If Knives Out (2019) was a cozy autumnal movie, all knit sweaters and fall foliage, its successor Glass Onion has more than a touch of Agatha Christie’s Evil Under The Sun. It’s a scorching summertime whodunit, in which a tech billionaire (Edward Norton) invites a group of his closest friends on an island getaway, only to suspect that one of them might be trying to kill him. Where the first Benoit Blanc mystery took aim at inherited wealth, Glass Onion skewers new money. Startups, internet personalities, chronically online Twitter users — all become rich targets for satire. The film unravels with exactly the kind of tightly plotted brilliance you’ve come to expect from Rian Johnson, but Netflix backing has resulted in a bigger and more bombastic production. The writer-director, whose filmography includes the inventive time-travel thriller Looper (2012) and Star Wars instalment The Last Jedi (2017), talks about balancing social themes with a sense of silliness, incorporating technology into a whodunit and his favourite on-set moments:
What I love about both Knives Out films is that they’re layered with social themes, but there’s also this streak of playfulness, of silliness. They’re not self-serious movies. Why was that important, and how did you calibrate this degree of goofiness when you were writing them?
Rian: (laughs) I’m a big fan of goofiness and so I love that. I grew up loving not just Agatha Christie’s novels, but also the movies that were made from her books. And my favorites were also always the ones in which Peter Ustinov played Hercule Poirot — Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun. And Ustinov was very funny, he had a sense of humour about the character. And that’s something that always appealed to me. I liked that these movies were funny, and these movies were, like you said, a little bit goofy. But they were still good mysteries, they were still intriguing and kind of scary. So now I’m trying to find that exact same balance with these. And it’ll be a little different each time. I think this one, Glass Onion, is probably a little bigger and goofier than Knives Out, but that doesn’t mean the next one will be too. It’s all going to be different, movie to movie. I thought it’d be very interesting to do the genre and set it in modern-day America, which is where the social themes come in. So many of the whodunit movies I grew up loving were period pieces set in England, and when Agatha Christie was writing, she wasn’t writing period pieces, she was speaking to her time and her place. And so the idea of taking this genre and setting it right now, seemed very exciting to me.
In the film there’s an email that provides some crucial information, there’s the Google alert that seals one character’s death. Has it become easier or harder to write a whodunit in the digital age?
I don’t find it harder at all, it's interesting. When I started writing the first one, I thought, ‘Is it going to be a thing where I’ll have to figure out, ‘Oh, I have no reception, oh no.’ But unlike in a horror movie which would be over if the characters could use their phones, I actually find it really fun integrating technology into these murder mysteries. And the reality is, again, I sound like a broken record, but Agatha Christie was doing it back in the day, and she had all this latest technology she would use in her mysteries. So no, I really enjoy integrating Google alerts, and texting, and emails, and figuring out how that can be a new version of the whodunit clue that we’re used to seeing.
You've spoken about not wanting to make these sort of period pieces, which I find interesting because Glass Onion is set at the beginning of the pandemic, and Knives Out really speaks to this picture of 2019 America. What made you want to specifically root these in that time?
I think the whodunit is almost like this beautifully ancient noir genre that is very good at presenting a microcosm of society. Because, by its nature, you have a group of suspects, each of whom has to be very different, so they can represent different parts of society. And they have to be in a power structure with somebody at the top who they all want to kill. That’s an incredibly powerful method of talking about what’s happening around you in society. It lends itself to it. For so many years now, the traditional mode of mystery in movies was a period piece set in England, and set in this nostalgic version of England which maybe never existed anyway. It seemed like a wasted opportunity. It seemed like this is such a potent weapon to be engaging with culture. Let’s use it for that.
Just because these movies look so fun to shoot, is there a particular bit of direction you found yourself giving on set that made you go, ‘Yup, I love my job.’?
Every single day. Every single day. I posted a picture on Twitter — there was a day when Leslie Odom Jr. and Kathryn Hahn were doing a scene in the swimming pool. And to direct the scene, I got in my swimming shorts and I got in the pool and directed from inside it. And I was just the happiest-ever man. It was amazing. But the real joy is really just having these amazing actors, and when you have this big group that’s actually functioning as an ensemble, and you have these scenes when they’re bouncing off of each other, like Kate Hudson bouncing off of Janelle Monae bouncing off of Kathryn Hahn. To be able to sit back at the monitor and watch that, it’s the best job of all time.