“Knives Out” Collaborators Rian and Nathan Johnson on Powering a Modern Whodunit

The cousins discuss inverting genre tropes, their first embarrassing movie, and the evergreen influence of Columbo.

Let’s address the Bantha in the room. No, The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson doesn’t have any news for you about his planned Star Wars trilogy (he’s still discussing it with Lucasfilm and they haven’t announced anything yet). For now, he’s concentrating on another lifelong passion: the whodunit genre, and unearthing its bones from the backyard of cinema history.

Rian is aided and abetted by his longtime collaborator and cousin, composer Nathan Johnson. Nathan has also been busy this past decade, while Rian’s Knives Out idea simmered. Beyond creating the music for the neo-noir Brick, caper dramedy The Brothers Bloom, and sci-fi time-travel puzzle Looper with his cousin, he’s produced independent music ventures with The Cinematic Underground, Magik*Magik, Faux Fix, and New Volunteer.

The Johnsons began collaborating in junior high and high school. They hot-wired two VCRs together, with a Discman connected to one of the audio channels, and started tinkering with songs and movies. Their very first project? A Ghostbusters parody entitled Beebusters, wherein the titular group has to take care of bees attacking their clubhouse. 

Knives Out is a confident genre zig to The Last Jedi’s zag. Nathan composed the score for the new collaboration, a modern day whodunit centered on Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), a mystery author mysteriously murdered during a visit from his squabbling family. Rian worked with Nathan on the music before shooting, recording at Abbey Road Studios in London. It’s a stately and judicious soundtrack, and a big leap from Nathan’s self-described “junkyard orchestra” moments on Brick.

The score begins with an ominous string quartet theme in G minor that sees each player digging their bows into their strings like knives scraping against bone. Nathan also dedicated a motif for each suspicious family member, like pieces on a chessboard waiting to be knocked over.

We caught up with Rian and Nathan ahead of Knives Out’s theatrical wide-release. The interrogation uncovered the Johnsons’ contemporary influences, the importance of a good whodunit setting, and the Holy Trinity of murder-mystery influences: Hitchcock, Agatha Christie, and Columbo.

What was this project’s original idea nugget? I know it’s been in the works for about a decade. 

Rian: For me, it started with just loving Agatha Christie novels and loving the adaptations of her books that were done ever since I was a kid. Death on the Nile with Peter Ustinov, Evil Under the Sun, and Murder on the Orient Express were all these very big, all-star event entertainment [films] built around a whodunit story. When I was a kid, those were just some of the most fun kinds of movies. So, I wanted to make a movie in the spirit of that.

Nathan: I remember Rian told me the idea for the film when he first had it ten years ago and from that moment I was just like, “When are we going to make this movie?” I was so excited—even to the point where, over the last number of years when I was writing, I would kind of be thinking of Knives Out in the back of my mind. I have [music] files from six years ago of me messing around with tonal and palette ideas for the movie. So yeah, it feels like it’s been a long time coming.

As I was preparing for our chat, I read the LA Times piece Rian wrote, in which you mention your love for Columbo. That show is a very specific murder-mystery genre subset. How did it influence Knives Out?

“I feel like we’re always trying to live up to the brilliance on display in our eight-year-old minds.”
—Nathan Johnson

RJ: The one thing Columbo does that I think is really smart is that it takes the Hitchcock approach of a whodunit. In a way, it dispenses with the idea of structuring it around a big build-up to one big surprise at the end. Columbo kind of inverts that formula. I think that’s smart, because that means instead of leaning back trying to figure out the mystery, you’re kind of leaning forward—which is a nice touch. I don’t want to spoil anything, but we tried to take a similar tack that acknowledged that, and that was very, very much on my mind, trying to get the engine of a Hitchcock thriller in the middle of a traditional whodunit. I thought that would provide more of a fun ride for the audience.

Yeah, you kind of already know the primary, blood-stained action, but then spend the rest of the movie unraveling what happened and filling in those missing details from before and after the murder. How did you embrace the cinematic language of mystery movies or flip the script on that for Knives Out?

NJ: I remember the first reference Rian gave me was the score for Lawrence of Arabia. We knew we wanted it to be this big orchestral score, but at the same time he kept talking about keeping it sharp and precise, like a knife. So kind of everything flowed from that. We wanted it to be a motif-driven and melodic score, but also it’s such a brilliant script and it’s a huge cast. The music really has to dance all around that and not get in the way of what’s happening. It’s very much supporting and moving it forward emotionally and keeping the tension engine running.

You guys have worked together on a lot of projects since you were young, though the production budgets at your disposal have undoubtedly gone up. Just to go way back, what was the very first thing you remember collaborating on?

RJ: I think the first film we worked on together was a parody of Ghostbusters called Beebusters. Just a brilliant, epic movie. It was about bees in the clubhouse and the Beebusters were hired to take [care of them]. [Both laugh.] Oh my God. I’ll be honest, I don’t think we’ve topped it. It’s like making Citizen Kane when you come out of the gate with that. How do you follow it? 

NJ: I feel like we’re always looking to that, trying to live up to the brilliance on display in our eight-year-old minds.

Let’s talk about the creation of “Knives Out (String Quartet in G Minor),” which you recorded at Abbey Road Studios. 

NJ: This scene is the opening of the movie and it’s what Rian told me about around ten years ago and it just got inside my head. It basically sets up this amazing Gothic mansion and puts the pieces on the board that are then going to be knocked over for the rest of the movie. I was on set during production, mostly at that point just doing thematic explorations of different ideas. When we got back [from shooting], Rian and Bob [Ducsay], his editor, got into the editing room and while they were editing the movie really early on they just gave me a cut of that first scene. I spent a few weeks working on that quartet piece for it.

The rest of the movie was still being edited and that was the only piece that I had. Once I was able to start unlocking what that was going to be, I started getting really excited—because this is where Rian and I were talking about these really sharp strings and the idea of asking the players to really dig in, so you hear the bows scraping against the strings. That quartet actually reappears later in the movie, supplemented by the whole orchestra. In my mind, it was kind of the key that unlocked what the sound of the whole movie was going to be.

You filmed in Boston for about five weeks. Was that city your first choice? 

RJ: Well, because my producer, Ram Bergman, is a good producer, he started scouting for houses before I even finished writing the script. We found this house really early and we didn’t know where we were going to shoot. When they found this house we were all like, “Oh, there it is!” The whole reason they went to Massachusetts was for this house. Our Production Designer David Crank and Set Decorator David Schlesinger filled it up with all this incredible detail. Yeah, man, it felt great to be in a real location and just feel like you were living inside the movie while you were making it. The house is just kind of the murder mystery mansion of the mind.

How much of the house was filled in with set decoration?

RJ: That downstairs is totally not in the actual house. The people that are actually living in that house are not total maniacs. [Laughs.] All of those sculptures and everything were added in by us. Then upstairs we did do a few specific areas, like the hallway and the upstairs attic office [were builds]. That made it a little easier to shoot. Other than a few builds and set decorations, it’s all real locations in and around the house. I think that gave some credibility to the shoot.

Quite a few of the actors are kind of playing against type here, as Daniel Craig did in Logan Lucky. I’d love to hear about your process of creating these characters with them.

“I could tell Chris Evans was chomping at the bit to dive into this and to play the jerk. I could see him licking his chops.” —Rian Johnson

RJ: I mean, probably one of the most fun things about this genre is you get to create a rogue’s gallery of suspects, and you get to have a lot of diversity in terms of what they represented in society from the left to the right, from the highest to the lowest. You get to create all these characters and then kind of bring them up, almost to the level of caricature. For someone like me who is generally a fan of actors, it’s like Christmas—you can give all your favorite actors parts that you know they’ll be able to chew on and just dig into and have a blast. That was the case with Daniel [Craig], definitely. He was the first person who signed up for the movie and I could sense how much fun he had with this part, and I got the feeling that he was really glad to be doing a totally different type of role. I think you can feel it on the screen. It’s the same thing with Chris [Evans]. I could tell he was chomping at the bit to dive into this and to play the jerk. It’s kind of the deliciousness of that. I could see him licking his chops. [Laughs.] I knew that would translate to what the audience would feel.

Speaking to that deliciousness, I’m thinking about that two-part “Blanc’s Tale” track. There’s always a moment in these movies where the detective begins slowly unraveling the case. Nathan, how did you keep the tension going? It’s a risky expositional scene, and I’m sure that it was probably edited a few times with Rian.

NJ: Yeah, that was one of my favorite scenes, and it’s the classic [moment where you say], “Here we go, we’re strapping in for ten minutes.” It’s kind of the point where all threads of the movie meet up. In a way, it’s the opposite of a prelude where we get to revisit where we’ve been, and we’re reinterpreting and now understanding new takes of it. I know Rian and I worked really closely on that scene and I remember his direction was like, “Let’s just keep this really simple.” That minimal [piano] pulse is there underneath it. On top of that, we get to play with all of these different flourishes as we are essentially talked through the whole story again by the master detective.

Rian, you’ve popped up on quite a few film podcasts, like the Directors Guild of America with Robert Eggers. I’m curious if there are any other contemporary directors, and for Nathan, any contemporary composers, that you find particular kinship with.

RJ: There’s the long list of people working today who I’m a fan of, and then there’s the shorter list of people I actually got to become friends with and learn from. Edgar Wright is somebody who [I enjoy]. I was a fan of his films before we met, and then became friends with him and he’s someone who I feel like I can just watch what he does, acknowledge that I will never be able to do anything like that, and kind of be in awe of it and learn from him. With filmmaker friends, that’s the nice thing beyond just talking shop—just being inspired. There’s nothing quite like it.

NJ: I grew up loving these classical composers, but I’ve been really excited to see people who kind of got their start in popular music and in bands. I mean, Rian and I both loved Jon Brion and we would go see his shows years ago in LA when he was playing at the original Largo. More recently, I’ve enjoyed people like Mica Levi (a.k.a. Micachu) and Jonny Greenwood. I don’t know, it’s kind of a fresh perspective that I feel like they’re injecting into such a great history of film music. FL

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