With his new movie, the ingeniously intricate murder mystery Knives Out, writer-director Rian Johnson is at the top of his game. Not that he has anything to prove at this point in his career: He’s part of an elite group of directors whose films have grossed more than a billion dollars worldwide thanks to his work on Star Wars: Episode VIII—The Last Jedi, his fandom is large and enthusiastic, and even us finicky critics seem to love everything he does. But, as The A.V. Club learned talking to Johnson when he came to Chicago for a gala screening of Knives Out, he doesn’t think of himself as a big deal at all. Instead, he sums up his philosophy on life and filmmaking by quoting Warren Zevon: “Enjoy every sandwich.”
The A.V. Club: You are very active on Twitter for a director with your kind of name recognition. Why?
Rian Johnson: You said the word “why” like, “why would you do that to yourself?”
AVC: Honestly, yeah. Your mentions have to be insane!
RJ: They’re not so bad. I guess the answer is that I’ve always done [this type of thing]. Even before Twitter was around, right after Brick came out, I created a message board for people to come and ask questions and talk about the movie. I was [in one of] the first generations to engage with the internet as a social tool, coming out of college. And I’ve always just enjoyed it.
You spend all your time making these movies with your head down, working with your little group. And then when you put them out there, the fantastic upside of being on social media is you get to talk to people about it. People that I never would have had any contact with, suddenly being able to hop into a conversation with them ... I mean, that’s also what can be cursed about it. Especially over the past few years, with The Last Jedi being talked about in every single sphere of online life, I think the negative gets talked about a lot. And not to deny the degree to which the negative is a problem at all, but there’s a reason that I’m still on [Twitter]. And that’s because the positive element of it is the overwhelming experience I have on there. It’s not like walking into no man’s land in World War I, with bombs exploding everywhere.
AVC: Or, like, a room full of people screaming at you.
RJ: Not at all. Zero percent. I was going to say that I’ve muted and blocked a lot of people, but it’s not even that many. There are not that many people who have the time in their life to spend all day long yelling at me, so the truth is, you block a couple hundred people, you’ve kind of taken care of it. My mentions are actually pretty great! It’s very rare that the bad stuff filters through to me anymore.
AVC: I’m honestly glad to hear that.
RJ: I’m not a martyr. I wouldn’t be on Twitter if it wasn’t a good experience for me. The answer, I guess, is that I still really enjoy it, and the day that I don’t—well, I’ll get off Twitter.
AVC: Your career has had a lot of big leaps. You started in indie films, gradually working with bigger and bigger actors, and then you made the leap into Star Wars. Was there ever a moment where you thought to yourself, “Oh my god, this is real?”
RJ: Oh god, no. I keep waiting for that. [Laughs.]
No, it’s true! Maybe at some point you achieve it. I don’t know if it’d be a good thing if you achieved it, though. It still feels slightly surreal that I get to do this, and it’s only very recently that I’ve even let myself feel like, “okay, I think I can pull this off, at least for a while. I can keep doing this.” I always had in the back of my head like, “I can always go back to making a living.” And maybe I still will, 10 years from now. I feel like it would probably be be unhealthy to get too comfortable, for a couple of reasons.
And also, you can count on half of a hand the filmmakers who stay active and productive their entire lives. Most careers, even of filmmakers who are the most talented filmmakers on the planet, have a narrative to them. They have a shape. You’re going to go up, you’re going to go down, you’re going to have highs and lows. Maybe at some point you won’t be able to make movies anymore. Who knows? So I take the Warren Zevon approach of “enjoy every sandwich.” It’s all you can do.
AVC: So what would you do if, say, later in your career making movies wasn’t satisfying anymore, or the opportunities weren’t coming in?
RJ: First of all, I don’t think I would ever stop making movies. That’s the main thing. Take Brick for instance. I wrote that when I was right out of college, and I didn’t make it until I was turning 30. So for most of my 20s, I was just failing to make it. And as I got later and later in my 20s, I had a feeling of, “God, this probably won’t happen.” [It got] to the point where I really had to [tell myself], “I’m not going to be a miserable bastard the rest of my life because I didn’t get to do exactly what I wanted to do. I have great friends, have a great life, I can still make money.”
I guess the answer is I would keep making movies, I would just do them with my friends. And that, in a way, scratches the same itch making something like [Knives Out]. I don’t know how that sounds, saying that, but it is genuinely true. I think making something with a few friends and then showing it to your buddies in many ways is just as satisfying as making a feature.
AVC: The writing part would be the same. And then the experience of shooting the movie—it’s the same process, even though it’s on a different scale.
RJ: And the truth is, anything outside of the scope of seeing what you can see, in terms of people reacting to the movie—it all becomes very theoretical. There’s no difference in terms of the feeling of doing [Knives Out] and doing a Star Wars movie for me. I can go into a few theaters and see people reacting to the movie. I can have a few experiences with people telling me what they thought of it. But the idea of billions of people seeing it? That’s so abstract. It’s not like that makes it more rewarding, or something.
AVC: Well, that’s why I asked you about Twitter. Because it is a matter of scale.
RJ: That’s true. That’s a whole rabbit hole we could go down, how it’s a slightly different thing [now] because of the scale of the followers and the mentions. That has transformed it a little bit, in an interesting way.
AVC: Has it transformed anything when you’re trying to get a new project made? Are you still struggling to get meetings, or will just “Hi, I made The Last Jedi” do?
RJ: Look, I’m sure it didn’t hurt. [Laughs.] I also have a great producer. The way that I work—it’s not like I’m going out on job interviews so much. I put my head down and write something, and then if it’s good, then we try and get it made. That’s the way we’ve always worked. It’s always a little miracle whenever anything gets made. Now, it’s the same challenges, but I’m sure having Star Wars on my résumé does not hurt anything.
AVC: You said you wrote Brick and held onto it for a long time before it finally got made. Do you have anything else sitting in the coffers?
RJ: I have ideas, but I wish I had scripts in the drawer. That would be really nice. I have to finish something, and then sit down and figure out what’s next and write the next thing. But I think there’s some value to that, just in that it always means that whatever I’m writing is going to be the thing that’s on my heart at that moment.
AVC: So you’re a one-thing-at-a-time kind of person?
RJ: Yeah, I’m bad at multitasking. I have to just sit down and focus on one thing.
AVC: I feel that’s probably especially true for something like Knives Out, which is a really complex story with a lot of moving parts.
RJ: Especially with how quickly it came together. Knives Out came together fast.
AVC: How fast?
RJ: Really fast. I had the idea about 10 years ago. It had just been in the back of my head. I sat down to write last January, and we had wrapped the movie by Christmas. I wrote it in six months, which for me is really fast. And then basically, when Daniel Craig signed on, he had this really specific window of time right before they started shooting Bond. And that window began in six weeks. And so we had to get everything together in six weeks.
AVC: The cast in this movie is so great. Did you have any of them in mind when you were writing it?
RJ: No, not really. Just Noah Segan again, because he’s one of my best friends. But I’ve learned not to [write characters for people], because you get your heart broken. They’re inevitably not available, or whatever. So I just try to write the characters.
In this case it was just a matter of getting that keystone of Daniel in place and then everything else—he’s actor bait. So that helped in terms of everyone wanting to jump in.
AVC: He’s actor bait, as in, he’s friends with everybody?
RJ: Everyone just wants to work with Daniel. But then Michael Shannon was the second person on board, and everyone wants to work with Michael. And so once those two were on board, people started to see, “Okay, we’re going for a pedigree with this.” I think that really helped in getting everyone else on board.
AVC: Did you ever think, this is happening too fast?
RJ: There is like a little bit of that fear. But that’s just insecurity, the feeling of, “If this didn’t cook for 10 years…” I would say [I found an] enjoyment of the speed. It made me not be precious, but just say, “okay, we’re just gonna do this, and have fun doing that.” And that was nothing but a good thing.
AVC: How did you find the house for the movie?
RJ: When I was still writing the script, my producer started scouting around over the internet, live remote scouting in different places. We found this house in Massachusetts. It’s the whole reason we went to Massachusetts to shoot. It’s the murder mystery mansion of the mind. It’s beautiful.
And then David Crank, our production designer, went in there with his team and dressed the inside of it. I gave them the reference of the 1970s version of Sleuth, which is one of my favorite movies. And they went to town. But yeah, that house, that was key. It’s an old boring cliché, “the house is really like a character.” But it’s kind of true!
AVC: So you fully dressed the sets? All of the decor was you guys?
RJ: All of that is us. David Schlesinger was the set decorator who worked with David Crank and his crew. He found all of that stuff. He found a guy who collects automatons in Massachusetts and somehow convinced him to loan us a bunch of automatons to use in the movie.
AVC: Those things are so cool.
RJ: So cool, man. We’d turn them on in between takes and watch them do their crazy stuff. And then there was all the artwork they created, all these fake awards that Harlan Thrombey had won. And the book covers, they had like a hundred different book titles. They went to town. We really had a blast.
AVC: What happened to the wall of knives?
RJ: It’s actually an industrial barbecue grate. I’d had this idea that was like, “I want it to be like a religious icon made of knives. It should feel like a target made of knives.” And we were struggling with how to do it until they found this grating. And I really wanted to have that in my house after the movie was done. But 80% of the knives were rentals, so we had to give back the knives at the end of it.
AVC: A lot of elements went into this movie: There’s the Agatha Christie whodunnit, and the Choose Your Own Adventure book we were talking about before the interview. Am I wrong, or is there also a little bit of a telenovela influence in there?
RJ: Yeah, particularly in the the family drama. I really love that show Jane The Virgin, and it plays with tropes also, in the same self-aware sort of way. The basic seed of the whole thing was loving whodunnits, but wanting to figure out an engine to put in the middle of the movie that was a little more robust than collecting clues leading to a big surprise at the end. I agree with Alfred Hitchcock that that’s sort of a weak engine to build a movie around. So it’s got more of a Hitchcock thriller engine of having someone you care about who’s in peril, which is also at the heart of any good soap opera—or telenovela. It translates, I think.
AVC: And a big family that fights all the time.
RJ: And the will, and all that fun stuff. I want to get all the fun stuff in there.
AVC: What’s your favorite whodunnit of all time?
RJ: It’s my comfort food genre, so I love a lot of it.
AVC: Is there an author that you particularly like?
RJ: Well, Agatha Christie is still my favorite. I’ve read a lot of them—from the golden age of detective fiction, there are a lot of great authors, like Dorothy Sayers and John Dickson Carr. But I always keep coming back to Christie because of her love of character. Her books are always ingenious puzzle boxes, but they’re never just ingenious puzzle boxes. There’s a sense of fun, and a sense of love that she approaches all of her characters with.
You know what? I think And Then There Were None is probably her best book. And I love The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd, in terms of the audaciousness of the conceit of it. I also have a real soft spot for Curtain. Curtain was Poirot’s last case. It’s something that Christie wrote and then put in an envelope and gave to her lawyer and had it published posthumously after she died.
AVC: That’s so dramatic.
RJ: Very dramatic. So it’s Hercule Poirot’s last case. And the conceit of the mystery is really weird and interesting, and she does something that’s very audacious and she ties up Poirot’s whole thing in what I find to be a really beautiful, effecting way. Late period Christie is interesting. She got very dark at the end, when she engaged with darker and darker subjects. You can feel her grappling with the culture changing around her. And she was writing all the way through the ’60s so, yeah. A lot changed.
AVC: You work with that in this movie, too. It’s definitely a modern whodunnit.
RJ: Even in her classic period, Christie was always engaged with the culture. I think we have this idea of her books being timeless, or this netherworld thing. They never were. It seems that way now, just because they’re so disconnected from our time, but she was always writing about her time. You could pick up any one of her books, and you’d know what era it’s from.