the vulture transcript

Rian Johnson Breaks Open the Benoit Blanc Cinematic Universe

The director explains how Glass Onion sets the tone for the Knives Out mysteries to come.

“I wanted to say right up front with Glass Onion, ‘This is going to be the way these movies are’ — that every single one is totally different.” Photo: JJ Geiger
“I wanted to say right up front with Glass Onion, ‘This is going to be the way these movies are’ — that every single one is totally different.” Photo: JJ Geiger

There are plenty of differences between the original 2019 Knives Out and Glass Onion, its 2022 follow-up in the emerging Benoit Blanc universe, which comes out in limited theatrical release this week. For one thing, there’s the setting; director Rian Johnson has swapped out the foggy New England locale for the sunshine sizzle of a private Greek island. The cast, save for Daniel Craig’s gentleman sleuth, has been rotated out as well. Gone are Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Chris Evans’s sweater; replacing them is a new array of faces that includes Kate Hudson, Edward Norton, Janelle Monáe, and all 15 of Dave Bautista’s pectoral muscles.

For the most part, though, the beating heart of Knives Out remains pretty much the same in Glass Onion, which, by the way, our film critic Alison Wilmore considers “bigger and better than the original.” The new film carries over its predecessor’s sense of fun and its structural playfulness, along with a deep, sincere love for Agatha Christie and the broader murder-mystery genre. Those things were very much present in Johnson himself when he sat down to talk with us at Vulture Festival, where he discussed, among other things, his feelings for Angela Lansbury. Watch the full conversation below, or read on for the transcript.

So we’re here to talk about Glass Onion, the sequel to — would you consider it a sequel?
I don’t think it’s a sequel, no.

Second part? The second installment? The second entry?
This has been an ongoing conversation with Netflix — how they make sure people know that it’s a continuation. This whole thing came from me loving Agatha Christie and me growing up loving her books and loving the movies made from her books. So I was thinking of it the same way that she did her books where it’s the same detective.

But the timeline’s still ambiguous?
Yeah, the timeline shouldn’t even matter. It’s really a whole new cast, a whole new mystery. It’s just kind of its own deal and hopefully its own reason for being. It’s not just turning the grinder handle on another one.

Glass Onion: The Other Movie From the Knives Out Franchise.
I just want to make it as verbally awkward as possible for you to describe what it is.

The maiden Knives Out is critically acclaimed, widely beloved by folks who are really into the murder-mystery genre and also people who are not super-familiar with the genre. It is a meme machine. I believe I saw two Chris Evans sweaters this past Halloween. Were you surprised by the strong response to the first movie?
I was coming off of the Star Wars movie, which was obviously the biggest thing I’ll ever do in my life, when I sat down and wrote this murder mystery. The genre was something that — there were good examples of it being done, but it wasn’t something that was really at the forefront. It had been lying there for a bit and getting a little dusty. Even friends of mine who really enjoyed the script when I showed it to them were like, “Are you sure you want to do a murder mystery?” There was the idea that I could take a bigger swing. But I just loved this genre so much, having grown up sitting around the TV with my family and watching Death on the Nile with Peter Ustinov and just feeling like that’s the most fun a movie can possibly be. You have an all-star cast, and every single new face that pops up is like you’re leaning forward. I just thought, This is something that I know I’ll enjoy, but I have no idea whether audiences still want it.

All to say it was a big surprise.

It’s funny to hear the assumption that it’s a smaller step — that you’re moving from Star Wars, which is huge, into something smaller, when the murder mystery is broad, it’s elaborate, it’s lavish.
It’s a crowd-pleaser. That’s the thing I remember, for instance, from Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, this kind of late-’70s, early-’80s phenomenon of the all-star cast — the big, glamorous Hollywood production of a murder-mystery whodunit. It hits all the pleasure buttons.

There was the additional thing with Knives Out, which was setting it in modern-day America. That to me was kind of the thing that actually got me really excited.

Was there any moment in the process of writing it when you thought you might take a swipe at the Agatha Christie universe? Maybe Kenneth Branagh had not yet done Murder on the Orient Express?
Growing up, I had thought at different times about how you would translate — to any Agatha Christie heads in the audience — the twist at the end of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd to a visual medium in a way that works. That could be really interesting. I’m a huge Agatha Christie fan. I love Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot. I think he’s hilarious. I’m a junkie. I just watched See How They Run. I really, really loved that. I’ll just watch every whodunit that comes out. I love them.

The whodunit is this perfectly engineered machine to engage with culture. It’s an ensemble, and each one of the characters kind of represents a different little slice of this microcosm of society. There’s a power structure inherent with the suspects and then there’s somebody at the top who everybody has a motive to kill. But Christie’s work is so enveloped in this fog of nostalgia at this point. We’ve spent years watching these adaptations, which are excellent and good and super-fun and I love them — but they’re set in the hazy past. Christie wasn’t doing that; she was writing to her culture. Her very first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, when we meet Hastings, he’s home from the Western Front with an injury. That’s why he’s at this country house. She wrote it in 1916. It’s not like she was an incredibly political writer, but she was always engaging with what was happening at that moment.

The fact that this genre that’s uniquely suited to do that had not been doing that for a long while got me very excited. What if we just unabashedly said, “Yeah, Knives Out is set in America right now, and I’m not going to worry about making it timeless. I’m just gonna talk literally about whatever we’re talking about in the moment.” It’s a way to engage with stuff that’s happening right now in this comforting, candy coating of a murder mystery.

That’s the other aspect of it: I love that candy coating. If you read analysis of murder mysteries and you think about the times where the murder mystery has kind of sprung up in the culture, the golden age of detective fiction was the 1930s.

A response to a very dark time.
Incredibly turbulent, dark time. If you think about what a murder mystery is, it’s kind of the ultimate example of chaos created by a crime, and the paternal detective figure comes in and sets the moral universe right by the end by finding the truth and revealing it. You can see why that was appealing in the ’30s. You can see why that is appealing right now.

Given the state of 2022, is what you’re saying.
For instance.

You’ve spoken about how murder mysteries are somewhat inherently about class. Would you consider yourself a class warrior?
Should I be sipping my drink? “I consider myself a class warrior!”

But are you?
I don’t know. We all are to a certain extent. We’re all hyperconscious of the exact same stuff that’s in the air in the culture.

So with Glass Onion specifically, what did you want to grapple with? What was on your mind at the time you were writing it? What were you paying attention to? What were you looking around at and going, That would be a fun thing to build a story around?
The big, obvious thing is Edward Norton’s character in this, who’s a tech billionaire. I remember a year ago having conversations with Edward and both of us worrying, Oh God, is this whole tech-billionaire thing going to have played itself out entirely by the time the movie comes out?

So that’s an element of it. It was giving myself permission to talk about the same kind of tropes of society that Christie was doing back in the day but right now. We have YouTube influencers, and we have spon-con Instagram models, and we have SpaceX-style glamour scientists.

All of whom, by the way, are on a beautiful Greek island. Would it be fair for me to pitch Glass Onion to friends as “It’s Mamma Mia! but with murder?” 
Please! My God. Is it too late to change the poster? There were so many times on set where Madelyn Cline would be like, “We’re doing Mamma Mia! 3, right?”

Did you pick Greece? 
So I wrote this in 2020 when we were all in lockdown. There were a lot of things that went into choosing the setting, but a big part of it was wanting, in that moment, to be on a beach somewhere on a Greek island. The first movie was also very much in the tradition of the English-countryside cozy-house murder but in New England. So I wanted to plant a really solid flag at the beginning that this was going to be something completely different than the first one. I wanted to say right up front with Glass Onion, This is going to be the way these movies are — that every single one is totally different.

A hard cut between the gloomy, foggy environs to a beautiful, sunny island.
But also there’s a rich tradition of destination murders. Evil Under the Sun was originally set in England, but the film, which I grew up watching four times a day on HBO when I was a kid, is set in this beautiful Mediterranean island. And it isn’t Christie but The Last of Sheila. If anyone here doesn’t know Last of Sheila, I bang the drum for this woman continuously because more and more people are discovering it but it’s still underseen.

This is a murder mystery from the ’70s that was co-written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins. It’s the most ’70s cast of all time. It’s Richard Benjamin as the lead, which automatically pegs it to a window of like four years when Richard Benjamin was a lead in movies. You can see we take a huge page from them for the setup. It’s basically James Coburn as this asshole Hollywood producer who invites all of his friends to a murder-mystery game on his yacht. It’s got Dyan Cannon — and Kate Hudson’s character in Glass Onion owes quite a bit to Dyan Cannon — Raquel Welch, James Mason, and Ian McShane. It’s an incredible cast.

What lessons did you take away from making the first Knives Out movie into making the second? 
Going into the first one, I was very nervous because we were getting an ensemble of actors together, all of whom could carry their own movie. Because I’m kind of a nonconfrontational wimp, I was a little afraid: Is there going to be a lion-taming element to this that I’m not prepared for? The pleasant surprise from the first one is the exact opposite was true. Every one of those actors came into it ready to be part of an ensemble and ready to actually take joy in that.

How do you construct an ensemble within a murder mystery?
There is the thing of knowing that this is being built to be the type of all-star cast we talked about with those early Agatha Christie movies. There is pressure of wanting to give each one of them their thing — their moment — and justify having somebody great in the parts.

By the way, Kate Hudson plays a character named Birdie Jay, who was a fashion magnate who now has a line of sweatpants that she hocks online on Instagram called Sweetie Pants. Kate gave the best description of how she plays the character ever, which is she said, “Birdie understands every third word.” I think once I had that in my head and I just watched her reaction shots to the other characters, it’s very, very funny.

I assumed that you’re playing with the general celebrity or cultural context of each actor or actress.
That’s kind of a dangerous game to play because your perception of someone could be different than an audience’s. When we’re on the press tour, there’s a lot of inevitable questions about Daniel with his James Bond role and whether, when I’m writing, I’m actively subverting or working against that. I guess the answer is always — for me at least — no. I think the way to approach it is just to always come at it aboveboard and not let yourself slip into that meta-level.

When it comes to the actual mystery element of Knives Out and Glass Onion, it’s like a watch. Everything works together. How do you figure out the mystery element? Where do you start? Do you diagram it out? 
Yeah, I diagram, but that’s also how I learned to write, so I don’t just diagram the context of doing a murder mystery. On every movie I’ve done, I start working very structurally, and for me, the first 80, sometimes 90, percent of the process is working on my outline in little notebooks. The outline isn’t just the plot — it’s the story, which takes into account the themes and the characters and sketches for scenes. It’s a lot of things. I posted the diagram that I did for Knives Out, and it’s fun looking at it after the fact because it’s the whole movie laid out on this one line.

But no matter what I’m writing, I need to work that way. I need to know the whole road map before I start writing. Not every writer does that. I’ve heard famously that the Coen brothers don’t. I was just doing a roundtable thing with Martin McDonagh, and he said he just starts typing. That’s like a magic trick.

Benoit Blanc is a constant in the past two films. Has he changed as a character?
No. I mean, that’s one interesting thing, especially when you have an actor and a movie star, which are two different things, in a lead part who’s as magnetic as Daniel. I think it can be kind of a trap to start thinking that the detective is your protagonist. That’s actually a mistake. The detective is always at the center of it, but he’s also outside of the realm of the human drama.

Ultimately, I think that’s why the first Death on the Nile is a high-water mark in terms of adaptations of murder mysteries, with the love triangle and Mia Farrow’s character and the jilted woman who comes back for revenge. It’s got such a great juicy hook to get you into it, and that’s ultimately what you want to reach for. That can’t be the detective. The detective has to be godlike and sort of outside that realm, which is all to say that the detective always kind of operates according to the needs of the mystery. He is different in Glass Onion than he is in Knives Out, but that’s because he’s intentionally trying to play another part in drawing these people out and solving the crime.

We asked you to bring us a scene from another murder mystery to break down, and you brought 1978’s Death on the Nile. Why did you pick this scene? What does it illustrate for you about the heights of the Agatha Christie–esque murder mystery?
Two words: Angela Lansbury. I mean, my God! She’s just incredible, and she’s having so much fun in this part. She is just a joy to watch. She and David Niven — there’s a great moment where Poirot kind of preemptively excuses himself and takes another woman to the dance, and there’s just a moment of David Niven in sheer terror on his face when he realizes what’s about to happen before she sweeps him up.

And Mia Farrow gives a tremendous performance in this movie; she’s so good. I don’t know, it’s just delicious, man! Everything from the costume design to the beautiful space that they’re in and every single one of those actors. Look at Maggie Smith! Look at the tuxedo she’s wearing! Look at Bette Davis! Oh my God, it’s incredible. It’s astounding. You can also see the gears working. I love that first half-hour of a murder mystery where you’re trying to do the math in your head of who’s going to get killed and why and trying to outthink it. You can see all of that in play here. But coming back to the real point: Angela Lansbury.

Is Peter Ustinov your favorite Poirot?
Ustinov is my favorite Poirot. Specifically in Death on the Nile. I do love him in Evil Under the Sun, but it’s a little bit more of an indulgent love. He’s a little bit broader in that movie, a little goofier. I think in Death on the Nile, he struck the perfect balance. To me, when I read Christie, I find Poirot hilarious. That’s the reason that I love Ustinov’s take on the character. Although Albert Finney is doing something absolutely crazy unto himself, and David Suchet has a sharpness to him and kind of an eagle-eye danger to him, I love the slight clownishness of Ustinov and how that keys into the kind of pompous self-inflation of the character.

He quotes philosophers, he makes prognostications, he steals food from other people’s cabins.
He’s an incredibly funny character. I get into fights a lot with Patton Oswalt about this, who is a big Finney booster. Every time I bring up Ustinov, he’s like [dramatically sighs].

Is the murder mystery always grounded within wealthy spaces? Places of luxury, places of spectacle?
Not at all. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd takes place in a small town. Death on the Nile is one very specific flavor of what she did: the glamorous getaway mystery.

That’s the other thing about Christie, and that’s the other thing that makes me excited about the notion of making more of these. I think there’s kind of a tendency to think that Christie repeated herself, that her works all fall under a vague grouping of a country house and a body in a library. Basically, you picture the cover of a Clue board, and anyone who’s a true Christie fan knows the exact opposite is the case. She was not just changing it up in terms of where her mysteries were set and not even just in terms of the plot twists of how she did the murders. She was twisting and working and melding genres. Think about Endless Night, which is basically a gothic romance. You think about A.B.C. Murders, which is a serial-killer thriller. You think about And Then There Were None, which is a slasher movie basically. She was essentially finding ways to surprise herself and surprise the audience.

I’m fascinated by the Columbo-type detective versus the Benoit Blanc–type detective. In your mind, how do you articulate the differences between the two?
Well, the big difference is a genre one: the howdunit versus the whodunit. In Columbo, the first act is always the crime itself. It’s showing the killer, showing who did it and how, but holding out one little bit of information. Then Columbo enters, and it’s about seeing him unravel that and figuring out how he’s going to do it. Intuitively, you would think that’s not interesting, but it’s riveting.

And that’s actually the way we structure Poker Face, my first TV show, with Natasha Lyonne. It’s a weekly episodic TV show. It’s not a serialized thing where it’s one story over an entire season. You get a single story per episode, and it’s Natasha Lyonne basically as a Magnum, P.I. or Rockford Files or Columbo or Murder, She Wrote. She’s the central character, and you’re going to get a whole new cast every single episode. Some of the best storytelling we’ve seen in the past however many years has been this longform serialized TV. But I feel like we’ve hit a point where streamers have come to think that that is the only form of storytelling that gets people to keep hitting “Play next.” There’s a real thirst to get back to “I can just drop in for one episode of this and get a full story, and it’s not a ten-episode commitment to figure out whodunit.” I felt that pull of getting back to self-contained stories.

So with Poker Face, it’s a howdunit versus a whodunit mystery like Knives Out and Glass Onion where you come in through the perspective of the detective. You only have as much information as them, and the object is to figure out who did it by the end. Although it isn’t, really! Being a big fan of the genre, I can say that it’s a complete lie that the pleasure of a whodunit is presenting a puzzle to the audience that they could potentially solve. I think the authors of Ellery Queen famously said, “Yes, we play fair with the audience if the audience is the most genius person who ever lived.” The reality is the pleasure of the story is the same pleasure as any story, which is, What’s making you lean forward? What character are you worried about? What are the dramatic stakes? As opposed to making you lean back and stroke your chin. A roller coaster as opposed to a crossword puzzle is what I like to say.

I also love endings. True endings, you know? Not just dot-dot-dot question-mark endings. It’s really fun having built ten episodes of a show, each one of which has an actual ending.

Over the course of your career, you’ve made a neo-noir, a caper, a sci-fi movie, a Star Wars movie, and a whodunit murder mystery. Now you’ve made a second one. What draws you to genres generally?
I guess what’s fun about them is the fact that I grew up watching them. So I have a deep emotional attachment to all the genres that you mentioned, not just in an intellectual way but in a way of this is the stuff that fed my childhood. But in an intellectual way, they give you a chessboard. They give you and the audience a shared, defined chessboard. And playing with genres right now when audiences are so savvy, it’s even more exciting because I feel like all of us know so well at this point the tropes and the way these things work. To me, the benefit of that is it creates an underground dialogue throughout the course of the story, where you’re playing with that and against that. That, to me, is a fun meta-conversation to have.

When I think about genres — as in people’s relationships to genres, how they follow them, bend them, break them — I think about rules. Are you a big rules person?
I don’t know. Every time I’ve sat down to write any of these things, like a murder mystery or a Star Wars movie or anything, it’s always trying to get back to the essential pure pleasure. Remember in Tron when they find the glowing river and drink it? It’s like, “Oh, here’s the source.” It’s trying to find that with a genre which has had a lot of iterations and a lot of veneer put on it over many, many years. Like with Brick, my first film, it all came from me reading Dashiell Hammett and feeling like I knew and loved film noir. But reading Dashiell Hammett’s books felt like being punched in the stomach. It was trying to get to that kind of feeling that those books gave me.

Or with Star Wars: The Last Jedi, it was trying to get back to the actual feeling of being a kid and seeing The Empire Strikes Back. Not the memory of it as an adult but the actual feeling as a kid. It was fucking terrifying. It was feeling like anything was at play and the good guys were losing. It was scary in the way that fairy tales should be scary because they represent a child’s perspective on these massive life changes that you don’t understand but are trying to. Anyway, that’s a lengthy answer to, yes, I love rules, but I love them to get to much more base pleasures.

Is there a genre that you haven’t tackled that you’d really like to?
Musical. Oh my God, I would love to do a musical. Are you kidding me?

What kind of musicals do you like?
One of the great pleasures of this movie was that both Angela Lansbury and Stephen Sondheim have very small cameos in Glass Onion. I don’t want to oversell it — it’s just one fun little scene — but it meant that I got to actually sit down and shoot a little thing with both of them. I got to tell them both I’m a big musical-theater nerd. Sondheim is my guy, so getting to tell him what his work meant to me, even in a fumbling way, was incredibly special.

Okay, final questions. Benoit Blanc: Were there alternate names?
No. But I feel like I owe credit or an apology to my French tutor at the time, Benoit. That’s where I took that from.

Who would win in a fistfight: Benoit Blanc or Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot?
Look, I’ve got James fucking Bond in that movie, I think he can take him. But Kenneth Branagh’s no lightweight.

Yeah, that dude looks like he’d really shine in a bar fight.
There’s an ongoing joke in Glass Onion, a friend of mine gave it to me: It’s like a pool party, and Benoit Blanc never wants to take off his shirt, so he’s in the pool in his shirt. At some point, I thought, Oh, this will be very funny because Daniel doesn’t have to worry about working out all the time. But he’s like, “I just came off the last James Bond. You know I am actually kind of buff, right? I can take my shirt off.” I was like, “Eh, I don’t think so.”

I’ll leave it a surprise for people to see whether he does. In Knives Out, Benoit is famous. A lot of the characters are aware of his fame because of a New Yorker profile, the byline of which is Leopold Chequer. Where did that come from?
So because I’m friends with Alex Ross, who’s the music critic at The New Yorker, I wanted to credit him. But The New Yorker has a rule that you can’t. So it would have been Alex Ross. I thought that would have been very funny.

Lastly: Fuck, marry, kill famous fictional detectives.
Oh God. I guess I would marry Miss Marple because that seems like it’d be a nice country life, just living with Miss Marple. Or Jessica Fletcher. Or maybe I should fuck Jessica Fletcher? I have a feeling she’s secretly freaky. Or Sherlock Holmes.

And then kill — who would I kill? I don’t know if I actually want to kill this person, but it’s a great opportunity to pitch John Dickson Carr. He was an American, but he spent a lot of time in England and he was writing in the golden age of the detective-fiction era in the ’30s. He has a detective named Gideon Fell, who’s currently my favorite whodunit detective. He’s modeled on G.K. Chesterton. He’s this big, huge, massive man who walks on two canes and is kind of a total asshole and is just hilarious. So sure, I’ll kill him.

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Rian Johnson Breaks Open the Benoit Blanc Cinematic Universe