At some point when I'm beyond the eighth deadline, I just lock myself in a room. At the end of the day, you just have to carry the words up the hill. You just got to do it.
There is a deliciously revealing tell near the start of Rian Johnson’s crackling new murder mystery Knives Out, which has garnered Original Screenplay nominations from the Writers Guild, Golden Globes, and Oscars. It is as eloquently succinct and subtly meta as the entire film, but it isn’t about who the murderer might be. It’s an ironically non-verbal, powerfully simple cue to the viewer that something exciting is afoot. Private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who the viewer has yet to see or hear, sits in the fuzzy background near a piano as police in the foreground interrogate our cast of suspects—the family of a famous, wealthy, and suddenly-deceased American mystery writer, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer).
As a police lieutenant (LaKeith Stanfield) somewhat nervously questions each suspect, Benoit wordlessly strikes a single piano key every so often as if to say either move on to the next question or make a note of that. As a pacing tool, it supercharges the tension around who he is and who, indeed, has done it.
It’s a tell that speaks most to Johnson’s skill and command. With that single piano note, the acclaimed writer and director of eclectic credits from Star Wars: The Last Jedi to his maiden feature, Brick, turns a screenwriting problem—how to get through half a dozen interviews right at the top of the film without losing the audience—to his complete advantage. It’s a thing he says he loves to do, using genre, and the inherent tropes and expectations they bring, to heighten cinematic storytelling. With a chops-licking cast that includes Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, and Don Johnson, Knives Out takes full advantage. Thrown in the middle of his murder mystery is Harlan Thrombey’s trusted nurse Marta (played by the skillfully emotive Ana de Armas). She’s an Ecuadorian immigrant beloved by Thrombey, and, by all appearances, his large family of East Coast WASPs as well. But most of the patriarch’s clan seem to have grown even more fond of the comfort and privilege his wealth affords them.
The self-effacing, energetically sharp Johnson spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about the writing of Knives Out and how he conceived of the film as a melding of two of his favorite genres—an Agatha Christie-style whodunit inlaid with a Hitchcockian thriller. He says a central appeal of the whodunit genre is that it invariably deals with class, because of the array of suspects or characters, and that he was interested in seeing what he could say by taking the genre out of the dusty, old British drawing room and, particularly with the help of Marta’s character, into modern America.
You said that this film was percolating in your brain for a long while, before you sat down and wrote it pretty fast. How long was it gestating in your head and how quickly did you actually draft it?
Well, I mean, I remember telling Joe Gordon-Levitt about the idea on the set of Looper.
So, it's been at least 10 years that I've had this idea in my head. Even before that, I always just wanted to do a whodunit. It's a genre that's always been near and dear to my heart. But yeah, I've had this basic idea for about 10 years. And then, like I said, it was January of 2018 when I sat down to actually start writing and had the first draft in about six months.
That's pretty good.
For me, that's really fast. For real writers, that's not really fast... That's a luxurious amount of time, I think. But for me, I'm a very slow writer.
Oh, okay. Interesting. That's impressive to me. When you're writing an original story, is there typically a long gestation period before you sit down to write?
Yeah, for me there are a few steps, and I'm usually just kicking something around in my mind for a while, figuring out the pieces of it and the themes and just figuring out what it is. Then there’s the actual outlining phase, which I count as part of the writing, that’s the first 80 percent of the writing process. That's actually structuring it out, drawing outlines, figuring out the structure and breaking it into acts, and then sequences and then scenes. Sitting down to actually type the script is the last 10 percent of the process.
So you're heavy into outlining, and you've said that you're very structural. By the time you're done with the outline, you've pretty much got it there?
Well, I have the whole thing structured out. I have the roadmap. But then when you're writing, obviously, you have to kind of feel your way forward and sometimes the roadmap is wrong. Or something that looked good from a thousand miles in the air looking down, suddenly you've got your boots on the ground and you realize that it doesn't work. So it's always a process feeling your way forward. But at the very least you have like the guide of that outline and that roadmap.
In this particular case, did the roadmap pretty much go as intended, or were there some things you had to tweak?
It pretty much went as intended. Although, once I got it down on paper… the opening sequence, for example, with all the questioning with the family, it was a constant struggle to make that as economic as possible. When I structured it out, it looked all neat and clear in terms of, we get this information from this person, this from that person. Then once it was actually written out on the page, you realize you have to go through the narrative experience of actually reading it in linear time as a scene to realize, wow, this is a lot of information for the audience to take in. So, that's an example of one where once I got it down on the page, I realized it just has to be more economic and just shorter. So, it was a matter of paring it back, of figuring out what was really essential, of tweaking the timing of how much we intercut between the different family members to keep it interesting.
That's a unique little construct there that you only get in a whodunit, where you have that much narrative explication coming from an array of characters right at the top of the thing. So, that must've been the first time you'd worked in that particular construct?
It was. It's very much a trope of the whodunit. And because of that you have a little bit of leeway because the audience recognizes that trope and they say, “Oh, this is what we're sitting down for,” and they know that, or at least hopefully they trust it's going to lead somewhere. At the same time, one of the things that was difficult about this was, because of the way I structured it, it's a little nontraditional. Usually you meet the family or you meet the suspects in a more organic way before the murder happens.
So, because I was making this as a feature and I had to hop ahead, I start with the murder and literally our first time meeting most of these people was in the context of the questioning. That's a pretty dry and clinical place to meet them. So, it was just a matter of trying to make it as fun, as poppy and as economic as possible, so that the audience feels like they're getting a moment with each of these folks, but never feels like we're bogging down.
Did you have your ending before you started writing and then work backward? How did it work?
Well, yeah, I had the ending from the first conception of the whole thing. The conception of it was the outline of the plot, not necessarily that I even knew who the character was going to be, the whodunit, but I knew conceptually who that character was going to be, if that makes sense.
I knew the shape of it, if not the shading of the individual pieces or characters. So, in that way it was always set…the writing was less about filling in the blanks of who done it and how, and more about filling out these characters and figuring out, Okay, in order for this plot structure to work, what kind of character is going to serve that best? What are their relationships with the other characters? And filling in those blanks.
But no, I definitely didn't write it like a game of Clue, where there were multiple possible outcomes. It was always structured so that narratively it would have a satisfying ending, and that means everything's leading up to that ending in one way or another.
Without spoiling anything...this “murder,” is very unique in its own construction. So, you had that concept from the beginning?
Yeah, that was the idea basically. How had a murder happened...But even more than that, the real primary idea was the structural one of basically starting a movie out as a traditional whodunit and then turning it into a Hitchcock-style thriller, where we tell the audience, “You know what, don't worry about who done it. We're going to cast that way and let's go on this ride together of seeing if this person we care about can get out of this situation.” And then at the end, turning it back into a whodunit, and revealing that the whodunit was hiding underneath this thriller the whole time. That was really the barebones initial idea.
It's cool the way you meld those. And you seem to elicit more empathy with the Marta character because of that, which lends more emotional depth than a typical whodunit.
Yeah, for me that was the idea behind the whole thing is to hopefully get all the things that I love about whodunits in there, but at the same time to try and structure it in such a way where it was satisfying as a movie.
That's the essence of what Hitchcock did with his movies. He wasn't a fan of the whodunit because he thought that they were basically kind of machines that were built on just clue gathering and one big surprise at the end, where he was interested in making the audience invest in the character and worry about how they're going to get away with what they're doing. So, that's where the Hitchcock element of it comes in.
You've also said that one of the things that appeals to you about whodunits is that they invariably involve class. Why does that interest you, in today’s world?
Yeah. Well, I mean it's a genre that has that in its very bones; it's very good at talking about class. But even more specifically at showing you an X-ray of a microcosm of society basically. And class comes into it because that society is necessary because of the dramatic needs of the story to have a power structure to it. That just leads to a fun narrative machine that also happens to be very good at painting this little microcosmic picture of a society.
And for me what was exciting was the idea of applying it to modern day America. Obviously, all of Christie's books are set in England and are period pieces, where there’s that distance from them. It just seemed like a no-brainer to me, the idea of, “Oh, what if we really applied it to America in 2019, what would that look like?” That was something I really wanted to see.
And you do it, but you're certainly not heavy-handed about it. How was it striking that balance?
Yeah. Well, the thing that I just described of the necessary shape of the story itself is an incredibly efficient tool to get that thematic stuff across. That's pure gold when you're writing. That's exactly what you're looking for, something where the shape of the story itself, the shape of the engine that's actually propelling the audience forward is also the shape of what you're trying to communicate with it. As opposed to something where you're stopping to give speeches in order to tell the audience what the movie is about. To me that’s the most exciting thing when the thing that's propelling you forward is also the thing that's giving the film its meaning.
You've worked in so many genres. You're very unique in the eclecticism of your oeuvre. Is that by design? And is it relevant to this thing you're saying, where you're seeing how different genres affect narrative?
Yeah, I think so. I grew up loving genre. On one hand, they are different sandboxes that I just really want to play in. And playing in them means not just recycling their tropes, but getting under the hood and figuring out how to get at the essence of what I love about a genre and use it in a way that's going to actually put a story out there that's got some meaning, or takes the audience somewhere new or somewhere exciting or somewhere thoughtful.
When, where, and how do you write, i.e., what is your particular ritual or routine when you're actually writing?
Oh god. My wife [film critic Karina Longworth] is the most disciplined writer I've ever met. She's just incredible at having a routine and sticking to it and getting it done and I am exactly the opposite. I putter around and scribble in notebooks. I go to cafes and just sit. And then eventually I panic and realize I haven't gotten enough done.
And when it comes to actually writing, I need to be in the most boring, small room possible with nothing to do. I mean, just no distractions, because I have no discipline at all. So, at some point when I'm beyond the eighth deadline, I just lock myself in a room. At the end of the day, you just have to carry the words up the hill. You just got to do it.
Random question: How did you come up with the name Benoit Blanc?
The first name, Benoit, I had a very lovely French tutor, who I've been trying to learn French from for the past 10 years unsuccessfully. Yeah, they have the first name Benoit, and I thought that just was a nice first name. And then the last name, Blanc, I just wanted a last name that the Americans in the story could mispronounce like Poirot.
Nobody says Poirot right.
So, yeah, I figured Blanc would be fun. [One of the characters] says “Blank” at some point.
Final kind of detail question, it dawned on me pretty quickly in the film that Daniel [Craig’s] accent was just like Shelby Foote from Ken Burns’ Civil War. And I looked it up, and sure enough, it was. So, that was apparently his idea?
Well, we went back and forth. I had written into the script a Southern accent. I really wanted it to be sonorous. I really wanted it to be pleasing to the ear and kind of honeyed for obvious reasons, because I wanted it to be someone the audience enjoyed listening to. If we're going to do an accent, let's do a nice sounding one. So, we were kicking back and forth references and looking at a bunch of different folks at some point. I think Daniel brought up Shelby Foote, and it was perfect. He's got that beautiful Mississippi accent, but also the register he carries it in, it's just a very pleasing, genteel, gorgeous accent. And so we keyed into that.
Was there ever a point at which you wanted him to be less smooth and honeyed, more rumbled and Colombo-esque so viewers would find it more likely the other character might patronize him? Were you concerned that making him as smooth as he is sort of takes away that element?
No, I mean because initially...A big part of the reason I wrote as a Southern accent was because I knew he was going to be in this mansion with a bunch of New England WASPs and I figured if there's anything to get them to underrate him, it's making him a Southerner... Even though he's genteel, for the first part of the movie, he doesn't seem like he's really getting anywhere.
My hope is that the audience themselves are questioning a little bit whether this guy is actually putting all this together. Especially once the movie pulls its first big narrative gambit and switches to Marta's perspective. There the audience is a little bit outside of Blanc trying to figure out what his deal is. And hopefully along with the other characters, the fact that he's got a little bit of Foghorn Leghorn to him, makes you underrate him just enough.
Yeah. He's a bit of a sleeper.
Yeah. I hope so.
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