Whodunits are so synonymous with Agatha Christie that it takes a brave writer or filmmaker to attempt to gatecrash her one-woman crime spree. But Rian Johnson does just that with Knives Out, his follow-up to Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Attempting to modernise and tweak yet another most beloved of movie genres, Johnson has assembled a dream cast including Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Lakeith Stanfield, Toni Collette, Christopher Plummer, Blade Runner 2049’s Ana de Armas and Miami Vice veteran Don Johnson. The film features all the black humour, misdirection, sleight of hand and big acting we have come to expect from the classic murder-mystery oeuvre.
The Big Issue: When did your love of whodunits begin?
Rian Johnson: It started when I was very young. I would devour any book by Agatha Christie. I remember finding one on the bookshelf at home and it just looked like the most grown-up, adult thing I had ever seen. I was not even 10 yet. I read any of them I could get my hands on. She was the master. I loved the Poirot films with Peter Ustinov. I could watch them over and over again. And I do. Whenever I get the chance. But I also liked the recent Murder on the Orient Express with Kenneth Branagh. And Then There Were None is my favourite Christie novel. But I also love Curtain, the last ever Poirot book, which has a really different tone and is barely a whodunit. Agatha Christie really was the best. I still read her books whenever I can get my hands on them.
How important is it to have an all-star cast in a murder mystery?
I had the idea for Knives Out 10 years ago. But back then I couldn’t have dreamed in a million years that we would get a cast like this. Daniel Craig was the first actor on board, and everyone wants to work with him. Then Michael Shannon joined up and everyone wants to work with him. Don Johnson is having a bit of a renaissance, not that he ever went away, Jamie Lee Curtis is spectacularly good. I think everyone had a good time – you can go quite big with your acting on a whodunit. And it is such a big ensemble cast.
I’ve never seen Daniel Craig in a role quite like this – how did that come about?
No one has ever seen Daniel Craig like this! We spent a lot of time on the accent, which is from the Deep South. We worked very hard at that. He would send me tapes. And then it was vital to get the tone right. He realised he could go quite big with this. But it takes an actor of great ability to be able to do that while keeping it believable.
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How did you control the tone of the film when you have so many actors in such a heightened style?
We had real joy filming it together. It was hard enough to find time in everyone’s schedules to make the film, so we had absolutely no rehearsal time. On the first day we went straight into it. We tried the scenes with various levels to get the tone right. And everyone found their way. It was such a joy. You could see the actors were revelling in each other’s performances every bit as much as they were enjoying their own.
How have you updated or tweaked the genre?
Alfred Hitchcock famously said that whodunits were all build up for this one good moment, the big reveal. He hated them. So I was thinking about how to get more of these moments of revelation into my story. So we have more twists and turns, more reveals through the film. Because you don’t want to upset the Hitch!
There seems to be a real timeless, enduring appeal to this type of film. Why do you think successive generations love murder-mysteries?
There is something satisfying about finding out the truth. And I think there is a moral certainty to whodunits. There is a crime, you meet all the suspects and eventually you find out exactly what happened and who did it. So there is a resolution. They were very popular in the 1920s and 1930s, when the world was in a murky place in terms of morals. So perhaps this is exactly the right political moment to revisit the whodunit.
And the characters talk politics…
Yes, well I wanted to bring it right up to date. Our characters are very much people of the times we are living in. The alt-right troll is just one of them. And they have political conversations and disagreements just like any family at the moment.
Was this a nice change of pace for you after all the special effects and action sequences of Star Wars?
It was really nice to get back to lots of dialogue. In Star Wars you want the least dialogue you can get away with – here it was big, long monologues and very long scenes, all within four walls. I loved it.
Knives Out is in cinemas now