"Knives Out" is a production unit with much more in mind than just catching a killer. Director and writer Rian Johnson's latest film – which has plunged into mystery with his high school debut noir "Brick" and raised expectations in distant galaxies with "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" – is a fun story of money, privilege and murder. Along with its striking and startling narrative, the film addresses many contemporary topics, from immigration to social media and more.
Christopher Plummer plays Harlan Thromby, a prominent novelist who is found dead the morning after his 85th birthday. Her entire family, whose lives depend largely on the patriarch's vast wealth, may be considered suspicious – the formidable ensemble includes Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Don Johnson, Toni Collette and Michael Shannon – as well as her young caretaker Marta (Ana de Weapons). Among them are two local police officers (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) and an eccentric private investigator named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig).
By editing "Knives Out," Johnson essentially created a whodunit inspirational curriculum, publishing a series of photos online movie posters. Their final product explodes with these references, whether “Sleuth” and “Deathtrap”, adaptations of Agatha Christie or lighter genre, such as “Clue” and “The Private Eyes”. The film also includes a glimpse of an episode of "Murder, She Wrote." , voiced in Spanish, a invented Danica McKellar Hallmark movie called "Murder by Surprise," and the voice of former Johnson collaborator Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a David Caruso-type cop on a TV show.
But instead of some kind of mix of ideas from other books and movies, "Knives Out" seems singular, all by itself, with a crazy inventive spirit. Johnson recently sat down to examine the matrix of references and influences in the world of "Knives Out."
Caution! Spoilers follow.
Daniel Craig plays a detective in "Knives Out." Ana de Armas plays a nurse.
(Claire Folger / Lionsgate)
What was your inspiration with "Knives Out"?
Rian Johnson: The basic idea was half double – or triple, I think – a whod unit that turns into a Hitchcock thriller that turns into a whod unit in the end. This combined with – and spoiler warning – doing the "Colombo" thing of tipping the "killer" early, but setting it up so that your sympathies are genuinely with that person. This creates an interesting dynamic where the mechanics of the murder mystery becomes the villain of the movie. The fact that the killer gets caught is what you fear. And that seemed very interesting to me.
It's such a goal to do, but it seemed right, because the murder mystery genre has always been a met genre, even from its roots. You can read books written in the 1920s, where the characters in the books are joking about how they turned out in a murder mystery.
When you are sitting down to write, do you already have a mental list of references or influences?
Usually, I think less about direct influences and more about my idea of history and what it means to me. The times I will specifically influence are usually when I get stuck. For this one, I went back and looked at "Death on the Nile" and "Evil Under the Sun" and calculated how long the denouement lasted. I was like, “How long are these things really? Because I have in mind it's about 10 minutes at the end, but I wrote a half hour thing. "And I came back and watched and was like," Oh, thank goodness, it's usually 20 to 30 minutes, really, just explaining it. But usually, if I'm taking something from a deeper well, it's something that I just love and it's already there.
The cast members of "Knives Out" on the left, Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Noah Segan and Lakeith Stanfield.
(Claire Folger / Lionsgate)
Were there mystery writers besides Agatha Christie that you were thinking of?
Christie was the big one. I read Dorothy Sayers. I read John Dickson Carr, Conan Doyle. A.A. Milne wrote a whodunit. It was such a popular genre that many people liked to try. For me, however, I have not yet found a unit author who resonates with me like Christie. Mostly because of the colorful characters she creates. As much as she is praised, I feel she is still strangely underrated. She is very good at engaging you with those character caricatures that still have enough emotional resonance to attract you. It's amazing what she does.
Stephen Sondheim co-wrote the murder mystery movie "The Last of Sheila". And at one point Benoit Blanc is listening to music and singing along with Sondheim's "Losing My Mind." Why this song?
I was listening to "Follies" while writing. I love the idea that Blanc is working on the case and he has this great song in his head. Usually, I just wanted to get a reference from Sondheim there. Sondheim is a mysterious nut and declared puzzle. Actually, "Sleuth", I don't know if it's apocryphal, but supposedly the character Laurence Olivier plays in "Sleuth" is based on Sondheim to some extent. And the play's title was "Who's Afraid of Stephen Sondheim." And Sondheim used to throw mysterious murder parties to his friends. That's where "The Last of Sheila" comes from, the movie he wrote with Anthony Perkins. It's about a rich guy throwing these crazy mysterious murder parties. I'm just a big fan of Sondheim, so it felt good to wave to him.
Tell me about Flam, the Goop-type lifestyle business run by Toni Collette's character.
Going back a little, I think people tend to have this misconception of Christie's books, which were timeless and … sort of sealed and locked in amber in this fantasy world. They were not. … she is very involved with British culture at the moment she is writing. She has been writing since the 1920s, 30s, and even the 60s, and you can pick up any of her books and tell what decade it is because she is involved with the culture.
So if we're going to shoot (2019), what's exciting is not just getting Professor Plum on a cell phone, but taking the 2019 character types the way she got them out of Britain in the 1930s, drawing caricatures of types that can only exist today. That meant the social influencers, the lifestyle gurus, the Internet trolls – all these things that we're dealing with in a very unique way right now. In fact, it seemed very correct in terms of paying tribute to Christie to attract them.
More of the Knives Out lineup, played by Katherine Langford, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Riki Lindhome and Jaeden Martell on the left.
(Claire Folger / Lionsgate)
MAIN! SPOILERS! FORWARD!
There is this whole cycle of eating the rich movies now with "Joker" and "Parasite". How do you feel about knowing the movie you made and then seeing these other movies coming out?
At the moment there is much in the air in terms of the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots. And I think any movie that's worth it is born of culture and reflects it. To me, Knives Out is not about eating the rich. For me it is – I think for lack of a better word – privilege, the way we alter our narrative to underestimate the ways in which system biases worked in our favor.
Sin is not being successful or rich. Sin, I think, is somehow mythologizing when you get there, playing on a level playing field that has not benefited from any of the system's biases and that anyone not there should not be working as hard as you. . And then realizing that you got there too because you got help. If you've come to a certain place in life, whether it's about money, position, status or anything else, it's your turn to help, especially the people the system doesn't deal with fairly.
There is a twist to the discovery, finding that Marta thought she had given Harlan the wrong medicine and killed him, but then found that they had actually been exchanged for someone else, so she actually gave him the right medicine despite have been mislabeled. . Was it difficult to keep the complications of all this in order?
It was very difficult for me to simplify it to the point where I could keep it straight. That was the essential thing. It took a lot of work to get to a point where it makes sense technically, everything that happens, but you also need to get to a point where it can make sense for an audience in the flow of a real scene without sitting there and drawing a diagram for them. . And the notion that … she really took the right medicine because she recognized it, that was an added complication there. But … morally what it ends up doing, grounding it that way, seemed worth it.
But, man, it was a headache and that's what I hit my head against the wall most just in terms of plotting. And in fact, the whole thing is about the initial thing I said, which is, "How you kill someone – and the moment they believe they killed them, and the public believes they killed them – and you still "How do you make it happen? Because the moment this exchange happens, you die the first time you watch the movie. You really believe she made a mistake and killed this man. And then you don't." You can blame her for that right now.