Rian Johnson Reveals His Writing Process Behind 'Knives Out'
Knives Out is an original film that overperformed at the box office Thanksgiving weekend, thanks to its inspired and clever script. Here's how writer-director Rian Johnson came up with the idea for the screenplay.
If you're like me, you spent your Thanksgiving holiday stuffing your belly with pie and your eyeballs with Knives Out.
The film was exciting and electric. Every character popped off the screen and there were so many tropes and twists that it felt like we were in the hands of a master. Without going into spoilers, I'm mildly obsessed with the ideas inside this screenplay.
That's why I was so excited to see that Rian Johnson sat down with Entertainment Weekly to answer some of the burning questions fans have about the story.
How Rian Johnson Wrote 'Knives Out'
Writing a murder mystery can be fun, but there are so many things to juggle that they can really screw with your head. Still, nothing is more fun than having the beginning seeds of a mystery story. It's exciting to spread out the zigs and zags, to brainstorm throwing people off.
So how did Johnson get started?
EW: So what did that initial seed look like to you? Why did the genre interest you?
RJ: Well I had wanted to do a whodunit forever. I grew up reading Agatha Christie’s books; it’s a genre that I deeply, deeply love. It’s been a comfort food for me. I always wanted to do a straight-up whodunit. The first idea was a very conceptual one: As I thought about doing a whodunit, I thought about Hitchcock and his opinion of whodunits. He always said they rely entirely on surprise — one big surprise at the end — and that’s the weakness of them narratively. Especially when you put them up on-screen; with a book, you can put the book down, you can come back to it, you can re-engage. A movie has to be a rollercoaster ride. Clue-gathering leading up to a guess that you might be right or wrong about the end is not that thrilling — even though I love the genre. The notion of doing a whodunit that begins as a traditional whodunit and orients the audience very clearly, and then turns into a Hitchcock thriller where there’s a character you care about — you’re leaning forward as opposed to leaning back. Then turns back into a whodunit at the end and reveals it’s been a whodunit the whole time; the thriller element was a whole bit of misdirection. I got very excited about the idea of making a movie that was narratively engaging but also let me have my cake and eat it too in terms of all the whodunit tropes that I love and that I could still get in there.
Something we discuss often on the site is how writers and filmmakers must embrace the tropes of the genre they are working in and know them before subverting them.
After seeing the film, you can tell Johnson is a student of the "whodunit" genre. He is a self-professed rabid fan of it. He knew what people expected, what people wanted, and how to bridge the gap between both.
I can imagine breaking down a mystery and pulling out the parts you want can be daunting. Especially with an audience trying to crack the case the whole time!
EW: So how important was it to you that people not figure it out? I’ve talked to people who — in a good way! — were like, “Oh, I figured it out,” and other people who were totally surprised by the end. Obviously you’re finding that balance between the twist not coming out of thin air, and keeping viewers on their toes. Where did you fall there?
RJ: It’s more fun if there’s an element of surprise at the end, but honestly, I purposefully tried to have the movie not [rely] on that. I hoped the movie was as entertaining whether you guessed it or not. That’s my ultimate hope. The game it’s playing, hopefully, there is some element of surprise at the end. But the bigger goal, for me, was to build it so as a dramatic ending it works. Even the payoff at the end: The really satisfying payoff at the end is not the reveal of whodunit; it comes after that. It’s the dramatic payoff to this protagonist we’ve been following and her relationship to this family. That was done very purposefully on my part, to shore up and protect against the possibility that some people are going to figure it out because they’re smarter than me. [Laughs] Or just because of luck. You pick the right person, there you go. Making sure they still feel satisfied with the end of the film is part of my job.
At the end of the day, remembering that it's all about entertainment and not reveals harkens back to what was said about Hitchcock in the first quote.
There will always be an eagle-eyed viewer who pokes holes or predicts turns. The point is to make the movie so fun and thrilling that they want to continue the ride.
When I sit down to write, I know someone may be able to see the end, but I want them to strap in and have fun throughout the way we get there. This movie perfectly embodies that mantra.
So what's it like to know you'll be responsible for directing the script you deliver?
EW: In terms of the relationship between your writing and your directing, for a movie like this which has such a specific vibe, how did you craft the script with an eye toward filming it? What kinds of choices did you make in those beginning stages?
RJ: It’s a good question, it’s weird — on one hand, there is a real separation between when I’m writing and when I’m on-set directing. In many ways when you’re on set, it feels like you can’t be precious about the words. I’ve used the analogy before that writing is like when the generals are in the war-room, with maps spread out on the table, making their grand plans, and then when you’re directing, you’re actually in the trenches with the troops, trying to actually make it work. You just have to take the hill. [Laughs] At the same time, when I’m writing, I am directing in my head. I can’t write a scene unless I can see it visually and also have a sense of tonally and otherwise how it’s going to play. That may very much change when we get on set. It’s a very messy relationship, made messier by the fact that it’s the same person doing both parts. I don’t know! Very good question that I obviously did not have an articulate answer to.
Whether you're directing your work or just editing, you need to find a healthy separation.
Sometimes things work on the page, but when you go to shoot them you need to be malleable. That means killing your darlings in one way or another. As Johnson says, this is a messy relationship. Be willing to take big swings and you'll get big rewards.
Like becoming a huge surprise hit at the box office.
What's next? Learn more about genre!
Film and TV genres affect who watches your work, how it's classified, and even how it's reviewed. So how do you decide what you're writing? And which genres to mash-up? The secret is in the tropes.
Click for more!