Hours before the cast of “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” arrived on the red carpet at the Toronto International Film Festival, crowds crushed against the barricades outside of the Royal Alexandra Theatre, hoping to catch a glimpse of famous faces like Daniel Craig and Kate Hudson. The premiere had all the fanfare expected of a prime slot at a major festival, one fit for the first release in Netflix’s multi-picture deal with writer-director-producer Rian Johnson — a pact worth a reported $450 million. The entire “Glass Onion” ensemble showed up to support Johnson, who mugged for the cameras and signed autographs while Edward Norton and Leslie Odom Jr. praised his kindness and brilliance to the assembled press, sentiments later echoed onstage by Janelle Monáe: “When I first met with Rian, I was like, ‘Oh, he cares about me as a person.’ And that permeated throughout the entire shoot.” When it came time for Johnson to address the red-carpet reporters himself, he got sheepish, saying he just wanted to “keep the party going.”
Meanwhile, inside the Royal Alexandria, Johnson’s longtime producing partner Ram Bergman was taking mental notes on the sound mix. He does this for every festival screening, because he wants the people seeing his and Johnson’s films to have the best experience possible. When he sat down for lunch with IndieWire the following day, he was still mulling over which adjustments would have to be made for subsequent “Glass Onion” stops on the festival circuit. “When I’m going to be in London, for example,” he said, “I get in two days before, so I can tech-check each of the theaters where it’s playing. I want to hear, I want to see — that’s the job.
“I can tell you it absolutely makes a difference because you always catch things,” he added. “Every little detail adds up throughout the process, whether you are making the movie, prepping, shooting, in post, selling the movie, marketing the movie — all those things, you’re just trying to lift every stone.”
Attending to such details is part of the way Bergman and Johnson’s partnership defies Hollywood stereotypes that define “the job” as a producer barking into a cell phone or a director pushing a film crew to its limit. In their 19 years together, they have perfected an even-tempered approach to collaboration (and compromise), one that rushes neither the pre- or post-production phases and gives everyone involved with a film the chance to have their say in the creative process. Even with that outside input, their methods yield highly personal filmmaking — and no one can argue that they haven’t done so successfully, having gone from an independently funded neo-noir to the heights of the “Star Wars” universe to their own all-star murder mystery franchise in less than two decades.
“I completely became who I am as a filmmaker over the course of our relationship,” Johnson told IndieWire. “[Ram’s] patience, his sensitivity towards people and their feelings and just seeing the grace that he does that with — I’ve tried to learn from that.”
“No stress” is Bergman’s mantra, and Johnson relies on his producer to handle the logistics so he can engage in the deep focus he needs to be creative. “The chaos is kept off of the set so that you can show up and everything is there and in its right place and you can do your work,” he said. Making “Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi” came with an additional layer of protection from Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, who “put her chips down” on the duo after their time-travel thriller “Looper” became a sleeper hit in the fall of 2012. But Johnson said Bergman also shielded him from any behind-the-scenes wrangling that would have gotten in the way of overseeing the monumental set pieces, visual effects sequences, and vast ensemble of a “Star Wars” film. Bergman told the director not to worry, and to just “do your thing.” “A classic Ram phrase, he says it all the time,” Johnson added.
“I’ll make sure that nobody’s going to be there to fuck with us,” Bergman said with a laugh. “But that doesn’t mean that you can’t do it in the nicest way.” Where that protective instinct might drive other filmmakers to circle the wagons, refusing to share footage with the studio or restricting access to the editing room, Bergman takes the opposite tack: “If you invite the people in, they feel part of it. And then they’re rooting for you and they want to help you and they let you do whatever.”
“The best way to get what you want is to step into a situation and bring your arms around everybody and say, ‘We have this problem and we are going to figure it out together,’ as opposed to coming in with your dukes up,” added Johnson.
Watch the video below to hear more about the process that has carried through from Johnson and Bergman’s indie origins to their latest blockbusters.
The road to “The Last Jedi,” “Knives Out,” and now “Glass Onion” begins in the early ‘00s, with Bergman receiving Johnson’s script for the high-school-set whodunit “Brick” from a friend. He recalled being knocked out: “I said, ‘Holy shit, I never read anything like this. I want to meet the guy.’” At Mel’s Drive-in in West Hollywood, Bergman learned that Johnson had been trying to make “Brick” for years, holding out hope for a name cast and a seven-figure budget. Bergman told Johnson this was a mistake: “I said you want to make the movie for the least amount of money so you can control making it and you can control the distribution of the movie. And even if the movie didn’t turn out so good, you can still say, ‘You know, I want to put it in theaters. There’s no rush.’”
Unable to commit to the project right then and there, Bergman and Johnson stayed in touch, reconvening every few months over the course of a year. “It was like the slowest courtship of all time,” Johnson joked. “That’s how Ram works: He likes to do his homework on people and really suss them out before he forms a relationship with them.” By the time Bergman was ready to join the project as a producer, Johnson had already heeded his advice, scraping together a few hundred thousand dollars from various sources including his family’s home-building business. “I was comfortable taking the money from my family knowing I had Ram and knowing we would have a movie at the end of it,” Johnson said. The reward for that risk arrived at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, in the form of critical accolades, a special jury prize, and a distribution deal from Focus Features.
It wouldn’t be the last time the pair placed a bet on themselves: Bucking conventional wisdom, they put their own money into the first “Knives Out,” and each paid to make up for a budget shortfall on “Looper,” leaps of faith rooted in an ongoing mutual confidence. “There’s an immense amount of trust, and they really complement one another,” said “Glass Onion” editor Bob Ducsay. A partnership between two very detail-oriented people — which both Johnson and Bergman say they are — just won’t work unless there’s trust. Otherwise, they’ll be marking up each other’s papers, so to speak. Johnson said they have an understanding of where each man has his sphere of influence: Bergman “the business side of it, how we do things, how we get things done.” Johnson is in charge of dreaming up the specifics of their next adventure in filmmaking, a task that begins with the screenplay. “Coming from making small budget movies, I don’t have the expansive, ‘You have to rein me in, because I want the world’ attitude,” he said. “If anything, Ram encourages me to not hem myself in with imagined restrictions. When I’m writing, he says, ‘Just write the story that you want to tell and we’ll figure out how to get it made.’”
Towards the end of his writing process, Johnson has a personal ritual that he’s been practicing since “Looper”: He travels alone to a rental house near Lake Arrowhead, California, and writes all day, every day until the screenplay is complete. “Glass Onion” took eight 12-hour days, all of them soundtracked by LCD Soundsystem’s “Sound of Silver.” (Hence the thank-you to bandleader James Murphy in the film’s credits.) Like a lot of artists, Johnson procrastinates. That’s another area where his creative partner lends a hand, setting and enforcing deadlines — lovingly, of course, but with the requisite seriousness of mounting a feature film that’s going to involve a lot of time, money, and people. “I sometimes have to push [Ram] to give me deadlines. I really need somebody to tell me, ‘Where the fuck is the script?’ Otherwise, I won’t sit down and do it,” Johnson said with a bashful smile.
Lionsgate/courtesy Everett Collection
Bergman sketched out the production schedule for “Knives Out” on a napkin while out to lunch with Johnson, targeting a wrap date just before Christmas as “a gift for [his] birthday.” (One coincidence of Johnson and Bergman’s partnership is that their birthdays are one day apart: December 17 and 18, respectively.) With a due date for the script in place, Bergman went ahead and hired a crew. “We basically started pre-production without knowing if the movie was going to get made or not,” he said.
The script came in on schedule, but seven weeks before the package was set to go to TIFF’s unofficial marketplace, the all-important movie star whose involvement would secure the pre-sale deals that would fund the shoot was yet to be attached. And then Danny Boyle left “No Time to Die,” delaying the 25th James Bond film and freeing up its lead Daniel Craig. “I sent a quick email to Bryan Lourd, who is our agent, and Daniel’s agent,” Bergman said. “Rian was on vacation. He didn’t think the movie was going to happen, even though we had a crew. I said, ‘The movie’s going to happen.’ Two days later, Rian was meeting with Daniel, and Daniel’s in.” After Bergman “slipped the script” to film production company MRC, “within 24 hours, they made us an offer we couldn’t refuse.”
Now Craig says he’ll continue to star in Benoit Blanc mysteries for as long as Johnson wants to make them. Neither Bergman nor Johnson would go into much detail about what their Netflix deal has meant for their “Knives Out” process, but they both say that a Lucasfilm budget and infrastructure made things easier in terms of mounting “The Last Jedi.” “The miracle of our experience with ‘Star Wars’ is it felt like any of our other movies,” Johnson said. “Making it felt like the biggest independent film of all time.” He and Bergman agree that the filmmaking process is the same no matter the scale of the project: “Ultimately it’s Rian with a camera and actors in front of it, and he has to do the same thing he did on ‘Brick,’” Bergman says. “If you know what you’re doing and you are able to communicate it and articulate what you want, it’s not an issue.” The difference seems to be the amount of toys one can bring to one’s particular side of the sandbox, and how long one has to play with them. “It doesn’t matter how much money you have, you still never have enough money. You need more, but you figure out how to do it the same way. It’s the same problem and the same solution,” Bergman added.
Walt Disney Co./courtesy Everett / Everett Collection
Allotting extra time for financial hurdles and creative blocks is key to maintaining calm on a Johnson-Bergman project during both the pre-and post-production process. During active production, it’s the director who sets the tone. And for Johnson, that means coming to set prepared. “I tend to be very planned,” he said. “I come from the storyboarding school.” Pre-planning is a necessity on an independent film, where tight budgets mean there’s no room for do-overs. But “ironically, it also works very well with the very big movies, like ‘Star Wars’,” Johnson said. “When you have to build million dollar sets and know exactly what parts of them you’re going to use, or you have massive effect shots, it’ll end up saving you a lot of money if you know exactly what you’re going to need when you show up on set.”
That efficiency also appeals to studio executives, who like a team that can deliver on time and within the allotted budget. Bergman and Johnson proved themselves on that score with “The Last Jedi,” which was turned in to Lucasfilm months ahead of its release. “We could have kept working on it,” said Ducsay, who’s edited every one of the duo’s projects since “Looper,” including the upcoming Peacock series “Poker Face.” “You can do that on a film like that. But we felt confident with the movie and the movie was done.”
The approach of scheduling an extended post-production period also stems from low-budget experience. As Bergman explained, Johnson edited “Brick” by himself, at his house, on Final Cut Pro. There was no hurry, because the overhead costs were nonexistent. They still take their time, sometimes walking away from a particularly tricky cut for a few days, then returning with fresh eyes to resolve it. These are the small decisions Bergman lives by; typically, he says, the basic shape of the movie will be laid down pretty quickly, and from there it’s all refinement. “Great filmmakers and producers understand the value and power of editing and post production, but there’s always a difference in the amount of emphasis that it receives,” Ducsay said.
When he isn’t collaborating with the duo, Ducsay’s specialty is effects-heavy blockbusters like “Godzilla” (2014) and “San Andreas” (2015). Going into the editing room on “The Last Jedi,” he was the experienced master, and Bergman and Johnson the acolytes. “Films like these are super tankers,” Ducsay said. “They’re really hard to steer.” Juggling all the different departments that are involved with their post-production can be especially challenging, and “you learn over time, doing these sorts of films, how you manage that,” according to Ducsay. “There are points on these films where editing becomes a part-time job, because so many hours are spent dealing with visual effects.”
But while Ducsay had one hand on the wheel for “The Last Jedi,” he said, “that movie operated exactly like ‘Looper’ did, and exactly like ‘Knives Out’ and exactly like ‘Glass Onion.’ I wouldn’t have wanted to go from some of the movies I did earlier in my career to ‘The Last Jedi,’ because I think I would’ve found that exceedingly difficult to manage. But for them it was straightforward. They were just making a movie.”
Getty Images for Netflix
In the interviews conducted for this profile, the director and the producer rolled their eyes, affectionately, when describing each other’s quirks: Johnson teased Bergman about his picky eating habits, and Bergman had the air of a resigned parent when he described Johnson’s tendency to push himself harder than he needs to. Bergman told a story about how, on “The Last Jedi,” Johnson wanted to come in to work early every day so he could hand develop photographs he had taken of various crew members and give them to them as wrap gifts. Bergman warned Johnson not to burn himself out. Johnson went ahead and printed the photos anyway.
Johnson and Bergman agree that, while they trust each other, their primary loyalty is always to the movie. Asked a question about how he advocates on Johnson’s behalf, Bergman offered a correction: “My job is to advocate for the movie,” he says. “I’m loyal to the movie, so of course that means I’m loyal to Rian. But sometimes what I think is not how he thinks, at the same time or at the same point. But because our relationship is such that we just want to make the best movie, it’s not about ego,” he said. “It comes down to knowing that Ram is always working in the best interests of what the movie needs at the end of the day,” added Johnson. “And that sounds really simple, but that’s a really rare thing.”
Asked about this “movie first” attitude, Ducsay responded: “If you make a great movie, nothing else matters. If you’ve made something that affects people — makes them cry, makes them laugh, whatever the goal is — then you’ve done your job. It’s a great North Star to always remind yourself: The movie is in charge, and if you serve it, everything else will fall into place.” In other words, a little humility never hurts. Even in Hollywood.—Kate Rife