We learned lots of cool facts listening to Rian Johnson...but the most interesting part was...
SPOILER ALERT: Do not read further if you have yet to see Knives Out. We are going to unpack the script and there will be spoilers.
I know we get a lot of flak or posting about Rian Johnson, but he's undeniably one of the best filmmakers working right now... and also one of the most open. His time, effort, and patience in explaining things really go a long way.
If you don't immediately work in Hollywood, he helps make the town feel accessible.
That's why I love watching his scene breakdowns, like the one he did recently for Vanity Fair. We'll get into the real filmmaking lessons in a second, but I think one of the coolest snippets we learned was this gem he dropped. He said in the video, “I don’t know if I should say this or not...Not because it’s lascivious or something, but because it’s gonna screw me on the next mystery movie that I write. But forget it, I’ll say it, it’s very interesting. Apple, they let you use iPhones in movies, but, and this is very pivotal, if you’re ever watching a mystery movie, bad guys cannot have iPhones on camera. Every single filmmaker who has a bad guy in their movie that’s supposed to be a secret wants to murder me right now.”
So funny and so interesting.
Guess you have the ammo to shame Android users now. They are not to be trusted, at least in the cinematic world.
Okay, let's get back to it. Check out the video below and let's talk about some real, deeper lessons after the jump.
1. Ensembles Are Fun to Write (and Direct and Cast)
One of the biggest challenges for directing any ensemble is handling everyone when the cameras are not rolling. Johnson had never worked with any of these actors before, so it was all new to him.
Instead of micromanaging the set, he let the actors set the tone.
It became sort of like summer camp, with everyone having fun and trying to one-up one another with their performances. Michael Shannon would go off-script at times, but basically everyone tried to hit their marks and work as a unit.
It's important to remember that directing is not only about making movies but about handling people too.
So cast generous actors and actresses that seem like good people. It'll make set life better.
2. The Secret is in Triangular Framing
When you're using storyboards you can plan every shot intricately, but one thing Johnson does to set this stuff up is use triangular framing. By placing characters in a bit of a triangle he creates more depth of field and fills the frame with performances.
It creates excellent reachability and allows people to always be in character.
3. Pay Attention to Depth of Field
It's not just about triangles! Framing matters in every shot, and the way to create big spaces with lots to look at is to pay attention to the depth of field. While Johnson switches back and forth with telephoto lenses and wide lenses, he always considers what happens in each frame.
The one below is a favorite, capturing three of the leads AND a portrait of the deceased.
Framing and deep depth of field keep the audience paying attention, especially in a mystery movie. How can you reveal details or just establish the tone? How can you reveal what's going on with multiple characters all at once?
The answer is getting them on the screen as fast as possible.
4. Run Multiple Cameras (If You Can)
Here is a luxury not everyone can afford, but if you can, do it. Running multiple cameras not only cuts down on time but also adds angles that can match eyeline perfectly. There are so many great reasons to run multiple cameras. You can have one always moving and have one to cut back to. You can get different performances at the same time. You can always have something safe for cutaways.
So if you have the time and budget, shoot with multiple cameras!
5. R vs. PG-13: Ratings Matter
Knives Out used to contain a ton of "F-bombs" but the deeper Rian Johnson got into shooting, the more he thought about what drew him into this project. He wanted to make something like the movies he used to enjoy...with his family.
So right before shooting, he went through and removed every single one...except for his two favorites.
What tone is set for your story?
While R-rated movies do okay at the box office, a PG-13 will almost always outearn it. Especially in genre films. Opening your story up to a wider audience can help it gather distribution, and cross the 100 million dollar mark.
So, maybe don't fuck off.
What's next? Read and download the Knives Out screenplay!
Want to learn more about murder mystery screenplays and how Rian Johnson writes? Read and download Knives Out.
Beware of spoilers...