Rian Johnson, Daniel Craig & Janelle Monáe Tell All – Deadline
Let’s start with The Beatles. At the end of 1968 the Fab Four released The White Album, which would become tabloid-notorious within a year because some hippie cult leader named Charles Manson sent his followers on a killing spree under the guise of the hidden meanings he’d uncovered in their songs. What no one really remembers nowadays, though, is that there was already a track on that album aimed squarely at the kind of weirdos who looked for hidden meanings in Beatles songs.
Credited to Lennon-McCartney, the song “Glass Onion” was primarily written by Lennon, as a tease to those looking for profundity in the band’s surreal lyrics. And as a title and an end-credits theme it fits the first sequel to Rian Johnson’s Knives Out perfectly. After the old-dark-house setting of the 2019 film, where Daniel Craig’s detective Benoit Blanc snooped in the shadows trying to smoke out the killer of elderly Boston crime novelist Harlan Thrombey, this time events take place in broad daylight, in the sunny Greek holiday home of tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton), who has summoned some people he thinks are his closest friends for a murder-mystery weekend.
As a casual collector of priceless art and other pop-cultural items, Bron’s vulgarity is breathtaking, and in that sense, the song’s line about seeing “how the other half live” seems especially cutting. But Johnson hadn’t actually thought of it as a title until he’d already started on the script. “I didn’t have anything in mind, which was terrifying, because the first movie I’d had cooking for about 10 years,” he says.
Which is where The Beatles come in. “I’d gotten to a point where I had the idea of a central metaphor that Blanc could latch onto and beat like a dead horse,” he says. “Something that was made of glass. Something that was layered, but the center was in plain sight, and so on. And I thought, OK, well the billionaire is going to have an island, and maybe he has some structure on it that’s made of glass, so … is it a glass castle? Is it a glass palace? I literally opened the music app on my phone and just searched the word ‘glass’, and “Glass Onion” popped up.”
Once it did, he realized it was quite perfect. “But I was always surprised, when I was showing the script around, how many people didn’t know it was a Beatles song. I thought everybody knew “Glass Onion”, but I guess they don’t.”
The original Knives Out premiered in Toronto in 2019, following just two years after Johnson’s Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi. At the time, it was seen as one of those smaller, more personal movies that a director might do as a big exhalation of breath after making a studio monster, but, in retrospect, that wasn’t quite the case. It rocked the house at its premiere at the Princess of Wales Theater, and very seriously recalibrated the public perception of Daniel Craig.
But even before it screened, thoughts of a sequel were bubbling away. “The first one was clearly so much fun to do,” says producer Ram Bergman. “It was a no-brainer: we should go and make another one. I always believed, even from the script stage, that, if this worked out, this was a character you could actually build a franchise — for lack of a better word — around. But it was only around the time the movie was coming out that we realized it could work.”
Craig certainly wasn’t expecting it either. In fact, the way he describes it, his appearance in the original Knives Out almost didn’t happen. “My agent was so cloak-and-dagger about it, which I suppose is apt,” he recalls. Craig had been tracking Johnson since 2008’s The Brothers Bloom, and just the director’s name alone piqued his interest. “I can say this now, but normally a script has to have my name watermarked all over it, so that if I decide to sell it, then they know it’s me. This was my agent’s one, with his name emblazoned over it. He said, ‘Read this. Don’t tell them I’ve shown it to you.’ So, I read it. And of course, I was just like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to do this.’”
The appeal, he says, was less about the character and much more about the script. “The character wasn’t quite there for me. There was stage direction: ‘lilting Southern accent’. But that’s all I got, so, it wasn’t in my head; I didn’t have a clear picture. But when you read a script that good, it’s so rare.”
Nevertheless, there was no serious thought of a franchise at that point, even with Craig coming to the end of his tenure as Bond. “When we were filming,” he says, “we fantasized about it, like you do: ‘It would be quite nice to do another one of these.’ But who knows? You don’t want to make predictions that the movie’s going to be successful. We’ve been there, done that, and failed, on a number of occasions.” (The specter of 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens comes to mind.) “But the fact that people liked Knives Out so much, and the fact that it was such a success, made us think, Let’s see what happens.”
The timeline of how long the script for Glass Onion took to come together exists mostly in the elastic mind-fog of the Covid era, but it was certainly pretty quickly by anyone’s standards. “I think it was less than six months,” Craig says. “Rian was in lockdown, so he didn’t really have an awful lot else to do. He was sort of a prisoner. But I was nervous to read it. Where do we go next? You don’t want to say that you have to top the last movie … but you kind of do have to top the last movie. That’s what it is, isn’t it? And he did.”
The first Knives Out owed a subtle debt to one of Johnson’s favorite films, The Last of Sheila, a 1973 cult curio written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins. Glass Onion, however, pretty much borrows the whole premise. “It’s a great murder-mystery,” he says, “but the main thing that I took from it was the idea of a rich jerk inviting all of his friends out to an exotic locale for a murder-mystery game. Within that, there’s also the hierarchy of a group of friends, with somebody at the top of the pyramid, and everyone having a reason to bump them off, and the way that money plays into that.”
With Glass Onion hitting cinemas, and later TV screens, in the wake of Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover, it might seem like serendipity, but Johnson really wasn’t anticipating that. “The fact that Bron’s a tech billionaire — which made a lot of sense for the story — became an obstacle in the writing. Because — I don’t think I even have to say the names — there are some obvious, real-world analogs. And the instant I started thinking about any of them too specifically, it got so boring so quickly. And so, disconnecting him from that, and trying to build him as his own kind of clownish character, became a challenge.”
Which is where Edward Norton comes in. “Edward and I have wanted to work together for years,” says Johnson, who was approached by the actor after his eye-catching debut, the 2005 Sundance hit Brick, a highly stylized indie film noir set in high school. “He’s a tremendous actor, and he also has a foot in that world of tech investors and all of that. He’s moved in those circles, and he was able to really have fun with it.”
They first met in a New York coffee shop, Norton recalls. “We talked about doing something someday, but it took a little while longer than we hoped.” That chance finally arrived in the spring of last year when Norton received the script for Glass Onion. “I laughed so hard,” he says.
Like Johnson, Norton instantly brushes away any attempt to identify the Miles Brons of the real world. “My take on this was really to know that Miles is a character cut from a very specific species,” he says. “They’re all around us these days, and they’re really getting lionized. So, for me, the job was with Rian to pick and choose the perfect characteristics to send up a particular type of person, and to do it by embedding within him a lot of the best and worst of what we see in these people, but still find a way for it to feel organic. With satire, if you overplay it …”
He pauses. “It’s like the line in Raging Bull,” he says, referencing Jake LaMotta’s thoughts on cooking steak. “‘You overcook it, it’s no good. It defeats its own purpose.’ You’ve got to find the moment where it’s both funny and credible at the same time.”
The social satire this time round is certainly very different from the first Knives Out, which played out in a comparatively simple setting of the modern MAGA-era American landscape. Says Craig, “The difference with Benoit in this one, is that when he goes to Boston, the sort of people that he has to deal with are urbanites. They’re quite different from the people he has to deal with in Glass Onion. I’m not saying that the people in Glass Onion are necessarily stupid, but… Well, some of them are.”
This time around we get an insight into Blanc’s process, as he reveals a little more of his personality and, especially, his methods. “It was really just a product of the requirements of this story,” explains Johnson. “In the first movie, we come in through the eyes of Ana de Armas’s character, Marta, who’s Thrombey’s nurse, and Blanc is very much like the shark in Jaws — he’s kind of circling her, and on the periphery — but we’re seeing things through her perspective. Whereas in this, we’re coming to the island through Blanc’s eyes, so when we meet all the characters for the first time, they are the enigmas. That naturally leads to the audience being with Blanc.”
Though Blanc is much more rounded this time round, Craig laughs out loud at the concept of any “character development” that may have been worked on between Knives Out and Glass Onion (“I don’t know if I’m that kind of actor”). But he does agree that he is much more secure in Benoit Blanc’s skin these days. “My go-to with him in Glass Onion is that he’s incredibly curious,” he says. “I think he’s kind. He’s genuinely interested in human stories, in people, and what they’ve got to say. It’s how he does his job. He may want his suspects to hang themselves, but he does it by being open. You see it in the movie, he says, ‘I’m going to loosen them up.’”
Though he refuses to be drawn on plot points that could be considered spoilers — and in Glass Onion there really are a lot of them — Craig is surprisingly fine about the recent revelation, made onstage at the London Film Festival, that Blanc is gay and shares his home with a character played by … well, that’s one of the surprises Craig does not want to talk about. “It’s all good,” he says. “The less of a song and dance we make about that, the better, really, for me, because it just made sense. And also, as I said at the LFF, who wouldn’t want to live with the human being that he happens to live with? It’s nice, it’s fun. And why shouldn’t it be? I don’t want people to get politically hung up on anything.”
Before the film take us to Miles Bron’s Greek island lair we get an insight into his social circle via the invites that he sends out: a lavish wooden box incorporating a series of physical puzzles. “First of all,” says Johnson, “it felt like a great way to get through the tough part of any murder mystery, which is introducing all of the suspects. But it was also a very nice, shorthand way of seeing them all at home during the pandemic.”
There’s a further hint as to how things will go when the guests arrive on a Greek jetty to catch a boat laid on by Bron: a famous actor gives them all “the rich person vaccine” in a fleeting cameo that is just one of many.
“I think we can say that people know Ethan Hawke is in the movie,” shrugs Johnson, who accepts that a fair few of the film’s secrets are already out. “He was in Budapest doing Moon Knight with Oscar Isaac, and he very kindly came down with his family for a weekend to do that one little scene. It was at the beginning of our shoot, so he was like a saint, blessing us. He gave us his blessing and then kind of vanished off into the sunset.”
The set, as it turned out, did indeed need blessing. “It was right during the Delta spike,” says Johnson, “so the numbers were really, really bad.” The burden of safeguarding against this fell to producer Bergman, who, after scouring the four quarters of the globe — “There wasn’t a place or an area we didn’t think about” — settled on Villa 20 at the luxurious Amanzoe resort in Porto Heli for the exteriors (“Not a bad place to hang every day”). Still, there was some work to do: as you might suspect, the house’s giant glass-onion feature is a visual effect, but then so is the island (“It’s actually, like, 20 minutes from the beach”). The scenes inside Bron’s resort were shot even further away, some 500 miles north, in the capital of Serbia. “We’d looked in London,” says Bergman, “but we couldn’t find enough stage space. So, after Greece, we went to Belgrade where we built all the interiors. Everything that you see inside the house, we built.”
The behind-the-scenes photography from the shoot shows a world at odds with the idyllic world of Miles Bron’s champagne get-togethers. “I would say that probably, of all the shoots I ever had, this was the most stressed,” says Bergman, “because of the fear that one of the actors, or Rian, would get Covid, and then we’d have to shut down for two weeks. On top of that, there’s the ripple effect, especially with a cast who are working together every day. What impact will it have on their next project?”
“Ram was just tearing his hair out,” laughs Craig. But he did a brilliant job, as did all the team that were there to keep us all safe. I suppose we were fairly isolated anyway — being in Greece, it was easier to be able to go out and be a bit more kind of social.”
Indeed, Craig felt comfortable enough to throw a welcoming soiree. He laughs, “I said to Ram, ‘I’m going to have a party whether you like it or not. We need to do this. I need to get this group of people together, so that we can get to know each other.’ So, The first week I was there, I rented a place, and I got a stack of booze and some food. And Ram parked an ambulance at the end of my drive, so everybody could be tested.”
The situation became a bit more serious when the shoot reached Serbia. “We were much more in lockdown there, because we were in a studio,” says Craig, “and I didn’t get to know the crew the way one normally does. I didn’t know what anybody looked like because they were wearing masks.” The actor still has mixed feelings about the fact that the cast were also put up in a different hotel to the crew. “But it meant that we could socialize together and hang out. Which I think was a really good thing for the film. We got to gel socially, and that helped the movie for the energy on set.”
“We were very, very lucky,” says Johnson. “Everybody stayed safe. We had some positive cases, we had a few people get sick, but we never had any major shutdowns. And given the size of our production, I was thankful for that.”
And, as a director, he doesn’t take that for granted. “I’ve talked about this recently with some filmmaker friends,” he says. “When you’re making a movie, there’s a strange little bubble of unreality that forms around the production. It’s always very weird when, for instance, there’s a death in the family, either for you or someone in the cast or crew, because your reality, your fairy tale world, has been punctured, and you remember that the real world is happening outside. And for anyone who made a film during Covid, the constant presence of that felt very heavy, in terms of how essentially inconsequential the thing that you’re doing basically is — you’re making a dumb little movie, but you’re asking people to show up during a pandemic and put themselves at risk.”
Someone who definitely put themselves at risk is Janelle Monáe, but for very different reasons. Until now better known as an R&B/soul singer, Monáe plays the ice queen of the piece, Cassandra “Andi” Brand, Miles Bron’s former business partner whose unexpected presence sets the other guests’ tongues wagging, mostly because they know about the shabby way he has treated her. But as the story unfolds, so does Monáe: rather like the glass onion of the title, she reveals layer after layer.
“I’m so happy that we got Janelle,” Johnson says. “Really, what her performance is about is the scope of the performance. It’s not one specific scene. It’s not anything you can capture in an audition read, so, to a certain extent, we were going with our gut and rolling the dice. But the scope of what she accomplishes — and the fact that she’s able to do all that and emotionally ground it — is pretty amazing to me.”
Fortunately for Johnson, like many of the cast of Glass Onion, Monáe already had him in her sights. “I met Rian through his work,” she says. “He didn’t know me, but I knew him. I saw a film of his called Looper that just blew my mind — being a time-traveler myself, the idea of you having to go and kill your future self is just wild. I was like, ‘Rian is doing something super-innovative in the sci-fi genre and if I ever get an opportunity to work with him, I don’t care what it is, I’m saying yes.’” The chance came when the script for Glass Onion arrived. “I was a big fan of Knives Out,” she recalls, “and after I got finished reading the script, it was, ‘Hell, yes.’”
All she will say about her character is that “Andi’s a leader. A gatherer. Very wealthy.” And once the party gets started? “Let’s just say shit gets weird.”
As her fans know, Monáe herself is not short of fashion confidence, as witnessed by the insanely elaborate Fifth Element costume she recently wore to a Halloween party. But she’s full of praise for costume designer Jenny Eagan. “I have to give her the biggest round of applause,” she says. “I had one conversation with her about what I thought, then she told me what she thought. We went back and forth, and when I came to the first fitting, she had knocked it out the park. It really took just that one fitting.
“With every character, the clothing has to speak before the character speaks,” she explains, “and through Andi’s clothing you get a deeper understanding of who she is. She’s very stylish, there’s a lot of attention to detail. She’s a Type-A personality, so she’s totally on point in the fashion world.” But, surprisingly, for a seasoned performer, Monáe wanted to preserve some distance. “It was a beautiful thing to be able to watch the film and not see myself. I saw the essence of Andi. It wasn’t Janelle Monáe playing this person. I was like, ‘Wow, I really see this person’s spirit. I see what they want. I see what they’re trying to get. I empathize with them, and I’m going on this wild ride.’”
How did she keep it together? “That’s my job,” she says flatly. “I had to lock in, focus. I had to cut out all the noise. I had to fully submit. Being in Greece wasn’t a bad thing, but, just as I would on the singing side, I never stopped training, bouncing back and forth ideas. I’d say, ‘What about this? What about that?’ Luckily, I also had an amazing, collaborative director who just allowed me to play.”
There is a literal dimension to this quote, as cast members were actively encouraged to take part in various parlor games. “Rian made everybody comfortable,” she says. “He saw us as humans, he cared about us as people, not necessarily for what we could do for the film, and he would invite us to these murder-mystery games on the weekends where we would drink, listen to music, tell stories, and really just bond. All of that offscreen quality time helped with us to be able to trust each other on screen.”
What kind of games? Games, she says, like Werewolf and Assassin, where random cards assign killers and their victims. There’s a pause. “You’ve never played them?” she asks. “I do this at my house all the time with my family, for Christmas or Thanksgiving. We play games, we dress up, and we have a really good time.”
She remembers watching Murder She Wrote with her grandmother, and was as surprised as anyone else to see Jessica Fletcher pop up in the movie. This shout-out to Angela Lansbury — glimpsed playing an online Zoom game during lockdown with Blanc and The Last of Sheila co-writer Stephen Sondheim — is an apt one: when Murder She Wrote debuted in 1984, TV crime shows were a male-dominated affair. And though Glass Onion starts out as another case for the genius detective Benoit Blanc to crack, it’s actually Monáe’s character who sets him on the path to put right an egregious wrong. In that way, for an escapist comedy-thriller, there are some quite serious real-world points raised in Glass Onion, about morality, responsibility, and how badly people are inclined to treat others they don’t believe are their equals (also a big theme of Knives Out).
“Yeah,” says Monáe, who clearly isn’t inclined to read too much into that. “But I think Rian said it best: it’s about bad people on a beautiful island, and a brilliant detective.”
With Glass Onion, Rian Johnson is now just six films deep into his filmography, but it seems like much more. That might be because there doesn’t seem to be any hesitancy, any floundering: they are what they are. His debut, Brick, was a stylized attempt to transplant Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled noir novels to high school, while the 2008 follow-up, The Brothers Bloom, might best be described as a fever dream of a romcom made under the influence of Hunky Dory-era David Bowie. It wasn’t until Looper, though, that it felt as though a pattern was emerging. Here was a director testing the boundaries of well-worn genres but at the same time finding new ways to make them human, relatable, and not just slick, knowing carbon-copies. At which point — perhaps quite obviously, in retrospect — he was scooped up by the Star Wars universe.
We’ll return to that later, but Johnson is quite unusual among his peers in the sense that his resumé bucks the typical “one for them, one for me” trend. For instance, he still refutes any suggestion that his Star Wars experience sent him back into the indie world, gasping to find an outlet for his real ideas. “I’ve been very lucky to feel a sense of freedom with every movie that we’ve done,” he says. “And this was no different.”
What makes Glass Onion no different is Johnson’s continued fascination with the rules of storytelling and exploring the plethora of subgenres that exist within every genre. He describes The Brothers Bloom as “a conman movie”, while also accepting that’s “a weirdly limited genre in itself.” Looper, he notes, was similarly amorphous, being more of a nuanced time-travel movie than an out-and-out sci-fi. “But with a murder-mystery, it’s tighter. There’s a murder, there’s a group of suspects, the detective investigates the crime, and at the end of the movie he sits in the library and solves it. You couldn’t lay out those beats for a conman or a time-travel movie.”
Though critics often dwell on the quirkier aspects of his films, which the market has bent to accommodate in the last 17 years, they can’t deny the attention to logic that goes into them. “The thing that’s fun to me about working in any genre — and in this one specifically — is that it’s such a defined chess board. First of all, it’s a lot of fun to play with the form, but it also, for me, makes it way less daunting to come into it.”
Edward Norton has something to say about that, notably in the way that Johnson has blown the cobwebs off the murder-mystery genre. “Old-fashioned remakes of Agatha Christie can be fun, but they can get a little bit clinical,” he says. Instead, he points to Knives Out and its focus on Ana de Armas’s character Marta. “Rian always makes sure that, at some point, you know who you’re rooting for. He gives you just enough of an emotional investment to decide that there’s one character you can ethically relate to. There’s one person who, amidst all the nefarious undercurrents, is actually kind of righteous. And once you figure out who that is, you have someone to root for. There’s some heart in it, and that’s not always true with murder mysteries.”
The fact that everyone responsible for Glass Onion feels compelled to stress words like “fun” and “entertaining” to describe one of the most satisfying crowd-pleasers of the year says a lot about the strange times that followed the Covid pandemic of 2020. In those two years, as the studios cautiously yanked their big-budget releases, the Oscars came to resemble the Independent Spirit Awards, giving Best Picture to indie hits Nomadland and CODA, a trend that reflected how diffuse and personal the consumption of movies had become in the absence of tentpoles. And when it came to getting nervous audiences back into the picture palaces, it didn’t help that the blockbusters that did get released weren’t even that escapist: the bedrock of Marvel, Star Wars and DC movies alike is the fear of a cruel superpower that will happily destroy everything just because it can.
In this sense, Glass Onion is at the forefront of a wave of films that are trying to reboot film culture in a way that doesn’t just rely on the industry guilt-tripping audiences back into cinemas to see their expensive movies just because that’s the way the system used to work. As the trailers acknowledge, Johnson’s film is an invitation, and, like Miles Bron, he’s worked very hard to make it one that’s impossible to refuse.
Norton thinks the key is comedy. “A good hearty laugh is a nice medicine in anxious times,” he says. “Coming out of Covid, the pleasure of comedy within a group experience is something we’ve perhaps forgotten, and it’s nice to remember how that feels. And in this case, a lot of it has to do too with the fact that Rian is very adept at the pleasures of the Swiss-clock murder-mystery. He achieves that perfect soufflé of the extra-special laugh you get from the knowing recognition of the times you’re living in, but without going too heavy on the commentary. It’s entertainment, but it’s also taking the piss out of the right targets, and he balances those two things really beautifully.”
Indeed, although Johnson enjoys playing with the boundaries of genre cinema — “It’s like having a defined chess board,” he says — there is also the fact that he’s trying to channel his own memories of cinema, like the time his father said, “Get in the car, I’m going to show you something that will blow your mind.” They went to see the original Star Wars, and his epiphany there explains not only why he jumped to make a Star Wars movie when he was offered the chance, but also why The Last Jedi stands out as the most energetic entry in the closing trilogy of the saga.
“The kinds of films I’m drawn to making are things that I have a personal connection to,” he says, “either from seeing them as a kid, or having been deeply affected by them growing up, or having some kind of rooted memory of watching them with my family. In other words, I know, on a very intimate level, what the essential pleasures of those films are. And part of what I’m trying to do — always — is to tap back into that.”
It’s worth noting here that Johnson, 48, grew up in the age of VHS: for the first time, a whole generation didn’t have to wait for a film like Star Wars to return to cinemas or, worse, turn up on TV. “When I was a kid, though, you had to get on the waiting list because the local store would only have five copies of it,” he laughs. “You’d get the tape, you’d watch it solidly, over and over, for 24 hours, and then you’d have to give it back. And because of that, the VHS tape was already wearing thin by the time you got it.”
In that way, he gets, and respects, the whole concept of fan ownership. “Maybe it has something to do with having the toys, too,” he says. “Feeling like they’re yours to play with, that this world is yours. That’s something that’s been baked into Star Wars fandom, and not in a bad way, not in a toxic way. That kind of ownership is also why it means so much to people, and it explained why, when people would visit the set, inevitably they would start crying when they walked onto the Millennium Falcon.”
His cast all have stories about the movies that impacted their lives. For one, Monáe vividly remembers seeing Robert Townsend’s The Meteor Man for a dollar back in Kansas City, then a few years later being blown away by The Matrix. And Daniel Craig laughs as he remembers watching Grease with his sister while 300 screaming kids threw candy at the screen. “I grew up in a golden age,” he smiles.
But then, he’s also just signed off on another one, having finally let go of 007 in a swansong that sat in Covid limbo for 18 months, making the gap between No Time To Die and Glass Onion seem deceptively short. How does he feel about retiring the Walther PPK? “Listen,” he says, “I look back at it with a lot of emotion — a lot of emotion — and real joy and pleasure. But it’s very hard to sum up. It’s impossible, both because it was a huge part of my life for so long, and because I’ll never really be able to figure out all the experiences that I had on those films. I mean, I crammed at least three working lifetimes into 17 years. And that’s not just sum-up-able.” He pauses. “Is that a word?”
But as to what’s coming next, no one really knows. “The industry is changing so drastically, especially now,” Johnson says. “It really is a bit like an avalanche that we’re all running on top of, waiting to see where it settles.”
Now, the elephant in the room when discussing Glass Onion is the record-breaking deal signed with Netflix. Deadline’s Mike Fleming broke the news of the eye-watering figure — reputedly north of $400 million — in the spring of 2021, calling it “one of the biggest streamer movie deals in history.” Producer Ram Bergman, however, is quick to play it down. “Listen,” he says, “we didn’t really want it to be a big deal. We didn’t want it to be in the news. We’re very low-key. But somehow, perhaps not surprisingly, it blew up. We’re not interested in that. All we’re interested in is having the best infrastructure and the best way to make a movie. And at the time, during Covid, it seemed like Netflix was clearly the best partnership. They offered the best deal and were willing to commit to more than one movie. So, we got very excited about that.”
If Glass Onion had tanked at its world premiere in Toronto this fall, Netflix would have had a lot of questions to answer, especially after the mixed critical reception that awaited the rest of the company’s 2022 arthouse slate: Noah Baumbach’s White Noise, Andrew Dominik’s Blonde and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths. But after a standing ovation — Bergman’s insistence that the film should screen in the same cinema, on the same day (Saturday) and in the same time slot as Knives Out clearly paid off — industry talk was not about the money spent on it but whether the third installment would maintain the franchise’s high quality.
It was a juicy prospect for the exhibition industry, too. As a result, the film will have a limited Thanksgiving release in cinemas, as much to satisfy audience demand as qualify for the Oscars. That, says Bergman, was “very, very important. We know that the first movie worked really big. Watching it in a movie theater with 400 or a thousand people is absolutely an experience, so we got Netflix to agree to really make an event out of it.”
And if it’s successful? “Hopefully it will get people to spread the word and more people can watch it on the platform,” he muses. “But also, hopefully it can help mediate between the chains and the streamers, because, until Glass Onion, Netflix movies only played on Cinemark here in the U.S. They never really played in AMC, they never really played in Regal, they never played in the cineplexes. So, this is kind of the first movie where there is the bridge between them. I can’t take all the credit for it, but we clearly wanted this and pushed for it. But I think Netflix wanted it too, and the chains wanted it, too.” The chains will also presumably want a piece of Knives Out 3. “Oh yeah, we’re thinking about it,” says Bergman, “but we need this movie to come out first, then I need Rian to clear his head, take a break, and then go and start. I mean, he’s been thinking about it.”
Johnson confirms that he has, indeed, been thinking about it. “It’s interesting. We structured the [Netflix deal] so that if I wanted to do something else next, I could. And I think everybody assumed I’d have a couple other random ideas — unrelated projects — that I’ve been kicking around. But, honestly, over the past couple of months, the most exciting creative thing to me right now is that third movie. And so, I think I’m going to hop right into it. Not because of a contractual obligation, but, genuinely, that’s the shiny object I find my nose pointed toward right now. [It’s] the idea of figuring out how it can be completely different from this one as well as the first one.”
Surprisingly, that process has already started. “I’ve got a Moleskine notebook that I carry everywhere and I’m constantly jotting stuff down in it,” he says. “The first 80 percent of the process, for me, is scribbling in notebooks and structuring it all out. I’m trying to get ahead. Even when I’m doing all the publicity for this film, I’m trying to start building up a structure, an idea, so that after New Year, when it’s time to actually get to work, I’m hopefully not just staring at that horrible blank page. But you always are, I guess.”
Johnson’s job is made even harder by the fact that there isn’t really a road map towards where he wants to go. “It’s tough,” he says, “because it’s not an expansive genre. It’s not like there are thousands of classics, like film noir, where it feels like there’s unlimited amount of stuff to draw from. There’s been plenty of different Agatha Christie adaptations over the years, and those are always fun to dig into. But in terms of actual innovative stuff in the genre, you do find yourself coming back to the same titles. It’s funny, because every time we release a Knives Out movie, I’m asked, ‘What are the five whodunnits that you would recommend to people?’ And it’s going to be very frustrating by the third movie to be naming the same five over and over again. That’s why I’m trying to dig deeper into the genre and see if there’s any hidden gems I’m missing.”
Craig is fully aware of this but has every confidence that Johnson will get the inspiration he needs to nail down the third. “Rian seems to me to be very excited about getting on with the next one,” he says. “He’s already got some ideas, and they sound to me to be really interesting, so I’m going to let him just get on with that.”
And what about after that? “Down the line, yes, of course. I mean, if people are interested, then we’ll make them. But if there ever came a point where either Rian and I thought we were just churning them out, I think we would back away. I mean, I just don’t think that’s what either of us want to do in life. Unless people are getting genuine fun out of them, forget it.”
Johnson agrees about the dangers of complacency. “Just in terms of my own personal feeling when I step onto a set, I’ve become much more confident over the years. But that comes with its own set of dangers — you’ll settle into a routine — and I’m especially conscious of that now that I’m making a series. Daniel and I have talked a lot about that, how the instant we feel like we’re turning the crank on another one of these, we have to stop. So, it’s very important with each one now, and the third one especially, that it feels kind of scary and dangerous. You have to shake the box.”
The Unusual Suspects
Director Rian Johnson on the guests at Glass Onion’s murder-mystery party.
Cassandra “Andi” Brand
“Andi is Miles Bron’s former business partner, a tech entrepreneur. Janelle I’ve loved as a performer with her music and I’ve always loved her on screen. This movie definitely asks a lot of her, and she has to play in a lot of different modes.”
Leslie Odom Jr.
“Lionel is Miles’s chief scientist. He’s sort of the grownup of the group, and Leslie brings a grounded strength to the part. Your eyes automatically go to him as kind of an anchoring presence with all these crazies around him, and Leslie tapped into that.”
“Duke is a YouTube influencer who’s kind of doing an alpha male scam. Dave was interesting to me because, physically, he’s the stereotypical version of that character, but he actually has a real sensitivity to him that undercuts that. It was an intriguing combination to me. It would not have been interesting to just cast somebody who was just a big hulking presence in that part — what’s interesting to me is the humanity.”
“Whiskey is Duke’s girlfriend. Maddy has incredible comic instincts, and she’d always come up with shit. If you keep your eyes on her in the background of any shot, inevitably, she’s doing something insane. It’s like watching a whole different movie.”
“Claire is a politician. You know, when people sign up for a film like this, I think they often expect that they’re going to have a fabulous wardrobe. But my directive for Kathryn’s character was just: beige. I wanted her to be just sad-trumpet beige. So, Kathryn would show up to the dressing room, and there’d be all the colorful pops of Benoit’s rack and Birdie’s rack. Then she’d see Claire’s rack… Just tan sadness!”
“Birdie is a former model who has her own sportswear line. I actually didn’t know that Kate’s nickname growing up was Birdie. She’s a great comic actor, and it was fun to give her a role where she could have an open field to run with those instincts. On set, Kate also had the best description of her performance. She said, ‘The way I play it, Birdie understands every third word,’ which I thought was terrific.”
“Peg is Birdie’s assistant. Jess is hilarious — she’s kind of a brilliant straight man.”