I met Rian Johnson when his directorial debut, Brick, was making the festival rounds. In the middle of interviewing him, I received a panicked call from my wife that my infant daughter was sick and had been vomiting. Rian overheard some of it, saw my reaction to the rest of it, and, as I hung up, handed me a piece of paper with his cell phone and email on it and told me we could continue talking if I wanted after I was sure my kid was okay. We've been friends ever since. I can confidently say that through the rollercoaster of a Hollywood career, he's remained the same person: kind, funny, available for a chat, able to navigate the absolute highs and troll-infested lows of fandom with equanimity and a notable lack of ego. Speak to his collaborators and you'll hear the same stories about what seems like a unicorn in show business--but I'd add the caveat that Rian, in addition to being a truly nice guy, is also razor sharp. He's the kind of person who likes to play board games and will beat you at them; who will make a bet about his beloved Dodgers with some idiot who has to root for, say, the Rockies, and never let you forget it. His unique genius is on display in films as varied as Knives Out, a morality play about righting a complex social injustice as much as it as a whodunit, and The Brothers Bloom, a puzzle-box all of sleights-of-hand and the love of the grift. Wanting to talk with Rian about the sublimated outrage, the righteousness, of his new film Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, I began by asking him to identify the pleasure that films like Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun held for him as a kid:
RIAN JOHNSON: Evil Under the Sun was constantly on HBO, so that was something I just got to watch over and over in my unsupervised moments. (laughs) I have a really distinct memory, too, of Death on the Nile when I was pretty little and of my family renting the VHS and watching it over at my grandparents' [place]. It's a very primal, even confusingly so, memory. I think all of us probably have some version of this almost like fairytale kind of archetypal memory, being back behind the couch watching something that the grownups were watching and feeling like you're looking through a keyhole and partaking in something that is forbidden to you. To the extent watching movies is already a voyeuristic exercise--when you watch something this way it takes on an additional layer of... Criminality? I think most people probably have it with more dangerous movies than Death on the Nile, but my family was really conservative and religious. For me, it felt like the equivalent of seeing The Exorcist for a less sheltered kid. It felt grown-up.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Do you mean in terms of violence? Sex?
Both, I think--an overriding sense of decadence, a hedonism and a sexuality. Tie that in with a child's fear of being discovered...and all of it collides in this stuff I'm working on now, definitely the central pleasure of the exercise. More than that--and I think Glass Onion embraces this a bit more than Knives Out--there's an element of sumptuousness I wanted to introduce, the wish-fulfillment aspect that comes with class jealousies that you feel very keenly when you're a kid. I mean with fairytales even, so many of them are about trying to get the invitation to the castle. And tied to the hedonism, the exotic locales, those movies of that period completely leaned into the star-powered fantasies of all-star casts.
Yes. I wanted to evoke the glamour of that. Everything that's tied to that. In my memories of those films, there were certainly elements that made me prick up my ears, so to speak, though identifying the nature of that titillation was, you know, something slightly above my pay grade at that age. But I think there's something intriguing about that--how excess is tied to arousal. It's interesting, because you kind of have to cross over into different genres to get into actual portrayals of sex and sexuality. But in these ensemble, drawing-room, almost, mysteries, there seems always a kind of undercurrent of sex. It's interesting working on that element with Daniel [Craig] in the lead, so that his sexuality to some degree feels like a third rail in terms of his character. It's interesting how, if you think about the classic detectives, the Ms. Marples and the Hercule Poirots, but also John Dickson Carr's guy... Why am I blanking on his name?
Fell! Yes, modelled after G.K. Chesterton... I mean, you don't really get a "naughty" vibe from them like you do Daniel. I mean, even literary Nick and Nora, you know, which are sort of whodunnit characters, I guess, are the closest Hammett ever got to... There's a sexuality to them, but it's completely contained within this monogamous relationship. So I guess my question becomes, is [there] something about the form that wants sort of a... I'm about to say "neutered," but short of that a, a non-sexual entity at the centre of it?
A manifestation of reason?
Interesting. I'm not sure... I'd have to give that some thought as to why that is, but it just instinctively feels like it's pointedly the case with those detectives. Agatha Christie was never afraid of having sex be at the centre of the dynamics between the actual suspects and the person who's gonna get killed, but the detective was... Yeah, to your point, he's the counterpoint, the asexual element. He's above it.
There's a valuation of reason over sex.
The detective is almost a God-like sort of paternal figure that stands outside of the messiness of humankind and comes in to restore order from the chaos.
Why now? What did Knives Out hit? Where do we find the commonality between 1980 and 2020?
Well, I mean, you could get lofty about it and talk about how some of the social elements the genre is particularly good at talking about that made it appealing back then are back again. Or you could say that it's an inherently conservative genre and it's all about taking a chaotic world and making sense of it. The paternal figure in the detective restoring order. Conservative in the sense of its traditional definitions, you know, as opposed to noir, for instance, which works in grey and investigates masculinity and all the sort of deeper, stickier stuff that implies. The chamber-detective genre is a very clean genre in that regard. And not that there haven't been some morally turbulent times throughout the past century, but I do think you could make the case if you wanted to that there's something specifically broken about us now that was the same kind of specifically broken at the end of the '70s when those other films were appearing. Morally tumultuous times tumultuous in this way send us back to stories with very clear, defined moral arcs. These films deal with things that are as simplistic as: here's a big group of terrible people who all have motives to kill, and somebody does it--or maybe all of them do it--and then somebody, thank God, steps in and makes sense of it and detects the lies and pulls those lies out and reveals them, and justice is served at the end. I think right now, especially, accountability probably feels good.
More than good, it feels like escapist fantasy.
I also, though--I mean, I keep saying that's kind of the high-minded version. I also just think it's a fun genre--probably for those escapist elements you're talking about. It's fun to have a story that has a solution where the bad guys get caught in their lies. In that sense, I think it's a genre that was always gonna pipe back up eventually, just because it's so goddamn fun and maybe that really all that's at the heart of it. The challenge for me, the element of play for me with both the Knives Out films and now with "Poker Face" is to really lean into the possibilities of the genre--and there are so many possibilities. And if you can make it feel new...
You say that, but in truth both Knives Out and Glass Onion are puckish and rebellious. They disrupt traditional society. Blanc, if it's his role to restore order, fails conspicuously. His solutions are more about progressive justice than protecting the status quo.
(laughs) Yeah. And I mean, it is, it is true about Knives Out, and then Glass Onion is that even more explicitly, I think. That's a very interesting point. I suppose you're right. But can we say at least that moral order is restored by the end? That the structure of what is in place at the beginning of these films has a very obvious moral flaw in it, so what the detective is fixing is that flaw. How even if the social structures feel solid, they're essentially broken, unsustainable. Maybe I'm interested in kind of restoring moral order but not by putting things back the way they were.
There's an interesting "meta" layering to all-star casts.
I think you have to embrace it, but not in terms of a meta situation of thinking specifically about playing off of a public persona, or the perception that develops around stardom. Like thinking about Daniel and how the last thing you want is to say is, "Oh, this will be fun to play off of his persona as Bond in this way, or that," because that would be so self-aware it would be poison. Even doing too much math in terms of the specifics of any given celebrity in the part would be deathly. But generally, yes, there is something to these movies being conceived from the very start as having an all-star cast. That part of the equation going into the tone of them has to do with the phenomena of stardom. Even the clockwork of what makes them tick is dependent to some degree on it. It's also baked into the question of the balance between genuineness versus, I guess you call it "artificiality."
I would only mean "artificiality" in terms of the "let's put on a show" that you get with big casts.
Yeah. I mean the, the degree to which you're using spectacle to create a big show that kind of conveys an emotion as opposed to trying to push all that aside and get to some kind of vérité. I'm interested in eliciting an emotional reaction. I don't know if I'm articulating this well, but from the very start we, I, set out to make a big show with these movies and casting movie stars intentionally in them as part of that. I haven't dug in and investigated exactly what that math shows in terms of how that shapes how they're read. It's more of an instinctual thing for me in the writing process: when you're writing a movie that's intended to be populated with movie stars, that comes a little from a place of desire and fantasy. Of course it will add a layer of meaning to it, but...it's tricky and complicated in terms of talking about the work and the process, and always being slightly afraid of what that does to the work and the process in terms of your head.
Creation and analysis are often, and by necessity, separate from one another.
Yes. Does it change what I do the next time out if I'm analyzing it? I'm just like anyone who makes stuff, I think, in that you have walls inside yourself where you nurse some kind of secret garden. You don't really talk about it for fear it dies if you do. It's fun to have a conversation like this because it's like solving a mystery. You might get to actually dig into your stuff and talk about it in a way that you've hidden even from yourself. It gets more to the heart of why we actually make things.
“It's not very original to say that one of the reasons we tell stories is to contain the chaos, but I guess it's... It's one of the reasons that we do it. Maybe it's the most important reason we do it.”
Your films seem driven by that inward-seeking curiosity. They feel like the process of answering questions even when I can't articulate the questions being asked. They're not always philosophical questions--I think often they're technical questions. "This, but what if this?"
There's always that element of problem-solving in my work, so in terms of the detective genre, I've been drawn to the gamesmanship. For me, there always has to be something that has the kind of excitement of building to something: that feeling of when you're a kid and building that thing in the Mousetrap game for like an hour and then putting a marble at the top, the anticipation of getting it rolling to see if this is gonna work or not. Contraption is always half of the equation. Like, for instance, with Brick, it was driven by the genre mashup of it but it was more about my experience in high school--but all that emotional upheaval and confusion is less of an easy question to answer than 'what if X plus Y happened?' So one is subtext and the other is structure that lets me dig into this emotional fantasy of amplifying reality, you know? The terrifying methodological unpacking of what high school felt like to me emotionally, and then injecting this fantasy of what if I could have gone through all that turmoil the way a Dashiell Hammett character might. Or with Looper, it's very much about fathers and sons and investigating the moral perspectives, and judgments, on both sides of the divide in a young man as he matures. How the kid looks at the old man and says, "I'm not gonna turn into you," and then the flip side of that where the old guy is like, "Well, you do." For me, it's only when one kind of clicks with the other in terms of these two story halves that I can feel like I can really get started on something. The thing that drives it and then the frame you lay it over.
Is genre the framework sometimes?
Yes, the genre element of it has a lot to do with I guess what you would call games.
Game theory? Is that what that is? I guess I don't know what that is.
(laughs) Yeah, I don't wanna get in over my head because I know people who actually study game theory and they're like, that's not what game theory actually is. No, but for me to work, there always does have to be something exciting for me in terms of taking a genre that I have some kind of deep emotional connection to, from the stuff I watched when I was a kid and through my experience of it since--that element of nostalgia is so important, too, in that some of these genres I see through a sepia lens, so it strengthens that emotional bond. But nostalgia can't be the end of it, right? It's an interesting place to start, but it's by definition emotional. The challenge has to be, What can I do to it? How do I sort of shake the audience a bit, not to just provoke but with the intent of getting back to the initial pleasure that the genre tried to offer, as opposed to the kind of pleasure you derive from memories of an old-time artifact. Because all that stuff is still there. You can go back and, you know, and watch Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun.
I think there's something maybe dangerous in pandering to nostalgia.
With Knives Out, the question I posed to myself was what would this drawing-room mystery look like if it were modern? It's as simple as that. But from there it gets complicated pretty fast, as one begins to engage with modern-day American culture the way Dame Agatha was very much engaging with British culture at the time when she was writing. I mean, her contemporary satire kind of gets lost on us now because we mostly just see her work as these quaint period pieces. I have to say that, you know, as a guy in my late forties, I am acutely aware of the pleasures of nostalgia, and I find myself sinking into it more and more every day, so far be it from me to condemn it as something that's only bad. But just purely in terms of what motivates me to tell stories and make movies, nostalgia very much is the enemy, because the thing that I feel find most exciting to try and get to is--and this is hard to articulate and to do, so, you know, I'm obviously not always successful at it--but my real intent is not to remind you of the pleasure you derived from something as a kid hiding behind the couch. No, my intent is to actually evoke in the audience the emotional reaction of what that kid was feeling when he was peering out from behind the couch. Not an afterimage, but a primary image. Not a reminder but the actual experience. And it's tough, because the instant you say the words "kid peering behind couch to watch a forbidden object," instantly there's a certain amount of gilded nostalgia that comes attached to it. How do we pierce through that and get to what that kid was actually feeling? That's a really interesting challenge.
Nostalgia not as the enemy, but...
But sort of the foil, the thing that makes it hard to experience something new. "Foil," I think, is a more pleasant way to look at it because it 'gamifies' it: Nostalgia being the opponent in the game of trying to give these things the same sharp, spiked freshness for us now that they had when we first experienced them.
How does your love of music--both Knives Out and Glass Onion are based on song titles--play into that immediacy?
At least emotionally in terms of what you're trying to give the audience, I can sum it all up in terms of just trying to reach the emotional level of how it feels to listen to a great song. It's such a high, lofty goal that I know I've never reached it, but it's what you aspire to: the emotional focus, the rush of meaning, but also what music does to you in a primal way. It's more immediate than film. I feel like that's what movies are trying to attain. I don't know, when you're driving down the freeway with the music turned up loud, you're alone in the car and a song is on and it completely takes over your mind and body. You want that somehow. You want someone to feel the way they do when they're in that zone when they watch one of your movies.
My favourite film of yours is The Brothers Bloom--the one most like a musical, and a film I think that most clearly, still, showcases your... Can I call it an obsession? Obsession with games and play. Talk to me about how that interest spills over into your love of game-show scandals.
I love them. That's funny that you went there. I haven't really thought about this in the context of why I make the things I make. (laughs) I don't know. Let me just talk through why I'm so fascinated by game-show cheating. I mean, part of it is if I think about how another one of the big things I remember as a kid was sitting on the floor in front of the couch watching hours of game shows. There were always game shows on during the day. If I was watching them, probably I was home sick or it was summer. Good memories, in other words. There was something that was very codified and strangely sacred about them, so that it was akin to blasphemy to defile game-show rules. It got wrapped up with religious morality in my mind. I absorbed so much of them when I was a kid and they were (pauses) impervious to the uncertainty of the world. The same rules apply every single day. It's win or lose, and it's morally clear-cut. The notion of cheating, of a crime subverting that in any way, created in me a reaction that this felt very serious but also a recognition that there weren't real, dangerous stakes. It was bad, but in a completely ridiculous way.
The great "Gong Show" heist!
(laughs) Yes--something that's supposed to be just light entertainment and something fun and then the absurdity of it feeling suddenly, like, CRIME! Darkness seeps into that world.
I know you're a big Dodgers fan. You must have thoughts about the Astros and cheating in baseball.
Well, being a Dodgers fan, I have a lot of visceral thoughts about the Astros, but it's a complicated issue, isn't it? The history of cheating in baseball. There's a fantastic podcast called "The Edge" that's really incredible. Ben Reiter did it, a journalist who wrote about the Astros and the scandal, and it's an investigation of it, but also in this really brilliant way [it] looks at every facet of this complicated object that is this cheating scandal, including the history of cheating in baseball and the fuzzy line between what is cheating and what is just playing the game. Sign stealing, for instance, is not cheating, per se. You know, it's, it's, if you're not stealing signs, you're not trying to win, is the field phrase. But how are you stealing it, right? I mean that, that's the complication, right? But, look, you talk about nostalgia: if there's any sport that has an insidious amount of nostalgia attached to it that we use to justify our own moral judgements, it's baseball, so it's hard to not be nostalgic about baseball, you know? Reiter does a brilliant job building out the case, not even specifically against the Astros, but the case identifying what kind of original sin was at the heart of the scandal and how it reflects on not the individual players, but a bigger societal trend.
Original sin, moral certitudes... Your work has about it, what is it? A yearning towards notions of stability?
You and I, we've talked a bit in the past about my background growing up very religious and having not just a strict religious family but actually, up through when I was a teenager, feeling like I had a real relationship with God. That was the lens I viewed the world through. I mean, talk about the ultimate filter of Order and definition being a foundation for how you started your life. And the gulf you leave in your worldview when that gets taken away, or that goes away, however you wanna say it--I lost that certainty, and it wasn't a thunderclap but more a slow growing away. But, look, we all do it in terms of looking for different things in this chaotic mess: We need to perceive order in the world, and [we] have this desire to impose some kind of order on it. That there might not be order is terrifying. It's not very original to say that one of the reasons we tell stories is to contain the chaos, but I guess it's... It's one of the reasons that we do it. Maybe it's the most important reason we do it.