Filmmaker Rian Johnson grew up reading and watching Agatha Christie-style mysteries. With his “Knives Out,” he wanted to translate his love of the whodunit in the form of a modern update, but he also went into the creative process fully aware of some of the inherent flaws and difficulties with the genre itself.
“As much as I love Agatha Christie’s books, in a lot of them there does hit a point about three-quarters of the way through where you start to flag,” said Johnson when he was a guest on the Filmmaker Toolkit podcast. “And you start to feel like, ‘Ah, yeah, okay, we just keep gathering clues, I’m never going to guess this. Let’s just get to the point where the detective gives me the solution.'”
Hitchcock, who hated the whodunit, defined this problem as the difference between audience surprise versus what he did, which was build suspense. When Johnson started conceiving of “Knives Out,” he wondered if he could structure a film that could do both. “This is the idea I had 10 years ago,” said Johnson. “Can I do something that starts as a whodunit, turns into a Hitchcock thriller, but then turns back into a whodunit at the end?”
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Just like in the classic TV show “Columbo,” the trick was showing the audience the murder itself, leading to the suspense of how the killer would be caught. But Johnson wanted to walk an even more difficult tightrope: Could he show that Marta (Ana de Armas) was responsible for the death, although ultimately she wasn’t (setting up the third act return to the whodunit), and still put the audience in a position of hoping the truth would never come out?
“It’s crucial that we begin with you feeling 100 percent, without any conflict, that the right thing to happen is for her to get away with it,” said Johnson. This was a huge writing challenge. The medicine switch-up plot device took a while to find, smooth out, and layer in — part of a constant tweaking and rewriting process for the writer/director.
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“For a genre-wonk like me, that does something really interesting,” said Johnson. “In that, if you are rooting for her to get away with it, the fact that we know how these things work and we know that Blanc (Daniel Craig), the detective, always figures it out at the end, and catches the killer, the very mechanics of the genre that we are all familiar with become the antagonist of the movie, even if the detective himself is a sympathetic character.”
Johnson plays up this inevitable tension with the mythic Blanc character who always find the answers — “This machine arrives at the truth” is even his catchphrase — going up against Marta. Once the film switches into the Hitchcock thriller, Johnson quickly transitions into Marta being forced to cover her tracks from the famed detective.
“I did that sequence next for a few reasons,” said Johnson. “First of all, almost to test the waters. ‘Okay, did this machine I just built work?’ Because if it did, we should be leaning forward in this sequence and hoping she gets away with each of these things. It’s like putting the marble in the mouse trap and holding your breath.”
Johnson wanted to make Marta an active character, one who is following the quick-thinking plan of her beloved employer, the famous mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who she believes she’s accidentally killed via a morphine overdose. We see Marta’s ingenuity circumventing the detective, strengthening our bond through suspenseful tension with the character’s predicament. Ultimately, Johnson wanted to push the scenario of how far the good, moral Marta would go to hide “the truth.”
He’d even borrowed a scenario from the hit series “Breaking Bad” — Johnson directed three episodes of the beloved series — that pivots on Walter White (Bryan Cranston) being in a position to let someone die (which would help keep him from being caught) or taking an active role in saving a life (and thus putting his own interests at risk).
While on the podcast, Johnson talks about his writing process, the one note trusted collaborators kept giving him on “Knives Out” right up to the point filming started, and what he finds so liberating about working inside genre.
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Stitcher, SoundCloud, and Google Play Music. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.