Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out” stars Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Don Johnson, and Toni Collette as a family of suspects under investigation by Daniel Craig’s Detective Benoit Blanc, who is convinced that patriarch and wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) didn’t commit suicide.
The setting is the grand Thrombey Estate, a character in itself. Its meticulous detail is a manifestation of Harlan’s crime-writing mind and at the center of it all is a chair made of knives that point directly at the head of whoever sits in it.
Production designer David Crank jokingly laughs off suggestion that he may have looked to another cast iron chair for inspiration. “I never even looked at ‘Game of Thrones,'” he said.
In Johnson’s script, the existence of the chair, which Blanc uses to interrogate his suspects, was written down, “but it didn’t explain what it was. So, that was a long process.” Crank and his team spent over a month coming up with different variations of what the chair could look like before they came up with the final design. “Rebecca Greene, our set dresser, found the big structure for the chair and wired all the knives to it.”
Johnson plays to the tropes of the murder mystery genre in the film, and Crank said the one film he was told to look at for inspiration was 1972’s “Sleuth.” That film came in handy when finding the right house in which to set “Knives Out.”
“The producer had found this house along with some others, but we all liked this one house,” Crank said. The Ames Mansion in Borderland State Park, Mass. served as the ideal location for some of the film’s interiors. “When you walked in, it had character because no one had wiped it clean and modernized it,” Crank explained. “This house had been with the same family for a few generations. You walked in, and its style lent itself to what we were looking for.”
Once they decided on the house, Crank’s team went about dressing it. “This house was fun and interesting because we could build off of what it was offering.” Its Gothic charm lends itself to some beautiful cinematography by Steve Yedlin, but it’s the intricate design that becomes that fifth character. “This house was to be the personification of what was in Harlan’s head. David Schlesinger (set decorator) and I worked closely together, and he found incredible things to put into it.” In addition to automatons, Schlesinger also found dioramas to put into the library, giving viewers insight into Harlan’s mind.
Crank says one of his favorite rooms to construct and put together was Harlan’s writing office. “Our art decorator, Jeremy Woodward, took over developing and designing Harlan’s books. Jeremy had this idea of designing the book covers for each decade. There was over four decades worth of books. He designed how the covers would change over time.”
As the film unfolds and the suspects are questioned, audiences get to see more of the oddities that fill the Thrombey estate. Crank said Johnson’s script had so much in it, the nods to Agatha Christie, Clue and Jessica Fletcher were evident. “At a certain point, you put those down and just create your own world.”