Skip to main content
screen time

The day after Knives Out had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September, Johnson spoke with The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz about murder most foul.Chris Pizzello/The Associated Press

Although it would be tempting to play Poirot and ask who killed the big-screen whodunit, the genre has never really been snuffed out, even in this current franchise-mad Hollywood era.

Every now and then, a new murder mystery will come along and remind us how fun it is to play cinematic detective. Or at least try to stay one step ahead of whatever is happening on-screen. But while recent attempts have been either fine (Kenneth Branagh’s update on Murder on the Orient Express) or not-nearly-fine-enough (Bad Times at the El Royale), director Rian Johnson’s new and especially twisty film Knives Out is here to remind all you would-be Sherlocks how to properly close a case.

Review: Knives Out stabs your whodunit expectations in the back, and you’ll thank it for the bloody wound

Both a loving homage and giddy update on the whodunit, Knives Out is one of the most purely enjoyable movies of the fall season. But it also presents something of a mystery itself: How did Johnson find time and energy to pull off such a star-studded affair (Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans and Christopher Plummer are but a few of the famous faces who take turns backstabbing each other here) between finishing the gigantic Star Wars: The Last Jedi and prepping an entirely new trilogy of films set in the Star Wars universe?

The day after Knives Out had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September, Johnson spoke with The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz about murder most foul.

Are you worried about premiering the film now, in Toronto, when it doesn’t come out for several months? Aren’t you worried about the movie’s many twists being revealed?

You're always worried, but what can you do? The people who are professionally writing about this, like you, most of them are actually scared now of revealing spoilers given the amount of yelling on the internet. I felt even silly last night at the screening, asking people not to give away things, because almost everyone knows at this point not to. But the film is purposefully constructed to work even if you know who killed who. That is the least interesting thing about the movie, or that's the intent.

So you agree with Hitchcock, who kind of hated whodunits, that game of "guess who?"

It can be one big buildup to an ending, which is a cheap coin. I wanted to turn it around early, and have it be a thriller in terms of plot mechanics. But it is still a whodunit, like the library scene toward the end where Daniel [Craig's] detective lays it all out. I wanted to have my cake and eat it, too.

Did you work out those plot mechanics first, before writing the script?

It started with the broad notion of the genre, the fundamental stuff that hits my pleasure buttons, and then getting rid of what I don't like about the genre, as the middle can become soupy with clues stacking on top of clues. There comes a point where you give up and wait for the detective to tell you something that you'd never guess. For me, it was a question of how do you put another engine into this car and still have it be the same car? That's a flawed analogy, but as good as I'm going to get.

Was there any thought as to filming multiple endings, like Clue? Even to throw people off the scent?

I’m not that smart, and we didn’t have the time or money for multiples of anything. We were lucky to film the ending we have. And like Hitchcok said, please don’t spoil the ending. It’s the only one we have.

Speaking of speed: You wrote this film in January of 2018, then wrapped shooting by Christmas of that same year. How did you turn it around so fast?

It’s insane. Writing it in six months, that’s very fast for me. I’d been thinking about it for 10 years, but the production did happen so fast because of Daniel. His Bond movie was pushed for three months, he had a window pop open, and he said yes very quickly. My producer then threw this together so we were shooting five weeks later, which felt invigorating, especially after spending years making a Star Wars movie. It was a jab-punch of a movie.

You were’n’t looking for a break after The Last Jedi?

I kind of had one. I started writing this in January, and then ... okay, maybe I didn't have a break. But I felt like I had one. I didn't want to rest. I wanted to jump in as quickly as I could. I felt creatively juiced.

You and Daniel Craig are both taking departures from mega-franchises to do something smaller and genre-specific here.

Yeah, I guess we are. He’s the reason this movie got made. It always helps to have movie stars. And that’s the other thing about these types of movies, like the Peter Ustinov Poirot movies, is the all-star cast. Every time someone new pops onscreen, that’s a thrill. I’ve never been interested in doing sequels to anything that I’ve done, but I’m just crossing my fingers that this does all right so I can get a chance to work with Daniel again on the same character. But it’s a whole new cast and a new place and new conception. Another Benoit Blanc mystery.

There’s a strong political strain here, too. The family at the centre of the film consists of ostensible Trump supporters, and immigration is a crass punchline to them. Did that come after you toyed with the original whodunit idea, or has it always co-existed?

It kind of co-existed, but a big part of starting this was not just a new way to do a whodunit, but to remember how current the genre always was. One of the things I love about Agatha Christie’s books, and you have to squint and remember to see this today, but the character types were all recognizable to society then – inflated, but recognizable. So we wanted to create these character types that are relevant to us today, too. In that way, the social or political element was always baked into the bones of the film.

You just said that you don’t do sequels ... but wouldn’t you consider the new Star Wars films sequels?

Well, they’re not direct sequels to what I did with The Last Jedi, so ...

Can you say where you are in the development of those?

Not really, sorry. But I know you have to ask.

This interview has been condensed and edited (but no one was murdered; or were they??)

Knives Out opens Nov. 27