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Credit: Lionsgate

Knives Out director Rian Johnson explains how to build a great whodunnit mystery

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Sep 30, 2019

I was excited to sit down with Rian Johnson at Fantastic Fest to talk about his upcoming whodunnit Knives Out, but the timing of the interview posed a bit of a problem. We're still two months out from the release of this murder mystery about a wealthy pulp novel author who dies leaving behind a fortune and a family desperate to get their piece of it — so, naturally, talking about anything specific was out of the question.

But what fun would it be to talk in vague terms, tiptoeing around anything that could touch on spoilers, of which there are plenty in this constantly evolving and shifting mystery story?

So, with Johnson's approval, we ran with something a little different. There were some “silly mysteries” that jumped to mind while watching Knives Out, and I figured I'd float a few of those titles to Johnson and see where that led. Thankfully, the writer/director is not only well versed cinematically, but he's also incredibly well-read on this subgenre.

Clue is the obvious title to bring up, but it's so obvious we kinda skipped right past it and went to one of the original satires of the whodunnit genre, a 1976 film called Murder by Death.

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Credit: Columbia Pictures

"I love Murder by Death," Johnson told SYFY WIRE. "It was one of those that was on cable a ton when I was a kid. I watched it over and over. I revisited it recently and it's very, very funny. Neil Simon wrote the script. Alec Guinness is brilliant in it, but Peter Falk kind of steals the show."

In Murder by Death, Guinness plays a blind butler named Bensonmum, who welcomes the world's best detectives to a creepy mansion in order to solve a murder that hasn't happened yet. Murder by Death is a sendup on the whole mystery genre, an almost Brooksian comedy in which each character is a direct spoof of a famous detective. Falk's Sam Diamond is obviously a take on Bogart's Sam Spade, James Coco's Perrier is a food-obsessed ribbing of Poirot, Elsa Lanchester (yes, the Bride of Frankenstein herself) plays Miss Marbles, a not-so-thinly-veiled take on Miss Marple, and Peter Sellers plays Sidney Wang, a Charlie Chan stand-in.

That was the one thing Johnson said hasn't aged well. A white actor playing an Asian character was the norm back in the day, but "yellowface" is "yellowface." I floated the idea that it could have been part of the satire of the material, since up to that point Charlie Chan had never been played onscreen by an Asian actor. It's an interesting thought, but more than likely giving the creative forces behind the movie a little too much credit.

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Credit: Columbia Pictures

All things considered, Murder by Death isn't just a silly, fun movie. It also has a bit of a bite, as well.

"I always remember Truman Capote's speech at the end where he dresses down all the detectives for the crimes they've committed against their readers," Johnson says. "'You withheld information that was essential to solving it until the very end!' What Truman Capote is calling out at the end is also a little bit like Hitchcock's criticisms of the genre, which is the danger of it is that it is just one big buildup to a cheap surprise at the end. I think the best examples of the genre avoid that by putting a different engine in the car. It's not just clue-gathering. There's something else going on. Agatha Christie is great at that, actually, figuring out different ways of driving it."

Which is something he took to heart when writing Knives Out. Yes, it's a mystery at its core, but there is another aspect, a Hitchcockian thriller that emerges partway through. It's that "different engine" he talked about that drives the mystery.

Circling back to the characters of Murder by Death, the conversation turned a little to how crazy it is that our generation, in particular, was introduced to huge pop culture things via their spoofs. I met the most famous detectives in cinema and literature through their counterparts in Murder by Death, and most of our introduction to modern pop music is still through Weird Al Yankovic, one of Johnson's idols and a guy who's still at the top of his game.

Two of the detectives spoofed in Murder by Death are a couple played by David Niven and Maggie Smith named Dick and Dora Charleston, a play on The Thin Man's Nick and Nora Charles, who were created by Dashiell Hammett and made famous in a series of 1930s films by William Powell and Myrna Loy.

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Credit: MGM

What sets The Thin Man apart is that the people at the center of the whole thing are a genuinely loving couple.

"The relationship between those two characters are very good," Johnson said. "Nick and Nora, the fact that they're this playful couple who love each other. It's a relationship that we all aspire to having, I think. Maybe minus the alcoholism ..."

Nick and Nora do love to drink, but theirs is a playful kind of drunk and, oddly, it's something they bond over. The tone of The Thin Man is what I felt was mirrored in Knives Out. There is something serious that draws everyone together (you can't get more serious than a dead body), but despite the darkness of murder, it's not a terribly bleak and depressing story. The best whodunnits are fun, first and foremost.

"I do find myself slightly annoyed by how serious the adaptations tend to be, especially the Christie stuff," Johnson says. "Any time it leans into it being a dark, serious mystery ... There's always an element of clowning to Poirot, for example. That's why Peter Ustinov is my favorite Poirot. I thought Kenneth Branagh did a very good job in this last one. There's an element of self-inflated buffoonery, which is essential, and I think it's very, very funny."

People made fun of Branagh's ridiculous mustache in the recent adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, but the actor/director has been on record saying that's kind of the point. The reason Poirot is a good detective is that his over-the-top nature and ridiculous facial hair make the people he's interrogating underestimate him. His wacky mustache is a weapon in his arsenal.

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Credit: 20th Century Fox

"That's an essential element," Johnson says. "It's the Columbo thing. It's why the suspects don't take the detectives seriously until it's too late. When you see a version of Poirot that's too sharp and too on the ball, it doesn't feel right."

I pointed out that his very own brilliant detective, Benoit Blanc (played by Daniel Craig), has a bit of that to him as well.

"The approach to Benoit Blanc, our detective in this, is very much that," Johnson admits. "Giving him a Southern accent, especially in the context of him being amidst all these old-money New England WASPs, was a big, big part of it. Also, having him have this self-inflated ego. He refers to himself in the third person. That's all part of it. It's a universal element with all the great detectives in whodunnit fiction specifically."

The next title I threw out is a little bit of a weird one. It's a movie called Gambit (1966), which starred Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine, and it's not so much a mystery as it is a heist movie — more of a howdunnit instead of a whodunnit. But, nevertheless, it's a title that entered my brain while watching Knives Out because the reason Gambit plays so well is that it throws the audience a curveball about half an hour into the movie that completely changes where they thought it was going.

Knives Out pulls a similar twist; there's a reveal that makes you reevaluate where you think everything is going.

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Credit: Universal Pictures

"That to me is the Hitchcock approach, as opposed to the big twist at the end approach, which I think is always more effective," Johnson says. “Even when you're doing a whodunnit where you're still going to have the pleasure of pulling back the curtain at the end, it's important that you have something that draws you through besides the anticipation of that.”

Funnily enough, our little chat ended with Johnson and me exchanging whodunnits that the other hadn't seen. His recommendation to me was The Last of Sheila, a movie I've heard about for years and have yet to finally sit down and watch. Get ready for this: It's co-written by the unlikely duo of Stephen Sondheim (yes, that Stephen Sondheim) and Anthony Perkins (yes, that Anthony Perkins).

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Credit: Warner Bros

I promised to give it a watch. The title I brought up that he hadn't seen is a cool Amicus release from the mid-'70s called The Beast Must Die. He took out his moleskin and quickly wrote down the title, saying that he's pretty sure Edgar Wright recommended this one to him and promised to load it up on his iPad and watch it on his flight home.

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Credit: Amicus Productions

The Beast Must Die is a better concept than it is a fully finished movie, but what's neat about it is that it turns the whodunnit formula on its head. Instead of gathering a bunch of people together to find out who the murderer is, they gather a group of people to figure out which one is the werewolf.

"God, if I had thought of that, that would have been the sequel to Knives Out," Johnson exclaims.

Daniel Craig in a werewolf whodunnit? It's not too late, man. It's not too late.

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