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    Friday, February 03, 2023

    With ‘Knives Out,’ writer-director Rian Johnson recasts Agatha Christie for the present day

    The terrific ensemble cast of "Knives Out" includes, from left: Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, K Callan, Ana de Armas, Christopher Plummer, Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher, Riki Lindholm, Toni Collette and Katherine Langford. (Claire Folger/Lionsgate)

    Rian Johnson is 45 and, according to Michael Shannon, one of many well-known actors in Johnson’s droll new whodunit “Knives Out,” a “lovely guy. I’d work with him again in a heartbeat.”

    Writer-director Johnson directed “Brick” (Raymond Chandler goes to high school), “The Brothers Bloom” (’30s screwball with a melancholic air) and “Looper” (Johnson’s first big hit). Most recently and controversially, he wrote and directed the “Star Wars” movie “The Last Jedi,” that impudent destroyer of so many fragile middle-aged memories of older, whiter, maler “Star Wars” pictures.

    During his childhood (he grew up in Colorado and California), he tells me over breakfast the other morning, either on VHS or on TV, he and his father caught the 1972 film “Sleuth,” about the playful, then deadly cat-and-mouse game featuring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine.

    Johnson loved it. He relished the setting of the stage-derived “Sleuth”: a secluded country manor, crammed with puzzles, knickknacks, theatrical props and menacing paraphernalia collected over time by an inveterate trickster.

    “That was probably the biggest influence for me,” says Johnson. Preparing “Knives Out” for production, he got with his production designer, David Crank (“There Will Be Blood,” “The Master”) and talked through some visual ideas for his tale of “a mystery writer who fills his house up with all his obsessions.”

    In “Knives Out,” Daniel Craig plays a drawling Louisiana detective seeking answers and a clear, climactic resolution in a murder case involving Christopher Plummer, as the famous and famously reclusive bestselling mystery author. Various disreputable/conniving/secretive offspring, vying for control and inheritance of the family publishing empire, side-eye their way through Johnson’s labyrinth of a plot. They’re played by, among others, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon and, as the author’s devoted nurse, Ana de Armas, the one most genuinely rattled by the murder of her employer on the night of his 85th birthday celebration.

    Johnson began noodling the idea for his whodunit 10 years ago. Life and other career developments sidelined it for a while. He spent four years writing, making and dealing with “The Last Jedi” (2017), a great if draining experience, he says, akin to “going into FBI for four years, with all the secrecy involved.”

    After that, he says, it was purely “refreshing to do this one. Just the speed of it.” He wrote “Knives Out” in six months; once Craig’s schedule provided an opening, the rest of the cast fell together quickly.

    An old-school whodunit with an intriguing political streak: These don’t come around often, and they’re catnip for actors. The political tensions within the warring family of “Knives Out” don’t dominate the picture, but they’re there.

    “As fun as the movie is to watch, that’s how fun it was to make,” says Curtis, by phone from LA. “Five pages in, I was in. It was a very easy ‘yes.’”

    Like Curtis, Shannon hadn’t worked with Johnson before. “It’s hard to put into words what makes someone unique,” he says. “In a way, uniqueness goes beyond spoken thought. It’s more of a feeling, and my feeling about Rian is that he’s super kind, conscientious, very thoughtful, and he never makes you feel any pressure. Very Zen.”

    And, Shannon says, “like most great directors, he prepares like crazy but he’s also ready to scrap his plans on a dime and do something else.”

    In the Agatha Christie mold, “Knives Out” culminates with the detective unraveling and recapping the events leading up to the murder, along with the unmasking of the culprit. “Daniel’s stage-trained,” Johnson notes of Craig, “like Michael (Shannon) is, and he came to the set with the entire scene down pat, something like 30 pages. So I ended up adjusting my shots, to give him more and more space to do longer and longer takes of it.”

    Earlier in his career, Johnson reflects, he looked at directing as a cousin of puppeteering. “But as I went on, I realized that wasn’t the way to get the best out of your actors. You have to learn how to collaborate with them on the staging of a scene. With staging in general, I’m always trying to get better.”

    With movies, he says, “you’re trained to think about them in terms of camera angles. But with a Michael Curtiz movie, for example” — “Casablanca” is one place to start — “the genius isn’t really in the camera angles, it’s the staging, and where the actors are in relation to the camera. He’ll have shots of four people having a conversation, and then somebody shifts a little bit and the camera will move six inches, and you’ve got a whole new shot. Spielberg’s one of the modern geniuses of staging. That’s huge for me. So I’m trying to get my head a little further away from the realm of ‘cool shots’ and into how you stage a scene.”

    Early on in “Knives Out,” the fractious, double-dealing members of the Thrombey clan drop their pretenses and dive headlong into a juicy political argument about America in 2019, right vs. left, no holds barred. Johnson initially wasn’t sure “how much to put that stuff in the forefront. It’s not primarily a political film or a message movie. But it’s a movie engaging with what’s in the air right now.”

    So what the hell, he thought. “That scene isn’t drawn from some grand critique of the culture; it’s drawn from my family! I’m very close to my family. I love my family. And that scene is drawn from fights I have with my family. I mean, if that’s what we’re all fighting about right now, why not put it in a movie? Maybe there’s something cathartic about being able to laugh at it.”

    From left, Daniel Craig, LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan in "Knives Out." (Claire Folger/Lionsgate)

    If you go

    KNIVES OUT

    PG, 130 minutes

    Playing at Niantic, Mystic Luxury Cinemas, Waterford, Stonington, Westbrook, Lisbon

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