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For four years, Rian Johnson was fully immersed in making his “Star Wars” movie, “The Last Jedi.” So you can’t blame the guy for wanting to do something completely different for his next movie. And he certainly accomplished that with the murder mystery “Knives Out” (in theaters Wednesday).
In the movie, Johnson assembles an all-star cast made up of Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Christopher Plummer, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, and Don Johnson for a whodunit in the vein of an Agatha Christie novel or Alfred Hitchcock movie. Craig is the standout in the movie and delivers a scenery-chewing performance as a Southern gentleman private detective who is hunting the murderer of a family patriarch.
The release of “Knives Out” comes at a time when there’s great uncertainty on what Johnson’s role will be going forward with “Star Wars.” Lucasfilm announced in 2017 that Johnson would head the creation of a new “Star Wars” trilogy, however, since then there has been a complete disruption of future “Star Wars” plans. The latest: Disney head Bob Iger suggested a “less is more” path going forward, and “Game of Thrones” creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss exited their planned trilogy. (Johnson has declined to reveal anything about his own trilogy.)
Business Insider spoke to Johnson in New York City about the challenges that came with trying to create a whodunit and his experience daring Craig to go even further with his character. And we got one “Star Wars” tidbit out of the director: what it was like setting eyes on baby Yoda while visiting the set of “The Mandalorian.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jason Guerrasio: Reading how you found the window of time to make this movie and write it, it was all done very quickly.
Rian Johnson: Yeah.
Guerrasio: Looking back on it now, was making this a palate cleanser for you in regards on how to make a movie?
Johnson: The immediacy of it very much was, yes. “Star Wars” was four years to make one movie, for me. For this, I just dove in. And you’re right, just trust your instincts and not be precious.
Guerrasio: And if we want to go further back, before “Star Wars,” there was you doing episodes of “Breaking Bad.” And TV is its own animal.
Johnson: That’s what it goes back to for me is the experience of doing television, or even [his debut feature film] “Brick.” It’s doing something where you just have to jump in and start dancing and that felt really good. And something like this, that’s complex, you just have to push it out there.
Guerrasio: What I really enjoyed about “Knives Out” is there are so many characters but none I ever felt got short changed.
Johnson: That’s good.
Guerrasio: With a big ensemble there’s the danger that someone doesn’t get enough screen time. Was making sure they all got equal time a big thing for you while writing?
Johnson: Absolutely. It was something I was really conscious about, especially when we started building the cast. I’m such a big fan of every one of these actors.
Guerrasio: And that’s another thing, selling the role to them.
Johnson: Yeah, “You have your moment in this.” Now, the flip side of that is because these actors are so good they can do a lot with a little. So Toni Collette can make a 30-second scene feel like a feast. All of these actors are similar in that way, so they helped me in that regard. I was very conscious of that.
Guerrasio: Was there one character that was tougher to accomplish that with?
Johnson: No, it was more real estate. It’s like putting a jigsaw puzzle together on a very small table: there’s only so much room so you have to be kind of as efficient as possible. But that helps because that means you aren’t going to have superfluous scenes with the characters. When you plug them in it has to be in a way that’s moving everything forward.
Guerrasio: It sounds like when Daniel Craig was cast things moved really quick.
Guerrasio: Was there a contingency plan if Craig decided he didn’t want to do the movie?
Johnson: Well, we definitely wouldn’t have made the movie that year.
Guerrasio: Oh, really?
Johnson: Yeah. If we ended up waiting for him or something else I don’t know, but the way it did happen I think it helped everything. It helped getting the rest of the cast. Let’s put it this way, the instant I knew I could get him I got him. I could tell from meeting him how much fun he would have doing this and that was a big factor for me, knowing he was going to have fun in this part and bust loose.
Guerrasio: His performance reminds me of what he did in “Logan Lucky,” in which he also sports a Southern accent.
Johnson: Yeah. People should check out that movie, he’s having so much fun.
Guerrasio: I talked to Riley Keough once, who starred with him in that movie, and she told me Daniel never lost the voice. She would see him off set and he would still have it.
Johnson: [Laughs.] Really? Oh, that’s funny.
Guerrasio: Did that happen on this movie?
Johnson: No. He worked his a– off with the voice. We didn’t have a lot of prep time but he used every moment. He worked with a dialect coach. Even though it’s a big fun performance he put so much work into it. He was dialed in on the day but it wasn’t like we were having dinner and he was doing it.
Guerrasio: That would have been awesome.
Johnson: I would have been thrilled.
Guerrasio: With his character in particular, would you two discuss between takes how far you could take the zaniness?
Johnson: We were like little kids on set. We were almost daring each other to go further with every take. “How far can we push this without it breaking?” And once and a while we would say, “Yeah, that was too big.” But it was fun doing it. I felt with Daniel, and all the actors, my job on set was to encourage them to step out even further.
Guerrasio: This is not a movie where you feel it’s all serious.
Guerrasio: It’s Hitchcock, it’s Agatha Christie, but it’s also “Clue.” I don’t know if you like the “Clue” comparison.
Johnson: I love “Clue,” but to me the distinction is “Clue” is very much a parody where with this what I was really aiming for were the Peter Ustinov movies like “Death on the Nile” and “Evil Under the Sun.” Those have a cheeky self awareness in their tone but never cross the line into parody. They still land as mysteries.
Guerrasio: It didn’t sound like this was a cast that once you said “cut” they would run to their trailers. They liked to hang out. Who was the ringleader?
Johnson: I mean, any group Jamie Lee Curtis is in she’s got the leadership vibe. But it was this collective of let’s all chill out kind of thing. That’s one of the things I’m very happy with about the movie, you can tell everybody is enjoying being there and that’s a genuine reflection of what it was like on the set.
Guerrasio: You say the story creation and character development was like a jigsaw puzzle, was that a challenge in the edit?
Johnson: My editor, Bob Ducsay, and I snapped this thing together fairly quickly and I have to say it shifted around the least of any movie that I’ve done. I think that’s because of the jigsaw nature of the story. And we didn’t even cut that much out of it. A couple of scenes, but mostly what’s on the page is on the screen.
Guerrasio: That must feel really good.
Johnson: It does feel good. It feels weird. [Laughs.] That doesn’t always happen. And when it doesn’t you figure out ways to get around what’s not working, but it felt good that with this one it translated step by step.
Guerrasio: So, I have to ask some “Star Wars” questions.
Johnson: Yeah, go ahead.
Guerrasio: Disney recently released its future slate of theatrical releases. A “Star Wars” is slated for 2022, is that one of your movies?
Johnson: You’re going to have to wait for them to announce whatever they are going to announce. I got no update.
Guerrasio: Have you watched “The Mandalorian” at all?
Johnson: Not yet. I have been so busy doing this I haven’t been able to hook up my account, but I visited the set and I talked to [executive producer] Dave Filoni and [show creator, Jon] Favreau. On the set I saw baby Yoda, so I have been waiting for that to drop. It’s so beautiful. Filoni has got the soul of “Star Wars,” he has got the heart of it.
Guerrasio: When you are on set like that, does that just get your creativity going on what you want to do in “Star Wars”?
Johnson: It’s like when you’re a kid and have your toys out. It’s like that but on a life-size scale. It was impossible to not think about things. It’s inspiring. It’s creatively invigorating to be back in the middle of it.
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