As you might imagine, after making "The Last Jedi," perhaps the most controversial "Star Wars" movie in 10 years —oh, wait, I forgot about "Solo" — "Knives Out" director Rian Johnson was in the mood for, as Monty Python used to put it, something completely different.
"This thing had been in the back of my head for the past 10 years," Johnson says. We are sitting on a comically low and uncomfortable couch in an Austin boutique hotel. I have no idea who this couch is supposed to be for, but it’s not humans.
"‘Star Wars’ was a fantastic experience," Johnson says. "but it was four years of nothing but ’Star Wars.’ After being in that world for so long, I wanted to do something very quickly, not be precious about, just jump into something and do it."
That something was a whodunit, a mystery genre Johnson loved. Johnson’s first movie was the neo-noir "Brick," which transposed impossibly hard-boiled dialogue into a high school setting for genuinely surreal effect. But "Knives Out" is something very different.
"I'm a whodunit junkie," he says. "The Hercule Poirot movies, based on Agatha Christie novels, are touchstones for me — ‘Death on the Nile,’ ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ — but also movies like ’The Last of Sheila,’ which is so incredible."
(Mr. Johnson is correct. "The Last of Sheila" rules; Stephen Sondheim co-wrote it with Anthony Perkins, and it features the most ‘70s cast of all time: James Coburn, James Mason, Raquel Welch, Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon and a then-unknown Ian McShane, of all people.)
Even though this thing had been cooking for a while in Johnson’s noggin, by contemporary Hollywood standards, "Knives Out" came together rapidly. "I started writing in January (2018) and we had wrapped the movie by Christmas," Johnson says.
Part of the challenge in constructing such a movie was adapting a very mid-20th-century subgenre for now.
"Part of the thing with this movie was to try and really plug it into 2019, into kind of right now," Johnson says. "The types in British society that Agatha Christie was writing about were very present when she was writing. I didn’t want to just just skin the story with a modern-day look, but actually try to create these kinds of caricatures of character types that we know from today, make it slightly self-aware."
Hence, "Knives Out" concerns very successful mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) and his spoiled family, leeching off his millions.
Also helping the speed of production? Daniel Craig. "He was the first one to sign on, and once he was on board, I think that's why everything moved so quickly," Johnson says. I note how happy Chris Evans looks in the film — after playing the hyper-moral Captain America in various "Avengers" movies. Here, he plays a gold-plated jerk who may or may not have a heart of gold.
"I think he was just happy not to have put on a helmet for this," Johnson says. "He loved wearing nice, comfortable clothes. I showed him that sweater and he was like, ‘All right, this is great!’"
And then there’s the house, the astonishing Clue board mansion occupied by the Thrombey paterfamilias. It feels like a world unto itself, but Johnson denies that the world-building comes first.
"I've never been attracted to something just to create a world or create a space," Johnson says. "And I think that's why I've never really been interested in doing sequels to anything I've done. To me, what's interesting is not creating the world and letting something live in it. To me, the world is a necessary byproduct of telling a specific story that has a shape, has a point to it, has something on its mind and wants to engage the audience in a certain way and/or to support that story. The world ends up getting built around it."
Later, Johnson doubles back on this, slightly. "Honestly, I had so much fun making this and so much fun working with Daniel that the idea of doing another mystery with him in a completely different context would be really, really fun. Mystery is such a malleable genre, it's something that can take on lots of forms and attack a lot of different things, and that seems exciting to me."