One of the highlights of this year’s fest for me was getting to speak with Rian Johnson on the red carpet for the closing night film of the fest: Knives Out, his hilarious whodunnit in the spirit of Agatha Christie. Johnson immediately made an impression with both filmgoers and critics with his first feature Brick and has since continued to make a flavor of film that is as thought provoking as it is entertaining.
Most recently he made the jump to a galaxy far, far away with the highly divisive The Last Jedi, which led to Rian getting a trilogy of his own once the Skywalker saga has been laid to rest. Johnson was thoughtful and clever as I had expected, and gave me a brief look into his creative process and why he tackles the projects he does.
What attracted you to write a whodunnit?
I just love the genre so much. I’ve loved it since I was a kid, reading Agatha Christie’s books. I think it’s a perfect mixture, because you have the puzzle box intellectual level of the mystery, but they are essentially by their nature very character based movies and they lend themselves to having these big colorful casts — all these different very distinct types who are chewing on the scenery. So, it’s a great mixture of two different flavors that mesh together and give you a peanut butter cup of a movie.
After adding another genre to your list of films, Rian, how do you choose which one to tackle next?
I don’t know, I just figure out what I am most excited about next and make it. For me I am just trying to get better at it each time, trying to tell a story. You’re always trying to make it tighter, and make it better, and have the impact be better every time.
Are you ever worried, when you jump from one genre to another?
There’s nothing but worry. I always worry. Especially with a whodunnit, because it’s like that board game Mousetrap. You can be very careful and build the mousetrap and until you stick the marble in it and start it rolling you don’t know if it works. That’s what it’s like when you show your film to your first audience. You kind of hold your breath of hope this thing actually works.
What was it like going from a mega-blockbuster like The Last Jedi and then to a smaller, more personal project like Knives Out?
I mean it’s funny. You think of a Star Wars film being like a big machine, but the truth is the part of the process that matters and makes the movie work is the exact same as a small movie, it’s a couple of actors and a camera and making the scenes work. So, for me it wasn’t like it was a totally different experience, like going from that to this.
I mean for this, most of the challenges were unique to the genre, because of the whodunnit. Figuring out how to get information across. How to drop clues. How to juggle all these personalities of these characters. So we had the tone and story challenges, but the scale of the project oddly you would think would feel like a different beast, but it didn’t really.
I have to bring up another whodunnit, Clue; did you happen to shoot multiple endings for this one as well?
No, I’m not that smart. (Laughs) What was Hitchcock’s famous line? Don’t spoil the ending. It’s the only one we have.
With all the online controversy around The Last Jedi when it first opened, now that the dust has settled, how do you feel?
I feel great. I mean the whole process it was a wonderful one. Making the movie was an incredible experience and also putting it out and getting to interact with fans in the last couple of years. All the negative stuff gets a lot of attention because that gets clicks so that’s fun to write about. But the truth is 90% of my experience online has been with people who, whether they dug the movie or not are wonderful and creative, respectful, and love Star Wars and really dug into it and reacted in different ways and got something out of it. So for me it’s been an absolute joy of an experience, especially being a Star Wars fan my whole life.
I’ve been in that boxing ring since I was a kid and growing up in my 20s when the prequels were coming out. I know how passionate Star Wars fans are. So, for me it wasn’t like I was blown back by it. I was like yeah, this is what the reaction to a Star Wars movie is like, there’s love and there’s hate and there is all of these things. That’s what makes it great.
You seem to be drawn to mysteries as a filmmaker, it seems to be a recurring theme in your films. Why is that?
It’s fun. To me the element of playing chess with the audience is something I enjoy as an audience member. I love that feeling. It’s the same reason I love magic, when a magician starts engaging with a trick and you know I am going to watch this, because he’s not going to fool me and then he still fools you. There is nothing quite like that joy, I think. So I love that element of it.
You’re here with your best friend Noah (Segan), can you talk about that relationship? You’ve been working together a long time.
Noah and I have been great friends since we did Brick together, he’s one of my closest, dearest friends. I wrote him into the movie because I wanted to have him around and he ended up giving a fantastic performance. I thought I was writing him a background role and we put the movie together, and Noah is a big part of this movie. He’s really funny and his character on screen is probably the closest to Noah in real life that I’ve seen. So I hope audiences love him as much as I do.
Finally, what do you hope people will take away from this?
I want them to have a blast. I want them to have fun. I mean this film comes as much from Agatha Christie’s books as my love of the movies that were made from her books, especially the ones with Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot, from the ‘80s. That to me, you’re just going to go, and have a blast, see a bunch of actors you love having the time of their lives and you’re going to get a mystery that’s going to surprise you.