Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out” is a wickedly funny, fiendishly clever, and surprisingly prescient murder mystery. It succeeds as both a brilliantly constructed puzzle-box of a whodunit, offering up a big reveal that’s extremely satisfying, and as a incisive comment on the class divisions and prejudice that are roiling America. If that sounds medicinal, fear not. “Knives Out” is great fun in the tradition of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” or Anthony Shaffer’s “Sleuth.”
The film centers on the members of a dysfunctional family, each of whom has a motive for offing their patriarch (Christopher Plummer), a wily and wildly successful mystery writer, whose grand mansion is likened to something out of Clue. “Knives Out” boasts an all-star cast that includes everyone from Daniel Craig, as a detective with a Southern drawl that’s as thick as the bayou, to Chris Evans, as a preppy ne’er-do-well.
Variety spoke to Johnson about why he loves mysteries, his plans for possible “Knives Out” followups, and his future involvement with “Star Wars” after directing 2017’s “The Last Jedi.”
Why did you want to make “Knives Out”?
I grew up reading Agatha Christie’s books. I wanted to make a whodunit for forever. Ten years ago, I had a very basic idea for this and have just had it cooking ever since.
What do you like about the whodunit genre?
It’s incredibly fun, first and foremost. I have memories of watching the old Peter Ustinov/Poirot movies with my family, like “Death on the Nile.” They had big all-star casts and kind of a comedic element to them, but it wasn’t like “Clue.” It wasn’t parody. It landed as a mystery. I love the puzzle box element and how they’re so character based. There’s a rogue’s gallery of suspects. The idea of setting it in America in 2019 seemed electric and interesting. When you see these, they’re usually period pieces, because they’re usually Agatha Christie adaptations. People aren’t writing original mysteries very often.
The film has lots of references to the current Trump-based political climate. Critics have been picking up a lot on the political parts —
I would hope so. It’s not very subtle. This isn’t a subtle film.
Why was it important to you to include those political elements?
Once I imagined setting it in America in 2019, it can’t just be about giving it a modern skin and giving everyone cellphones. To me, that’s only exciting if you’re going to very openly address the stuff that we’re all yelling about. Obviously, there’s a perspective on everything that’s happening, but hopefully it’s being presented in a way that we can watch it and laugh a little bit. We all deserve that right now.
What about the decision to center the story on Marta, the daughter of an undocumented immigrant who serves as the moral compass of the film? Was that intended to be a rebuke to some of the anti-immigrant rhetoric out there?
I had that as a story element for years and years, even preceding the election. Largely, it just coming from the dynamics of what I needed Marta’s character to be. All the stuff that’s happening politically now is fuel for the fire. But most important for me was that I wanted the movie to have a good heart. Even though it’s a murder mystery, I didn’t want it to be cynical. When it gets to the end I wanted it to land in a place where the audience is going to feel good coming out of it. I wanted there to be some optimism.
Were you hoping that attentive viewers would be able to solve the murder?
No. I wanted to take the onus off of the viewer very early on to say don’t worry about solving this. As much as I love whodunits, I feel like that’s one of the weakest elements of them. They need another type of engine. If it’s just clue gathering at the end, it’s not very satisfying. Whether you can guess it or not is not why we’re here. I wanted to say to the audience, here is this person you care about. They’re in danger. And we’re going to go on this roller coaster ride of how they’re going to get out of this.
What made you think about Daniel Craig for the role of Benoit Blanc? It seems like a departure from James Bond.
You can tell how much fun he’s having cutting loose and giving this big comic performance. He was very excited to do it. I never write with any actors in mind. You just get your heart broken. I just wrote the character very straight. I gave him a Southern accent to make him a fish out of water. Daniel was top of my list, but I didn’t think he was available.
Would you make other films with the Benoit Blanc character?
I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Knock on particle board that this movie does all right, but I’d be thrilled to do another one every few years.
What’s the status of the other Star Wars trilogy you were working on?
I’m still talking to Lucasfilm. They haven’t announced anything.
There were some rumors that your film might be the one that’s coming in 2022. Is that true?
Every single day there’s a new thing. Until it’s up on StarWars.com, don’t believe it.
From David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to Colin Trevorrow, there’s been an enormous amount of turnover behind the camera on Star Wars. Why is it so difficult for directors to stay employed on these films?
I can’t speak to the experience that anyone else has had. I would caution that other people’s sets are like other people’s marriages. You think you know what’s going on with them, but the only thing that’s absolutely true is that you’re wrong. I can only speak to my experience, which was an absolute dream from top to bottom, beginning to end. From Kathy [Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy] to Bob Iger to J.J. [Abrams] to all the craftsmen.
When Benioff and Weiss left, there was chatter that it was due to “toxic fandom.” What was your experience like with that kind of trolling?
You always have to contextualize how small a part of the fandom that section is. I’m not talking about people who like or dislike a particular movie. I’m talking about the people who have dedicated themselves to abusing people who are involved in the films. It’s so small, but it gets blown up. Having been in the hurricane for the last two years, I can tell you that 95% of what I get even on Twitter is lovely and thoughtful and engaged, even when people don’t like my movie. Having said that, it’s a problem that every type of fandom is dealing with. It’s almost a byproduct of this system that is the internet.
You love mysteries. Do you play Clue much?
Not a lot. Clue is not that fun a game really. I was shocked. I played it as an adult for the first time, and I realized it’s kind of boring.