Rian Johnson’s Primal Scream

The Glass Onion director on why his sequel to Knives Out is louder and angrier

A portrait of the filmmaker Rian Johnson
The Atlantic; Erik Carter / The New York Times / Redux

This article contains mild spoilers for the film Knives Out.

When I last spoke with the filmmaker Rian Johnson, in 2019, he was two years removed from working on one of the world’s biggest franchises—Star Wars—and had quickly turned around a smaller, nimbler mystery-comedy set in wintery Massachusetts called Knives Out. That was enough of a hit that it started a new franchise around Daniel Craig’s lilting detective, Benoit Blanc. Knives Out’s first sequel, Glass Onion, dropped on Netflix last Friday, and another entry is guaranteed.

Glass Onion, which already had a limited run in theaters in late November, is a noisier, spikier film than its forebear. It places Blanc on a Mediterranean island with the billionaire tech industrialist Miles Bron (played by Edward Norton) and some of his closest “disruptor” friends as they play a murder-mystery game. Of course, things are not what they seem—a real death occurs, and Blanc works to find the culprit. But as with Knives Out, there are surprising layers to the story, much of it following Miles’s former friend and current rival, Cassandra Brand (Janelle Monáe). The film is a fun ride that rewards repeat viewings, but it’s also an angry work about the absurdity of the mega-wealthy, pointedly set in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic.

Prior to the movie’s release, I talked with Johnson at Netflix’s New York offices about dialing up the satire of the first film, the inherent paternalism of the mystery genre, and how Netflix gave Glass Onion the company’s widest theatrical release ever.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

David Sims: What was the first idea with Glass Onion?

Rian Johnson: I think the first idea was the setting, the idea of doing a destination mystery.

Sims: Were you thinking the opposite of Knives Out? “We did cold, now let’s do warm; we did old money, now let’s do new money.”

Johnson: Less the money, more the setting. First of all, it’s a subgenre of the whodunit that I love—Evil Under the Sun, Death on the Nile, The Last of Sheila—the vacation mystery. I’ve been trying recently to dig up and watch more and more. But there’s not a lot of them. I think it has to be perceived as very popular in order to justify making a movie out of it.

Sims: But I’m a 30-something, and I swear half of my friends only watch shows about cops and detectives solving mysteries. It seems almost the most reliable genre in media, and yet it’s not a reliable cinema genre.

Johnson: It is a tough genre to do. It’s very easy to mistakenly assume that the mystery is what people are interested in, that the picking-up of clues and solving the mystery is going to keep people entertained. It will for about 20 minutes. You need the heart of a thriller; you need some kind of actual story.

Sims: So you have an island idea. Was it the pandemic when you were writing? Did you always want the film set then?

Johnson: I was writing it in 2020, in the middle of lockdown. None of us knew where it was going to go. The marching orders I gave myself were: This is a whodunit set in America right now.

Sims: What I love about Knives Out is that Benoit is emotionally invested in what’s happening, which I feel is often not the case with this genre. In Knives Out, he walks into the room and is like, “Well, [Ana de Armas’s character] did it.” But the game to him is more why did she do it, and then, eventually, whether she was justified in doing so. And in Glass Onion, something like that’s going on too.

Johnson: It’s a fun challenge. It also necessitates something which is very important, which is there being a protagonist who is not Blanc. Because him having a heart-to-heart connection with someone means there has to be someone the audience is going to like. It’s essential.There needs to be a beating heart at the center of the film, and it can’t be Blanc searching for clues and solving the crime.

Sims: Did you write with certain actors in mind?

Johnson: It’s always tempting, but I really try not to. Because you always get your heart broken. Inevitably, you write with someone in mind, and they’re not available. It’s probably healthier anyway, because then you’re just trying to create a character. Then I get together with my casting director, and we figure out who’s available and would be fun in the part. One thing I am conscious of when I’m writing is playing to the pleasure of the all-star cast. Knowing that we’re going after movie stars for each one of these parts makes me work a little harder to make sure they all have something to do in the movie that justifies it.

Sims: Who surprised you the most?

Johnson: Dave Bautista. When I was writing [his character, a men’s-rights streamer named Duke Cody], I was picturing a scrawny dude who’s trying to overcompensate. When Bautista was brought up, I was instantly so smitten by the idea. I’ve been a very big fan of his dramatic chops as an actor.

Sims: Low-key the greatest wrestler-to-actor ever.

Johnson: I absolutely 100 percent agree. And I think somebody like [Paul Thomas Anderson] is going to give him a real part and is gonna look like a genius. As a person, Bautista is genuinely, immediately vulnerable when you meet him, and that’s what I was excited about. This is someone who has the physical trappings of someone who would play it big, but he actually brings sensitivity to the role.

Sims: This movie is, I would say, louder than Knives Out. Most of the characters are pretty brassy. How do you strike the balance between confidence and sheer idiocy? The characters can’t be complete buffoons.

Johnson: Just casting [Edward Norton] in the part went a long way toward grounding it. On the page, the part is so big that he could afford to play it straight. I like that word, brassy. It is like we’re using the brass section a little bit more on this one. For me, I was a little bit nervous about that. But once I realized what this was going to be about, your voice naturally raises a few decibels.

Sims: Daniel Craig has so much control over [Benoit] in ways that surprise me, because he’s such a big, broad, silly character.

Johnson: And on a second viewing, it becomes clearer in some situations why he’s being big and absurd. There’s always a method to the madness.

Sims: With the Miles Bron character, were you specifically thinking of Elon Musk? He’s very reminiscent of Musk to me, but obviously Musk is on my brain.

Johnson: He was in the cloud of people it was about. But you gotta think, back in 2020, all of the current unpleasantness was a long way off. And also, I found very quickly that it became very boring if I started thinking too specifically about anybody. What was interesting was our weird relationship in American society to [these kinds of people], where we want to hate them but we also want to kind of believe they’re Willy Wonka. The very American, natural instinct to mistake wealth for wisdom and competency.

Sims: The best line in the movie is Benoit saying to Kate Hudson’s character [a fashion designer named Birdie], “It’s a dangerous thing to mistake speaking without thought for speaking the truth,” and her replying, “Are you calling me dangerous?” You’re illustrating the voice that certain people present to society.

Johnson: The whole movie, for me, is a bit of a primal scream against the carnival-like idiocy of the past six years.

Sims: Do you think it’s an angrier movie than Knives Out?

Johnson: I think it’s absolutely an angrier movie, for me at least. I hope the experience of watching it doesn’t feel like an angry, hateful thing. But it’s definitely coming from a place of just wanting to scream about a lot of things.

Sims: Mystery movies, and movies about detectives and cops, can feel a little easy. People get justifiably frustrated these days with the conclusion of “The sirens are going; he’s about to be taken away; great, problem solved.”

Johnson: That gets to the heart of the genre, though. It’s an essentially conservative genre. Chaos is created, and then the paternal detective finds the truth and solves it all. Look at the periods where this genre has spiked in popularity, the golden age of detective fiction, which peaked in the ’30s during the rise of Hitler and the uncertainty in the world. You look at today, and the genre’s having a little bit of a resurgence—right when the whole concept of a truth that, once revealed, sets everything right is being shaken to its foundation.

Sims: I think people crave endings. I love endings, and often, in our current culture, things can’t end; stories have to tease the next thing. And I know you’re going to make another one of these. You’re part of the problem.

Johnson: I’ve tried hard to make them self-contained. Honestly, I’m pissed off that we have A Knives Out Mystery in the title. You know? I want it to just be called Glass Onion. I get it, and I want everyone who liked the first movie to know this is next in the series, but also, the whole appeal to me is it’s a new novel off the shelf every time. But there’s a gravity of a thousand suns toward serialized storytelling.

Sims: When you wrote Knives Out initially, you’d just made a Star Wars movie; you’d made episode eight in a series that will never probably end. Were you craving to get away from that, or did you immediately have the thought that you could do a bunch of [Benoit Blanc mysteries]?

Johnson: Look, in terms of the Star Wars movie I did, I tried to give it a hell of an ending. I love endings so much that even doing the middle chapter of the trilogy, I tried to give it an ending. A good ending that recontextualizes everything that came before it and makes it a beautiful object unto itself—that’s what makes a movie a movie. It feels like there’s less and less of that. This whole poisonous idea of creating [intellectual property] has completely seeped into the bedrock of storytelling. Everyone is just thinking, How do we keep milking it? I love an ending where you burn the Viking boat into the sea.

Sims: Your movie will be in theaters, which I’m very happy about. But I’d love it to be in theaters longer.

Johnson: I’d love it to be [in theaters] longer; I’d love it to be in more theaters. But also, I appreciate that Netflix has done this, because this was a huge effort on their part, and the theater chains, to reach across the aisle and make this happen. I’m hoping it does really well so we can demonstrate that they can complement each other.

Sims: I like watching movies at home. But you and I both know it’s just not the same.

Johnson: It’s not about the size of the picture, or the sound, or the sanctity of the space, or the magic of cinema, or whatever the fuck. It’s about having a crowd of people around you laughing and reacting. Because these movies are engineered for that.