From ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Breaking Bad’ to a good old murder mystery
- Director Rian Johnson talks about his elegant and stylish mystery, ‘Knives Out’
- This is a parlour-room mystery where a novelist is murdered after his 85th birthday, making everyone a suspect while an idiosyncratic sleuth pieces it all together
Who better to make a whodunnit than a director who has built his career on plot twists? If a private detective tailed Rian Johnson’s filmography, he would be stymied. Johnson began with Brick, a noir film set in—of all places—a high school, following it up with preposterous caper film The Brothers Bloom. “He writes his cons the way dead Russians write novels," Adrien Brody said in that cheeky, overwritten comedy. “With thematic arcs and embedded symbolism and shit."
This can also be said of Johnson, an intricate storyteller who must enjoy confounding audiences. I spoke to him on the phone from Los Angeles after watching his delicious new Knives Out, but first I had to discuss an episode of Breaking Bad he directed, called The Fly. The brooding TV series briefly transformed into a Tom & Jerry farce as two makers of methamphetamine chased a literal fly in the ointment.
“Part of what’s amazing about that show is that you would never quite know what to expect," says Johnson. “And it finds comedy even in the darkest situations." To me, that episode took Breaking Bad from good to great. “I did a few episodes," he says—which includes Ozymandias, the antepenultimate episode of the series, widely considered one of the greatest episodes of television—“but that one in particular was special."
His unpredictability isn’t for everyone. The Fly is loathed by several diehard fans, as was Johnson’s last feature. Star Wars: The Last Jedi was a bold attempt to wrest the space opera away from the saga of one chosen family and explore deeper themes. A section of fans rebelled, petitioning Disney to remake the film and virulently trolling Johnson online. “Look, I was in my 20s when the prequels came out, so I know about passionate fan reactions," he laughs. “I have gotten to experience so much of the positive side, seeing how deeply the movie resonates with people, and that means I can’t complain if I am also experiencing some of the negative side. It’s what makes Star Wars fans great, how much they care about it."
“It’s just making a movie," he says about making a film that gigantic. “But more so. It felt like the same game, just in a bigger stadium, I guess." While Johnson is slated for numerous arena-sized concerts—his very own Star Wars trilogy is coming up—he first chose a more intimate gig. As I said, he likes the plot twist.
“A film starring James Bond, by the maker of Star Wars"—a description that made Johnson giggle furiously—is a misleading way to describe Knives Out. This is a parlour-room mystery where a novelist is murdered after his 85th birthday, making everyone a suspect while an idiosyncratic sleuth pieces it all together.
Johnson’s explorations of genre benefit from his irreverent style, and Knives Out is uproarious—the Southern sleuth played by Daniel Craig is once described as “CSI: KFC"—yet never a spoof. The plotting is meticulous, the stakes high, the clues fiendish. “I think if you have made a movie where it can be spoiled—in other words, where the pleasure of the movie is entirely in the surprise—then I don’t think you have made a very strong movie." A “strong movie" for Johnson here would be one where “you will care about someone in it, and you will feel satisfaction in it beyond just the solving of the mystery".
Johnson unsurprisingly loves Agatha Christie, and agrees he lifted a central idea—of a character being untrue without ever telling a lie—straight from the stunning 1926 novel The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd. “You are right, I absolutely pulled that, although the big difference is that they don’t tell you till the end with Roger Ackroyd." Johnson prefers to confide in his audience, the way Alfred Hitchcock would. “So let’s get all the pleasures of the whodunnit in there, but let’s build it around the Hitchcock idea of empathy and suspense, as opposed to surprise," he says. “And I think that’s a more satisfying engine to have in a movie."
It is essential that a whodunnit include actors luxuriating in their own fabulousness, and Knives Out features Craig, Chris Evans, Christopher Plummer, Ana de Armas, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon and Lakeith Stanfield, all having an infectiously grand time. “In this case, the way it feels on screen was very much the way it actually was," assures Johnson. “Everyone just came ready to play. There were no egos, and everyone just got along and had fun."
Johnson himself is most influenced by Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Federico Fellini’s 8K. “These are movies with a novelistic complexity. Maybe I admire them more because it’s not the type of thing I do. I tend to be attracted to making more tightly wound genre pieces, at least recently," he says. “But the idea of ever making something with the emotional complexity of those films, well…." He trails off for a second. “It’s good to have goals," he laughs. Whatever will this director do next? I say, watch closely. The game is afoot.
Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.
FIRST PUBLISHED29.11.2019 | 02:23 PM IST
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