Rian Johnson Turned the Whodunit on Its Head

The Knives Out director discusses the history of film noir, why Clue is a boring game, and Baby Yoda.

Chris Pizzello / Invision / AP

Any fears one might have about the impending demise of cinema can be assuaged by a meeting with the director Rian Johnson. For one, there’s his passion and clarity in speaking about his new film, Knives Out. The murder mystery, starring Daniel Craig, debuted in theaters over Thanksgiving weekend, making a healthy $41.7 million in its first five days. And then there was the way Johnson’s eyes lit up when I told him that the newest trailer for Cats, another highly anticipated film, had just been posted online. “Oh, we have to watch it together!” he yelped.

Johnson has a gift for taking well-worn genres and finding something new in them. He broke into Hollywood in 2005 with the hard-boiled high-school noir Brick before moving on to a con-man comedy caper (The Brothers Bloom), a time-traveling sci-fi thriller (Looper), and an inventive Star Wars movie (The Last Jedi). The filmmaker’s enthusiasm for the intricacies of the whodunit story is on display in Knives Out, which sees Craig playing a debonair southern detective named Benoit Blanc trying to unravel the mystery of a millionaire’s grisly death. The movie is as satisfying as any of the classics that inspired it, but it’s unafraid to update those formulas for a modern era.

The director spoke with me about finding a new angle on an old story, the best whodunits of yesteryear, and why everyone’s sweaters in Knives Out look so cozy. (And, yes, we watched the Cats trailer, during which Johnson cheered and gasped with an occasional interjection like, “It’s the Jellicle Ball, motherfuckers!” and “Get that money, Ian McKellen!”)

This conversation has been edited.

David Sims: When I saw Knives Out at the Toronto International Film Festival, you came out to introduce it and said something like, “Who’s ready for a good old-fashioned whodunit?” Of course, the film is that, but you’ve messed with the genre in all these ways. Is that how you begin your creative process—taking something familiar and seeing where it goes?

Rian Johnson: Sort of! The idea for me, in terms of the genre element, is getting back to what I love about it in as powerful and pure a way as possible. [To] clear out all the cobwebs and get to the actual impact of whatever the genre is.

Sims: So you try to boil down to that emotion?

Johnson: The example I use is my first movie, Brick. It’s the way I felt when I read Dashiell Hammett for the first time, like I’d been punched in the stomach. It felt electric to me. The idea of taking how familiar we are with film noir and putting it into a different context. You have to do something so that audiences’ senses wake up a little bit.

Sims: This isn’t a dead genre exactly; there had been the throwback-y Murder on the Orient Express a couple of years ago.

Johnson: Which I thought was great! But when you see a whodunit, you tend to see it as a period piece, because it’s usually an Agatha Christie adaptation. So the idea of doing an original one and setting it in the America of 2019—not just giving it a modern skin but really plugging into today—there was something about that that seemed genuinely exciting.

Sims: Yet with the traditional tropes of a fancy house and a family of rich people, which Knives Out has. Did you always have the family in mind for this movie?

Johnson: With this movie I was thinking about the form of the whodunit and the inherent weakness of that form, which is that it’s just clue-gathering leading up to a surprise. So the initial idea was as simple and abstract as putting a Hitchcock thriller in the middle of a whodunit, but still turning it back into a whodunit at the end. So I still get the pleasure of the denouement with the detective in the library.

Sims: I read the article you wrote for the L.A. Times about Alfred Hitchcock’s disdain for the Agatha Christie–style whodunit, which relies entirely on a surprise ending. Do you think that’s because in a Hitchcock movie, the director takes the role of Poirot, distributing the information for the audience?

Johnson: No, I think it’s about the experience the audience has. Hitchcock was all about giving the audience the most thrilling time in the theater possible. I think it was entirely just his theory of suspense—the notion that it’s more exciting to lean forward than to lean back and stroke your chin.

Sims: Because waiting for the reveal at the end can be boring. Clue is an inherently boring board game.

Johnson: Clue is fucking boring. [Laughs.] I love the movie, but I sat down to play the game as an adult, remembering it being so much fun, and I was like, “Really? Is this all we do?”

Sims: It’s just walking around and asking questions.

Johnson: You do a lot of walking! It’s like what Kevin Smith says about Lord of the Rings: Lotta walking! I think as a kid we just loved the tokens, the gun with the multiple barrels.

Sims: But you’re still drawing from that style of storytelling—the Clue style where everything hinges on the ending, even if you’re putting a Hitchcock thriller in a whodunit.

Johnson: Which, by the way, in Christie’s best book, she did exactly what I’m describing. In all of Christie’s best books she put another engine in the car.

Sims: So what’s your “second engine” in Knives Out?

Johnson: Here’s a character you care about [the underdog hero Marta Cabrera, played by Ana de Armas], she’s in peril in this damn impossible situation, and how can she possibly get out of this? It’s empathy-based suspense.

Rian Johnson, pictured on the right with Chris Evans (left) and Ana de Armas (center), wanted Knives Out to capture autumn in New England. “I told my costume designer, Jenny Eagan, to go nuts. Make everything cozy: sweaters, blankets, rugs,” he said.

Sims: Marta is a twist on a classic character in the whodunit, too. “The help” is always present, but they’re often villainous or one-dimensional and off to the side.

Johnson: It is interesting how that’s always an element—it’s something Gosford Park used to great effect.

Sims: That’s an amazing movie; it’s an arch spoof of the whodunit, but one where the mystery really matters and the ending is very emotional.

Johnson: Gosford Park keys into something that’s kind of baked into the genre, which is that it’s uniquely suited to talking about class. And in the same way most whodunits are period pieces, it’s usually British class that [these films focus on]. So the idea of applying that to America seemed very interesting. Then I got the idea of making Marta the central character, putting her in the role of that Hitchcock hero, and I was off to the races.

Sims: Knives Out’s narrative arc is unusual because of her. Usually in these kinds of movies, the detective lays out all the information; he’s the genius, he’s the master of putting together the puzzle. But the audience is watching your detective [Benoit Blanc, played by Daniel Craig] come around on what’s wrong with the family he’s investigating—there’s more of a moral arc.

Johnson: Though Poirot does have a moral engagement, too. The thing that’s specific to whodunits, as opposed to the fiction of Hammett or [Raymond] Chandler, is that there’s no moral ambiguity. Everything is set right by the detective at the end of it and put in its proper place. The morality comes from Poirot having sadness that this kind of thing could happen in the world, and that he can’t stop it.

Sims: Poirot has a delicacy to him, an appreciation of something well done. Whereas your movie is more chaotic.

Johnson: A little more messy. [Laughs.]

Sims: Which is very American!

Johnson: But I wanted to retain that element. I wanted the movie to have a good heart, to end not in a cynical place, especially given all the stuff we were going to be layering through it. I really felt like it was important that the audience walk out of the movie smiling and bobbing their heads; it’s why I play “Sweet Virginia” [by the Rolling Stones] over the credits. But that ties back to my essential pleasure with the genre—you rarely end a whodunit in a very dark way, And Then There Were None being a big exception.

Sims: Did you always want Daniel Craig as your Poirot type? What appealed to you about him?

Johnson: I had met Daniel a few times over the years, and I knew he had a good sense of humor. That’s the No. 1 thing, beyond even the audience’s expectations of him as Bond—I sensed that he was eager to do this. That’s one of the big things that makes me happy about the movie, that you can tell how much fun he’s having.

Sims: I hope the answer is no, but was there ever a point at which you said his southern accent was too much?

Johnson: No, though I’m sure my producer was sweating. Jamie Lee Curtis reminded me recently that in the script I described [Benoit Blanc’s] accent as “the gentlest southern lilt possible.” But when we got on set, I was just having so much fun watching [Craig]. I think in the movie, it probably takes a few minutes to adjust to him having that voice, but I could listen to him forever.

Sims: I’ve been watching a lot of whodunits since seeing Knives Out, and one I’d never seen before was Deathtrap [Sidney Lumet’s 1982 comic thriller starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve].

Johnson: Oh, so good. How did that treat you?

Sims: Wonderfully! But that movie—like so many whodunits, like yours—is mostly set in one location and could risk feeling stagey. The way Lumet uses simple camera movements, and cuts closer and closer to the characters’ faces …

Johnson: And the richness of the set; the set is incredible. When Knives Out was on the page, that was a concern that I had to address. On the page, it’s just a lot of people in rooms talking; it’s going to feel like a small movie. But I was picturing Deathtrap and Sleuth [a 1972 Joseph L. Mankiewicz thriller also starring Caine].

Sims: Another house movie.

Johnson: Right, it’s set in a mansion that’s supposed to be the inside of this eccentric mystery writer’s brain—we even found a Jolly Jack the Sailor from Sleuth and stuck it in the foyer of our house. First and foremost, the movie is about the actors. But [with] the richness of the environment around them, I was never worried [Knives Out] would feel closed in.

Sims: Did you ever want Knives Out to have an active camera, to feel visually eccentric?

Johnson: I’m doing quite a bit with the camera that I hope is mostly invisible to the audience. It’s not a movie where I felt I had to throw the camera around or modernize it in that way. I have this cast, I have this beautiful house; my job is to use the camera when I feel like I need to, but mostly give them a stage to work on.

Sims: My other Deathtrap question is about Christopher Reeve, who was in the middle of his run playing Superman.

Johnson: God, he’s so good.

Sims: He wears these beautiful sweaters that show off [his physique]. So I immediately made the connection to Chris Evans, Captain America, and these sweaters his character is wearing in Knives Out.

Johnson: [Laughs.] You know what? I never made that connection, which is crazy! But you’re right; that cardigan that he’s wearing in that movie …

Sims: So you were just thinking that this should be a warm, autumnal movie.

Johnson: It’s fall in New England, basically. Which to me, because I grew up on the West Coast, there’s an exoticism to that. So I told my costume designer, Jenny Eagan, to go nuts. Make everything cozy: sweaters, blankets, rugs. In fact, talking about Clue, Jenny deserves a lot of credit—the fact that she was able to make each of the characters as distinct as the cards in the Clue game without feeling costume-y. They feel modern, and that’s quite a feat.

Sims: So you’ve made this film; it’s a fun, grown-up movie, and I feel like everyone is talking about how hard it is to make a movie like this these days, whether or not that’s true. Everyone is wringing their hands over the future of cinema. Do you think those fears are overstated? How do you survive in this system?

Johnson: I was going to say yes, it’s an overrated concern, but I’m sure there are market forces that make that true and that you can look at numbers that confirm it. Speaking to my experience [with Knives Out], this is the easiest I’ve ever had a movie come together, period. I feel like every year there are a lot of filmmakers working in this realm and continuing to do it successfully, like my buddy Edgar Wright, making movies this size, original stuff that hits. I feel like cinema has been “dying” since the birth of cinema, and there’s always something to wring your hands about. But at the end of the day, weeds grow through the concrete, man. We’re always going to find a way to make interesting stuff.

Sims: One more thing I have to ask you before I go—what do you think of the Baby Yoda on The Mandalorian?

Johnson: Oh, it’s fantastic! It’s so cute! I haven’t watched the show yet; I’ve only seen pictures and stuff. I caught a glimpse of [the puppet] on set when I visited, and the producer I was with immediately looked at me and said, “You gotta keep that under wraps.” [Laughs.] Okay, let’s watch the Cats trailer.