Accents, Knife Rentals, and Tie-In Menus: Rian Johnson on ‘Knives Out’
A 15-minute phone call is barely enough time to scratch the surface of all the mysteries surrounding writer/director Rian Johnson’s new movie Knives Out, a witty and extremely entertaining whodunit about a private detective named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) investigating the death of a famous mystery novelist (Christopher Plummer). I did my best, though; during my conversation with Johnson — previously the director of Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi — we talked about his writing process, Knives Out’s beautiful shooting location (a real house in New England), the memorable names of his characters (and some Easter eggs hidden within them), and more.
I also resisted the urge to ask each question in Craig’s outrageous Southern accent from the film — although we did discuss the origin of that unforgettable drawl — for which I think I deserve some kind of medal. Feel free to read my portions of this interview like Benoit Blanc anyway for full effect:
My first question is about writing a mystery: Is it any different than writing any other kinds of screenplay?
Yes and no. The way I write, I write in a really structural way. So no matter what I’m writing, I start kind of drawing the plot out. I write in these little Moleskine notebooks, and for me to be able to start, I need to be able to draw a line on one page and kind of sketch out the entire story on that timeline, so I can see it all at once. For me, that’s important for any story.
It’s exponentially more important for a murder mystery like this, where things can get very complicated very quickly — and where my intention is always to make things not seem complicated for the audience. My intention is for the audience to be carried along, kind of like a roller coaster ride. For me, being able to hold the whole thing very simply in my head is pretty crucial.
And do you have the ending in mind when you’re sketching that all out or is that something you arrive at later?
That is something I have, yeah, at the very start. And again, it’s kind of like the first 80 percent of the process is doing that thing I just described; the sketching the whole thing out. It’s not like you start at the beginning and work towards the end, the whole thing has to click in at once. It’s a very weird, organic process. Anyway, before I start typing, yeah, I definitely need to know the end of that through line.
I could happily listen to Daniel Craig talk in that Southern accent for days on end about anything. Was that in your script or was that something he brought to the part?
That was something I wrote in the script. I figured that because he was going to be in New England, to make him a fish out of water and maybe make the suspects in the case not take him quite seriously, I would give him this deep Southern lilt. Then I worked with Daniel during pre-production to kind of figure out what that meant. And he found reference of the historian Shelby Foote, who has a Mississippi drawl and that kind of became the model on that.
I read somewhere the house where most of the movie takes place is a real house.
Oh yes. Oh yeah.
Does someone live there? Did you just use it for exteriors or did you shoot the interiors somewhere else?
There’s a family that lives there, and they lived there while we were shooting. They were there the whole time. They mostly would hang out in their kitchen with Jamie Lee Curtis doing crossword puzzles while we were filming.
My producer started scouting for houses before I was finished writing the script. And we found this one and we were like “Oh, that’s it. It’s the murder mystery mansion of the mind.” It’s the reason we went to Massachusetts.
And yeah, we shot outside, we shot inside, all of the stuff on the ground level with the exception of the big library, which is another mansion nearby. But most of the stuff on the ground level is actually in the house. We dressed it; all the crazy stuff wasn’t there when we came in. All the set dressing and all the art on the walls. But that is the house.
Did the family want to keep any of the stuff you brought in? It looks so great onscreen.
Uh, no. They are not psychopaths. I wanted to keep the big knife sculpture, the big knife donut in the library, but I couldn’t because half of those knives are rentals.
What do you mean, they’re rentals? You can rent knives?
Yeah, we had to rent knives, man. It’s a crazy world.
Where do you rent knives from?
That’s a good question. I don’t know. I was obviously not involved in the knife renting. Or maybe they were just lying to me because they didn’t want me to have that thing in my house. [laughs] Maybe my wife paid them off to have them tell me they were rentals.
I’m glad you brought up that knife display, or as you called it the “knife donut.” It’s such an interesting bit of decor and it gets a lot of screentime. Where did that idea come from?
I had the idea that Christopher Plummer’s character was supposed to be like the Stephen King of mystery novelists, and the idea was that he kind of creates props in his house for each one of his books he writes. So I had it written into the script that framing the people in this big interrogation scene would be this religious icon made out of knives; kind of a big knife halo.
And then, yeah, Benoit Blanc at certain points during the movie has this belabored, ridiculous analogy about a donut in regards to the shape of the case. And at some point during shooting, one of the grips came up to me and nodded at the knife structure and said “I see what you did there, man.” And I’m like “Huh?” He goes “The knife donut!” And I said, “Oh... oh yeah! The knife donut. That... was ... intentional.” I don’t know, I just thought a big ring of knives would look cool.
There are some excellent character names in this film. Which one are you most proud of?
Well, Benoit Blanc I feel very solid about. I had a French tutor whose first name was Benoit, and I liked that a bit. And then I thought it’d be fun to give a last name Americans would struggle with, a bit like Poirot.
I guess this is kind of an Easter egg: In order to keep track of all the family members’ names, I came up with a sort of cheat, sort of a code. I named them all after ’70s rock stars. So Richard and Linda are a couple in the movie, and that’s Richard and Linda Thompson. Joni, Toni Collette’s character, is obviously Joni Mitchell. And her deceased husband is named Neil, which is Neil Young. Then Walt and Donna are Walter Becker and Donald Fagen from Steely Dan.
Then Ransom, I’m happy I got to use Ransom. Ransom is the name of the character from C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, and I’ve always just thought that was a weird, cool name and I was happy I was able to steal that.
That’s really cool. When you Google “Harlan Thombey,” Christopher Plummer’s name, the first thing that comes up is a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, Who Killed Harlow Thrombey?
Hell yeah. That’s right. It’d be weird if that was a coincidence, huh?
I guess it would be. But I figured I would ask.
Yeah, I had that book when I was a kid. I loved that whole series, and that was one of my favorite books.
Knives Out is a very tricky movie to talk about without getting into spoilers. So I was wondering how you feel about spoilers. Do you go out of your way to avoid them in your moviegoing? Or do you not care much about them?
Yeah, if it’s something I know I’m going to see and I really care about, then I’ll go to great lengths. Parasite, for instance, I didn’t get to see until it had been out in theaters a few weeks and everyone was talking about that movie, and I didn’t watch any trailers and I would like cover my ears and walk away if anyone started talking about it. That one took a little bit of work. But yeah, for something like this as well, I mean, hopefully the movie’s constructed so that even if some a—hole spoils it you can still have a good time watching it, but it’s a whodunit, so it’s better if you don’t know who done it.
Absolutely. Besides Parasite are there any movies you’ve seen recently that you really loved?
Oh my God, it’s been such an amazing year for movies. I’ve actually gotten to see quite a few. I think Marriage Story is incredible. Uncut Gems I thought was amazing. The Irishman is f—ing great. Little Women is terrific; I got to see that. I loved this movie earlier in the year, The Last Black Man in San Francisco. It was released a little earlier, so it’s not coming out right now, but I thought it was a gorgeous film. It’s been a great year for movies, I think.
I think you’re at least vaguely aware of my interest in products and foods connected to the releases of movies?
Oh, I am. You are a madman.
Yes. So as a director of a huge movie that inspired a ton of products and some foods, I am curious what kind of input you get into that. Do they bring the things to you for approval? Do you have meetings about it? I am very curious about the process from your perspective.
You know what we do? I go in the boardroom, I carry in a five foot by eight foot foamcore photo of you, and I put it at the head of the table and I point at your stomach and I say “Gentlemen, terminate with extreme prejudice.”
It’s all for you! All of it, Matt!
No, they run all this stuff by me during a big marketing meeting, but I am not creating the menus. If I were, believe me, they would be much more cruel. Are we doing any kinds of, like, Denny’s meal for this one?
Not that I am aware of. I did send you that picture of the ad I saw in the movie theater.
That’s right, the “Snacker Pack.” All right, I’ll work on it.
Knives Out opens in theaters on November 27.
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