[Interview] How Rian Johnson engineered a perfect whodunit with ‘KNIVES OUT’

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

A prolific mystery author (Christopher Plummer) is found dead in his home and everyone from his kids (Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon), to their spouses (Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Riki Lindhome), to his grandkids (Chris Evans, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell), to the help (Ana de Armas, Edi Patterson) is suspected of killing him. That’s the catchy hook of writer-director Rian Johnson’s whodunit KNIVES OUT. He ingeniously engineers this tale with cunning wit and razor-sharp craft, making sure that the devil can be found in the details.

When creating a mystery like this, for you, did it start with the story? Do you do an outline where you fill it in with the characters? What was the process?

I always write really structurally, so I start with a really big picture map. This was just like that. For a movie like this, it’s really necessary. I had a map of the whole thing before I got into any specifics. It was really as basic as can I do a whodunit where I put the engine of a Hitchcock thriller into the middle of a whodunit and yet still have the setup and the payoff of a whodunit. I started backing into it and filling in the blanks. But having that overall arc in my head helps me zap back and forth and set stuff up and see certain things. That’s the only way I can keep my sanity.

Were there specific Hitchcock films you were looking to for tonal touchstones?

It was less about pulling specific tone from his work, and more about the way that he went about building suspense in his movies. I love whodunits. It’s one of my favorite genres. Hitchcock famously hated whodunits because it’s a genre where one of its pitfalls is it can be a lot of build up to one big surprise at the end. Hitchcock was all about empathy-based suspense. He gets the audience caring about someone and then you make the audience sweat how can they get out of it.

For me, it was less about drawing from specific films – like STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, or anything like that. It was more thinking about how Hitchcock went about driving his movies forward and seeing if I can put it into a traditional whodunit.

More structural composition…

Yeah. For specifics, I’m drawing from a ton of stuff, but that’s kind of the soup of movies I have in my head anyway because I love them.

You mention empathy, but how easy was it to pull inspiration from awful real world types of people to create these insufferable characters, who you love to hate?

(laughs) It was sadly easy (laughs). I wish it was harder. Agatha Christie did this with her books too. There’s an interesting dynamic which itself is very Hitchcockian where even when you’re setting up the suspects, even when these people are detestable, you have to buy their motives. Each one of them has a motive for murder, and, as the audience, you have to see why that could push them to maybe do what they did. That is a weird thing. It puts you weirdly on the side of the suspects – not on the side of the person who is gonna get killed.

For this movie especially, some of these people do despicable things and are pretty despicable characters, but it’s still really important to me that you still feel a humanity in them. There’s still something about them where you understood, even if they are making really bad choices, for really selfish reasons, you understand those selfish reasons. For me, they are always reasons I have to recognize in myself in order to write somebody like that, so you’re not just being judgmental.

There’s a line in one of the scenes that references it, but was it much of a surprise when that accent came out of Daniel Craig?

We had talked about it. I had wrote into the script that he had a Southern accent, because I thought it would be fun to make him a fish out of water in New England. We had a lot of conversations about what that accent should be specifically. I knew I wanted it to be very pleasing to the ear so we went with a very Mississippi drawl. He found recordings of Shelby Foote to listen to and imitate. We did a lot of back and forth with it. Even so, all the practice, you kinda have to pull the rip cord and let it go. It was fun seeing the other actors react for the first time hearing him give the performance – seeing these jaws drop.

You write these things and you never know how an actor is going to interpret your creation. The cast is incredible and totally capable, but were there moments when you were surprised how they brought a scene to life?

When I’m doing casting, that’s what I’m intentionally angling for is, one, “I know that person is incredibly talented. I’ve always wanted to work with them.” And second, I’ve never quite seen them do this. If I don’t know what it will look like, them playing this character, that’s really exciting to me. Toni Collette, for instance, she was someone, unlike Daniel, who just showed up and, we didn’t have any rehearsal, started doing that character with that California accent. She’s doing the hippy-dippy-lifestyle guru. I was like, “Oh my God! This is a fully formed thing I could’ve never imagined this magician is pulling out of her hat.” That was incredible.

She’s so brilliant in this. As is Ana de Armas.

Isn’t she incredible? To step into the center of this group of people and effectively carry the movie as confidently as she does. I can’t speak any more highly of her.

From left to right: Donna (Riki Lindholm), Walt (Michael Shannon), Meg (Katherine Langford), Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan), Joni (Toni Collette), Ransom (Chris Evans), Great Nana (K Callan), Jacob (Jaeden Lieberher), Lt. Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield), Richard (Don Johnson), and Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) in KNIVES OUT. Courtesy of Lionsgate.

What was the biggest challenge to get right?

On one hand, when you’re attacking a story like this, there’s getting the plot right. That means not just having all the math mapped out, but making sure the audience can follow it all and follow the pieces you want them to follow at different points. For me, the bigger thing was I wanted it to be satisfying beyond just being a puzzle box. I really wanted the ending to be satisfying on several other levels. In addition to all the plotting stuff, making sure that the emotional element was connecting, that the thematic elements were laying down enough to where they didn’t feel didactic, but were connecting up. Really the stuff we spent the most time on were some of the scenes with Ana and Christopher Plummer – some of the more crucial scenes in a movie where there’s head games, there’s a couple very emotional scenes that need to land. Otherwise, the whole movie won’t work. If attention was lavished on anything, it was lavished on that.

God is in the details, not just in the narrative, but also on this film’s set where you can look to the production design to see character and thematic resonance. Let’s talk about filling those rooms with such amazing art and props.

Our production designer David Crank is a genius. He’s collaborated with Jack Fisk on Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies and Terrence Malick’s movies. His set decorator, David Schlesinger, scoured Massachusetts for all these curios, knick-knacks, automatons and works of art and filled that house up. I gave them the reference of the 1970’s SLEUTH with Michael Caine and Laurence Oliver, which also takes place in a big mansion – sorta the inside of this mystery writer’s brain with all his obsessions. They went to town. In between takes, I would just wander around and look at the shelves and be amazed by the level of detail they put into it.

I would imagine the painting names might be referential to the narrative themes.

Very much so. Yeah, I told them, “Think thematically. Think in terms of the movie.” So they have lots of artwork on the walls with hypnotists, hypnotizing young women. I told them, “Think deep. Don’t be afraid to think slightly meta how you decorate the background.”

Getting the location seems like it was also a big deal – casting the right house.

Yeah. My producer, Ram Bergman, started scouting for the house before the script was even finished. He was having people draw scouting reports and looking at them online. The instant we saw this house, we were just like, “That’s it. It’s a murder mystery mansion of the mind.” It felt right to have LaKeith’s character reference it as looking like a Clue board. Because we’re gonna do some twists and turns throughout the movie, and because we’re giving this movie a modern context, starting it with the most recognizable foundation possible – showing a murder mystery mansion – starting off questioning the family as suspects, beginning with a solid “We know what kind of movie this is” type tone and setup, that was really important. The house was a big part of that.

KNIVES OUT opens on November 27.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.