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Blade runner: Rian Johnson discusses ‘Knives Out’

Writer-director Rian Johnson, at the London premiere of "Knives Out," last month.Lia Toby/Getty Images for BFI

TORONTO — Writer-director Rian Johnson has only five feature films on his résumé, but — and this is a compliment — they don’t have much in common. There’s no Rian Johnson stamp on them. They range in style and content from the noirish sensibilities of his art-house darling “Brick” (2005) and the darkly funny con-artist-filled “The Brothers Bloom” (2008), to the trippy time-travel crime drama “Looper” (2012) and his entry into the franchise universe, “Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi” (2017).

With his newest, “Knives Out,” opening Nov. 27, Johnson heads down yet another path, that of the entertainingly over-complicated whodunit, where one person is a victim and everyone else is a suspect. The star-studded cast includes Christopher Plummer, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, and, slapping on an over-the-top Southern drawl, Daniel Craig. The film tells of the demise of a wealthy family patriarch (Plummer) and the attempts of a famous detective (Craig) to interview a gaggle of suspicious family members and figure out who, well, dunit.


Johnson, 45, shot “Knives Out” at various locations on the South Shore and in MetroWest (he wouldn’t reveal where the main mansion is, because of a request for privacy from its owners). With a winning smile and propensity to talk very fast, Johnson discussed the film at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it had its world premiere.

From left: Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, K Callan, Ana de Armas, Christopher Plummer, Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher, Riki Lindholm, Toni Collette, and Katherine Langford in "Knives Out."Claire Folger

Q. When I was researching you, every time I entered your name it auto-corrected to Rain. Why do you spell Ryan with an “i”?

A. You can blame my parents. I think it’s an Irish spelling of it, which is weird, because all my brothers and sisters have relatively normal names. When I turned 10, my parents gave me the option of changing it to the normal spelling. But at that point I liked it, so I kept it.


Q. It took you quite a while to get your first film made. Did you have other scripts completed at the time?

A. I’d written a couple of bad scripts before that. That’s how you learn. I wrote “Brick” just after college, but I didn’t make it till I was turning 30. There were times when I was so frustrated by it not getting made, I said, “Maybe the script just isn’t good.” So, I would stick it away, but I would always keep thinking about it and pulling it back out. There was something about it that just stuck in my mind till we could actually make it.

Q. Are you at the point now where you have a pile of scripts ready to go?

A. Oh, no. I wish I was that industrious. I finish a movie and then I procrastinate and then I figure out what I want to do next. Then I write that and I make that. From hand to mouth.

Q. So, why “Knives Out” now?

A. I was coming off “The Last Jedi,” which was a fantastic experience but it was four years of my life, and I felt that it would be really nice to make something that I could do fairly quickly. I had been chewing on the idea for “Knives Out,” at least the basic plot idea, for the past decade. So, I could actually sit down to what for me was a very quick writing process. I started writing last year in January, we started shooting it the following October, and we had wrapped it by Christmas.


Q. There’s a lot of talking in the film. Is this the most dialogue you’ve written since “The Brothers Bloom”?

A. Oh, definitely. Because for the genres that “Looper” and “Star Wars” are in, you’re going for economy of dialogue. With this one it felt really good being able to get back to writing lots of words for these actors. Also, part of the joy of the whodunit genre is how people use words to obfuscate the truth, and how stuff is revealed. So it made sense to have the movie a little more verbose.

Q. Some of your characters have rather interesting names. Christopher Plummer plays Harlan Thrombey, and Daniel Craig is Benoit Blanc. Where did those come from?

Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc in "Knives Out."Claire Folger/Lionsgate

A. The main thing was that they just sounded good. But as far as Benoit Blanc, I had a Canadian tutor whose first name was Benoit. I loved that name, and I just felt that Blanc kind of rolled off the tongue. But with Thrombey, there was a series of books that I loved as a kid called “Choose Your Own Adventure.” You would read a chapter and it would say, “If you want to do this, you turn to page 32. You want to do that? Turn to another page.” I’m not sure I should tell you this, but I got Thrombey from one of those books called “Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey.”


Q. Did you set out to write the absolutely longest reveal in movie history?

A. [Laughs] Well, my favorite part of a mystery is the end, when the detective ties it up. Some of my favorites are the Peter Ustinov [Hercule] Poirot movies [he made six, starting with “Death on the Nile,” 1978, through “Appointment With Death,” 1988). I went back and actually timed those reveals. It’s crazy. They’re always longer than 20 minutes. That’s why those movies are all typically over two hours. You don’t remember how long they are because they’re always flashing back to scenes, and are so much fun to watch.

Q. You’ve made all these different types of films. Word is out that you’re thinking of doing a musical.

A. That’s near the top of my list. I don’t have one written yet but it’s something I aspire to. I love musicals, but the challenge is: Do you do a jukebox musical like “Singin’ in the Rain”? Do you do an original musical? Do you do something where people burst into song in the middle of scenes? Do you do something where it’s contained within the world itself? These are the big questions, but I love the form so much I think it would be fun to just breathe in and do it.

Q. Have you got a favorite film musical?

A. “Cabaret” is hard to beat. But one that nobody talks about that’s one of my favorites is “Jesus Christ Superstar.” It is a powerhouse! It’s funky, it’s ’70s, and of its time. I think it’s a great musical and an extraordinary movie.


Ed Symkus can be reached at