Rian Johnson has always been a murder-mystery fan.
“I read Agatha Christie. I read and reread her books. It’s like comfort food as far as genres,” he says with a laugh.
When Thrombey is found murdered, it’s up to detective Benoit Blanc (Craig) to get to the bottom of the crime, and the suspects are his family members. Most of the fun and suspense takes place inside the grand Thrombey estate. Johnson talks about the craftspeople who worked behind the scenes of “Knives Out” to help piece the film together.
The film marked the first time Johnson collaborated with production designer David Crank. Johnson was still writing the script when he started scouting for the ideal setting of the grand Thrombey Estate.
“We started scouting very early for it,” Johnson says. “When David came on, it was about figuring out how to integrate the house with the script. More importantly, how do we decorate that house?”
David Schlesinger was the answer to that. Schlesinger was the film’s set decorator, responsible for all the tiny details.
“He found all of the amazing stuff that you see all through the house. He found the automatons, the trinkets and the gadgets,” Johnson says.
Another first-time collaboration was with costume designer Jenny Eagan. The key for Eagan was creating distinction while keeping the costumes modern.
“We didn’t want anything to feel costumey. Striking that balance of creating a distinct character with each of these people while still having the costumes feel realistic,” Johnson adds. “Jenny dove into it and made it look effortless. We had a lot of conversation about the character essence. Except for Greatnana and Blanc, I didn’t have any specific suggestions for anybody. I let Jenny do her thing.”
Luisa Abel and Kelvin R. Trahan collaborated on hair and makeup for the film. K Callan, who plays Greatnana Wanetta, would spend over two hours a day in the hair and makeup chair.
In the movie, Greatnana has a scene with Detective Blanc, which Johnson describes as being “weather cover.” If there was bad weather outside, Callan would go through the two-hour makeup process, ready to shoot that scene. Except almost every time, they never needed to film that scene.
“Knives Out” reunited Johnson with his frequent director of photography, Steve Yedlin. The two have been friends since they were 17 years old and have been frequent collaborators since 2005’s “Brick.” Johnson says he and Yedlin discussed shooting on film versus shooting on digital. In the end, “Knives Out” was shot on digital. “I can’t argue with the results,” he says.
“Steve is a genius at color science. In the last few years, he’s figured out how to write lookup tables and let digital emulate film. It increases the grain and gate weave. He looks at adding halation. It’s all those details you don’t think about. He convinced me on this one to give it a try,” he says.
The other advantage that shooting offered was lighting.
“He was able to pick up tools that take advantage of what shooting on digital affords you. We could work with less light and use more natural light in that setting of a New England winter,” Johnson explains. “There was less light coming in, but that light was gorgeous. We were able to use that instead of augmenting it.”
Johnson also reunited with editor Bob Ducsay — another frequent collaborator since 2012 on “Looper.” Johnson grew up in the industry cutting films on his own. He credits Ducsay for enhancing his collaborative experience with other editors.
“He taught me the value of a creative collaboration together,” Johnson adds. “I marvel at his work. He does this thing where I feel like every cut in the movie is something I’m so happy with. I feel like it’s mine, but it’s Bob’s work.”