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Rian Johnson – Peeling A Glass Onion

Updated: May 6

Rian Johnson on the red carpet at the “Glass Onion” premiere at the Philadelphia Film Festival 2023.

Rian Johnson

Peeling A Glass Onion

by Jay S. Jacobs

The new face of modern mystery may very well be Rian Johnson. The writer director is releasing Glass Onion the second film of a planned series of Knives Out mysteries which will be filmed for Netflix. The first Knives Out film was a huge hit with a more-traditional theatrical release a few years ago, leading the streaming giant to contract Johnson to create a whole series of Benoit Blanc mysteries, which has only the brilliant detective played by Daniel Craig in common. (Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery also had a brief theatrical run last month.

So, why does Johnson think that people enjoy old-fashioned parlor mysteries?

“I’m a puzzle nut myself,” Johnson explained to me recently on the red carpet at the Philadelphia Film Festival. “I love solving puzzles. There's always that element of our brains. The other thing about them – and this is why I love the genre – you think about [the story].”

They don’t call them brain teasers for nothing…

“You get a good mystery,” Johnson continued. “You get a rogue's gallery of interesting characters, all trying to kill each other. You get a charismatic detective at the center of it. What's not what's not to love? It's the most fun you can have [while] telling a story.”

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022). Daniel Craig as Detective Benoit Blanc. Cr. John Wilson/Netflix © 2022.

Johnson feels this is why the genre has such a resounding history and popularity.

“[The mystery] seems to always come back around, right?” he says, brightly.

As a longtime mystery fan, it seems only natural that Johnson has toyed with the genre for years. Even before hitting paydirt with his popular comic mystery Knives Out, the writer/director has always toyed with the conventions of mysteries on such earlier films as Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper, and even to a slight extent in his blockbuster Star Wars: The Last Jedi. He also has a new TV series coming on Peacock called Poker Face with Natasha Lyonne, which is said to be similar to the old Columbo mystery movies.

However, it was Knives Out that brought Johnson’s love of old-fashioned parlor mysteries into sharp relief. A classic locked-door mystery – with a wicked sense of humor and style – and an all-star cast including Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon and Christopher Plummer. It tells the story of a famous mystery novelist who dies mysteriously in his spooky mansion. Of course, his extended family are all sniping over his fortune as the body still hasn’t gotten cold. And Detective Benoit is always around, capturing clues and surreptitious conversations as he endeavors to find the killer.

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022). (L-R) Edward Norton as Miles, Leslie Odom Jr. as Lionel, Kate Hudson as Birdie, Kathryn Hahn as Claire, and Madelyn Cline as Whiskey. Cr. John Wilson/Netflix © 2022.

Knives Out took the old-fashioned mystery films and added a wonderfully modern, comic aspect which only added to the film’s popularity. The follow-up, Glass Onion, has Detective Blanc in the middle of a COVID-era murder party at the grand private island mansion of a tech billionaire (Ed Norton) which leads to real death. The suspects here are a group of college friends – all of which have become somewhat successful, but all of whom are having behind-the-scenes problems, played by Kate Hudson, Dave Bautista, Leslie Odom Jr., Kathryn Hahn and Janelle Monae.

What were some of the classic mysteries that inspired Johnson to make the films?

“[Mystery] series in general,” Johnson said. “I was thinking about the Agatha Christie movies that were coming out back in the 70s – and her books. [One was] Death on the Nile with Peter Ustinov. On this movie, a huge influence is Evil Under the Sun with Ustinov as Poirot. It was a glamorous European vacation movie.”

It’s not all Christie films though, Johnson acknowledges.

“Also The Last of Sheila, which was so good. I keep trying to mention that because more people have to see that movie.”

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (L-R) Edward Norton, Madelyn Cline, Kathryn Hahn, Dave Bautista, Leslie Odom Jr., Jessica Henwick, Kate Hudson, Janelle Monae, and Daniel Craig. Cr. John Wilson/Netflix © 2022.

I noted to Johnson that, by total coincidence, that film was the first PG-rated movie I ever saw in a theater and has long been a favorite of mine. The 1973 mystery – written by the odd-couple screenwriting team of actor Anthony Perkins (Psycho) and musical theater icon Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd) – was also about a murder mystery game in a yacht on the French Riviera which leads to a murder. It had a Nixon-era superstar cast of James Coburn, Richard Benjamin, James Mason, Raquel Welch, Dyan Cannon and a young, mostly unknown Ian McShane. It’s fun seeing the sly nods Johnson made to The Last of Sheila in Glass Onion, particularly during the early scenes.

Knives Out was a passion project in which Johnson had been working on the script for about a decade. After the popularity of that film, he has to come up with and film the follow-up in just a couple of years – mostly during the pandemic.

“That just was no pressure. No pressure,” Johnson laughed.

Hey, Agatha Christie wrote like 80 books, plays, poetry books, autobiographies and short-story collections in less than 60 years….

“Yeah, that's true. So, I'm slacking,” Johnson laughed again.

Well, maybe not quite slacking. But it was quite an experience to suddenly have to come up with a whole new mystery scenario, with only the Detective character in common with Knives Out.

“I came up with this one from scratch,” Johnson continued. “I started writing it after the first one came out and people liked it. It was a little scary at first, but you dive in, start working and then you're just doing your job and don't have time to think about it.”

Copyright ©2022 All rights reserved. Posted: December 23, 2022.

Photo #1 © 2022 Deborah Wagner. All rights reserved.

All other photos © 2022 John Wilson. Courtesy of Netflix. All rights reserved.

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