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'Knives Out' director takes a stab at tech moguls in 'Glass Onion'

In his 2019 film Knives Out, director Rian Johnson crafted an Agatha Christie-style whodunit that also spoke volumes about class inequality and privilege in America. Now he's back, and this time he's taking aim at the tech billionaires.




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Other segments from the episode on December 12, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 12, 2022: Interview with Rian Johnson; Review of A Dangerous Business and Remarkably Bright Creatures.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest, Rian Johnson, who wrote and directed the popular comedic murder mystery "Knives Out," has a new sequel called "Glass Onion." It starts streaming on Netflix December 23. Rian Johnson spoke with our producer, Sam Briger. Here's Sam.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: "Glass Onion" brings back the Southern gentleman Detective Benoit Blanc, played by Daniel Craig, to uncover a new mystery. This time, tech billionaire Miles Bron, actor Ed Norton, has invited his closest friends - the group calls themself the disruptors - to his private island in Greece for a long weekend getaway during COVID to play out a murder mystery game. His invitation comes encased in a large, elaborate puzzle box that each guest receives and has to solve.

His friends include a Connecticut governor running for Senate, the chief scientist at his company, a men's rights YouTuber and a former model, who now owns a successful sweatpants company and thinks of herself as a social media truth teller, but who is often just really offensive. Also invited but whom we can't really call Miles' friend is Andy, who was Bron's former business partner until he shut her out of the business. And Benoit Blanc appears, much to Bron's confusion. Blanc tells him he received his own puzzle box and invitation.

Rian Johnson gets some wonderful performances from his cast of Craig, Norton, Janelle Monae, Leslie Odom Jr., Kathryn Hahn, Dave Bautista, Kate Hudson, Jessica Henwick and Madelyn Cline in this very entertaining comedy. As you might expect, the murder mystery game becomes very real. And Benoit Blanc finds himself in another whodunit. Along the way, Johnson skewers the culture of social media influencers and the cultlike worship of tech billionaires.

"Glass Onion" is the sequel to "Knives Out." And another Benoit Blanc mystery is expected. Rian Johnson's other films are "Brick," "The Brothers Bloom," "Looper" and "Star Wars: The Last Jedi." Let's start with a clip from "Glass Onion." The guests have arrived on Bron's island. And Miles has a quick word with Blanc to ask him why he's there. Blanc hands him his invitation.


EDWARD NORTON: (As Miles) I didn't send it to you.

DANIEL CRAIG: (As Benoit) How many of these boxes did you create?

NORTON: (As Miles) Five - one for each of my friends.

CRAIG: (As Benoit) No test boxes? No prototypes?

NORTON: (As Miles) My puzzle guy barely got the five done in time and he apprenticed with Ricky Jay.

CRAIG: (As Benoit) And once the boxes are open and the puzzles completed, is there any way to close them again, to reset them?

NORTON: (As Miles) Hang on. Hang on. Someone reset the box. Someone reset the box.

CRAIG: (As Benoit) Oh. Oh.

NORTON: (As Miles) They sent it to you as a gag. Miles is doing a murder mystery. Let's invite Benoit freaking Blanc. Oh (laughter), it's so good.

CRAIG: (As Benoit) I am mortified. I don't...

NORTON: (As Miles) Why? I've got the predefinite (ph) detective in the world at my murder mystery party. That is so legit.

CRAIG: (As Benoit) Mr. Bron, I've learned through bitter experience that an anonymous invitation is not to be trifled with.

NORTON: (As Miles) OK. Look; come on. I'd love to have you visit me at my home. There, you've been invited. You're an official guest now - thrilled to have you. I mean, relax. Enjoy yourself. Hey, try to solve the murder mystery if you can. I don't want to toot my own horn but it's pretty next level. I'm going to foil. I'll see you at the pool.

BRIGER: That's Ed Norton and Daniel Craig in the new movie "Glass Onion" by my guest, Rian Johnson. Rian Johnson, welcome to FRESH AIR.

RIAN JOHNSON: Hey, Sam. Thank you for having me.

BRIGER: So Benoit Blanc is back for another mystery here. When you were writing this story, what were the elements of the first movie that you knew you wanted to keep and some of the things that you definitely didn't want to have again?

JOHNSON: Well, this - a big part of making this movie was thinking of it not really as a continuation of the first one, but kind of going back to the source of inspiration for me for all of this, which were Agatha Christie's books. And as a big fan of Agatha Christie, I think there's sometimes a common misperception that she told the same story over and over, like "The Body In The Library" - yada, yada, yada.

And anyone who actually is a fan of Christie knows the opposite is true. She was doing wildly different things with every book and taking crazy narrative swings and shaking up not just the location and the cast of characters and the type of murder, but she was mixing genres. She was - every single thing - you can tell with every single new book why she was excited to write it. And that, I guess, was the main thing I wanted to do with this. I wanted to create another fun, you know, murder mystery. But I wanted to tell the audience, if we keep making these movies, each one is going to be a completely different ride.

BRIGER: So do you have a favorite Agatha Christie detective?

JOHNSON: Well, Poirot was always kind of my guy coming up. And in terms of the novels, I still think it's hard to beat "The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd." In terms of the movie adaptations, the original "Death On The Nile" with Peter Ustinov is my favorite. I feel like Ustinov made Poirot an intriguing character but still got the essential humor of him. And I always come back to that one.

BRIGER: Now, one of the things about Hercule Poirot is that he has a very thick French accent, which actors...

JOHNSON: Belgian, Belgian (laughter).

BRIGER: Oh, excuse me. Excuse me. I'm talking to a real fan here. A Belgian accent - apologies. And, you know, Daniel Craig has a very thick Southern accent here. And even in the first movie, one of your characters describes it as a Kentucky Fried Foghorn Leghorn draw. Did you give him any notes about that accent?

JOHNSON: Well, when I first wrote - when I wrote the first script, I think I didn't want to freak out any potential financiers. And so I described it as the slightest hint of a faint whisp of a gentle lilt of a Southern accent. I use, like, 18 adjectives to tamp it down. And then, of course, Daniel and I started going. We just - we went to town. We sent clips back and forth. My only directive was I wanted it to be a pleasing accent to listen to. And ultimately, we kind of settled on - it's largely based on Shelby Foote, the historian who's in some of the Ken Burns documentaries, is probably where people know him most from. But he has a very - I think it's a Mississippi accent, but it's a very honeyed accent. And that's kind of what we aimed for.

BRIGER: Now, you know, there's a lot of murder mysteries that require a huge suspension of disbelief to accept just, like, how the murderer committed the crime. Like, there's all these crazy twists. Like, did you have to rein yourself in writing these? Like, was there a point where you were like, oh, that's just too crazy - I can't go there?

JOHNSON: (Laughter) Well, if you've seen this movie, probably not.


BRIGER: Fair enough.

JOHNSON: I kind of allowed myself to - well, I mean, this film is a little tonally bigger than the first one. The first one is kind of - you know, it's about a family in New England. And it's a little closer to the ground. This one, just out of necessity of who it's - who and what it's about, the fact that there's a tech billionaire in the middle of it, just that - you know, it felt like it had to - (laughter) we had to raise our voices a little bit to match the carnival-like insanity that we've all experienced, that just keeps topping itself every time you turn on the news for the past six years.

And a big part of these movies is trying to connect up with the present moment - so to use this form that's largely been seen recently as period pieces set in England, and set a traditional whodunit in America right here and now. And so, yeah, it gets a little wacky. But that's - to me, that's because this stuff has just been getting progressively wackier over the past however many years.

BRIGER: Well, let's talk about some of the wackier characters that you have in "Glass Onion." You know, in the first movie, you skewered this entitled family of a very successful and wealthy mystery writer. But in this movie, you're more targeting, like, social media influencers and, as you said, like, tech billionaires. Let's start with Birdie, played by Kate Hudson. Like, she was a former model. She now - during COVID, she created a sweatpants company that's become very successful. And she sort of thinks of herself as, like, this no-filter truth teller. And she's often just tweeting, like, super offensive things. And she even went on "Oprah" and compared herself to Harriet Tubman.

JOHNSON: (Laughter).

BRIGER: Like - so can you talk about Birdie's origins?

JOHNSON: Yeah. I mean, the instant I had the tech billionaire at the center, that kind of informed who I was going to fill out the rest of the suspects with. And with Birdie, for instance, I mean, she is a very over-the-top comic character. She is also, though, one of the suspects. She may very well have, you know? She - anyone in these people could have done it. And so that means that she can't - that on the screen, it can't just become kind of a joke. And when you have characters this broad and a character like Birdie who's this broad, you need an actress with the comic intelligence of someone like Kate Hudson playing it.

BRIGER: Yeah. I mean, all the all the acting is really great, even, like, the smaller roles, like Jessica Henwick and Madelyn Cline. Like, everyone's doing great work here. And that kind of brings me to Ed Norton, who plays the tech billionaire, Miles Bron, who's the kind of guy that does deals at ayahuasca ceremonies.

JOHNSON: (Laughter).

BRIGER: You know, there's a tendency right now to worship tech billionaires as these invaluable geniuses, even when their companies are perhaps harming, like, the democracy. Like, when you were writing "Glass Onion," were you feeling particularly frustrated about tech billionaires?

JOHNSON: Well, I mean, it's odd. Like, I wrote this movie in 2020. I wrote it a few years ago. So the cast of characters of who we were talking about as tech billionaires has kind of shifted a little. So it's odd that the movie feels this relevant in the present moment, but it does. I mean, while I was writing, I found it instantly unuseful and kind of boring to start thinking about any specific person. The instance of making fun of tech billionaires - I mean, it's fun, but it's also kind of easy and not all that interesting in terms of actually building a movie around it.

I guess what was more interesting to me is the idea of these people and their place in society and our relationship to them kind of as Americans. I think we do have this uniquely American thing - I can speak for myself; I have it - built into us of just instinctually mistaking wealth for competence or wisdom. And we also have this relationship with this - with these folks where we want to sling arrows at them and make fun of them and, you know, quote-tweet them and put them down on Twitter. But we also, though, all have that deep-down thing inside where we also kind of want them to be Willy Wonka, you know? We also want their - like, well, maybe you don't bet against them, you know? So that tension...

BRIGER: Yeah, look to them for solutions.

JOHNSON: Yeah, completely. We think maybe they'll take us up in the great glass elevator and take us to Mars.

BRIGER: He also uses this word disruptor a lot, which was a very popular word in the tech world for a while, this idea that you have to break things to make things better. And he's very lazy in the way he uses it. Like, he seems not really to think about what he's saying. At one point, he even says, she disrupted herself.

JOHNSON: She disrupted her own disruption.


BRIGER: Yeah, that's right. So, like, that word seems pretty ripe as a target these days, huh?

JOHNSON: Yeah. And, you know, that's the other thing that I love about the murder mystery form, is it's - you think about what it actually is. It's - at its essence, it's building up a little group of suspects who all have a power dynamic within the group. You're essentially building a little microcosm of society. And so it's a great, great tool for looking at systems and kind of examining systems that exist within society. That's why I was so excited to make a present-day one that actually just engaged with America right now, 'cause I feel like it hadn't been used for that in a long while, all in the context of a fun murder mystery, of this candy-coated shell. So I'll just say that Miles is obviously at the top of this power structure. He doesn't actually want to disrupt anything. He is sitting pretty.

BRIGER: Disruption would not help him.

JOHNSON: It absolutely would not. And so the notion of disruption actually being applied to that would be actually horrifying to somebody like that. So that seemed interesting to me.

BRIGER: Well, Rian, we need to take a quick break here. If you're just joining us, our guest is filmmaker Rian Johnson. His new movie is "Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery." We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, our guest is filmmaker Rian Johnson. His new film is a sequel to his popular murder mystery comedy "Knives Out." It's called "Glass Onion."

Rian, I'd like to talk about some of your earlier films, starting with your first movie, "Brick," from 2005, which I really enjoyed seeing the first time I saw it and just as much recently when preparing for this interview. This is, like, a hardboiled crime story that takes place in a high school. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the star of it. And like all the characters that you would find in hard crime story are here, but they're just all teenagers. There's, like, the gumshoe detective. There's the femme fatale. There's the heavy, the kingpin. They're all, like, teenagers or very young adults. And one of the interesting things about the movie is, like, all the characters sound like they're right out of a detective film or novel from, like, the '30s and '40s. So how did that idea come to you of setting, like, a crime, a hardboiled crime, particularly of, like, the '30s and '40s in, like, a contemporary high school?

JOHNSON: Well, I mean the pathway to it was - first of all, I was obsessed with the Coen Brothers' film "Miller's Crossing." And reading interviews with them led me to Dashiell Hammett's books, which - I was familiar with film noir, but I'd never actually read the source. And discovering those books and the continental ops stories that he wrote just felt kind of like this visceral punch to the gut. And there was something so powerful about them. And so it was kind of wanting to get around to cut through kind of the haze of our collective nostalgia about film noir and kind of get to what I felt actually reading those books.

And it was that combined with - I wrote it in my early 20s when I was right out of college, and high school was something that I'd still fairly recently come out of. And there was something about kind of this stratified, terrifying world of these detective novels that lined up with my emotional memories of high school. And so putting it in that setting both took away the audience's ability to lean on their preconceptions, you know, of wet alleyways and Venetian blind shadows and fedoras and you put in a new setting just so that we'd have to come at it fresh. As an audience, it also connected up in a way with these kind of deep, dark, emotional memories of surviving high school.

BRIGER: The dialogue sort of made me - I mean, it's so estranged from my experience as a teen, but it sort of reminded me of, like, that heightened sense of drama when you were that age.

JOHNSON: Absolutely. The stakes feel life and death. And also it feels - I don't know. You know, the - I think about, you know, the detective going to the high society party, and it feeling kind of like this world that has rules that you don't quite know and feels kind of terrifying. And there are so many situations in high school that felt that way to me.

BRIGER: So you had - like, when you were writing, you had a real sense memory of what that was all like.

JOHNSON: It's not like I had an exceedingly traumatic high school experience, but I was definitely not popular in high school. I was definitely - had a good group of friends, but we did - the place where Brendan, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character, eats lunch in the back of the school at that, like, drainage ditch, that's actually where my friends and I ate lunch during school.

BRIGER: Yeah, because you filmed it at your actual high school, right?

JOHNSON: We did. We filmed it at San Clemente High School, where I went, yeah.

BRIGER: You know, I read that you said that you had a lot of helplessness and rage back then.

JOHNSON: Yeah. Yeah. I feel like I definitely did. I don't know how much everyone does to some degree during teenage years. You know, I feel like being an adult is just realizing you didn't actually connect or know so many of the people except through the lens of what their place was in this social order. Maybe things have changed for high schoolers these days.

BRIGER: I don't think so.

JOHNSON: (Laughter) Very possible they haven't (laughter). Yeah. Well...

BRIGER: I want to play a scene from "Brick" just to give us a sense of the language, the dialogue. And this is a rare scene where there's an adult in the movie. The whole world is almost completely parentless. So the main character, Brendan, as you said, is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He's been trying to find out what's happened to his ex-girlfriend, Emily, who's gone missing. She's gotten involved with this, like, bad druggie crowd, and he's been trying to snoop out what's been happening. Right before the scene, he's been punched and knocked out by this heavy, and he's been brought into the assistant vice principal's office. And they have a relationship because in the past, like, Brendan helped bust, like, a local high school drug dealer named Jerrod (ph). In this scene, the vice principal is played by Richard Roundtree. And this is kind of like the scene in film noir, like, where the detective gets, like, pulled into the police department to get yelled at.


RICHARD ROUNDTREE: (As Assistant VP Trueman) So you didn't know this boy?

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: (As Brendan) No, sir, never seen him.

ROUNDTREE: (As Assistant VP Trueman) And he just hit you?

GORDON-LEVITT: (As Brendan) Like I said, he asked for my lunch money first. Good thing I brown bagged it.

ROUNDTREE: (As Assistant VP Trueman) OK, Brendan, I've been looking to talk to you, and you've helped this office out before.

GORDON-LEVITT: (As Brendan) No. I gave you Jerr to see him eaten, not to see you fed.

ROUNDTREE: (As Assistant VP Trueman) Fine. Very well put.

GORDON-LEVITT: (As Brendan) Accelerated English. Mrs. Kasprzyk.

ROUNDTREE: (As Assistant VP Trueman) Tough teacher.

GORDON-LEVITT: (As Brendan) Tough, but fair.

ROUNDTREE: (As Assistant VP Trueman) OK. We know you're clean. And you've - despite your motives, you've always been an asset to this office. And you're a good kid. I want to run some names past you. Hold it. We're not done here.

GORDON-LEVITT: (As Brendan) I was done here three months ago. I told you then I'd give you Jerr and that was that. I'm not your inside line. And I'm not your boy.

ROUNDTREE: (As Assistant VP Trueman) That's not very...

GORDON-LEVITT: (As Brendan) You know what I'm in if the wrong yegg saw me pulled in here?

ROUNDTREE: (As Assistant VP Trueman) What are you in?

GORDON-LEVITT: (As Brendan) No. And no more of these informal chats either. If you got a discipline issue with me, write me up or suspend me. And I'll see you at the parent conference.

BRIGER: That's a great scene from "Brick," the first movie by my guest, Rian Johnson. Rian, I love that line, I'll see you at the parent-teacher conference.

JOHNSON: (Laughter) Yeah. And, I mean, two things - the VP, this kind of stand-in for a chief of police there, is played by the great Richard Roundtree, who, besides just being a lovely guy who came into this very, very weird movie for one day and, God bless him, knocked it out of the park, he's - I was excited because "Shaft" is kind of like a similar animal. It's very much repositioning the classic kind of Hammett P.I. - in that case, kind of in the Blaxploitation genre. And so it was fun to have Richard in the movie. Also, the English teacher that Joe mentions, Mrs. Kasprzyk, that's - Sheila Kasprzyk was my high school English teacher who was very tough but fair. She passed away a few years ago, and she is - was the first person to kind of encourage me seriously as a writer. And taking her class at San Clemente High is a big part of the reason I'm writing stories for a living today.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview our producer, Sam Briger, recorded with screenwriter and director Rian Johnson about his new murder mystery comedy, "Glass Onion." It's a sequel to his movie "Knives Out." We'll hear more of their interview after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with screenwriter and director Rian Johnson. His new film, "Glass Onion," is a sequel to his popular comedic murder mystery "Knives Out." Johnson's other films include "Brick," "The Brothers Bloom," "Looper" and "Star Wars: The Last Jedi." He spoke with our producer, Sam Briger.

BRIGER: So when you were growing up, like, what were the kind of movies that, like, really caught your attention and made you think, like, oh, that's what I want to do?

JOHNSON: Well, I mean, as a kid, it was the same cloud of stuff that - you know, it's probably the same for everybody. But my whole family loves movies. And my dad, even though he wasn't in the business at all, he loved movies and kind of, really, worshiped film directors. And so my dad introduced me to Scorsese and showed me "Raging Bull." And through the lens of - here is an artist who is really doing something. And my granddad loved Fellini. And I think that's very important, and, like, as a young person, seeing - not just watching these movies and being exposed to them but, for me, seeing it through the lens of their respect for this thing. And in that way, this kind of - it was this revered object that I felt like I was being let in on. And so that kind of led to opening up. When I got into film school, then there was, you know - I just watched three or four movies a day sometimes and would just absorb kind of all the film-school canon.

BRIGER: And I think you've said that your dad's love of movies actually, like, manifested - like, he would have liked to have been in the movies. Like, did he sort of wish that he had been a filmmaker, like a director?

JOHNSON: Yeah, I think he really did. He was trying to write the script, and he - I think, honestly, he wanted to be - he wishes he was an actor. He was a real ham. He passed away some years ago. He was - when he was around, he was a real - he was a larger-than-life guy. And I think, ultimately, he wishes he had been (laughter) a movie star. I gave him - before he passed, we - I did put him in my film "Looper." He's briefly in a scene. He gets shot in the face by Bruce Willis, which...


BRIGER: He's one of those...

JOHNSON: Yes, it is.

BRIGER: ...The victims of the assassins.

JOHNSON: I have this great shot of...

BRIGER: Thanks, son.

JOHNSON: Yeah - oh, he loved it. He was in hog heaven. There's a great shot of him with, like, his bloody, makeup'd (ph) face hugging Bruce Willis, and he has the biggest smile on his face.


BRIGER: So did he encourage you to go into the movie business?

JOHNSON: Yeah. He was always my biggest cheerleader in going into it. And he absolutely loved it. And yeah, I mean, if there's any just bittersweetness to the whole thing, it's just - you know, he passed away a few months before I was approached for the "Star Wars" job. And that would have been - I can only imagine. And that's so much of making movies since then is always framed by, you know, my God, what would Dad say if he were here right now?

BRIGER: I guess he had seen you have some success, though, before then.

JOHNSON: Oh, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. But...

BRIGER: That was a biggie.

JOHNSON: But "Star Wars," man - I never - he would have said - he would have literally bought a tent and lived on that set. I would never have - (laughter).

BRIGER: Probably need another role as a stormtrooper or something like that.

JOHNSON: Yeah. Oh, my God. Are you kidding? No, he would - (laughter) sure he would be lobbying for a much bigger part this time.

BRIGER: Well, in 2017, you did "Star Wars: The Last Jedi." This was the second film in the final Star Wars trilogy. And I've heard you describe yourself as a Star Wars fan. Was this, like, a dream come true to you?

JOHNSON: This was the ultimate dream come true, yeah. This was - I mean, this was the heavens opening (laughter) and everything that - all the cliches you can imagine. And the whole process also, soup to nuts, the whole thing, from writing it to working in Pinewood Studios and working with those amazing craftsmen and those actors and shooting a Star Wars movie to putting it out and the experience over the past few years of getting to know Star Wars fans and people connecting to the movie and talking to me about it. I mean, the entire thing has just been - you know, I don't know that I'll ever - it feels like a mountain in the middle of my life. I doubt I'll ever top it, you know, in terms of just the breadth and depth of the experience.

BRIGER: Had you, like, thought about, as a young person or even as you age, like, things that you would put into your Star Wars movie if it ever happened?

JOHNSON: I mean, no, I didn't really have, like, a wish list of, oh, wouldn't it be cool if - blah de doo (ph). First of all, I was continuing a story, so it very much had a starting point. And so I had a foundation to work off of. And I was really - I mean, yeah, man, I was trying to get everything that I love about Star Wars into one movie. We had talked a little bit about the approach to genre and trying to - that sometimes in getting the heart of something in a way that's actually going to make audiences feel something beyond nostalgia, that sometimes you have to find a new way into it or - and so that was another element of it.

But all in the - what I want is to make audiences feel the way I felt as a kid watching "The Empire Strikes Back." And that was a very terrifying, disorienting experience, you know? I think if you shake off kind of the lens of nostalgia and remember your experience as a kid watching that movie, it's pretty scary. And the - I think the twist of, I am your father, holds, you know, the same power that a great fairy tale or a great myth holds. And that's because it connects up in a terrifying way with some of our - you know, some of the deepest fears that you have inside you when you're going through that adolescent transition in your life. So anyway, all to say that my goal was to actually create that feeling when watching it, not just remind people of when they had that feeling however many years ago.

BRIGER: You know, there's a lot of playfulness in your movie that, for me, harkened back to the first "Star Wars" movie. I feel like maybe some of the other ones were less funny or took themselves maybe too seriously. But, like, for example, you have a scene where it looks like this triangular spaceship is landing, and all this steam is coming out of it, and then it turns out, like, it's just the bottom of a clothing iron that a robot's using to press this uniform. And Luke Skywalker is milking this really strange-looking walrus, like, in order to get something to drink on his remote island. I don't know. I just liked - I liked how you added those sort of touches of humor.

JOHNSON: Thanks, man. Yeah, I mean, again, talking about just getting stuff that felt Star Wars-y to me. I was probably a little too young for "The Empire Strikes Back" when I saw it. That probably is why it had such a profound effect on me. But I was the perfect age when "Return Of The Jedi" was in theaters. And "Return Of The Jedi" that - you know, has a lot more of the type of humor that you're talking about and isn't afraid of being slightly goofy at times, you know, and having fun and having that tone.

BRIGER: Or even like - even the "Star Wars." Like, there's just, like, this sort of Hollywood winking to it that's like - like, this is a big, spectacular, fun thing, you know?

JOHNSON: Absolutely. Well, and they had fun. I mean, there was - there's a scene that should be the most serious, dire scene in the entire movie where they're - you know, they have - they're doing this ruse that Chewie has, like, handcuffs on and they're taking him down the hallway. They're in the middle of the Death Star. They're in the - they're behind enemy lines. Their lives are threatened at every moment. A little droid - like, the little wheeler droid comes up. And it's a very dangerous situation, and Chewie roars at it. The droid then scampers away like a little dog. And then Chewie turns to - you know, turns to Luke and does, like, a comic shrug. I don't know. That feels as baked into the bones of what "Star Wars" is to me as anything else, you know?

BRIGER: You know, the film was very well-received critically and did very well. There was this - it's no other way to describe it - like, racist and sexist blowback that some people who saw it, like, didn't really like that some of the main characters weren't white and male. And, like, even some of the cast was harassed after the movie came out. This has become, like, a real issue recently, but sort of when "The Last Jedi" came out, that felt, I mean, scary, but new. Like, did - were you surprised by that reaction?

JOHNSON: Yeah. And I also always want to make a differentiation here. There's what you're talking about, which is kind of the rancid part of it. There are also people that just didn't like the movie and didn't like, you know, what it was saying. And making sure - but making sure - I just always want to make that separation so it doesn't seem like we're conflating those two.

BRIGER: I'm talking about the people that didn't like having female leads or people of color as leads, yeah.

JOHNSON: Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah, if - it completely - it probably shouldn't have, but because there had been some rumblings of it when "The Force Awakens" came out - but the tidal wave definitely broke open around the time that our movie came out. Yeah, man, I mean, look, it's something that, I think, fan culture is - has been kind of figuring out how to deal with. I mean, I feel like - at least my current thinking on it is you got to call it out, you got to stomp it out, you got to shout it down. You got to make it very vocally apparent that it's not welcome in our space. And I think for a while, there was the question of, does that just amplify it? Should you not feed the trolls? And I feel like - I don't know, man. I feel like you got to punch some Nazis, you know? You got to get them out the door.

BRIGER: We need to take a short break. If you're just joining us, our guest is filmmaker Rian Johnson. He has a new movie, "Glass Onion," which is a sequel to his very popular murder mystery comedy "Knives Out." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with filmmaker Rian Johnson. His new movie is "Glass Onion," which is a sequel to his very popular murder mystery comedy "Knives Out."

So, you know, watching all your films this past week, like, I started to see some patterns in them. And perhaps I was seeing patterns where there weren't any. But...

JOHNSON: You're in too deep, Sam. You're in too deep. Pull out.

BRIGER: (Laughter) Yeah, well, one thing I was wondering, and this is kind of a weird question, is whether or not you have a fascination with drainpipes, sewers and underground tunnels?

JOHNSON: (Laughter) That's interesting. I mean, talk about a potent image, I guess.

BRIGER: Yes. That's right. Yeah.

JOHNSON: I don't know. It makes me think - I do have a fascination with - I mean, for instance, like, I can think of plenty of movies that tap into that. Like, there's that great shot in "Barton Fink," where it goes into the sink drain. So not to the point where I have a - it up on the mood board or something in my writing office. But I think it's also the notion of burying stuff, the notion of dark places where things are hidden, I think. That's probably what I'm, you know, tapping into when I put a tunnel on the screen (laughter).

BRIGER: Well, speaking of mood boards, I - when I watched "The Brothers Bloom," I noticed that the Mark Ruffalo character - this is a movie about con games, and he creates these very elaborate diagrams of the con that they're about to put on. And then I also noticed that in "Glass Onion," a very similar diagram plays an important role in that movie. Like, are you a diagrammer (ph)? Like, is that how you plot out your films?

JOHNSON: That's exactly how I write. Yes (laughter), that's a one-to-one. You rang the bell on that one. Yes.

BRIGER: So you have all these boxes with arrows going all over the place.

JOHNSON: I wouldn't read that much into it, Sam. I wouldn't...


JOHNSON: No, I draw it a little bit differently. I do arcs. I draw, like, a line across the page and kind of do little crosshatches and split it up into sequences. But I work in outline form for the first 90% of the writing process. I'm a big structure guy, and I don't sit down and write the script until the very, very, very, very end of the process. I'm a planner. I'm a diagrammer. I need to figure out the road map before I write.

BRIGER: So the thing about the genre of con movies is that, as an audience, you're always trying to figure out, like, what's part of the con? Like, is this real or is this the con? And at the end, there's usually this final twist, and it turns out that the thing you thought was real, like, this tragic ending, is still part of the con. Again, like, sort of like your "Knives Out" movies, in my opinion, you kind of turn that on its head for this movie.

JOHNSON: Yeah, a little bit, I suppose. Yeah. You know, I spent my 20s trying to get my first movie made. I got a shot to do a second movie, and it was kind of like trying to stuff a tomato into a matchbox. I just had all this stuff that I wanted to get into it, and it's kind of overflowing with stuff that I love. And a big part of that, yeah, is this - you know, the notion of this all-encompassing fiction of a con, the notion of just looking at that as storytelling and kind of the healthy - and the healthy aspects of that. It also - yeah, I don't know. Not to turn this into a therapy session, but I - having grown up religious and, like, very personally religious and then kind of falling out - having fallen out of that coming into my 20s, the notion of how you frame the world and the stories that you tell your perception of the world through and - can those change? That was also something that was very much fed into that movie.

BRIGER: What religion did you grow up as?

JOHNSON: I was Christian. I was just kind of - we were - I was a youth group kid in Orange County. So it was kind of Orange County Protestant. But it was a very personal thing from personal belief. It was not just I went to church every Sunday with my parents. I very much was in it and framed the world through that lens.

BRIGER: Was there, like, a specific moment where you broke away from religion? Or was it, like, a gradual progression?

JOHNSON: No, it was a fairly quick but gradual progression. There was no - you know, there was no seeing the dying horse on the side of the road and, dear God, who would ever allow this, you know? There was no moment like that, nothing out of a Dostoevsky novel. It was just kind of going to college, getting out of sort of the bubble of, you know, the world that I had been in and meeting new people and - but yeah, yeah. When it happened, it happened fairly quickly.

BRIGER: Have you sort of tried to replace that framing with something else?

JOHNSON: One thing that did very much help the transition through my 20s was - my dad had been really into Carl Jung. And so picking up Jung's books, there was something about kind of being able to transfer what I projected on an outside entity of God, take that same thing and realize, OK, I wasn't crazy. It's just what I was feeling was the internal structure of my psyche and the self as kind of - sort of - and that's actually what I was having a relationship with - are these things inside my own sense of self. You know, so it very much helped me kind of, like, transition into a view of the world that made sense.

BRIGER: You know, I'm certainly not a Jungian, but I know that Jung talks a lot about archetypes. Was - did that influence the way that you sort of thought about characters and roles in your movies?

JOHNSON: Hugely, yeah, hugely, and the way that he takes archetypes and also dream images. You know, we talked - you asked me before about tunnels and holes and the notion of tapping into something that's - the way that Jung describes the difference between a symbol and an allegory, where an allegory is kind of a cheap coin of, this represents that, versus a symbol is something that, in an almost undefinable way, evokes something else in the human psyche. And getting deeply into the archetypes that Jung draws was a huge, huge thing that kind of guided how I think about characters in movies.

BRIGER: So are you writing the next "Knives Out" mystery?

JOHNSON: Yeah. Right now I'm - I got a cloud of ideas going. I haven't really struck on the thing that makes it all lock together, but I'm starting. I'm trying to get ahead of the game and trying to kind of figure out what it's going to be. I mean, it's incredibly exciting to me. Like, I guess I kind of expected I would - it would be healthy to do something completely different next before I made another Benoit Blanc mystery. But the reality is I just keep coming back to being excited by what the third movie can be, how it could be completely different from the first two. So, yeah, I'm into it.

BRIGER: Great. Well, I look forward to seeing that. Rian Johnson, it's been really a pleasure to talk with you. Thanks so much for being here today.

JOHNSON: Thanks for having me, Sam.

GROSS: Rian Johnson spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Johnson wrote and directed the new film "Glass Onion," a sequel to his film "Knives Out." "Glass Onion" will start streaming on Netflix December 23. This is FRESH AIR.


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