Knives Out is a cunning and cutting murder-mystery full of colorful characters, terrific twists, and stunning stars like Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Christopher Plummer, and Toni Collette. But beneath the surface of this flashy whodunnit lies a political commentary of wealth, power, and privilege that has critics and audiences talking. So, given the chance, we asked writer/director Rian Johnson all about it.
During Fantastic Fest, Johnson sat down with Pajiba to talk Knives Out. We dug into its deleted scenes, its secret cameo, Best Chris ties, as well as the celebrated filmmaker’s thoughts on that polarizing Cats trailer. Now, we dig into the socio-political message woven into this thought-provoking thriller.
Below lies spoilers for Knives Out.
Pajiba: Between Hustlers, Parasite, Knives Out and Ready or not, there’s a real “eat the rich” vibe to dark comedy this year. Why you think that theme might be so popular?
Rian Johnson: Well, I think there’s a lot in the air right now. Of those, I haven’t seen Parasite yet, so don’t give me any spoilers about Parasite. I saw Ready Or Not, that was awesome.
With what I was doing, it’s less about ‘eat the rich.’ It’s more about, how we shape our own narratives once we’re in a position of privilege to close the drawbridge up. I think that is something that all of us, including myself, can be guilty of. Like, for example, the kind of mythologizing that happens with a filmmaker. When I made my first movie Brick, I made it on a very low budget, and then we went to Sundance, and succeeded, and everything. And so this narrative arose of I somehow did this thing [all on my own]. Then, that ignores the fact that I was able to do that because my family invested in the movie. I still did it. And I’m proud of that accomplishment. But I think, I don’t know if what I’m saying makes a lick of sense.
Pajiba: Yeah, I get it. It’s the idea of this ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ narrative emerges, when you had an advantage there.
Johnson: Especially when you start, how it shapes the way that you see folks who are still struggling. We can sometimes shape our narrative so that somehow the people who have succeeded are better than the people who have not or have not yet. I think that’s more what I wanted to get at [with Knives Out], more than an ‘eat the rich’ French Revolution angle.
Pajiba: To that end, each of the Thrombeys seems to represent a different archetype of privilege. I’d like to know about how you forged those characters out of the conversations going on right now.
Johnson: Well, obviously the basis for this was Agatha Christie in terms of the plotting, but also in terms of that element of it. I mean, what she did with her novels was exactly that: all the musty old tropes of the old dusty colonels, and the dowagers, and the flapper. Those were types in British society when she was writing. I wanted to do that for 2019 America. So it was like, ‘OK, let’s take a broad spectrum of these slightly caricature inflated types that all of us can recognize, and hopefully see a little bit of ourselves in some of them. Then have a laugh at it.’
Pajiba: When writing about privilege in this way, what do you do to try to recognize your own blind spots?
Johnson: Well that’s the food. That’s the fuel is your own privilege and your own blind spots. That’s what you have to get to the heart of, I think. And that’s what you’re constantly trying to interrogate in yourself, at least for me. I think it would end up being very weak sauce if it were just pointing at the people that I am angry at and saying, “You and your privilege!” You have to self investigate, and you have to recognize in the worst of the people onscreen, you gotta recognize something in yourself and self-identify.
Pajiba: How do you try to see outside of your own views and biases? Beause you have characters in the film who represent polar opposites politically.
Johnson: You have to find some way into everybody. No matter who it is that you’re writing about, no matter how much you disagree with them, you’ve got to—as a writer—find some way to connect to them, so that you’re not just writing from a judgemental accusatory place. I mean, I don’t want to turn it into a therapy session as to why I’m going into with each of these characters. But, you have to find something. If you’re writing about Darth Vader, you need to find a way into Darth Vader, you know? And that’s the case also (here).
Pajiba: There’s a scene in Knives Out where the family gets into a heated political debate. Watching that I was like, ‘Oh, this was Thanksgiving.’ It’s very well time that the movie is coming out at Thanksgiving.
Johnson: Exactly. Well, I mean that’s something that I think a lot of us share. I’m hoping the movie will help let a little steam off, no matter where you’re at in the political spectrum. You get together with your family, and you’ve got people who are in the exact opposite side of that. And you’re sitting down, inevitably a few glasses of wine in. We all start arguing about the same stuff.
Pajiba: And you just want to yell, “Eat shit!”
Johnson: Yeah, you just want to yell, ‘Eat shit’ at everybody. So go to the movie and see Chris Evans do it for you.
Knives Out is now in theaters.