Rian Johnson insists that his new movie Knives Out isn’t a comedy, but there sure were a lot of people laughing when it screened as the closing night selection at the Philadelphia Film Festival.
Knives Out, which opened in theaters Wednesday, was cowinner of the Audience Award (along with Come as You Are), and a packed Film Center audience Oct. 27 clearly enjoyed the antics of Daniel Craig, amusingly over-the-top in the starring role of Benoit Blanc, a Southern gentleman (perhaps related to Foghorn Leghorn, judging by his accent) and sleuth investigating the murder of a wealthy mystery writer (Christopher Plummer).
The film is an homage to Agatha Christie, and in that spirit the murder suspects include everyone in the dead man’s spoiled family — Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Don Johnson, though suspicion initially falls on the only decent human being in the crime-scene mansion, a nurse played by Ana de Armas.
Director Johnson — best known for helming the recent Star Wars franchise entry The Last Jedi — wrote the many twists and turns that keep the viewer off balance and engaged, and though he considers the movie more of a mystery than a comedy, he doesn’t mind if you laugh.
“The movie was designed to please a crowd, to be a blast to watch. Certainly it has been for me, going around and seeing it with different crowds, seeing them react the way we hoped they would — it’s been really satisfying,” said Johnson.
Directors say that all the time, and sometimes they’re lying, but you can tell Johnson is authentically pleased to connect with viewers in such a direct, elemental, and uncomplicated way. He spent five years developing and making 2017′s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, then another year defending it. The movie made $1.3 billion, but set the internet ablaze with detractors who found it too progressive or too feminist, and who made life hell for Jedi star Kelly Tran.
Twitter fiend Johnson ducked out of online quarrels to start writing Knives Out. Away from the fray, he remembered what it was like to create. The freedom to do his own thing — as he did as writer-director of his breakout movies Looper and Brick — fueled a period of intense and productive inspiration.
"I started writing in January and we wrapped by Christmas, and that felt really good,” he said. Casting wasn’t a problem. When Craig took the lead role, everything fell into place.
“I feel like this was shockingly easy, although if my producer were in the room he would probably smack me,” Johnson said.
‘Everyone showed up to play’
Johnson’s quick to add that he’s “privileged” to be on the Star Wars team — he’s been assigned by Disney to map out a new Star Wars trilogy — but he’d forgotten what it was like to have so much freewheeling fun at work. The whole Knives Out cast shared that vibe.
“What you see on screen is what it felt like on set. Everyone showed up to play,” he said.
Perhaps because so many in the cast, like Johnson, were on leave from some monster franchise — Evans from The Avengers, Craig from James Bond, Curtis from her latest Halloween reboot. In modern Hollywood, where careers are increasingly bound up in intellectual property-type franchises, what Johnson wearily called “IP, or whatever,” the chance to play hooky on the set of a movie like Knives Out is like, well, getting away with murder.
Johnson, who had a good time fielding questions from the festival’s closing night audience, is enjoying his Knives Out after party, which comes without the social media unpleasantness that dogged The Last Jedi.
He’s been diplomatic about the controversy, which he waved away as “a little boring” — but he has rather conspicuously written into Knives Out the character of an antisocial adolescent and alt-right dweeb (Jaeden Lieberher) who lives on, and through, his mobile phone.
Settling scores, Rian? Johnson pleads the fifth, and will answer no questions about what he has in mind for the Star Wars trilogy he’s been hired to write, on which nothing depends but the hopes of a billion obsessive fans and the bottom line of a massively powerful corporation.
"I’m figuring out what I’m doing next,” he said, unconvincingly.
The weight of it all suddenly clouds his expression. Or, maybe Johnson, who’s guzzling coffee in a hotel conference room the morning after his closing-night triumph, is merely hungover. Still, you can see his face light up when asked about the possibility of making another Knives Out.
"My God, if I could make a new Benoit Blanc mystery, with the idea of just having him show up in a new place with a new mystery and a new cast of nincompoops, that would be so much fun!”