It’s remarkable that Rian Johnson is still, somehow, one of the most polarizing directors working today, at least online. What makes it remarkable is everyone really seems to love Knives Out, to the point even his (very loud) detractors begrudgingly admit this. By now, here at the release of his second Benoit Blanc movie, Glass Onion (which ended its theatrical run and will be on Netflix at the end of the month), I would have assumed the ire of having the audacity to make an introspective Star Wars movie that dared people to look inward about what they liked about Star Wars in the first place might have subsided. It has been five years, after all. But, no, to paraphrase Han Solo, “He must have hit pretty close to the mark to get then all riled up like that, huh, kid?”
Here’s a funny trick about Glass Onion: I first saw this movie in September, then saw it again in November, and it was somehow more timely in November. The story is about a tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton, who is in full-on sarcastic splendor) who hosts a murder mystery party on his private island with a rogues gallery of “disrupters” – played by Janelle Monáe, Dave Bautista, Kate Hudson, Leslie Odom Jr., Kathryn Hahn – but there’s someone there who might actually want to kill Miles and Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc is there to investigate. (To be honest, that’s not really the plot, but it’s the easiest way to explain this movie without giving anything away.) Also, it should be noted, Benoit Blanc is none too impressed with any of these people and is shocked to realize they are all idiots.
What’s interesting about Knives Out and now Glass Onion, based on Johnson’s love of whodunnit films, he just may have created one of the best on-screen detectives. Like Johnson, I also love Peter Ustinov’s Hercule Poirot, but I’m giving the edge to Craig’s Benoit Blanc at this point. To the point I’ve become fascinated with this character, much to Johnson’s chagrin … after I asked an umpteenth question about Benoit Blanc’s backstory that Johnson does not think it important at all. (The whole situation was so funny, the more comically annoyed Johnson got, the more I kind of wanted to keep going. Also, keep in mind, I’ve known Johnson professionally for over 10 years, so no matter how it reads, nothing was actually that fraught.)
When I logged onto Zoom, I knew Johnson, a diehard Dodgers fan, would appreciate that I wore a St. Louis Cardinals jersey for our time together. (This is a lie, he hurled an expletive and put his hand over the camera. We occasionally insult each other’s favorite baseball team on social media.) So this is why the interview starts with both of us lamenting about this year’s playoffs.
I’m not super happy with how the playoffs went either.
Yikes. Man. What a brutal… That’s just baseball. It’s like getting a dog. It’s just a one-way ticket to heartbreak.
We had this great Pujols season, and then disaster…
Well, you know what, none of us are happy and that’s just the way we like it in baseball.
Where everyone’s miserable. We’re fine.
I’ve seen Glass Onion twice now…
No shit. Oh, nice.
The first time, back at the Toronto premiere, I have to say you do the best festival introductions to your movies. No 20-minute thing, just, “Who is ready to watch a movie? Let’s do it.” That’s how it should be done.
I’ve been in that audience too many times and felt the audience… I felt it. It’s always nice whenever you screen at festivals, but when you’re the opening night film and there’s like 45 minutes of sponsor thank yous, you can feel the audience kind of fade. Now, get them riled up, get them going, be a showman. I’m glad. I’m glad that works.
So how do you explain to the cast and crew that half the budget went to two Beatles songs?
[Laughs] It wasn’t half the budget.
Well, that’s just my guess.
It was maybe four times the budget of Brick went to them.
Now that I believe.
Now how I explained it to Joseph Gordon-Levitt? Yeah, if the next movie is named after a Stephen Foster song, you’ll know why. Something in the public domain would be nice.
Before I forget, speaking of Brick. When I spoke to Richard Roundtree, he had a lot of nice things to say about that movie.
That was phenomenal, man. I shared that with Joe and it was really exciting.
He was so nice. I had completed my interview and he wanted to keep going. I was basically like, well, what else. Oh, you were in Brick. I was kind of expecting just a, “Yes, I was.”
I would’ve expected a blank stare. Honestly, he was so kind to come in and do that one day. It was so long ago. I would have bet eating my shoe that he would not even remember doing that movie. So that was really exciting for me and Joe to see that he is happy that he did that.
And I guess people remind him of it quite often if he’s reading more letters about that than even Shaft.
Yeah, that makes me really, really happy. That’s really cool. He was really kind to come in and do that. I can only imagine what the fuck he thought we were making, coming in for one day on that movie. Great scene. Okay, you saw Glass Onion twice, how did it play a second time?
[Laughing] That’s typical.
I was so excited a second time and then it’s just like, what happened here?
No, actually, considering the way you format this movie, it plays maybe even better the second time. You really do pick up all these other things.
That is fair. In a way, when I was making it, it was almost more engineered to be watched the second time than the first time. I’m glad it held up.
By the way, why is Edward Norton strumming “Blackbird” so funny?
I don’t know! He gets a laugh every time it cuts to him. I just did a Q&A with Ethan Hawke and he’s like, “There’s always that one douchebag at the party who knows how to play ‘Blackbird.’ He’s always the worst guy, but all the girls kind of gather around him.” And so he said when he saw him playing ‘Blackbird,’ he is like, “Oh that asshole.”
Did you see McCartney on his recent tour?
I’ve never seen him live. I would love to.
Apparently, he has a joke about how he’s not impressed by how many people know how to play it.
“Big fucking deal.”
So, Knives Out is funny. Glass Onion is full-on comedy. Why?
Well, I was a little nervous about that, actually, going into it, because I think there’s a lot more humor in it. But more than that, the tone of this is just up a couple of notches above really. I mean, that’s a function, really, of just who and what it’s about. The instant I put a tech billionaire at the center of it….
I guess. I suppose, unfortunately.
Yeah, that worked out.
I remember when we were making the movie, talking to Edward, “God is this whole tech billionaire thing going to play itself out by the time this comes out?”
It did not.
Definitely not, yeah.
You could not have picked a better time to come out than right now.
It’s crazy. I had a friend of mine who was like, “Yeah man, the movie seems like it was written this afternoon.”
When you asked me how it played the second time… That’s what it is, it’s actually more timely now than when I saw it the first time in September.
It’s very, very strange. So then you got tech billionaire, and you got who would be his friends and they’re all going to be kind of inflated characters. And I guess it also, I don’t know, my voice naturally ended up raising a couple of decibels just talking about these people and this stuff. It kind of had to. I mean, the first one was about a New England family, so it had humor, it had inflated stuff, but by its necessity was tamped down. With this, anytime I would try and ground it, or tamp down, or think this is “too much,” another news story would break about something one of these people had done. I would be like, I’ve got a lot of room to go up actually, if I want this to actually reflect our experience of this kind of nightmare carnival we’ve all been in for the past six years, of a race to the bottom of these public figures. If I want to actually connect with people and tap into that shared experience, this has to be huge and kind of clownishly funny. It’s got to be Fellini-esque.
Adding to the humor is how unimpressed Benoit Blanc is with all of them and making that pretty clear.
Exactly. Yeah. He is not very taken in. But yeah, man, I think when I pitched the movie to Edward before I sent up the script, I said, “Just so you’re prepared, we go a little more Strangelove with this one, than the first one.” It all just kind of comes up a few notches. And also though, I mean, tonally, it’s fun to me the notion that as we keep making these movies because I’m already thinking about the third one, that this is not a trajectory. This is kind of an illustration of each one of these can be vastly different based on the needs of what it’s about. You know what I mean? And that to me felt right once I was like, okay, it feels right for this one to be a little more vague and boisterous than giving myself permission to do that.
Oh, you’re going to make a third one?
No, that’s a joke. I have never seen you happier than talking about these movies. I think last time we spoke professionally was in Toronto before Knives Out. We were talking about Star Wars and finally I said something like, “I bet you just want to make Knives Out movies the rest of your career,” and your face lit up.
I mean look, it’s a genre I love. It’s a comforting thing. I don’t know, and this takes me back to the original inspiration of Agatha Christie, the fact that she wrote books for her entire life and never repeated herself. It’s a very malleable genre. It’s genre you can fit a lot of different things inside of. And so the notion that I can use this thing that I love, that people have a desire to see and you take wild swings in different directions with every new one of these, and take real risks, I mean within kind of a comfort zone. I don’t know, right now it’s just the most exciting thing to me.
You love the Peter Ustinov Hercule Poirot, right?
He’s my favorite. I get in arguments with Patton Oswalt, who’s a huge whodunit nut.
Well, Ustinov is really funny. Benoit Blanc and he have similar swimming trousers.
Well, that’s very much the Evil Under the Sun scene, that was taken directly from it. I mean, the hourly dong is a straight lift of the noonday gun from Evil Under the Sun. The movie was a big, big influence. But yeah, Ustinov got the essential clownishness of the character. And I think Death on the Nile is where he hit the sweet spot. He maybe went a little goofy in Evil Under the Sun, but I still love it. But Death on the Nile, he gets what’s essentially buffoonish about Poirot. And I think that’s really important. David Suchet is a fantastic actor and a great Poirot. I know he is probably most people’s favorite Poirot. I really like the kind of clownish humor that Ustinov brought to it.
That’s why, no offense to anyone who’s in your cast, but that’s why Roger Moore is my favorite Bond, which is not most people’s favorite. And I grew up with him as Bond.
I mean that’s probably the other essential thing. I love Ustinov, my favorite because those were the movies I was watching when I was 10 years old. Ultimately, that’s what it boils down to.
Where’s Benoit Blanc from?
Well, we never say. We haven’t said.
Do you know?
Yeah, I mean his accent is Mississippi. His accent is based mostly on Shelby Foote. I believe is a Mississippi accent. If I’m wrong, I’m sure somebody will let me know.
Wait, people criticize you on the internet? I don’t think anyone would be that rude to do that.
It’s a phenomenon that’s specific to me, Mike. You don’t have to ever worry about this. So the accent is from Shelby Foote. I can assume he’s from Mississippi. We never specify though.
Do you know where he went to school? Do you have all this in your head?
Because I find him fascinating now, and now I want to know his history.
See, so that’s interesting. And this is something that I was very relieved that Daniel and I are on the same page with. I think little tiny glimpses into that is fun for me. And it’s a trap that I find myself as a writer having to really push back against, just for myself. Having Daniel Craig in that part, the temptation is to think that Blanc as a character is what’s interesting about these movies.
I think it’s getting there, though. I feel that way more now than I did with Knives Out, that he’s what interesting. I mean the movies are great, but also you created an extremely interesting character.
Well, let me clarify that.
He’s interesting in his function within the mystery, you know what I mean?
I guess, but him sitting in a bathtub because he is scared of the pandemic is also really funny and interesting. I mean, you say glimpses, but we learn a lot about him in this one.
I guess, I still count that as a glimpse. But yeah, I don’t know the notion of building out a backstory, learning where he came from, all of that stuff, to me, I don’t know, I have a natural inclination to kind of push that stuff back and to say a little goes a long way in terms of that. And ultimately this has to be the story of the mystery. The mystery’s the thing. And the detective is interesting is the way he solves his function within solving the mystery. And if we get glimpses beyond that, that’s great. But I feel like a little of that goes a very long way for me.
So we’re not getting The Young Benoit Chronicles?
Sorry. Maybe, someday after I’m dead and gone, it’ll be streaming on a mind chip.
Speaking of little glimpses, we meet Hugh Grant who is in a relationship with Benoit Blanc’s. Has he agreed to do more? Will he come back? Will we see more of that?
We haven’t agreed to anything with it. I don’t know, if it made sense, we would definitely bring it back.
I want to know where these two meet. But see, I’m getting into the stuff you don’t want to do.
Yeah. That’s the thing, it’s boring. I don’t know. It’s not boring…
That’s not boring. I’m fascinated by Benoit, he’s the most interesting man on screen right now.
The thing is, the most interesting man in the world, like from those beer commercials, is that way because you only see him in a 30-second beer commercial. If you actually suddenly spent the weekend at his house, he would become a lot less interesting.
So he’s hanging out in his bathtub?
Playing online games with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
I mean, the thing is, if it makes sense at some point to show more of Blanc’s life, that’s great to me. Also, to me, you know what it is? To me, I feel like I have to, with each one of these movies, just really focus my attention on the suspects, and the mystery, and the murder. And making sure that’s what drives the audience’s interest and not taking my eye off the ball. And that honestly takes all my energy and all my attention making that work. And so the notion of getting distracted from that and thinking, for a second, because I can lean back from that and get away with just telling everybody stories about how Blanc went to school here or there…
I’m in, though. Do that.
[Laughs] Oh for God’s sake, Mike. What are you doing?
Alright, I have to go.
I love it. I love it.
Well, anyway, make more Benoit Blanc movies. I love these.
I’ll attempt to. And I’ll send you a whole backstory. I’ll write out some bullshit and send it to you if that will make you happy.
Oh kind of like the “You’re So Vain” secret? Where only I can know this, and I have to take it to my death?
[Laughs] All right.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.