INTERVIEW: Crafting Knives Out’s Characters with Rian Johnson

Reading Time: 5 minutes
Knives Out Director Rian Johnson Interview
Director Rian Johnson with But Why Tho’s EIC Kate Sanchez at Fantastic Fest 2019

At Fantastic Fest 2019, I got the chance to talk with Rian Johnson about his return to mystery: Knives Out. Having come to know Johnson’s work through Brick, I was excited about his ability to write neo-noir dialogue and craft twists and turns in a story that deepens the mystery without confusing his audience. One of the reasons Johnson excels at this in Knives Out is due to his ability to craft characters that are unique, dynamic, and showcase the talents of the actors playing them.

With a stacked cast including Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, and many more, you would think that Johnson would have written the characters specifically for the actors bringing them to life, but that wasn’t the case. Johnson explains, “I was shocked we were able to get these actors… as our cast list grew and I started seeing the names I got more and more nervous about showing up on set. But everyone ended up turning out lovely.”

Additionally, once you see Knives Out, the sheer force of personalities on screen breathe a loud, hilarious, and vibrant life into the narrative. But, with so much talent, surely there were some egos issues, right? Well, Johnson explains that it was the exact opposite, “They all gelled, I was really nervous about that because we had so many big movie stars showing up and I was like, ‘Is this gonna be a big ego-fest?’ But, it was the opposite of that. everyone showed up just ready to play with each other and my favorite scenes that we shot were the ones where the whole family is together and they’re all just riffing off of each other; they all just had a blast. And if you’ve seen the film you can tell they’re having fun.”

Promotional image of the Thrombey family from Knives Out
Promotional image of the Thrombey family from Rian Johnson’s Knives Out

Johnson is completely right. The fun the cast had in shooting their scenes is highly visible to audiences. Each quip, retort, and insult is perfectly timed, while each character is able to react with an authenticity that feels like we’re getting a glimpse into a real family in all of its eccentricity and resentment. The relationships feel real, and it left me wondering, how much of this was in Johnson’s script and how much was ad-libbed?

Johnson explained that only some of the dialogue was directly from the actors, explaining, “Because it’s a murder mystery there’s a jigsaw puzzle element to it so you have to stay on script somewhat.” But that doesn’t mean that there was no ad-lib, so of course, Johnson has a favorite. “Michael Shannon, who I think of as one of the best actors working today, I think of him as very intense. But, when I would let him just improvise zingers, he would come up with the funniest shit and it was absurd.”

But the reason I’m in love with Johnson’s characters in Knives Out reach out from the screen and grab you is because the caricatures that Johnson has crafted are tropes, yes, but also based on the people we see in the world.  On the subject, Johnson explained, “That’s what Agatha Christy did with her books, she was doing these caricature-like tropes that were types of bridges to society that were current to when she was writing.” When it came to Knives Out, Johnson’s idea was to do just that for America in 2019.”

He further explains, “I tried to get a broad spectrum of types that we’re all familiar with, whether it was people in our lives or people online or people that we’re all kind of dealing with and really trying to do this caricature version of each of those so that we could all watch and have a laugh at.” And even in their exaggerated states, each character emulates people that we all know.

From the Goop-like Joni (Collette), the well-meaning liberal college student Meg and her alt-right internet troll of a cousin (Jaeden Martell), to the microaggression filled conversations from the clearly rich racists who don’t see themselves that way and more, Johnson crafts characters that we know all too well. But he also gives us characters on screen that push past stereotypes and tropes like Marta, a Latina nurse who is more than just a domestic with an undocumented family that highlights home-life interactions that I know from my own family but who is also a character moved by morality.

Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc in Knives Out
Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc in Rian Johnson’s Knives Out

With so many characters with robust personalities, I had to ask Johnson which one was his favorite and it was no surprise when he gave his answer: “I love Blanc, the detective in this, and I had so much fun working with Daniel Criag doing this.” An Englishman, it was no surprise that Johnson and Craig worked together extensively on not just the character but specifically building the marker of any Southerner: the accent.

Johnson explained, “I knew it was gonna be a southern accent and then we worked together to figure out the region. I knew it had to be a pleasing drawl, but then he showed up on set and he went for it. He dove into the deep end of the pool.” The two worked together so well that there is definitely a future in the cards if given the chance. Johnson said, “I’m hoping if this movie does alright, we’ll see, but if I get to do anymore Benoit Blanc mysteries with Daniel I’ll jump at it. Because we had a blast.”

As a huge Brick fan, I was excited to see him coming back to his whodunit roots. Johnson’s ability for crafting dialogue is something I had missed from his last two films in the science fiction genre. Seeing him back in his wheelhouse, I was excited to ask him about this return to which he responded, “I love how dialogue-based [Knives Out] was. It’s been a while, really since Brick or Brothers Bloom since I’ve been able to just write this verbose language in a movie this dialogue-based and that was really really fun.” He continued, “And that’s very different than a Star Wars movie or Looper, which is also sci-fi. You’re trying to just get the information across as simply as possible but with this, being able to chew on the words a little more is fun.”

With a script that excels in the dialogue and a story that continually subverts the audience’s expectations, Knives Out is a gem and one of the best films of the year. Listening to Johnson talk about his characters, the fun that the cast had together, and the joy he got from writing dialogue, his love for the genre was clear and in the theater his skill for it was superb.

Knives Out is in select theaters now and will release nationwide Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 2019.

Photos compliment of  Fons PR & Fantastic Fest