Rian Johnson Breaks Down the Twists and Turns of 'Knives Out'
This post contains spoilers for Knives Out.
The set of Knives Out, the highly entertaining murdery mystery from director Rian Johnson, was something akin to "summer camp" for actors. According to Johnson, members of the high profile cast -- Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Daniel Craig, Lakeith Stanfield, Chris Evans, and Toni Collette to name a few -- would huddle in a "funky rec room" in the basement of the grandiose mansion when they were shooting between takes and trade "war stories" about their time in the business.
It was, by all accounts, a lot more genial off screen than it was on. There aren't a lot of warm words exchanged in Johnson's whodunit revolving around the suspicious suicide of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a lauded author whose speciality happens to be gruesome murder plots. Harlan's death is grandiosely staged, and someone (though it's unclear who at first) has called in investigator Benoit Blanc (Craig) to get to the bottom of it. The Thrombeys are at each other's throats, and Harlan's nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) is attempting to keep a low profile.
While Knives Out has all the trappings of an Agatha Christie adaptation or Clue, it's a distinctly 2019 story one that wrestles with all the inanity and bigotry of the Trump era. Here, Johnson walks us through the movie's twists and turns, covering everything from the ending to the singing to the vaping.
The first surprise of Knives Out is just how current it is. The notion of the whodunit is tied to the past, conjuring images of drawing rooms, feather dusters, and Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot. But Knives Out doesn't just nod to the fact that, yes, cell phones exist now. It's actually about 2019. The Thrombey is not entirely Trumpian but they live in a bubble of wealth and some are more sympathetic to his cause than others. Meanwhile, nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) emerges as the protagonist of the story -- no one from the Thrombey family can remember where her family is from -- but her mother is undocumented and her involvement in Harlan's death could lead to potential deportation. "One of the exciting to me was this notion of making it modern day, making it America in 2019," Johnson explains. "I was like, okay, if we're going to do that le'ts not just give it a modern skin, that means really plugging it into right now. So often when we see whodunits these days they are period pieces because they are usually Christie adaptations and they have a kind of timeless feel to them."
That means the Thrombey's have a fight about Trump's border policies, and one of the youngest members of the clan (Jaeden Martell) is a straight up alt right troll. On a lighter note, there's also vaping. Katherine Langford's Meg, Harlan's liberal grandchild, takes some not so discreet puffs. "In the script I just have on a single line, 'Meg vapes.' It's like, 'Jesus wept,'" Johnson says. "I find vaping oddly hilarious. I don't smoke myself. I don't vape. I don't know, the fact that it's this thing where everyone is sucking on these little robots just cracks me up."
Johnson knew he wasn't making a subtle movie, but he was also careful to not make it didactic. But it's not as if class hasn't been crucial to the genre. "We're used to seeing that class discussion happen in the context of British society, because so many of these stories are British," Johnson says. "And as Americans, we get to kind of cluck our tongues and say, 'Oh, those Brits.' We love to pretend here in America, that class doesn't exist. So the idea of using that tool that who done it to plug into America the idea of how that would allow you to kind of look at issues of kind of privilege in class in America, that seemed very interesting. And obviously the character Marta is kind of at the heart of that in our movie." Johnson cast Cuban actress Ana de Armas, best known for her work in Blade Runner 2049, in the role, impressed by her audition in which she "would always go for the determined, strong choice."
Every great mystery needs a great investigator, and the honeyed tones of Daniel Craig's Benoit Blanc make him a memorable heir to the Poirot crown. Johnson had always written Benoit as Southern, and initially wanted Craig to model the dialect off William Faulkner. But listening to Faulkner it wasn't quite right too "abrasive," according to Johnson. Instead they landed on historian Shelby Foote, who can be heard in Ken Burns' The Civil War. The laconic, Mississippian tones makes dialogue like Benoit's labyrinthian brain bender about how the case is like a donut all the more absurd. Johnson remembers almost cutting that bit though. "I thought, "'Is this silly? Is this dumb?' And Daniel kind of like cocked an eyebrow at me and was like, 'I like it.' I go, 'Okay,'" Johnson recalls. "And then on the set when he busted it out and did it with the fervor with which he does that speech I was just like giggling behind the monitor and was like, 'Oh, I'm glad I didn't cut this.'"
It's one of the bizarre beats that make Benoit indelible. Another? His musical performance. During a crucial moment in the plot Craig is belting out a snippet of "Losing My Mind" from Sondheim's Follies. There are winking layers to the reference. Not only was Johnson just listening to that score while writing the screenplay for Knives Out, he wanted to get a Sondheim reference in there as a nod to the composer's own history with murder mystery, one of many homages to the genre scattered throughout the production. Sondheim co-wrote 1973's The Last of Sheila with Anthony Perkins. By the time Craig was cast, Johnson knew he had to have him sing. "I think that if they do end up doing a film version of Follies," Johnson adds. "I think they should they should absolutely cast him as Sally." (Apparently, it's in the works. Not the Craig part, though.)
It's not as if Johnson wants to abandon Benoit after Knives Out either. He has some ideas for further adventures of this gentleman sleuth even though he won't divulge what they are. "Daniel and I had so much fun doing this together if we can get together every few years and do another Benoit Blanc mystery...Oh my god! And the whodunit is so malleable," he says. "You could go to locations whole different mysteries, new casts, talk about new things with it."
Early in Knives Out it looks like Harlan Thrombey's death is pretty easily explained. Marta belives she accidentally gave him an overdose of morphine, and Harlan hatches a plan to protect her, slitting his own throat to make it look as if it was a suicide. But, of course, that's not the only reveal and by the end it all comes down to Chris Evans' be-sweatered Hugh Ransom Drysdale, a cad who tells the rest of his family to "eat shit" and first presents as an ally to Marta. It helps that the former Captain America is just so likable that midway through the plot you almost start to think he's a good guy. Johnson knew that Evans had "tremendous range," but he also knew that the fact that Evans has just spent a decade playing a beloved, principled superhero and the audience will be desperate to like him. "It's almost like the way that Don Johnson's character describes Trump in the movie like, 'maybe an asshole is what we need right now' is the way Chris comes off halfway through," Johnson says. "It's like, yeah, he's an asshole, but maybe he's the one she can trust." Of course, he's not. Ransom -- he goes by his middle name -- vindictively sets this whole thing in motion. He learns of Harlan's plan to leave his fortune to Marta and sets out planning his grandfather's murder. And that's when "America's ass" becomes "America's asshole."
Johnson's initial idea was thus: "Can I take a whodunit and basically stick the mechanics of a Hitchcock thriller in the middle of it? So it's a whodunit that turns into a thriller that turns back into a whodunit at the end?" He diagrammed out the plot over five notebooks. And while that was all carefully planned, the final shot of Marta holding Harlan's "my house, my rules, my coffee" mug on the balcony of the Thrombey estate while the family peers up at her from the drive was a happy accident. "It was scripted as her in the doorway of the house with the family all outside and then it kind of happened step by step," he says. "Once we got there I thought, well, it would be nice if she came out on the balcony up top. That would provide kind of an illustration of the power dynamic." As soon as Johnson had de Armas take a sip from her mug and the words came into frame he knew he had his ending. Those final beats leave Marta in control, but don't spell out exactly what she's planning on doing with her newfound fortune. "I liked it ending on that note of ambiguity," Johnson says. "I feel like everyone in the audience will have their opinion as to what she will do and what she should do, which may be two different things. Ultimately, it is Marta. It's hard to believe she'd leave them out in the cold." Does Johnson have an opinion? "Oh I do," he says with a laugh.