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Rian Johnson on KNIVES OUT, Lifetime Movies, and Frank Oz
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Two years after that controversial little blockbuster called Star Wars: The Last Jedi, director Rian Johnson is back with his slick whodunnit Knives Out. The film follows a detective investigating the mysterious death of an 85-year-old crime novelist at his lush New England estate. Knives Out is already a critical darling, raking in rave reviews since its premiere at TIFF earlier this year. Back in September, Nerdist had a chance to sit down with Johnson, one of the most talked-about young filmmakers in the game, after Knives Out closed Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. We chatted all about the film’s location, Danica McKellar, Frank Oz, and how to make a whodunnit believably modern.

Ana de Armas outside the Thrombey mansion in Knives Out.Claire Folger/Lionsgate

Aesthetically speaking, I’m totally obsessed with Gothic mansions, so of course I was drawn to the one in this film. Is it a real house or was it something you had built?

Rian Johnson: That was a real house in Massachusetts. In fact, that was the whole reason we set the film in Massachusetts, because we found that house. The first step after I wrote the script was to send scouts out to send us pictures from all over—that would probably be your favorite thing of all time. But yeah, all I was doing all day was opening emails of Gothic mansions.

We knew we wanted the murder mystery mansion of the mind. We shot a lot of the interiors in [the house], too. I grew up on the West Coast, so to me there’s a kind of exoticness to that New England vibe. I didn’t grow up around any of that stuff, so the feel of the East Coast and that whole world—of East Coast old money—that to me is very alien and very romantic.

I don’t want to get into spoilers because the brilliance of this movie is seeing it blind, but I did want to talk about the immigration subplot with Ana de Armas’ character. Was that always in the script or was it something you wrote in to coincide with real-world events?

RJ: That was part of it from early on. I’ve been cooking [Knives Out] up for 10 years. It’s something I’ve been chewing on for a long while. And I sat down to write the actual script very recently, last January, and we had wrapped the movie by Christmas. It all happened really quick. So in that way it was very immediate in terms of the stuff we actually address in it. But the immigrant element of it, that had actually been in there for quite a while, definitely before all the most recent stuff started happening.

Part of what was exciting to me about this was kind of doing what Agatha Christie did with her character types. [They] now seem like dusty old tropes but back then she was creating these caricatures of people that were very present in British society at the time. Doing that with America in 2019, it’s not just skinning it with a modern thing, not just giving them cell phones. If we’re gonna put this in 2019, let’s plug it into what’s happening right now.

Knives Out cast family photo.Claire Folger/Lionsgate

The film also contains a few shoutouts to The Wonder Years actress Danica McKellar.

RJ: YES!

I was surprised to find out she was actually in a number of Lifetime movies, which is referenced in the film. How much Lifetime do you watch?

RJ: My wife and I are big fans of Lifetime movies, we watch a lot of them. Especially around Christmas. We go back and forth [between Lifetime and Hallmark]. We don’t discriminate. We are not snobs.

Folks who know you best from your work in Star Wars will be excited to see you re-team with Frank Oz, who plays a small role in Knives Out. How did that come to be?

RJ: It was so cool because obviously I worked with him on The Last Jedi. He stayed in touch and every time he’s in LA he’d drop me an email and we’d get together. He was just so kind, and we became friends. He doesn’t do this [sort of thing] a lot, so it meant a lot to me that he came down for those few days and was in the movie. Everybody on set—all of these movie stars—when Frank Oz walked in, they were starstruck. And then of course he’s the friendliest dude in the world so everybody was just gathered around getting stories about Little Shop of Horrors or the movies that he’s directed. I’m so happy he’s in the movie. I think he’s terrific in it.

Ana de Armas and director Rian Johnson behind the scenes of Knives Out.Claire Folger/Lionsgate

Knives Out has a truly gigantic all-star cast, most of whom play relatives. How do you make sure everyone in there gets a standout moment and how tricky was it to establish how everyone is related and how they function as relatives?

RJ: It’s a lot of math. I’ve mostly done movies with small groups of people. Even in The Last Jedi, it was split into sections with just two or three people, so I had never really written or directed scenes where there are like 10 people talking to each other. Especially when you have actors of this caliber, you try to give everybody something interesting to do.

But it also means when you have actors this good, they’re going to take whatever you give them and really make it pop. Nobody fades into the background. Part of it was making sure everybody felt distinct but still in the same world. It’s not primarily a family drama so you don’t have a lot of real estate in the movie to establish deep relationships, so a lot of it has to be shorthand. And I think the way that we mostly shorthanded it in this is in how they argue with each other.

All of your movies so far have been in different genres. Is there another genre you’d like to tackle next?

RJ: I’ve been talking a lot about musicals recently. I would love to do a good musical. There are so many genres that would be fun to do, and I have a couple of them that I’m kind of chewing on right now, but I also had so much fun doing this. I would do another one of these in a heartbeat. The whodunnit is such a valuable genre. Think of Agatha Christie and how different Murder on the Orient Express is from And Then There Were None. There are so many different forms that it can take.

Knives Out is currently playing in theaters everywhere.

Featured Image: Claire Folger/Lionsgate