In a time when it feels like so much of Hollywood output is based on pre-existing intellectual property like comic books or part of a franchise like The Fast And The Furious, director Rian Johnson’s new feature Knives Out is a breath of fresh air.
A clever locked-room mystery, Knives Out stars Daniel Criag as detective Benoit Blanc interrogating a family full of suspects about the murder of their wealth patriarch. There are a number of classic mystery stories that are embedded deep in the film’s DNA and we talked about them with him on the red carpet at the film’s screening at the Philadelphia Film Festival last evening.
For the look of the film’s primary setting, a Massachusetts mansion owned by mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), Johnson turned to a personal favorite, the 1972 film Sleuth. “[Sleuth] also takes place in a big mansion that’s owned by an eccentric mystery writer. And the whole house is filled up with his obsessions. It’s like the inside of his brain.”
Johnson also name-checks 1973’s ensemble mystery The Last Of Sheila as well as the two Agatha Christie adaptations starring Peter Ustinov as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot – Death On The Nile (1978) and Evil Under The Sun (1982). And it was the Agatha Christie stories he points to as the genesis of for Knives Out’s characters having various political leanings to them.
“Agatha Christie was really always plugging into British society of the time,” Johnson explained in the post-film Q&A session. “And kind of the dusty, old tropes we think from murder mysteries of like the colonels and the old dowagers, like everyone had like an uncle who was a colonel in the war and now is kind of blustery, but doesn’t have any place to put that authority. She was writing to her times. And so my idea was, well, let’s, let’s do that. But let’s do that today. Let’s create character types who could only exist in 2019, for better and for worse.
“Christie is always my favorite because of her character work. And what she always does so brilliantly, is walking that line between creating characters who are just on the verge of caricature, but still having enough relatability to where it doesn’t leave the planet Earth. So that that was kind of with each of the character types who were going for. When I get together with my family, after a couple of glasses of wine, this is the shit we argue about. And so part of the part of the freedom of this was allowing ourselves to say, okay, you know, we’re not going to be subtle with this stuff, we’re not going to layer in the background, this is what everyone’s fighting about, right now, so let’s put it out there. And so having each one of the characters be a very recognizable distinct type, again, on the verge of that kind of caricature that was that was that was part of the idea with it, I guess.”
Johnson was quick to credit his cast with being able to bring the film’s characters to a full and believable life.
“I should say, really quick, it takes really good actors to be able to do that, and still have them feel like characters to the point where you’re still invested with them and enough to get to the end of the movie, and you care what happens.”
One film that Johnson states was not an inspiration, though he can see where people might mistakenly believe was, is the 1985 comedy Clue.
“Clue is like a straight up comedy that’s kind of making fun of the genre lovingly,” he states. “And I was actually really specific with everybody, ‘We’re not making a parody of a whodunit. We’re making a whodunit. It’s gonna be really fun. It’s gonna be a little self aware, a little cheeky. But at the end of the day, this has to be a whodunit that really, truly delivers a good mystery.'”