Words and Interview

Adam Woodward



Melina Ghadimi

Rian Johnson: ‘Sondheim’s my guy’

The writer/director of Glass Onion talks musicals, murder mysteries, and the sartorial secrets of master detective Benoit Blanc.

It’s approaching two decades since Rian Johnson announced himself as one of genre cinema’s most intriguing young talents. His debut feature, Brick, a high-stakes high school noir with a clockwork plot and killer script, set the tone for what was to come – not least its opening shot of a dead body lying face down in the dirt.

Aside from a sojourn in a galaxy far, far away, Johnson’s film career has remained grounded in murder and mystery ever since, from the swizzling exploits of The Brothers Bloom, to the time-skipping thrills of Looper, to the yarn-spinning larks of Knives Out. Never one to repeat the same trick twice, Johnson is back with Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, another slickly constructed whodunit that expands the world of his previous film while reacquainting us with Cajun crime solver extraordinaire, Benoit Blanc.

LWLies: Glass Onion is not a direct continuation of Knives Out. You have Daniel Craig returning as Benoit Blanc, but it’s a new story, new cast. Was it always the idea not to do a direct sequel?

Johnson: Yeah, that was always the intention, even before we knew we were going to keep making these movies. The notion was, if we can make more, then they should be like mystery novels. Each one should have a new cast of characters, its own setting, its own unique tone, and most importantly its own reason for being. It’s the way Agatha Christie would do it.

And what about Daniel? He’s become almost like your Poirot figure.

I’ve been lucky to have had good relationships with a bunch of different actors over the years. But it’s rare that you end up being in the same lifeboat as someone like Daniel Craig. Thank god we like each other, because this could turn into a Hitchcock lifeboat very fast if we didn’t. But we get along very well, and we’re both excited by the notion of each of these movies taking us by surprise and hopefully taking the audience by surprise. So for many, many reasons, I’m happy I’m in this boat with him.

Daniel had this long stint playing James Bond, and he was the only actor afforded the freedom to flesh out the character’s backstory. It’s not quite the same thing in Glass Onion, but it definitely feels like you’re building out Blanc’s character more, giving us a glimpse into his private life.

Y’know, it’s fun to tease, to give little hints here and there… Christie did that with Poirot and Miss Marple. But I think a little goes a long way. The last thing I want to do is start building up some deep backstory about Benoit Blanc. The point of these movies is the mystery behind each story. I’m not trying to figure out ways to keep it fresh by introducing his father… blah, blah, blah. The way I approach it, you can truly have every story be driven by completely fresh winds, and Blanc can play his role in the mystery in his own unique way.

He’s always going to be the detective.

Yes, but oddly enough, the detective is not the protagonist of the murder mystery. It’s important to remember that. That’s the potential trap, because obviously he anchors the mystery in the same way Poirot anchors it in Christie’s novels, but from a screenwriting perspective if you start thinking of Blanc as the protagonist then you’re kinda dead in the water.

The way he’s styled here is amazing; he’s got this Monsieur Hulot thing going on. Is that how you approached it, what would Benoit Blanc wear on holiday?

That was all Daniel. He very much leaned into the [Jacques] Tati aesthetic, and he’s got a bit of a Cary-Grant-in-To-Catch-a-Thief vibe as well, including the high-waisted, wide-leg cream trousers. You really have to be Cary Grant or Daniel Craig to pull those off – I would end up looking like Peter Ustinov. Daniel worked with [costume designer] Jenny [Eagan] a lot, but it was his idea to go down the Hulot route. My thing was like, wherever Blanc goes, he has to look fabulous.

I love the idea that Blanc never takes his shirt off… not even in the pool.

No, he’s not going to show his nipples [laughs].

In Knives Out, Ana de Armas’ Marta becomes Blanc’s reluctant partner in solving the case. You do something similar here by having him pair up with someone unexpectedly.

And also, just in technical terms, the audience knows there’s never going to be a true threat against Blanc. They know the detective is not going to die; the detective is not going to get arrested; the detective is not going to make bad life choices. So, they need somebody who they care about, who they can become invested in, who’s not Blanc. I hope we can find a way to keep doing that going forward.

You’ve said that Knives Out was written on and off over a 10-year period. What was the time frame for this one?

It wasn’t 10 years, let me tell you. It was very quick. I started it from scratch after the success of the first one, because even though in the abstract I thought it would be fun to do more of these, I did not have a drawer full of ideas. It’s the same right now, I’m starting to gather ideas for the third one. Obviously time is a nice luxury to have, but one advantage of writing over a shorter period is that, if you’re setting it in the here and now, it allows you to write about whatever is going on. With Knives Out, that came towards the end. But it’s still a nerve-racking process. Actually it’s fucking terrifying. Especially with this one, because people liked the first one, so the expectations are higher. You’ve just got to get stuck into it and try to do your best.

“Sondheim’s my guy. I’m a big musical theatre fan, and his work has meant a lot to me over the years.”

The smoking gun of this film is a cocktail napkin with a billion dollar idea scribbled on it. Do you have something similar at the start of the writing process?

I do! Years ago, I started working in these little Moleskine books [Johnson holds one up to the camera; it’s filled with text and annotated sketches]. Ninety per cent of the process is just in these things. It’s mostly coming up with the structure of the movie and how it’s gonna tick. But that happens alongside what is almost an entirely separate process, which is thinking in terms of characters and themes and the emotion driving it. There’s almost like two tracks running parallel to each other that interlock at some point.

You’ve opted for a more exotic location this time. Was that always the plan? You said you started writing during lockdown… I can see the appeal of a Greek island.

We all wanted to be on a Greek island, right? It was a combination of things, but I definitely wanted to give the audience clear road signs that this was going to be its own thing. So thinking of a setting that was as different as possible from Knives Out seemed like a good idea. Y’know, Knives Out was this cosy family drama, which is what people often associate Christie’s novels with, but when I was a kid and started getting into this genre, it was stuff like Evil Under the Sun and Death on the Nile, these big glamorous vacation movies.

Herbert Ross’ 1973 film The Last of Sheila is clearly a big influence on Glass Onion.

For sure. Again, just for the glamour of it, the fun of it… The Last of Sheila has the most ’70s cast of all time. I love it so much. Dyan Cannon in that movie, oh my god.

Speaking of The Last of Sheila, there’s a Stephen Sondheim connection there too. He co-wrote the film with Anthony Perkins, and he was well-known in theatre circles for his love of games and puzzles. And in Knives Out there’s the scene where Blanc is singing ‘Losing My Mind’ in his car. Could you talk about Sondheim’s influence on your work?

Sondheim’s my guy. I’m a big musical theatre fan, and his work has meant a lot to me over the years. But yes, he’s someone who crosses over into the murder mystery world as well. I don’t know if this is apocryphal or not, but there’s a story that the main character in Anthony Shaffer’s play ‘Sleuth’ was modelled on Sondheim, and the working title was apparently ‘Who’s Afraid of Stephen Sondheim?’.

In my movie there are some cameos which I’d prefer to keep a secret for your readers, but we do have Sondheim in a scene briefly. He had seen Knives Out and had appreciated the little nod, so we just took a swing and somehow we managed to get him on a Zoom call for 15 minutes, and I got to meet one of my heroes. He was very game in recording his little cameo.

Sondheim was famous for holding his own murder mystery parties for his friends. Who would you invite to your dream murder mystery party?

Ah, jeez. Sondheim, obviously [laughs]. I’ll tell you a story: When we were making the movie, we shot the first half in Greece and the second half in Belgrade. That’s where all of our stage work and all of our sets were. It was at the height of the Delta wave, so we were in our production bubble, and we were staying in a very nice hotel, but we were going a little stir crazy. So on weekends we would rent out the rooftop bar and the whole cast would get together for our own murder mystery parties. Janelle [Monáe] would show up in full costume – literally a Sherlock Holmes cape and pipe, false moustache, the works – and she would have created a whole character with a backstory and she would stay in character all night. Which is all to say that I would definitely invite Janelle. And I would invite Dave Bautista, because he was uniquely terrible at it. I know I could beat him [laughs].

In the film there’s this literal ‘glass onion’ which is described as infinitely complex but with a clear centre. I’m aware you borrowed the title from the Beatles’ song, which is famously self-satirising; it’s John Lennon poking fun at himself and people who would overanalyse the band’s lyrics. Does the title have multiple meanings for you?

It absolutely does. Most of them are laid bare in the movie. It’s what you said but also in relation to The Beatles, it’s that thing of people thinking they were playing 3D chess when, in reality, they were in the studio making shit up and seeing how it would sound, which plays into the movie as well. And also, y’know, the song is just a complete banger.

There’s also a lovely moment, which is ultimately played for laughs, where Edward Norton’s character strums ‘Blackbird’. Do you have a favourite off ‘The White Album’?

‘Glass Onion’ is definitely up there. To me, ‘Dear Prudence’ is the best song ever written. But ‘Glass Onion’ has always been a personal favourite, too. It’s so interesting, because when I started showing the script to friends, I didn’t think the concept of a Beatles deep cut existed, but I was amazed by how many people didn’t recognise the song or didn’t know it. I guess it’s one of the more obscure ones in their catalogue. It’s not ‘Let It Be’.

Maybe the film will have a Stranger Things-Kate Bush effect and people will start to catch on.

That’d be nice. We’re really gonna put those Beatles on the map! [Laughs]

Looking at your own back catalogue, there’s a line in The Brothers Bloom I like where Adrien Brody says, somewhat sneeringly, “My brother writes his cons the way dead Russians write novels, with thematic hooks and embedded symbolism”. It feels quite pointedly self-analytical.

Yeah, and it’s something that’s interesting to talk about for a lot of reasons. Part of the game of writing movies is building something that is a piece of pop entertainment that can work entirely on that level. That’s its own form of craftsmanship. Then there’s this aspect of trying to layer in all these things that I’m angry about. I’m not in the business of making message movies, so any social commentary has to work in the context of delivering a big, fun movie.

Glass Onion definitely feels more overtly political than Knives Out, in terms of the types of people you’re satirising.

The first one was very much about a family; about the arguments you’d have over the dinner table with relatives. With this one… it’s hard to not go big with it because every time you turn on the news or open Twitter, you’re confronted with this terrible, carnivalesque reality, to the point where it seems like there’s not a small subtle way to reference it. If you want to talk about this stuff, you have to raise your voice.

The Edward Norton character is fascinating. He’s this incredibly self-serving, self-mythologising tech billionaire who wants to change the world. There’s a running joke that no one can quite figure out whether he’s a genius or an idiot.

Yeah, well, there are so many specific examples of that in the real world. But when writing the character, I very quickly found the more specific I was, the more boring it became. The Elon Musk jokes didn’t seem very fun or interesting. Sometimes you have to take a step back and look at the overall structure and the systems that allow these people to exist. And why we look up at these people on pedestals.

The current moment certainly feels like fertile ground for writing a character-driven satire, which is partly what Glass Onion is.

Yeah, absolutely. I guess this one is a bit more Strangelove in tone than what came before it, and probably what will come after it. But it goes back to this idea of trying to get into what Christie was doing in her day. She was never political per se, but she always engaged with the culture at the time. I think it’s something that’s kind of been lost from the genre.

When we see contemporary period pieces that are adaptations of Christie’s work, they often feel overly lavish and quaint. But when you read Christie now, it still feels fresh. Y’know, she was dealing with class and gender dynamics in a really interesting way. There’s this perception of her work that it’s like the cover of a game of Clue. It’s stuffy British society, it’s the body in the library… Which Christie herself lampooned in her books. She was very aware of that and was constantly subverting the genre, which I think has helped to prolong her legacy.

In terms of your own career, you’ve directed a sequel before, but this is the first time you’ve made a follow-up to one of your own movies. Does that bring its own added pressure?

With The Last Jedi and this, I’d say the pressure was kind of different, but there’s still the same clickity clack of riding the rollercoaster. The instant you’re at the top, that’s when the nerves set in. With Star Wars it’s a whole set of massive pressures, whereas the success of Knives Out created a good problem for me to solve. That said, a successful movie can quickly turn into this gilded object that is somehow outside of you – even though you made it, it suddenly seems beyond your reach. I’ve never really faced that before in terms of writing something as a follow-up. It was pretty terrifying and I’m sure it will be the same doing the third one.

When does number three start?

I don’t know. I’m just starting to think about ideas for it, but I think I’m probably going to make it as my next film. We’ll see how quickly we can get it together. Let me put this one out there first. Just give me a minute [laughs].

We’ve touched on the political and satirical side of the film but, as with Knives Out, it’s telling that you once again end things on a positive note: truth will out in the end.

As I see it, that’s an essential part of the whodunit. A lot of academic writers have characterised the genre as being essentially Conservative: a crime is committed; chaos is created; the paternal detective swoops in and solves the case, restoring order to society. I see it much more in terms of moral order being restored. So when you step out of the theatre, you’re satisfied that things have been set right in the end. But now that you mention it, maybe I should do a bummer ending for the next one. The killer gets away with it…

Would watch.

Shit, don’t tell me that. Don’t tell Netflix that!

Sorry, Netflix. By the way, I very much enjoyed seeing Noah Segan pop up in this.

[Laughs] I like the idea of him being a bit like Patrick McGoohan in Columbo. He just turns up wearing a different beard each time. But y’know, we’re best friends, and having him hang out on set is always a blast. We’ll always figure out something for him to do.

Has he read ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ yet?

Noah? No… No one has! [Laughs]. I gave him a copy and I think he got like a hundred pages into it.

What were you reading while you were making Glass Onion?

I’m all about audiobooks, they’re kind of my obsession. Typically non-fiction. It was 2020 and we were in lockdown, so I was probably busy making sourdough starter or something. When I’m writing I don’t generally read Agatha Christie books, just because it feels too close to what I’m doing. Right now I’m reading the Sherlock Holmes short stories and novels for the first time, which Daniel suggested to me. They’re very good.

And what about music?

I have a Glass Onion playlist that I’ve been building since I started writing it. ‘Long Black Limousine’, the Elvis Presley version, was one that I listened to over and over. Also, the George Harrison song ‘Gone Troppo’ off his weird album [of the same name]. Oh, and also Nino Rota’s main theme from [1978’s] Death on the Nile. That was a big influence on Nathan [Johnson]’s score.

You and Nathan recorded the Knives Out score at Abbey Road. Did you get to go back for this one?

I didn’t get to go sadly; I was busy shooting my TV show [Poker Face]. It was magical being there for Knives Out though. The fact we got the opportunity again to record Glass Onion there, with the whole Beatles connection, that was pretty special.

Published 28 Nov 2022

Tags: Daniel Craig Glass Onion Rian Johnson

Suggested For You

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

By David Jenkins

Benoit Blanc enters the canon of iconic movie characters with Rian Johnson’s second foray into whodunit (nu-dunit?) territory.

review LWLies Recommends

LWLies 96: The Glass Onion issue – Out now!

By Little White Lies

We hop on a deluxe yacht to visit Rian Johnson’s fiendishly entertaining, star-spangled nu-dunnit.

Knives Out

By David Jenkins

Rian Johnson does his best Agatha Christie impression in this riotous, star-packed homage to the classic whodunnit.

review LWLies Recommends

Little White Lies Logo

About Little White Lies

Little White Lies was established in 2005 as a bi-monthly print magazine committed to championing great movies and the talented people who make them. Combining cutting-edge design, illustration and journalism, we’ve been described as being “at the vanguard of the independent publishing movement.” Our reviews feature a unique tripartite ranking system that captures the different aspects of the movie-going experience. We believe in Truth & Movies.