By the time Detective Benoit Blanc solves his third Knives Out Mystery, writer-director Rian Johnson will have made three of the whodunits in a row. That wasn't necessarily by design: He released the first one, Knives Out, in 2019, a surprise box office hit that revitalized the moribund genre and earned Johnson an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay in the process.
A sequel was greenlit within the year, and then, the world went into lockdown. (In 2021, Netflix secured both said sequel and a third entry in the franchise.) Stuck inside during the pandemic, Johnson concocted a case that would take Blanc (once again played by Daniel Craig) to a private island in Greece to solve another murder mystery, this time involving tech moguls, influencers, socialites, and politicians. By the summer of 2021, Johnson was shooting Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery on the Greek isle of Spetses, with a cast starry enough to rival the original film's stacked ensemble: Edward Norton, Janelle Monáe, Kate Hudson, Dave Bautista, and Kathryn Hahn.
That the sequel feels like both an extension of the first film and something entirely new is by design. "The fun way of approaching this series is to really come at each one like its own novel on the shelf," says Johnson. "So, the fact that it's a whole new cast, a whole new setting, a whole new movie in so many ways, it's very much its own challenge." The movie had a one-week theatrical run last month ("It was a party, man," says Johnson. "It felt like a special event in every screening.") ahead of its streaming debut on Netflix on Dec. 23.
Which brings us to the threequel.
"While I was working on Glass Onion, I assumed that I would do something else next," Johnson admits. "But honestly, coming out of the experience of making this movie, I'm so creatively jazzed by this form, and I've already started to dig in and try and figure out what the next one can be."
A.frame: Having written Knives Out and, by most people's estimation, mastered the whodunit, did it feel easier approaching the writing process on the second one? At least when it came to the mystery?
No. [Laughs] The hard part for me is not actually the mystery part of it. It feels a bit like fishing. You know, you're searching for the idea that's going to surprise you. The actual hard part, the place where the most sweat goes into, is telling a story that's going to keep the audience engaged. And that's different from the mystery. The mystery is layered on top of that, or underneath it. The reality is you need a protagonist. You need the audience to be worried. You need the audience to be leaning forward, like, 'Oh my God, how is this going to turn out?' You need characters with dramatic stakes between them. That's the same work that goes into any other genre of screenplay, and that's still the hardest work.
You make the mystery part sound easy. At the risk of my question being, 'How'd you do that?' can you talk about what the scripting process looks like for you, in terms of structuring the mystery and keeping track of the clues so that everything pays off. Is it just bouncing forward and back to make sure everything fits? Do you work backwards and write the end first?
The way I learned how to write scripts very much helps with this type of movie, I think. I will spend the first 90 percent of the process working in little moleskine notebooks, outlining, for lack of a better word. It's more than outlining though, because sometimes I'll do long hand sketches of scenes. Sometimes I'll do long muses about the different characters and what makes them tick or the themes. But, when I come out of the end of it, I have after, whatever, eight months of not typing a single word, I have a line drawn in my little moleskine notebook with cross hatches where I have every sequence in the movie laid out and I can see the whole shape of it. Like a zoomed back satellite map. And keeping it easily digestible in one visual gulp for as long as humanly possible lets me not get lost in the soup.
That lets me think big picture and think in terms of what I plant when, and then, the very last step is sitting down and typing the script and the dialogue and all of that stuff. If it takes me a month to type the script, it'll be at the tail end of eight months of the actual writing, which, for me, is really the outlining.
Does that line ever just completely blow up, where you have to rethink all of your cross hatches? Or does it feel more like a constant evolution?
No, sometimes you have to blow it up. Sometimes you have to realize you've hit a wall and you have to completely back up. I always try and keep my antenna up for, 'Is this just hard or is this not working?' But with the example of Glass Onion, which I won't say in detail to avoid spoilers, there's a very specific structural gambit that the movie attempts, and there's a very big midpoint twist that leads to a structural change. Just the abstract concept of that was almost a starting point for me, the notion of can I construct a movie that does this and that works for an audience? That was the challenge from the start.
As you're coming up with this new cast of characters to populate Glass Onion, do you ever write with actors in mind?
No, I don't, except for Daniel. I try not to for a few reasons: It's a pathway to heartbreak, because if you write with someone in mind, inevitably, they won't be available. Also, I feel like writing to the needs of the character and then handing it over to a talented actor to interpret in and find the part, that feels like a much more interesting way of going about it, as opposed to, 'Oh, I know this person does this, so I'll write it like that.'
Once you have these characters on paper, how much of casting was knowing, 'Oh, this person will nail this'? And how much was wanting to challenge them as actors?
It's almost like wanting to challenge me. Because I've spent so long with it in my head, I have a specific version in my head, and it's always most interesting if you can find someone who is going to serve the basic idea of that, but in a way that I wasn't imagining when I was writing the script. That's always the most exciting thing, I think.
Were there cases of that on this?
Dave Bautista was a very good example of that. When I wrote that character, I was picturing probably a scrawny white dude who is punching above his weight class with all of his big talk about mandom and the breastification of America. And when Mary Vernieu and Bret Howe, my casting directors, brought up the idea of Dave, it clicked something completely new in my mind, and I thought, 'Oh my God, that could be really, really interesting.' And every day on set, watching him do it was a joy, because it was something new to me but something that completely worked for the part.
How sacred is the text then for you? Do you allow improv on set?
Yeah, I think maybe because of the process I described — because I don't start with the dialogue, I end with it. It's the very last step — I tend to not be very precious about the words. I mean, I think they're good. [Laughs] And we mostly stick to them, but if something doesn't feel right — if the words in an actor's mouth feels clunky, if it feels like there's a better way to a joke or we could discover something on the day — I'm never precious about the words on the page. A lot of times, it's jokes. A lot of times, it's gags or little funny bits that we come up with or what have you. Edward definitely had a bunch. I had so much fun playing with him with this part, and he is so inventive. So, he'd always be trying out new things as Miles. What I am precious about is the intent of a scene, and of the shape of it, and the purpose of it. But as long as we're finding the best possible way to that, we do a lot of playing on set.
What is the vibe on a Rian Johnson set? Do you have pillars of how you want to run your productions?
I'm a screamer and a thrower, that's my trick. The only way you get respect is if they fear you! [Laughs] No, I really do believe everyone does their best work if they feel comfortable and relaxed and if they feel safe. So, I try and do all the prep work for myself so that when I show up on set on the day, I'm not running around stressing out about how are we going to shoot it, or how's the day going to work, or what have you. I can create a very relaxed environment so that the actors step onto the set and feel that, and then, I can put my attention on them. 'Cause the reality is there's a lot of things that go into filmmaking, but at the end of the day, if you had to prioritize one single thing, it's giving the actors what they need to do their best work. If that's working, the scene's going to work, and the movie's going to work.
Also, I learned how to make movies by growing up making movies with my friends. It's how we hung out together. And so, it's not like it was a stressful job I was showing up at and trying to execute. It was the way that I enjoyed myself on the weekends. And that's still how I want to be. I want to show up on set and we should all be having a good time. We love making movies, that's why we're all doing it.
That's the ideal. But as you said, a lot of things go into filmmaking, and things go wrong every single day. Making any movie is hard. Making a movie under COVID protocols is especially hard. How do you work to maintain that mentality throughout months of a shoot?
I think that it's a weird alternate reality that you go into when you start making a film, and especially when you're directing. There's that great thing David Foster Wallace wrote, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, that's about him going on a cruise line, and he talks about the expectation of all your needs being met in that bubble when you're on a cruise line. And suddenly, you become very tuned in if anything doesn't go exactly your way. That's the danger on set as a director, is you're surrounded by incredibly talented people who are working their ass off to make everything work and to give you everything that you're asking for creatively. And, for me, it is just a matter of reminding yourself that this is a complex system, and things are going to go wrong, and not letting yourself kind of regress into this infant state. You just always have to remind yourself where you are and how lucky you are to be doing what you're doing.
I guess it's a side effect of talking about Knives Out movies, but as soon as you started talking about a cruise line, I'm thinking, 'I would love to see one of these on a Royal Caribbean or Carnival Cruise.'
Death on the Nile did it pretty well already! The Peter Ustinov movie is one of my favorites. I feel like it'd be tough to top that.
You didn't just sign on to do a second Benoit Blanc mystery, but a third one too. Are you, as a creative, able to set that third one aside and say, 'I'll get to you when I get to you'? Or do you find yourself chipping at it, even if just in the back of your mind, while you're working on Glass Onion?
While I was working on Glass Onion, I assumed that I would do something else next, something totally different, because we did have time built into our contract to go off and make another movie first. But honestly, coming out of the experience of making this movie, I'm so creatively jazzed by this form, and I've already started to dig in and try and figure out what the next one can be. Because every time I start thinking about something else, I find myself straying back to this. The creative challenge of working in this genre, I love doing something completely different from both Glass Onion and Knives Out, what can that be? How can I surprise myself? How can it be scary in the right way? All of that in the context of the comfort of knowing that I'll be working with Daniel again, and that it's a form that I truly love, it feels like it's the thing that I definitely want to do most next.
I know Agatha Christie is always an influence on these. For the first one, you looked at a lot of those film adaptations. On this one, you've talked about The Last of Sheila. As you are thinking about that third one, at what point do you start searching for influences and looking at other films? Is it once you've cracked the story or before then?
I find it weirdly unhelpful to look too specifically at other films or books while I'm in the process of writing. In between writing, I try and soak up as much stuff as I possibly can, but then when it's time to actually write, I almost need to zoom back from all of it. What's helpful for me is to think about the genre, my experience of the genre and, in a defocused, hazy way, what are the pleasure centers that I love? And then try and find my own way towards those. That, to me, is much more helpful than trying to dig for inspiration in specific movies or books.
Certainly, the next one will be completely different too, but is there something that you learned on Glass Onion — about yourself as a filmmaker or about making these movies — that you'll take with you going forward?
Every time you make a movie, it's such a big complicated process. And, like any other big venture in life, you learn so much about yourself, and you grow every time, hopefully. So, there's a million things. I think I experienced it on the first one, but seeing it happen again on this one, really valuing the community of the actors and the crew that come together to make these things, and realizing that, as important as the craft of all of it is, the experience of making it and the fact that that experience is a good one, really does inform these films.
So, I think figuring out how the hell do we have lightning strike three times in that regard. [Laughs] And then, there are a million things craft-wise that you think, 'Oh, I could get that better next time.' Or, 'Oh, I could tighten that up.' But, as opposed to building off what came before, what's exciting to me is striking out with something new and figuring out, 'What's something I've never tried before? What's something I don't know how to do?' I feel like the instant I feel like I know how to do this, it's probably time to stop.
By John Boone