Rian Johnson interview: ‘Glass Onion’ writer-director
Rian Johnson was up bright and early Tuesday morning when Oscar nominations were announced — but he wasn’t watching them. “I woke up to exercise in the morning. I get to say that because it’s true. It makes me sound like a healthy person, which I’m generally not,” he tells Gold Derby (watch the exclusive video interview above). “And I got a bunch of really nice texts from friends, like, ‘Oh, my God!'”
Johnson earned a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” three years after scoring a Best Original Screenplay bid for “Knives Out.” The franchise is one of four to have received screenplay nominations for the first film and the sequel after “The Thin Man,” “The Godfather” and “Borat.” “I feel like when I was growing up watching the Oscars, when people thanked the academy, I pictured some monolithic, like, chamber of people in hoods or something,” Johnson says. “And when you get in and you realize it’s your peers and it’s the people that — other writers, specifically, in this case — you’re friends with or whose work you admire, some of your heroes are in there. The fact that you kind of get a pat on the back — a ‘you did good with this one’ from them — is pretty cool.”
After the success of “Knives Out,” anticipation was high for the next chapter in the Benoit Blanc Cinematic Universe. While it was fair for fans to expect a similar type of murder mystery as the original, Johnson wanted to subvert expectations and make the sequel different from the first. “That goes back to Agatha Christie for me. That’s what she did with her books. I think people who kind of have a general knowledge of Christie think she did the same thing over and over. The reality for anyone who knows her work is it was the opposite. So I’m just trying to emulate that, and that means it’s a different creative challenge every time,” he shares. “It’s going to feel a little bit like, ‘Oh, wow’ — especially if the last one connected with audiences and it worked — what the hell are we doing breaking it and doing something different? But, to me, that’s the only thing that’s really worth doing and thankfully Daniel [Craig]’s on the same page.
Set in the early months of the pandemic, “Glass Onion” sees tech billionaire/malaprop offender Miles Bron (Edward Norton) inviting his pals to his titular estate on a private Greek island for a murder mystery weekend. His estranged former business partner Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe) shows up, as does the world’s greatest detective, Benoit Blanc (Craig). And after a real murder occurs, Johnson unveils his latest trick: a double narrative. The film rewinds halfway through and, in keeping with the Glass Onion metaphor, reveals that all the clues were hiding in plain sight the entire time. For the writer-director, it was never a matter of bargaining with how much or how little to put in viewers’ faces, or how much or how little he wanted people to pick up on.
SEE How ‘Glass Onion’ production designer Rick Heinrichs found inspiration in an actual onion
“I felt like the way to do it is just to be really, really fair and just put it all in there, but at the same time, not put emphasis on it,” he explains. “Even if you clock that or other little things, the idea that they’d jump ahead… that’s unlikely. I felt pretty sure the audience wasn’t going to be ahead of that midpoint reveal. And so anything that the audience clocks and stores in their brain for later is fantastic in my mind. Because that means it’s going to hit that pleasure center in the end when he reveals it. For me, I watch a movie like that, I catch a movie like that, it makes me feel like a genius. It makes me feel great. If I can make the audience feel like a genius, that’s great. … That’s what I came back to: The idea that I’m really committing to the Glass Onion metaphor of you can see right through the middle of it the whole time, and the only way you’d be wrong about this is if you fool yourself and kind of double bluff yourself out of seeing the obvious. It’s kind of just like, OK, well, we’re going to commit to that then.”
Johnson’s murder mystery ethos is “to have the audience have so much fun that they forget they’re supposed to be solving something.” “To me, a good mystery never hinges on the notion that the entertainment value is going to be in solving it,” he continues. “It’s always entertaining in and of itself and it’s fun that it all comes together in a way you didn’t expect.”
And now, after launching “Glass Onion” and “Poker Face,” his new murder mystery series that premiered on Peacock on Thursday, Johnson is ready to start work on the third film. “It feels really, really good now to take a breath and kind of be alone in rooms with my notebook just starting to kind of think,” he shares. “But what I can say is what’s exciting to me is the notion of doing something completely different than ‘Glass Onion’ and completely different than ‘Knives Out,’ and going someplace we haven’t gone before.”
In the meantime, he’s looking forward to a “Knives Out” reunion at the Oscars with his fellow nominees Jamie Lee Curtis and Ana de Armas. And perhaps they can present together and have a bloody good time. “Someone will end up dead on stage,” he jokes. “Stephanie Hsu is gonna kill Jamie. That’s the entry. There we go.”