One of the undisputed hits of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival was writer-director Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.
Full of surprise cameos, with a story where who gets killed is as much a part of the mystery and excitement as the crime, the film is the sequel to Johnson’s 2019 Knives Out, which has grossed more than $300 million worldwide and earned him an Original Screenplay Oscar nomination. Don’t worry: the film’s revelations are kept safe here. What “Glass Onion” can say for sure is that it’s about a tech billionaire who invites a group of old friends and co-workers over to his private island for a weekend murder mystery party, and his plans are quickly going off course.
The cast includes Daniel Craig, who returns as detective Benoit Blanc, as well as newcomers Edward Norton, Kate Hudson, Leslie Odom Jr., Kathryn Hahn, Dave Bautista, Jessica Henwick, Madelyn Cline and Janelle Monáe. Shot at a luxury resort in Greece while sound stage work was performed in Belgrade, Serbia, the film’s exquisite attention to detail stems from longtime Johnson collaborators including cinematographer Steve Yedlin, editor Bob Ducsay, composer (and cousin) Nathan Johnson, ” Star Wars: The Last Jedi Production Designer Rick Heinrichs and Knives Out Costume Designer Jenny Eagan.
As much as the film draws on crime fiction, it also draws on a source of other cinematic references, such as Guy Hamilton’s 1982 Evil Under the Sun, starring Peter Ustinov as Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot, and Herbert Ross’ The Last of Sheila. This film’s co-writer Stephen Sondheim has a brief cameo in Glass Onion, which was filmed before his death in November 2021.)
“‘Last of Sheila’ is the cooler reference,” Johnson said, “but the reality is there’s probably a lot more of ‘Evil Under the Sun’ in this movie.”
The film will stream on Netflix on December 23, with a theatrical release date to be announced. (More on that below.) The filmmaker sat down for a chat with most of the cast in attendance the morning after the film’s raucous world premiere Saturday night.
“The cast hadn’t seen the movie, and when they first experienced it with such a crowd, I felt good that they felt really good,” Johnson said.
You obviously have some experience writing a sequel to Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Did you do the same?
Ryan Johnson: No, it’s a very different animal for a number of reasons. First of all, Last Jedi was actually a proper sequel, continuing the events of a movie I didn’t write. So first of all it’s not even really a sequel, it’s kind of another book, basically another crime thriller with the same detective. If anything, the opening was even a bit scarier than the Star Wars movie because the first one when we were shooting it was in such a vacuum and we had no idea if people would be into something like that. Really, it was just something I really loved, a genre I loved, and I was like, “Let’s try it.”
And then the fact that people liked it and that it was popular – when you release something that happens anyway, but especially I think in this case – it becomes something outside of you and you kind of forget how to is made it. And so it was scary. I’ve never experienced so much nervousness as when I actually sit down to write something. I also spent 10 years planning Knives Out while starting from scratch here.
The fact that this film is so specifically set in 2020, in the early days of the pandemic, really underscores that both films are set in our modern day. This isn’t a quaint retro thing. Why is this important to you?
Johnson: I think that’s the case with a lot of genre stuff, and in a way it was the same thing that got me hooked on my first film, Brick, reading Dashiell Hammett and feeling like that prose got my stomach being kicked and feeling that the idea of film noir has somehow been gilded over time, apart from that very immediate gut-punch reaction you only get from those raw words. And wanting to do something that didn’t reinvent it, but returned it to its vitality by shaking off the nostalgia that came with it.
The way to do that with the criminal investigation department is to just put them in modern America and deal very brazenly with what’s going on in America right now. Not that these are incredibly nuanced news movies or commentaries at all. They’re big, popular conversations, but part of it doesn’t shy away from, “Yes, this is set right here and now, and we’re going to talk about things that we’re talking about.” That’s what Agatha Christie did back then. She wrote no historical plays.
You seem to take particular pleasure in writing the character of Benoit Blanc. Why do you enjoy writing for this character so much?
Johnson: When I wrote the first one, I didn’t know who would play it. Oddly enough, I really didn’t know what the character was going to be like. I started writing and I think I had it in my head, “Let’s create a new, iconic Poirot.” And I produced all these quirks and it got awful. And so I finally cleaned it all up and said I’m just going to put this guy in the script for his purposes and give him a southern accent and we’re going to put a great actor in there and then it’s going to kind of define itself the way we do it make.
I overheard Daniel talking about almost having to relearn the accent because he didn’t want to make a caricature of it. So he basically started from scratch and I had to do the same with Blanc. I didn’t want to write an imitation of what Blanc is in my mind after watching the first film so many times. … And this film is a lot more from his point of view than the previous film, which was also fun.
One thing I appreciate and admire about your work is your willingness to be silly. You take what you do seriously, but you can still be playful and have fun with it. Where does it come from?
Johnson: I am a deeply stupid person. All of my favorite filmmakers have a touch of silliness that runs through their stuff. Even filmmakers who sometimes do incredibly serious work, the Coen brothers or Kubrick, anyone whose work is worth a damn isn’t afraid of silliness. But especially in this genre, for Poirot, based on my touchstones, the element of silliness is crucial to what defines this character. And by the way, also as a narrative device. Stupid is a way to disarm yourself. For Blanc to disarm the other characters but also to disarm the audience. When you place a thousand things and try to anchor them in the audience’s mind, not knowing that it’s something that will be important later so that it doesn’t stand out – if you can do that with a joke, [it] I feel like the reason I am telling this information is that there is a punch line at the end. The reality is that it will pay off at the end of the film. This is incredibly helpful, just from a technical point of view.
Her deal with Netflix was reported for two films, and after the premiere, her producer Ram Bergman confirmed there would be a second film. Are you already working on it? are you writing already
Johnson: I’m not writing yet, but the gears are starting to turn. Lets see what happens. I had initially thought, “Boy I should probably do something else before I do the third of these,” but I’ll tell you the truth, I’m just as creative of the prospect of the third as it can be. And also the idea of doing a third that really defines what this series can be in terms of how the third could be as different from this one as this is from Knives Out. That can really prove that this is something that can go on for a while and not be stale.
Will you and “The White Lotus” compete for luxury resorts around the world?
Johnson: I enjoy that, there’s no reason why the next one couldn’t suck itself back in and be a chamber piece again. That’s what Agatha Christie did. She would grow up, she would grow up small. It wasn’t about the size. It wasn’t about the scope or the attitude. It was about finding a fun, unique narrative gambit every time, and finding something new to talk about with each new story.
You said at the premiere that you see these very much as films and that part of the fun of a film for you is seeing it in front of a large audience. Does that contradict Netflix’s strategy?
Johnson: I can’t speak to Netflix’s strategy, but it’s not at odds with what I want with the release. I want as many people as possible to see this with a crowd. I’m also very aware that more people have probably discovered it [“Knives Out”] at home with her family when they first saw it in the theater. … We’re working on it. We’ll think of something. But my goal is if you want to see it in the theater, you can see it in the theater.
Has your perspective on windowing and what a theatrical release can look like changed at all since you struck the deal with the company and have been working with them? Did you learn something from them?
Johnson: I have the feeling that everyone is just running towards the avalanche at the moment. Nobody knows s—. There is a lot of information that everyone now has about what works and what doesn’t. And at the end of the day I think what works is a good movie that people want to see. I’m either pessimistic or optimistic depending on how you define it, just feeling like the industry has been in a state of collapse since its inception. … It just feels like it’s a constant state. It’s constantly reinventing itself and finding itself. I believe that the theater experience doesn’t go anywhere, it comes back. And I think it’s an essential part of what makes films, films.
I spoke to you ahead of the premiere of Knives Out here in Toronto and asked you at the time if the film would premiere at the festival and open in November. It was planned like an Oscar movie and you laughed and dismissed the idea.
Johnson: get ready for me to laugh again History repeats itself.
Then you were nominated for an Oscar and now this film has some expectations – even some of the press from the premiere had to do with its chances of winning. Do you feel any pressure in this regard? Are your feelings different this time because of what happened with the previous film?
Johnson: No, zero percent. It was an incredibly amazing, amazing honor and surprise to receive this nomination last time. But that’s not the price we have in mind with these films. We make these films as popular entertainment. The only thing we aim for when we do these things is to give the audience a good time. I don’t see these as award films.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-09-14/netflix-glass-onion-knives-out-rian-johnson-star-wars-last-jedi-theatrical Why ‘Glass Onion’ scared Rian Johnson more than ‘Last Jedi’