When Rian Johnson directed the whodunit Knives Out in 2019, he was just coming off 2017’s Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, which grossed $1.3 billion worldwide. The massive success of The Last Jedi afforded Johnson the opportunity to write, direct, and produce a smaller project like Knives Out — and hang on to the sequel rights, which proved quite valuable after the first film grossed over $300 million worldwide.
Though Lionsgate was eager to make a sequel, Johnson and his producing partner Ram Bergman received a massive offer from Netflix, where Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery will begin streaming on Dec. 23 following its limited theatrical run in roughly 600 theaters over Thanksgiving.
A sequel to Knives Out wasn’t always an inevitability, but judging by Glass Onion‘s impressive box office haul during its single week in theaters, audiences are eager to solve Johnson’s latest mystery, which is expected to become one of Netflix’s most-watched movies of all time over the holidays.
Above the Line recently interviewed Johnson at his T Street production company offices, where he also cooked up a new mystery series titled Poker Face that is coming out in January on Peacock. He revealed his process, methodology, and rationale for his directing choices, and offered some insight into the making of both Knives Out and Glass Onion.
Above the Line: Do you feel like you have to be a different kind of director when you’re making a Knives Out film than you have to be while making a Star Wars movie?
Rian Johnson: I hope not because I did not know how to be any other kind. I just approach it the way I do, you know? I think the skillset is still fundamentally the same. And the thing that’s similar about both of them is that I think they’re both things that are very much aided by having a specificity to your plan coming into them. With the Star Wars movie, part of that is because it’s such a big production and because of the scope of the effects. Those movies don’t do well with, “Let’s shoot a bunch of stuff and figure it out.” It helps to have your storyboards and have it all mapped out. And the same thing with the whodunit because of the intricacy of the plotting — you have to have the roadmap in your head very clearly going into it.
ATL: When the first Knives Out hit theaters, Hollywood had not made a very good whodunit in quite a while, so given how neglected that audience was, were you expecting the wild success of that movie or did it come as a surprise?
Johnson: Yeah, it was a shock. I had grown up absolutely adoring [the] whodunit; it was something that I had a lot of affection for. And I remember specifically liking the movies from the late-1970s and early-1980s, like Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun and Murder on the Orient Express — not just big, star-studded, incredibly fun movies, but these huge commercial and cultural touchstones. And so I had it baked into my head that I know this is a genre that people still want to see.
I was coming off of doing a Star Wars movie and even friends of mine I showed the script to — who really liked the script — were like, ‘Are you sure? You sure you wanna do a whodunit next? You don’t wanna spend this cache to make some big thing?’ It felt a little bit like rolling the dice, and it was a real nice surprise when people responded to it. In the same way, it’s really fun right now — friends of mine who have kids who are around the same age I was when I was watching those movies back then, saying that their [kids are] very into it. That, to me, is the coolest thing.
ATL: Did you get a flood of offers to do, not necessarily franchise films, but studio tentpole films in the wake of The Last Jedi, and was there a temptation to do one of those as opposed to a more modestly-budgeted film like Knives Out?
Johnson: Since Looper, I have occasionally gotten offers for bigger things. At this point, my producer, Ram Bergman, and I have figured out that we just do our thing — I write something, and then I make it. But you never know — Star Wars was something [that] I cared so deeply about what that was, and I loved all the people who were involved. That’s [one] where it made sense. But nothing came along that was actually a temptation to the dark side [that would take me] away from making Knives Out next. It felt very important, coming out of Star Wars, to do something that I just sat down and wrote and that we could make on our own.
ATL: Glass Onion is a very different kind of Knives Out mystery than the first film. Obviously, we have our Benoit Blanc character [played again by Daniel Craig] solving this mystery, but everything else about it is very different. Was that a conscious decision — to not deliver an exact duplicate of the first film?
Johnson: Very conscious. It went back to the origin of all of this, which is my love of Agatha Christie, and it went back to thinking about Agatha Christie’s books. The reality is, I think people have a misinformed perception that Agatha Christie is writing the same novel over and over, but anyone who’s actually a Christie fan knows she shook it up to an incredible degree with every book. She tried something vastly different every time, and she tried different genres and tried different crazy narrative approaches. She was subverting the expectations of the genre almost from the very beginning with each new thing. And, to me, that’s the whole reason I wanted to make Glass Onion. That’s what was exciting about carrying on making these — not the idea that we could just make the first one over and over, but the idea that every single one will have its own identity, its own reason for being, and will be taking a completely new swing. I hope, once audiences see that’s what we’re doing with these, that’ll be very exciting. The notion that with each new movie, there’s the basic pleasure of a good whodunit and the fun character of Benoit — the guardrails — but within [those], it’s going to be something different each time.
ATL: Which means there could be another Knives Out film in the future?
Johnson: Oh, there will be. That’s the thing that’s most creatively exciting to me right now — the notion of, “What could the next one be, and how could it be totally different than both Knives Out and Glass Onion?”
ATL: Edward Norton plays the extremely wealthy character Miles Bron, and the film takes place at his island estate, the interior of which is so beautifully designed and decorated and dressed. But rather than shoot in the U.S., I understand that interiors were show in Serbia, so can you talk about your experience working with those crews?
Johnson: Our production designer, Rick Heinrichs, and I worked together on The Last Jedi, and Rick came up working with Tim Burton on his movies. Rick is incredibly good at doing beautifully conceived, character-based design — very nuanced on a very grand scale, and that’s what we knew we needed for this. Besides the exterior that we shot in Greece of Miles’ place, which was a place called Villa 20 that we found, the big sets that Rick built in Belgrade on soundstages were the big atrium, the big interior that they hang out in that has the Mona Lisa in it, and then the interior of the Glass Onion itself. We had general conversations, and then Rick just went to town. If you actually look at the design elements that go into it, it’s like an interior decorator vomited. It’s just all of these things that should not mix together from the past four meals, liquefied together in this horrifying batch. But it has a lurid beauty to it, and that’s all [due] to Rick’s work.
ATL: What is it about working with your longtime editor Bob Ducsay that keeps you coming back as oppose to trying someone new for Glass Onion?
Johnson: Well, it’s a no-brainer for me, first of all, because Bob is such a great editor, but, also, I really feel like I’ve learned how to collaborate with an editor through working with Bob. It took a lot of patience on his part because I grew up editing my own short films, [and] I cut my first feature film myself. I have a very precise, hands-on approach to the cut. Working with Bob, it feels like a true collaboration. There’s nothing I feel like I’m missing when I sit down for the experience of cutting a film with Bob — it feels like the most natural collaboration that I know is going to get me what I want at the end of the day.
ATL: Given the current ubiquity of Netflix, Peacock, and myriad other streaming services, in addition to a plethora of cable channels, all amidst a questionable theatrical business, is there a secret to succeeding as a creative artist in Hollywood in 2022 as opposed to past years?
Johnson: I don’t know if there was ever a secret to succeeding Hollywood, and, if there was, it changed long ago. It’s such a different world now. The one universal thing that I think still holds true is to concentrate on your voice; to not think immediately, “How do I get an agent? How do I break in? How do I meet the right people?” That’s what I did right out of school — it’s also putting the cart before the horse. The reality is, if you work on your own stuff, if you work on your craft, if you develop your own unique voice and get better and better at it, that’s what’s going to put you above the rest — that’s what people are going to notice. That’s solid gold. And no matter what the odds are, and no matter how the industry changes, what will never change is a unique voice that knows how to tell stories and is a good person, and gets along with people — that’s always going to be in demand.
ATL: If you were asked again, would you go play in the Star Wars universe one more time?
Johnson: Oh, in a heartbeat. I still have talks with [Star Wars’ producers] and still talk with [Lucasfilm president] Kathy Kennedy about it all the time. It’s largely just a question of schedule, especially now that I’m making more of these mystery movies. How does something that massive fit into the future? But I really hope that I can get back and do it. It was the best experience in my life, top to bottom — making The Last Jedi.
Glass Onion grossed nearly $10 million during its first three days in domstic theaters, and the Knives Out sequel will begin streaming on Netflix on Dec. 23.