Rian Johnson breaks the rules with his modern whodunit

January 31, 2020 Danny Munso

For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this excerpt from our longer interview with Knives Out writer/director Rian Johnson from Issue 41 – our Oscar issue – of Backstory.


If you enjoy what you’ve read – we hope you’ll join us to read the rest of the article by buying Issue 41 as a single issue or subscribing to Backstory Magazine!

Oscar Lessons: Knives Out
Rian Johnson on why he both followed and broke the rules in order to write his modern whodunit.
By Danny Munso

Rian Johnson isn’t one for resting. In January 2018, rather than bask in the glow of writing and directing Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which opened one month earlier, he got to work on a script idea that was over a decade in the making. Inspired by the works of Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock, Johnson sought to pen a hybrid of the two masters. Knives Out is a whodunit-turned thriller-turned-whodunit again that follows a kind nurse named Marta (Ana de Armas) as she aids master detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) in solving the murder of her employer, mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). The suspects? Harlan’s entire family, who also happen to be played by a who’s who of actors—Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson and Michael Shannon, to name just a few. The film was not only a hit at the box office, it earned Johnson his first Oscar nod for Best Original Screenplay. Johnson enjoyed the process so much he is planning more murder mysteries with Blanc as the protagonist. In the meantime, he spoke with Backstory about the writing intricacies behind his nominated work.

Backstory: What is your favorite scene in the film?
Rian Johnson: It’s more of a sequence than a scene, but it would be the big denouement at the end, where Blanc lays out the entire case in the library. For me, a big part of the reason I wanted to do a whodunit in the first place was to write a scene like that. As a fan of whodunits, it’s one of my favorite types of scenes, and it’s also something where I think movies have an advantage over novels in terms of conveying all the information with flashbacks and revelations and different perspectives. That’s something suited to cinematic language. So that whole last library sequence was a lot of fun.

That scene has a tricky element from a writing perspective because Marta is really the protagonist of the story. Yet here, she’s sidelined a bit while Blanc tells us what happened. Was that an issue for you while writing the script?
It’s something I struggled with for a while. On one hand it was essential, and I didn’t want to manufacture something where Marta was solving the case along with him or something like that. That wouldn’t have felt right. On the other hand, you’re right. There’s the basic problem that our protagonist sits there listening for 20 minutes while Blanc explains the case to her. My solution for it is the reason I planted the thing about Marta vomiting when she lies earlier in the film. I knew at the end of this whole library sequence, I needed Marta to do something active to beat [the film’s villain] Ransom. I needed it to be a strong enough thing where it would feel like she really triumphed over him in the end. And when I realized I could use this vomit thing I planted earlier in the story, that could give us this really funny and really satisfying moment. It was one of those really nice writing moments where you could feel the Lego blocks clicking together.

So the idea that she vomits every time she lies was already in the script before you had the idea to include it at the end?
Yeah, it was something I worked in initially just to give Marta another difficulty. She’s a character we care about, and her only way out of this situation is lying—so let’s take away her ability to lie. It seemed like something we could have fun with, but also it’s something she can’t hide, at least not easily. She manages to a little bit later in the story, but it’s a big inconvenient thing for her. Fairly quickly after weaving it in, I realized how I could use it in the end. It’s one of those things where you make a little exclamation mark in your notebook when something lines up like that.

What was the toughest part to write in the script?
It’s the opening questioning sequence, for several reasons. Not just because of the intricacy of it but also because of its place at the beginning of the film and the danger of it being dramatically inert. Usually, the way whodunits open in novels is you have a couple of chapters where the person who is going to get killed is easily identified and you get to know each one of the suspects through their motivations for wanting that person dead. So you have the tension of a murder coming up. Here, because I had to fit it into a two-hour movie, I start with the reveal of the murder in the first minute and then we’re meeting the people through questioning them, as opposed to through the more dramatic version of getting to know them through their hatred of another person they want to die. Essentially, it was a sequence where I just kept trimming it down and making it more economic, and every time I showed the script to anyone, I would get the note that the beginning was a slog and it was too long. I never hit the point where I didn’t get that note. At a certain point, you never want to give yourself this out, but I decided it was tougher to read on the page than it appears onscreen.

I think that’s a good thing for a writer to admit, because as much as you want everything to work perfectly on the page, sometimes it’s easier for an audience to keep track of characters when they can see the actors, particularly if they’re actors they know.
It’s tough because I was aware of the narrative pitfalls of that opening, but you have to take those things into account. Also, when you’re dealing with a structure that has a lot of flashbacks, just for a reader to have to absorb all of that and get their bearings and remember who all the characters are, it’s just much easier when you’re seeing it played out on the screen.

If you enjoy what you’ve read – we hope you’ll join us to read the rest of the article by buying Issue 41 as a single issue or subscribing to Backstory Magazine!

For more info about all the other amazing articles in issue 41, view our Table of Contents.