Glass Onion director Rian Johnson says it would be a mistake to think of Benoit Blanc — the Southern detective played by Daniel Craig — is the protagonist of the Knives Out movies.
“I will say, generally, in whodunits, the life of the detective is best seen in glimpses,” Johnson told MovieMaker in a wide-ranging talk about Glass Onion and much more. “I feel it’s an error to mistake the detective for the protagonist and to think that digging into his background or his life outside of the case is what’s interesting about it.”
Glass Onion: A Knives Out mystery gives us juicy glimpses of Blanc’s background we didn’t get in the original Knives Out, two years ago. Audiences will be surprised to see who plays his partner in this chapter (if the internet hasn’t already ruined it for you). We talked with Johnson about the actor he chose for the role, and other spoiler-y details about Glass Onion, so reader beware.
Among the other subjects we cover is Star Wars. Last week, Johnson’s hotly debated Star Wars: The Last Jedi turned five, and looking where Star Wars has gone since then, it’s apparent his chapter of the Skywalker saga influenced the entire Star Wars universe. Episode 8 kicked-off an era of Star Wars in which auteurs can create unique versions of the franchise. Be it Robert Rodriguez’s prequel-era reminiscent neon space Vespas in The Book of Boba Fett, or Tony Gilroy’s granular view of the Empire’s bureaucracy in Andor, it was The Last Jedi that launched the series in a bold, new direction.
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In the Q&A below, Johnson weighs in on the ongoing debate about whether Anakin Skywalker lost his penis in the lava of Mustafar in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith and the friendship Johnson formed with Star Wars and Muppets legend Frank Oz. He also talks a bit about his upcoming Peacock series Poker Face, with Natasha Lyonne, and his favorite films of 2022.
Joshua Encinias: You directed the final performances by Carrie Fisher, Stephen Sondheim, and Angela Lansbury. Are you the grim reaper of cinema?
Rian Johnson: Oh, Jesus, man. I loved all those people. On one hand, I feel incredibly privileged to have gotten in time with those people. In the case of Carrie, she had become a friend, she had become a real friend. That was a real loss. It’s bittersweet… with Angela and Stephen, I’m just so incredibly grateful. I got a couple of minutes with each of them to tell them what their work meant to me as a fan. It means a lot to me that they’re in the movie. The fact that I got to work with Mr. Plummer [Christopher Plummer] in the first Knives Out and I got him to sign my The Man Who Would Be King poster — it’s pretty special. So it’s very bittersweet.
Joshua Encinias: Will Phillip’s (Hugh Grant) relationship with Benoit play into the third movie?
Rian Johnson: I don’t know yet. I haven’t started writing the next story and I’m just starting to come up with ideas. I will say, generally, in whodunits, the life of the detective is best seen in glimpses. I feel it’s an error to mistake the detective for the protagonist and to think that digging into his background or his life outside of the case is what’s interesting about it. It’s an easy mistake to make when you have someone like Daniel Craig at the center of it, but, I think the focus of these movies is always going to be on the mystery and Blanc’s place in solving the mystery. But that said, that’s obviously a big part of who he is, and I should only be so lucky to get Hugh back. So we’ll see down the line.
Joshua Encinias: How did you cast Hugh Grant?
Rian Johnson: I just thought, “Who would it bring me the absolute most joy to imagine Benoit Blanc having as a partner?” And Hugh was at the top of my list. It was very sweet that he came out for a day to shoot his little scene and was very kind about it, but that was the entire process.
Joshua Encinias: Edward Norton’s character Miles’ appearance in one of the flashback scenes is an homage to Magnolia, right? He looks exactly like Tom Cruise from that movie.
Rian Johnson: Edward came up with that, and his thinking was both that and the Steve Jobs cosplaying that Miles is doing in the next flashback scene was that Miles has never had an original thought in his life. That’s basically it.
Joshua Encinias: With a mystery that has as many twists and turns as Glass Onion, what’s the starting point for you in the writing process? Do you start with the solution in mind and work your way back?
Rian Johnson: I write structurally — that’s how I write any type of story. It’s how I learned to do it. So I write in little notebooks and the first 80% or 90% of the process for me is outlining. It’s a little hazier than starting at the end and working back or vice versa. It’s kind of thinking of the whole thing at once and coming up with the structure of it. But I definitely have to plan the whole roadmap and have it all planned out to a very detailed degree before I sit down to start typing. Typing the script is at the very end of the process.
Joshua Encinias: Benoit has a disdain for the game Clue. Does that come from a personal place for you?
Rian Johnson: I got nothing against Clue! And the movie Clue has like some of the best comic actors of our generation and it’s great. But the game itself, it came from me thinking that anyone who actually considers their calling in life to be solving murder mysteries and likes to be taken seriously for it, like Blanc, probably resents that this children’s game is the thing most people probably bring up when they meet him [Laughs]. It made sense to me that Blanc would have a chip on his shoulder about it.
Joshua Encinias: Will Glass Onion return to theaters?
Rian Johnson: After Glass Onion releases on Netflix, theaters will be able to book it again. I mean, look, I want people to watch it on Netflix with their families. I think it’d be great to watch at home and be able to look for all the clues and experience it around the TV with your family. But I also want as many people who want to see it in theaters to be able to. That’s always been my goal. That’s what I’ve been pushing, pushing, pushing for. I’m hoping that it gets to creep back into theaters and more people have a chance to see it that way. It’s a really fun movie to see with the crowds.
Joshua Encinias: If you don’t mind, I have some Star Wars questions, and I think most of them are new…
Rian Johnson: We’ll see about that, Josh.
Joshua Encinias: What did you think of the Canto Bight reference in Andor?
Rian Johnson: I’ve heard about that! I’ve been so busy doing all this stuff for Glass Onion lately so I haven’t seen it. I have Andor ready to go on my iPad. I hear it’s fantastic. But it made me really happy to hear that there was a Canto Bight reference in there.
Joshua Encinias: I love your visual reference to Wings on Canto Bight in The Last Jedi.
Rian Johnson: That great shot going over the tables! That was an amazing day on set. It was so much fun getting that shot. Also, it was a way to show off the work of all the amazing creature effects artists that we had on the show. It was largely just thinking, “My God, look at all of this stuff. How do we show it off in a way that showcases their work best?” Yeah, that was a great day.
Joshua Encinias: I loved the opera singing alien.
Rian Johnson: Oh yeah, with big boobs? [Laughs.]
Joshua Encinias: Will you talk about the relationship you formed with Frank Oz on The Last Jedi?
Rian Johnson: I had been a fan of Frank as a director since I was young. I grew up watching his movies. I think Little Shop of Horrors is one of the best movie musicals ever made. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was a huge influence on me in terms of conmen movies, which is a genre that I love. I respected him as a director on top of all the performances that he’s given, including with the Muppets. I was under the impression that he did cameos a lot and he was comfortable doing them. I asked him to that in the first Knives Out, not knowing that he’s very uncomfortable being on camera like that. It was a big favor for him to show up and do those scenes.
Joshua Encinias: Will you talk about bringing Oz back to play Yoda?
Rian Johnson: Getting to work with him on the Yoda scene was a dream onto itself. It took us a month to prep that one scene because every single shot, every single movement has to be planned and choreographed in terms of how the puppet’s going to achieve it. It made me appreciate even more the astronomical amount of work it must go into making a full puppet movie. I can’t even imagine. For me, I never really had any filmmaking mentors that I was close to. I never formed any relationships with older filmmakers who did stuff that I respected. I met them once in a while, but for whatever reason coming up, I always had a hunger for that and I never really got it. So to be able to form a real friendship with Frank, with this director that I respect, and later in life to be able to get that from him has been so meaningful.
Joshua Encinias: Do you think Episode 8 influenced the trajectory of Star Wars in the last five years?
Rian Johnson: I don’t know? One of the fun things right now is you have different artists coming in and doing their different takes on it. I think it’s kind of nice that it’s no longer this monolithic Star Wars thing out there. It’s nice that you have these different shows that have these different tones. It can be for different tastes. I’m excited about what’s coming up. I’m very excited to see what Leslye Headland does with The Acolyte. She worked with Natasha Lyonne on season one of Russian Doll and she’s a real creative force. I know she’s gonna do something that nobody expects. So for me right now, it’s exciting to see the variety of voices working in the space and I hope that keeps expanding.
Joshua Encinias: Earlier this year, a writer at Inverse suggested Anakin Skywalker lost his penis in the lava on Mustafar in Episode 3. What’s your take on it?
Rian Johnson: [Laughs and laughs.] Oh my God. Considering what he looked like at the of that? That probably makes a lot of sense. Is the question whether Darth Vader has a robot penis? I don’t know. These are the eternal Star Wars questions that we wrestle with. Those are at the heart of what’s dividing the fandom. [Laughs.] Now I’m going to have nightmares so thank you for that.
Joshua Encinias: You’re welcome.
Rian Johnson: And you’re right. I have never been asked that question before, you got me.
Joshua Encinias: What’s the best movie you’ve seen this year?
Rian Johnson: It’s exciting to me that right now there’s a season where there’s a lot of movies that I’m excited about. Earlier in the year, I love Everything Everywhere All at Once. I found that movie really inspiring in terms of the amount of creativity that the Daniels got into it and the performances were amazing. Stephanie Hsu’s actually in the same episode of Poker Face that Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s in. I loved The Banshees of Inisherin. I thought it was so beautiful and so crushingly sad in a way that kind of lingers with you after the movie. The performances were just absolute knockouts. I really enjoyed The Fabelmans. I love the sequences where he was making movies as a kid. It reminded me of doing and the joy of invention with your friends making your own stuff in the backyard. How about you?
Joshua Encinias: Crimes of the Future by David Cronenberg.
Rian Johnson: Oh, that was fantastic. Yeah, we saw that in the theater. My God. It’s been a good year for movies. That was awesome and a great experience in the theater, too.
Joshua Encinias: You’ve mentioned Spielberg and in other interviews you said you learned a lot about blocking and staging from him.
Rian Johnson: Oh yeah, he’s the modern master of it. You look at the way that he stages his scenes. Growing up, I always thought in terms of cool shots and stuff the camera can do. And I feel like the longer I do it, the more I start focusing on staging and blocking. If you look at the oners in Spielberg’s movies, and you look at the simple elegance of the way that he does them, they’re not big, flashy, “Look at me! Oh my God, we haven’t cut yet. Can you believe this oner?” With his oners, it’s very easy to forget that you’re watching a single shot. Because it’s so elegant, because it’s so focused on the story. And because he’s so deft with staging the actors that it creates interesting shapes within the frame and draws your eye where you want it to be. Then the camera will move three feet and the actors will organically move to do something else. They’ll stop and you’re looking at a whole new frame. It’s like a magic trick. And he’s the modern master of it. I think he’s as good as anyone who worked in the classic Hollywood period and those guys were the best.
Joshua Encinias: The idea of actors getting canceled is prevalent online, but I’m never sure how real that is in filmmaking. For instance, Francis Ford Coppola is working with a bunch of supposedly cancelled actors right now on Megalopolis. What are your thoughts on working with cancelled actors? Is it something that comes into play when you’re casting a movie?
Rian Johnson: It’s just as complicated behind the scenes as it looks in front of the house. You want to work with good people, and also, when you put a movie out you don’t want the story to be any of the stuff that you’re talking about. That’s the one element in which you try to be a little bit conscious of it. There isn’t any special insight or any kind of method, you just try to parse it and figure it out the same way everybody is who’s looking in from the outside.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery is now streaming on Netflix.