Filmmaker Rian Johnson frequently uses the word “fun” when talking about “Knives Out.”
Johnson, recently in The City to promote the film, which opens Wednesday, even may have made the lighthearted whodunit to counter his last outing, the box-office bonanza “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
“What it feels like onscreen is what it felt like on set,” says Johnson, describing “Knives Out.” “It was everyone having a good time together. It really felt like a summer camp environment.”
The movie’s inspired by Agatha Christie whodunits Johnson grew up with and all-star films like Sidney Lumet’s “Murder on the Orient Express.”
“It’s a real whodunit, not a parody, but it has a cheeky sense of self-aware fun. That was the sweet spot we were aiming for,” says Johnson.
The incomparable cast includes Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, LaKeith Stanfield, Jaeden Martell (“It”), Katherine Langford (“Love, Simon”) and Christopher Plummer, who plays a wealthy mystery author.
Craig, who plays the Hercule Poirot-like investigator Benoit Blanc, signed on first. Johnson credits him for getting the movie financed and luring everyone else on board.
“Everybody wants to work with him. You can tell how much fun he’s having,” says Johnson. “And he’s so funny. Just because he’s so good at playing Bond, I think people might think he’s a serious guy.”
Legendary character actor M. Emmet Walsh (“Blade Runner,” “Blood Simple”) even was compelled to take a small part.
“When he comes to set, he passes out three things: steel pennies, two-dollar bills — tells you if you never spend it, you’ll never go broke — and his resume, which is a single sheet of paper, with a single-spaced list, three columns, of all the movies he’s been in. And it’s absolutely staggering,” says Johnson.
Amazingly, though, a less familiar actor, Noah Segan — one of Johnson’s best friends — steals several scenes in the movie.
Johnson, who admits Segan has been in all his movies, from “Brick” to “The Last Jedi,” says, “I’m so happy for him. He’s fantastic in this. He’s really funny. That’s what he’s like in real life. In ‘Looper’ I wrote a dark part for him, so in this I thought I’d just let him be Noah.”
Still, Johnson says he mostly doesn’t write with actors in mind. And he doesn’t like to write to what he knows an actor can do. He would rather “let the actor come in and find a way around it.”
Writing “Knives Out,” he started “very zoomed back,” thinking about its general shape. Details came later, he says, as he zoomed in.
One unique thing he described was a kind of religious icon made of knives that would loom behind the characters as Blanc questions them. When the time came to build it, there were many failed attempts to find the right look.
The finally found an industrial barbecue grate and hung knives on it. Johnson says, “It was gorgeous. I wanted to take that thing home at the end of the shoot, but the problem was that half the knives were rentals.”
Interestingly, “Knives Out” is set in 2019, rather than being a period piece or “timeless little jewel box.” A key scene involves a political argument among family members.
“It’s fun to laugh at the ridiculousness of what the discourse has become, which is largely people shouting headlines they’ve read on Twitter at each other,” Johnson says. “It seems like something that we all deserve to have a laugh at right now.”
IF YOU GO
Starring: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis
Written and directed by: Rian Johnson
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes