and who all have the same objective in mind, it doesn’t get much better than that.”

Once the theater lobby cleared out at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar Boulevard, everyone shuffled into their assigned theaters. Knives Out played in multiple theaters at the festival. The big house, theater 5, is where Johnson and Segan watched the film with audiences and conducted their question-and-answer session. But everyone who attended Knives Out got to see and listen to what Johnson and Segan had to say. Their chat was multicast for all the theaters.

After the film concluded and audiences were soaking up the thrill from watching Knives Out, the night ended with creative director Evrim Ersoy moderating the post-screening fun. 

L-R: Evrim Ersoy, Noah Segan, Rian Johnson and producer Ram Bergman. Photo by www.hlkfotos.com

Ersoy kicked things off by complimenting Johnson for crafting a murder-mystery that constantly rewrites itself as the audience watches it. Just when you think it goes one way, it pulls the rug from under you. 

“What compelled you to do something so phenomenally different,” Ersoy inquired.

The director replied by saying that putting his own spin on the genre is what intrigued him. Johnson made it known that he is a massive fan of whodunit stories, especially from genre pioneer (or reinventor) author Agatha Christie.

“I fundamentally agree with what [filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock] thought about the genre, which is the danger of it is that it has one big lead up to a surprise at the end. So the idea was how could I take all the good elements about the genre and put an engine in the middle of it like a Hitchcock thriller,” Johnson told audiences.

Following Johnson’s inspiration for the story, Ersoy asked Segan about being in “almost all of [Johnson’s films].”

Segan quickly replied, “I think I’m in all of them! [Directed at Johnson] Unless there’s one that I don’t know about.”

Johnson joked: “Yeah. There was that one we didn’t tell you about. It was a big hit!”

Johnson said Segan is one of his closest friends. They hang out almost every day, so it would be awkward if he were to make a movie at this point and not put Segan in there somewhere.

“Initially, [Segan’s role was more of] a background part. But when we were doing ADR with Daniel Craig, he looked over at me and said, ‘[Segan is] in this quite a bit,” Johnson recalled.

Segan spoke about how grateful he was to play the Trooper Wagner. For him, it was as if he was a member of the audience. His character gets to watch the movie as it’s happening while everyone else’s character is facing stress and drama.

Noah Segan at the ‘KNIVES OUT’ Q&A at Fantastic Fest 2019 in Austin, Texas. Photo by www.hlkfotos.com.

The conversation then shifted to the film’s social commentary that we briefly spoke with Johnson about on the red carpet. Johnson said having his feelings about the world was always in the script.

“What Agatha Christie was doing with her books was including these musty, old tropes. But at the time she was writing her stories, they existed in society. She wasn’t a political writer. She didn’t have a heavy social message in her books. But her work engaged the culture she was living in,” Johnson said.

The best moment of the night came when festival regular and screenwriter C. Robert Cargill asked Johnson if he was planning to write more movies that would include Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc. With his Foghorn Leghorn manner of speaking and rants about donut symbolism, Craig’s character was a clear audience favorite. The crowd cheered and clapped at Cargill’s question. But Johnson, being the sly wordsmith he is, replied: “May I ask you a question? How many people are you going to bring opening weekend?”

There has been talking online about more possible adventures with Benoit Blanc. But that, of course, depends on the film’s reception and box-office return when it releases to the public on November 27.

“We had so much fun making it, and I had so much fun working with [Craig]. I never thought about making sequels to anything I’ve done,” Johnson admitted. “To me, it wouldn’t be making a sequel; it would be making another mystery with a whole new cast.”

Segan interjected: “I mean, not like a whole new cast.”

Knives Out is one of the most enjoyable theatrical experiences of the year. It has such an intoxicating energy to it that it zooms right along, making you laugh every bit of the way. I might even be so bold to say that it’s Johnson’s best work, and this is coming from someone who loves The Brothers Bloom, The Last Jedi, Looper and Brick. But there’s no denying that Johnson excels in this genre. Even when you think you got it all figured out, Johnson plays you for a fool. It’s an absolute blast.

Be sure to set your turkey carving knives down to break and catch Knives Out this Thanksgiving!

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.