With ‘Knives Out’ At The Denver Film Fest, Director Rian Johnson Returns To Colorado After Visiting A Galaxy Far, Far Away

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Chris Evans (left), Ana de Armas (center) and director Rian Johnson on the set of “Knives Out.”

A star-studded whodunit gets the red-carpet treatment Thursday evening at this year's Denver Film Festival opening night presentation.

"Knives Out" was produced, directed and written by Rian Johnson, whose name you might recognize as the director of 2017's "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," which raked in more than $1.3 billion dollars at the box office. 

Johnson spent a good chunk of his childhood in Denver, and "Knives Out" is a bit of a return to the kind of films he cut his teeth on, like his 2005 indie noir-style flick “Brick.” 

He admits that he has a penchant for mysteries, and that this film is a nod to a childhood favorite of his, mystery author Agatha Christie. 

“This is straight Christie,” he said. “I mean it's an original story. It's modern day. It has kind of a modern twist on it, but I love a good traditional whodunit.”

In the film, a celebrated crime novelist is found dead following his 85th birthday. It's initially thought to be a suicide. But something's fishy and everyone, especially the members of the author's dysfunctional family, becomes a suspect. There to solve the mystery is the dapper Detective Benoit Blanc, played by Daniel Craig. 

“So the whole idea was, if we're going to set this in 2019, we're not gonna just do like the modern version of Colonel Mustard and Professor Plum,” Johnson said. “We're going to have each of these character types be people that could only exist today and so you have a kid who's kind of an internet troll and a daughter who's aggressively socially progressive.”

The film also stars Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Chris Evans and Toni Collette. 

This year, Johnson is also receiving the Denver Film Festival's highest honor: the John Cassavetes Award. That puts him in company with the likes of Steven Soderbergh, Bill Pullman, William H. Macy, Elliott Gould and Kyra Sedgwick. 

Johnson spoke with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner about his new film, coming back to Denver and growing up making movies.

Q: Why is this pure Agatha Christie?

Well, the whodunit has a really specific structure. You have kind of a powerful person that gets murdered. And then usually there's a contained area, whether it's a mansion or they're all on an island somewhere. No one can get away. And then there's a group of colorful suspects who are all connected in some way. And then you have an eccentric detective who goes about solving the case. 

Rian Johnson Star Wars
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Star Wars director Rian Johnson in the CPR studios with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner on Thursday Oct. 31 2019.

Q: Do you start with the mystery solved and work your way back as you're writing this?

I knew kind of, like, how they did it. And then I was like, ‘Okay, if this is the relationship of the characters, it means this type of person will be the killer and this type of person will be the victim in this.’ And I start filling in the blanks. But I start even more broadly, and I really start with the foundation of the house. And then I start figuring out where to put the rooms. 

Q: That must have been fun to search for the house. Is that like casting? 

It is very much like casting, especially with this movie. I mean the whole thing is set basically in this one mansion, the family home. And we needed to find the murder mystery mansion of the mind. And we found this amazing house in Massachusetts, and went to Massachusetts to film there, and we just basically shot most of the movie in this one incredible house. 

Q: How does it feel to have your work screen here and win this accolade in the city you used to call home? 

Just to be showing the movie here for me is incredibly special. I mean, I was a kid here. I was here up through sixth grade and went to Dry Creek Elementary and lived in Englewood. I have a huge family that I'm really close to, and a lot of them still live in Denver. And so I'm out here quite often seeing them and they're all [coming] to the screening. And to receive that award — I don't feel like I've earned it, but it was in an incredibly generous gesture by the film festival. You list those names who have gotten it previously. Like, give me another 10 years. I might get there, I might get to the level of any of those people. Those are some of my heroes. 

What Else Is Screening At The Denver Film Festival? Check Out The Full Lineup

Q: Did you make movies or try to in some kind of low rent way when you were living in Colorado? 

My dad loved gadgets, and so he got one of the very first video cameras. This was a VHS video camera. It wasn't a camcorder. You had to plug the camera into a VCR and carry the VCR around with you. As a little kid, it was half of my size. I was waddling around with this thing. But I started making movies as soon as my dad brought that home, and I just kept going all through junior high and high school. 

Q: What were these early movies about? 

Well, they were mostly just parodies. They were mostly like, ‘Oh, let's make a James Bond movie. We'll call him James Blonde.’ But the very first thing I did, when I picked up the camera for the very first time, it had like a handle on top, and I remember holding it down at floor level and running with it in between the space between our coffee table and couch. And I played it back and I was like, ‘Yup, that looks exactly like the trench run in ‘Star Wars.’’ It was like, ‘Oh, that's how they did it … you had edit in-camera.’ So anyone who was doing it back then, you do your shot and you stop exactly the right point. And then three, two, one go and you'd start at the next point. And I think that taught me editing.

Q: Did your parents encourage you to pursue this as a career?

My dad was in the home building business. He wasn't in the movie business at all... Same with all of my family. They were all movie buffs though. My grandfather would show me, you know, Fellini movies. My dad who passed away a few years ago, he would show me “Raging Bull” and Scorsese films. So they took this really seriously and they were so supportive. And my dad is the reason I love movies. 

Director Rian Johnson arrives at the Los Angeles premiere of "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" at the Shrine Auditorium on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017 in Los Angeles.

Q: You've been this sort of blockbuster director. You've also gotten to try on a very different hat with “Knives Out.” Where do you see yourself in 10 years? 

Oh, I don't know. I had a fantastic experience making a “Star Wars” movie. It was a huge production, but it still felt very personal, like the same type of like intimate, creative process as any of my other movies. It’s hard to communicate, just because from the outside, it looks like such a machine, you know?

I guess I can only speak to my experience of it. It's a lot of machinery to move these very big pieces, but the heart of it is still just a small group that's collaborating and really trying to make it come from their heart and tell a story and make it work and make the best movie they can. And, the truth is, the real work of it that matters is still just the essential creative work.

Q: Do you think that there could be a sequel to “Knives Out”? 

I had so much fun making this with Daniel [Craig]. If this movie does all right … if we can get together every few years and make a new Benoit Blanc mystery, I would be thrilled. 

Answers are edited and condensed for clarity.

The 42nd annual Denver Film Festival runs Oct. 30 - Nov. 10, 2019.