Director Rian Johnson talks ‘Knives Out,’ exploring genres and Hitchcock at Columbia Film Row

By Isaiah Colbert, Staff Reporter

Isaiah Colbert
Ahead of his latest movie—”Knives Out,” a whodunit mystery—Johnson visited Columbia’s Film Row Cinema, 1104 S. Wabash Ave., Thursday for a free master class and a Q&A session.

Much like many Columbia filmmaking students, director Rian Johnson knew from a young age he was destined to make films.

Ahead of his latest movie—”Knives Out,” a whodunit mystery—Johnson visited Columbia’s Film Row Cinema, 1104 S. Wabash Ave., Thursday for a free master class and a Q&A session to discuss “Knives Out” and his filmmaking process.

“Knives Out” follows an eccentric family who comes under investigation when a relative dies. It stars big Hollywood names such as Chris Evans (“Captain America: The First Avenger”), Daniel Craig (“Skyfall”), Jaime Lee Curtis (“Freaky Friday”) and Christopher Plummer (“The Sound of Music”). The film is set to release Nov. 27.

“‘Knives Out’ is sort of an attempt to have my cake and eat it, too,” Johnson said during the event. “To get everything I love about whodunits and put the engine of the [Alfred] Hitchcock thriller in there.”

Hitchcock’s thriller method made famous in films such as “Psycho” and “The Birds” was to dispense with the mystery early on in the film and build suspense by having the audience care about the characters who are in jeopardy, wanting them to make it out of their situation, Johnson said.

Johnson grew up loving books and watching movies, and got a big break in his career by directing TV shows and movies, including three episodes of AMC’s “Breaking Bad” and the eighth installment of the “Star Wars” saga, “The Last Jedi.”

He enjoys bending the rules of film genres, something which goes all the way back to his first short film in college, “Evil Demon Golf Ball From Hell.”

Isaiah Colbert
“Knives Out” follows an eccentric family who comes under investigation when a relative dies. The film is set to release Nov. 27.

“Any time I’m trying to make a movie in a particular genre, what I’m trying to do is get to the heart of that genre,” Johnson said.

His style of filmmaking in a genre side-steps conventions that other directors have been trained to produce in order to get at the essence of it, he said.

When he directed episodes of “Breaking Bad,” he was not trying to find his creative way into anything. “My only intent was, ‘How do I execute what’s on this page as effectively as possible?'”

But with “Brick,” his 2005 neo-noir directorial debut, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, set in a California high school, he was inspired by the literary works of author Dashiell Hammett’s “The Thin Man” and “The Maltese Falcon” when finding the movie’s essence.

“When I read one of [Hammett’s] books for the first time, I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. There was something just raw and vital in that book,” Johnson said. “I want to make something that makes people feel the way I felt when I read [‘The Thin Man’].”

Johnson has worked with producer Ron Birkman since “Brick.” Johnson said Birkman is the reason he is still making movies to this day.

“Anyone out there who’s a filmmaker, find yourself a partner … a friend who has a producing part of their brain,” Johnson said. “I’m very lucky to have found a partner that can help me navigate all the politics of the business.”

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