Outsmarting the Disruptors: Greg Mottola Interviews Rian Johnson on Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
In August, Rian Johnson was among the directors with Netflix projects invited to show works that inspired them at the company-owned Paris Theater in New York City. Among the movies Johnson selected were two whose influence is directly perceptible on Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, the first of two sequels to his 2019 hit the writer-director is making for the streamer. From his 1973 favorite The Last of Sheila, Johnson borrows the opening set-up: A dangerously wealthy man invites a group of friends (or are they just parasites?) to join him for a week of elaborate games amidst beautiful European scenery. In that film, it’s James Coburn’s malevolently smiling film producer who mails postcard invitations to his yacht off the French coast. In Johnson’s, Edward Norton’s slimy tech entrepreneur Miles Bron invites guests to his private Greek island one literal puzzle-box at a time, opened simultaneously by the ensemble cast of guests in a virtuoso split-screen sequence that weaves together their different early COVID quarantine experiences. One guest arrives unexpectedly, without the millionaire’s invitation: Knives Out’s eccentric, Southern-accented sleuth Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), who’s spent the early stretches of the pandemic soaking in his bathtub while Zooming with an array of famous friends (including the late Stephen Sondheim, co-writer with Anthony Perkins of Sheila).
The island setting is borrowed from another film Johnson selected, 1982’s Evil Under the Sun—the second Poirot adaptation to star Peter Ustinov—which mostly unfolds at a plush hotel whose cocktail lounge serves as the primary staging ground for much of the all-star cast’s sniping. Shooting in a similarly luxurious living room, Johnson relishes the challenge of keeping a mystery whose main attraction isn’t action but lots of smart talk as visually lively as it is cleverly structured. (In a sidebar interview on page 46, Johnson’s longtime producer Ram Bergman discusses constructing that room and other challenges of the COVID production.)
Following its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Netflix released Glass Onion to theaters for a “one week only theatrical sneak preview” in late November. The day after that run ended, Johnson joined writer-director Greg Mottola to discuss this film. Mottola’s first feature, 1996’s The Daytrippers, premiered at that year’s Slamdance Film Festival and—like Johnson’s latest—displays quiet confidence and eyeline-shifting adeptness at filming an ensemble cast working through lots of dialogue, a skill Mottola has also displayed in features including 2007’s Superbad. Earlier this year, Mottola released his own critically acclaimed comedy-mystery, Confess, Fletch, taking a fresh approach to the Gregory Mcdonald novels first adapted as 1980s Chevy Chase star vehicles.
Glass Onion is on Netflix’s platform beginning December 23, simultaneous with a limited return to theaters.—Vadim Rizov
Mottola: Sorry I didn’t see you the other night [at an advance screening of Glass Onion]. I waited a little bit, and it was like a wedding line. I’m sure you’re used to it.
Johnson: I’m the king of going to friends’ premieres and slipping out right after the movie because I know they have that crush afterwards. And again, man, congratulations on Fletch. We loved it. I was trying to remember, did we actually meet in ’96 at Slamdance? I don’t think we actually did. You were there with Daytrippers, and I was there with a short.
Mottola: Oh, right. Jesus. I was either drunk or sick.
Johnson: [Laughs.] The Daytrippers was blowing up, and I was there with a short I had made, skulking around and handing out flyers for it.
Mottola: We may have met. I did actually catch the flu when I was there, so I was fever dazed. Soderbergh reminded me that when we showed Daytrippers, he and I were in the back of the room passing a bottle of vodka back and forth.
Johnson: [Laughs.] That’s the way to do it.
Mottola: I want to talk about everything. I basically want to pick your brain and steal stuff from you.
Mottola: I wanted to ask, before we even talk about the movie. You’re very prolific—
Johnson: Am I? I feel slow. [Laughs.]
Mottola: You don’t feel slow from this side of things. What are your writing habits and routine? I know it’s hard to have a routine when you’re also a director. It’s not like someone who exclusively writes. But do you have things that make it better for you?
Johnson: No. I keep searching for things to make it better or faster. At some point, I made a concerted effort to try to write faster. I just wanted to be making more movies. With Looper, I took two years to write that script and started to worry that I had begun to mistake the time that I take—and a big chunk of it was procrastination and navel-gazing—for an indispensable, magical part of the process as opposed to, “Is there a more efficient way to do this?” I don’t know that I’ve figured out a more efficient way, but I have, for whatever reason, gotten better at doing it quicker, which, honestly, has felt really good, because directing is the fun part. Writing is a fucking drag. I don’t know if that’s your experience.
Mottola: I completely agree. Do you spend a lot of time outlining and doing the index cards on the wall or whiteboard stuff?
Johnson: I started working in pocket-sized Moleskine notebooks. [Johnson shows a notebook page with two curved horizontal lines drawn on it. The top one is subdivided by multiple smaller vertical lines, each one annotated with shorthand plot beats.] I picked these because you can get them anywhere, they fit in your pocket, and I found that by saying, “This is the type of notebook I work in,” I knocked out the week that I would waste looking for the perfect notebook for the new job. It’s like Steve Jobs wearing the same turtleneck: “OK, this won’t let me dick around in stationery stores.” The first 80 to 90 percent of the process for me is outlining, so in addition to notes and writing ideas through in longhand, the main way I do it is I draw out arcs and start drawing out the acts. For me, structure and coming up with the bones and the dramatic shape of it in a zoomed[-out], Google Maps–like view is literally 90 percent of the process. If I spend eight months writing a script, that will be the first seven, and the very, very last step is sitting down and typing. If I start typing too soon, I’ll get lost in the woods very quickly.
Mottola: Have you, in the process, come to a point where you’re writing and go, “Oh shit, what I plotted out isn’t working for me now, and I have to go back to the overall arc”?
Johnson: That didn’t happen on Glass Onion, but I have been there before. I know that directors love their war analogies, so I apologize in advance: It’s a little bit like you’re in a French chateau, the huge, cavernous room with your huge table, with your maps spread out and you’re laying out your armies. It seems great. You get on the ground with your troops, and you have to actually make it work and survive the day. It’s a little like that. In the outline, you said, “OK, this has to start here, and by the end of the scene, it has to take the characters here,” and as you’re [writing], it just can’t flow there naturally with people actually interacting and talking. There’s definitely a lot of instances where that happens, and you have to figure out a different thing that happens in the scene that does get you where you need to go. But for me, the added benefit of working abstractly and in outline form is that when I sit down and start typing, characters are ready to start talking because I’ve had them in my head for this long. The bigger block is not plot but not knowing who these people are if I start typing too early.
Mottola: That shows in the work. What I love about your movies is that the characters feel like individuals and don’t feel like the same writer is making them talk. They’re talking from their own personality.
Johnson: I appreciate that. That’s something you’re really good at as well. You have to conceive of ensembles in these types of whodunits a little bit like the characters on the front of the Clue board. Each one of them has to be that immediately distinct—three words and you know who they are, which helps.
Mottola: What was the first seed for Knives Out? Was it wanting to work in the overall genre? And what’s the thing that cracked it?
Johnson: I had loved Agatha Christie since I was a kid, so doing a traditional whodunit was really appealing. That genre is so perfect for engaging with society, but the whodunits that I grew up with were so often period pieces. So, the notion of throwing out the idea of timelessness and setting it in America right here and right now was the other thing [that attracted me]. But those are vague, cloudy ideas. The thing that actually clicked with Knives Out was structural. It started with thinking of the inherent weakness of a whodunit plot, which is that, at some point, clue gathering and the puzzle aspect cannot keep your attention. [There’s] the notion that Hitchcock is essentially right: That surprise of, “Oh, this person did it!” is such a cheap coin.
So, what really got me started was when I came up with the basic structure, which is the early reveal of a sympathetic character having admitted the crime, but that necessitates the trick of, can you genuinely—not just in a Norman Bates in Psycho, “Oh shit, why am I worried he’s going to get caught? This makes me feel icky” way—get the audience to sympathize with the side of this character? Everything in that first act has to be geared toward that emotionally, and if you can do that, then suddenly it becomes almost like The 39 Steps or North by Northwest, a sympathetic character in a nightmare situation, and the audience is leaning forward, saying, “How are they going to get out of this?” Which is doubly interesting to me, because then the detective character essentially becomes the antagonist. Even if the audience likes the detective, they know in these movies the detective always catches the person at the end, and they’re dreading that and wondering how this is going to resolve. That, combined with the notion of “Can you make the audience think that’s the game?” then revealing there was a traditional whodunit just beneath the surface the entire time and drawing that together at the end. That was the a-ha moment of, this could be very interesting and “let me have my cake and eat it, too” with the traditional whodunit. I’ve had that idea for quite a while, about a decade before I actually sat down and wrote Knives Out.
Mottola: I’ve heard you talk about the structure of an Agatha Christie [mystery]. Often, the first half is meeting the characters and the ultimate victim and finding out what their motives and opportunities are, as in Glass Onion. I watched Evil Under the Sun the other night. It was tremendous fun, and it does have that structure. It was very interesting to me in Knives Out that you had many of the elements of the whodunit, but a structure that I hadn’t seen before. Glass Onion, I guess you would say, adheres a bit more to the structure, but of course you play with it in your own way.
Johnson: I think there’s always a temptation to frame it as a mixing up or turning the structure of the genre Christie was doing on its head. Because I’m such a big Christie fan, and because I tend to want to always pipe up for her, I will say that Christie did that as well. If you go back and read The A.B.C. Murders, it’s fascinating. It does something similar to Knives Out a bit—it’s very different, but at the very beginning, she has an internal monologue of the serial killer, who is racked with guilt and, you think, plotting the next murder, and intercuts that with hunting down the serial killer, then flips it all on its head at the end in a very interesting way. All to say, [Knives Out] is kind of twisting the traditional whodunit, but at the same time, the traditional whodunit was twisting the traditional whodunit even back then. It’s something that I think is an example of the genre as opposed to an inversion of it.
Mottola: You’ve talked about the movie adaptations of Christie that you liked the best. I was wondering, was there one in particular that inspired you more than another for Glass Onion? You’ve talked about The Last of Sheila, also, which I watched the other night, which was great.
Johnson: It’s so much fun, right? It’s like the most ’70s movie of all time.
Mottola: It is the most ’70s movie. If you had a drink for every zoom…
Johnson: Oh my God. I love it. [Laughs.] Do you like using zooms?
Mottola: I do, sometimes.
Johnson: You enjoy a good zoom, right?
Mottola: I do. I’ve definitely used them at times. When I was younger, I used to think they were terrible.
Johnson: Me too!
Mottola: And now I’m like, it’s like any technique. It can be great.
Johnson: I agree. I’ve fallen in love with using a good overt zoom. Well, we obviously, with the set-up, take a page from The Last of Sheila, though—and this is the case when I’m diving in to writing a new thing with a genre that I’m excited about—I actually find it counterproductive to think too specifically about any one specific story. If I’m getting ready to write, for example, a mystery movie, the last thing I’ll do is go back and start reading mystery novels. What I find more useful for me is to zoom out from my memories of enjoying those novels or movies and let that memory exist in a big hazy cloud, then feel out in the most general way, what are the pleasures that I take from that? What are the things that make me happy about my hazy feelings about the genre? Then, [I] set those as the goalposts and find my own way toward those. In some cases, I’ll misremember what the thing is. I mean, it’s fun to bake in little references. In Glass Onion, we had the hourly “dong,” which is a reference to the noonday gong in Evil Under the Sun, and Blanc’s swimwear is a little bit of a Peter Ustinov nod, that great scene where he goes down to the water. A huge influence of these movies is my general memory of watching them as a kid with my family and the notion of the “event film”—a star-studded cast, a big entertainment, that also felt kind of adult and dangerous to me as a kid—and tapping back into my childhood perception of what those movies were, then trying to aim for those pleasure centers in myself.
Mottola: One of the other things that I love about these two movies is, of course, the detective, because it does carry on the tradition of Christie’s detective being a brilliant eccentric. They’re not quite like anyone else, and there’s the implication that their intelligence is also connected to their weirdness or flaws, whether it’s Miss Marple or Poirot or Blanc. After being inundated with a lot of movies about people with superpowers, I love that his superpower is being way smarter than anyone else. I find it very satisfying.
Johnson: That’s also what almost foils him in this movie.
Mottola: Well, yeah! He’s too smart for his own good, which is great. So, the next question I would ask is: As touched on in Knives Out, one of the things about mysteries—and Agatha Christie did this a lot, as did Gregory Mcdonald, who wrote the Fletch novels—is that they are great containers of social commentary, for how human nature interacts with the time we live in. So, if one were to say that the target of the satire in the first one was an amalgam of white tone-deaf privilege and the desperation to hold onto it, you found a new variation in this world of disrupters. Which—I know people have been saying this to you, because it came up the other night—is weirdly timely!
Johnson: [Laughs.] Weirdly so.
Mottola: Do you remember where that entered into the planning for it?
Johnson: Well, that all came with the decision to place a tech billionaire at the heart of it. But the reality is—I dunno, it’s not like it’s an incredibly subtle movie in terms of what it’s talking about, so the last thing I want to do is just spout out what the movie’s about. I will say I wasn’t really that interested in the tech world or the disrupter world or taking the piss out of that. To me, it was much more of a reaction to the past six years and the nightmarish Fellini-esque circus of big, dumb people being protected by obvious lies, and smart people approaching it as if these people were playing an elaborate game of 3D chess and how do we figure them out, when in reality it’s just a big dumb thing in order to keep power. I think that was more the heart of it. Although, when we were making the movie, I remember talking with Daniel [Craig] and with Edward [Norton] and worrying that, “Oh my God, is this whole tech billionaire thing going to have played itself out and be passé by the time the movie comes out?” And, unfortunately for all of us, that didn’t…
Mottola: [Laughs.] No, unfortunately.
Johnson: Backtracking to what you were saying about the detective and quirks, that actually messed me up when I was writing the first movie. I loved Poirot so much, I loved so many of the detectives of the classic age of detective fiction, that I started trying to write quirks into the [Blanc] character, and it was terrible. It was awful. I was loading the character up with all these weird quirks and found that I had to clear the table of those and write the character very, very straight. That was actually a strange discovery for me, exactly how little eccentricity I can put into him. Then you put Daniel Craig in the part and give him an accent, and he’s going to find the fun in it. It was an interesting thing.
Mottola: It feels like it’s all discovered in the acting and your directing of him, in the best way.
Johnson: The other key ingredient, and this I think is similar with Poirot, is there’s always the scene—like, there’s a great scene with him and Mia Farrow in Death on the Nile, or he does the same thing with Jane Birkin in Evil Under the Sun—where he has a concerned, almost fatherly heart-to-heart talk with them. That was a big discovery for me: The intelligence and the clue-solving is important, but what really grounds the character is the notion that he has a moral center, that he’s on the side of the right and has actual emotional skin in the game. He cares, to put it bluntly.
Mottola: I haven’t read enough Sherlock Holmes to know, but my sense of Sherlock Holmes through things I’ve seen is that he’s dispassionate in a way.
Johnson: It’s funny, it was a big blind spot for me, and just a few months ago, I read the complete Sherlock Holmes. So, I’ve just gotten a mega dose, and, I mean, it’s stating the obvious: They’re fucking great. They’re terrific. But it is very interesting: There’s a hyper-competent and explicitly unemotional character, but that also creates a certain charm. Although, I will say, I think that’s why Conan Doyle made the wise choice of having Watson be an emotional connection, our way in.
Mottola: He’s the conscience.
Johnson: Yeah, he’s the conscience, the audience. It’s interesting. And it’s funny how the Sherlock Holmes stories also have a Dickensian element where they’re engaging with Victorian and Edwardian society. The heart of each one of the mysteries is not a social issue, but it’s amazing how [many] of them are about societal norms and mores being flipped on their head or betrayed. So, again, just like Christie was doing, very much engaging with the present moment.
Mottola: I just have a couple of more writing questions before we get to the fun of production.
Mottola: Yeah, this is Filmmaker Magazine. Do you have some trusted friends who you let read your stuff to give you notes? I’ve certainly done that.
Johnson: I’m sure similar to you, I’ve got a couple of very close friends who are close enough that I know they’re going to be honest with me. That’s always the toughest thing. They’re also close enough that we know the contours of each other’s tastes because, as you know, taking notes on anything is kind of an art, and it’s something where it helps to know very well the person that you’re getting feedback from. But yeah, I have a couple of very close, trusted friends who are always the first people that I show something to.
Mottola: So, getting to shooting: The split screen sequence is great—incredibly elegant and fun and one of the best uses of split screen I’ve ever seen. I read you storyboarded that. How much storyboarding do you do, in general?
Johnson: Well, that sequence, you could probably line the storyboards up exactly with what’s on the screen because we had to, just because of the nature of it and the precision of how the whole thing clicked together. Generally, with the rest of it, I do storyboards. I find it really useful to show up on set having some notion of shots, but even more than shots, having some notion of blocking in my head, of where the characters are going to be in the space and how the camera will relate to that. I’d be curious to hear how you do it. Do you show up with storyboards? Do you plan?
Mottola: I usually show up with shot lists. I’ve mostly storyboarded sequences that hurt my brain. I would storyboard more, usually—I wish I had longer prep. I did this movie, Paul, with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and that had an alien CG character in it. So, I did storyboard that quite a bit because we needed to know where it was going to be and stuff like that.
Johnson: Do you enjoy that process?
Mottola: Yeah, I do. I was a comic book reader and drew as a kid, so that part of it is really fun to me. And I admire the Coen brothers/Hitchcock approach a lot. I don’t know how the Coen brothers stick to their storyboards as much as they apparently do because once in a while, something will change, and you’re in an exterior and the sun’s in a different place than you thought it was going to be. But you can look at their storyboards and look at the scenes and go, wow.
Johnson: It’s magical to me. I have no idea how [they do that]. But it’s also equally magical that a filmmaker can show up on set without any boards or plan at all and just let the actors do their thing and then find it. I was just talking to James Gray, and that’s how he does it. He organically lets the actors find where they want to be, and his movies are so visually composed. They always look like they were planned. That, to me, is also a magic trick.
Mottola: Yeah, that impresses the hell out of me, too. I tried to figure out what focal lengths some of your shots are because it’s like, “Oh, that’s really dynamic. Is that a 24[mm lens], or is it a 28?” Has your approach to that changed over time? Have you gravitated toward wider lenses? Do you just mix it up? I feel like I remember long lens shots in the movie, too.
Johnson: When I shot Looper, there was a point where I became obsessed with the way that Fincher shoots his close-ups, and I went and really studied his movies and realized he was doing close-ups on wider lenses than I typically was. So, I started dialing that in. I think that was the last time I really made a shift in terms of how I approached this or that—not Terry Gilliam–style super wide lenses, but wide.
Mottola: Like 40s.
Johnson: Yeah. 35[mm lens] is kind of my sweet spot in terms of close-ups. But also, as you know, it depends on the actor. I [shot The Last Jedi] anamorphic, so it was a whole different beast. For Adam Driver, a 50mm [lens] was the perfect spot.
Mottola: Some faces, it’s just—
Johnson: It’s really true. You have to sculpt it. So, the ultimate answer is, I’m not thinking about lens choice, aside from generally wide or generally long, when I’m storyboarding. When I get on set, I put the zoom lens on the finder and line [the shot up]. You do just feel your way into it. I feel like I’m always trying to push myself to go longer with lenses, just because for some reason I feel like that’s more mature. But the zoom lens, I keep creeping it wider and wider and getting closer and closer until it feels right. Then, you’re like, “OK, we’ll mark it there.” So, I think I do tend to err on the side of wider lenses, but it is a very intuitive, emotional thing. I can’t do the Hitchcock thing of just putting a 50 on the camera and putting it there and knowing how it’s going to feel.
Mottola: Yeah, you’re one of the filmmakers who has put it in my head to use wider lenses. I’m good friends with Steven Soderbergh. He’s gone through that trajectory also from his earlier films. I remember him telling me, I think on Ocean’s 11 or maybe Ocean’s 12, he was like, “I started to use 40s and 35s for close-ups, and it’s really interesting.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, that makes sense.”
Johnson: The thing that I feel bad about is very often you get yourself in those situations, and the actor has to act to a piece of tape in the matte box because of the eyeline. I lucked out with actors who can handle it, but I always feel a little guilty. The Coens also do close-ups on wider lenses. That’s another great reference.
Mottola: Yeah, I’ve looked at their stuff for exactly that. I just did a pilot where I was trying to steal shots from them left and right. And Spielberg has always been amazing with wider lenses, but Spielberg is just such a savant of focal length in every single way.
Johnson: Well, staging. With this movie specifically, I went and studied Spielberg’s stuff for staging. I think he’s the modern master of staging and blocking. And he’s as good as any of the classic Hollywood era, who are the best at it.
Mottola: Yeah, I had read you talking about that in one of your interviews, and I thought that’s completely true. He’s up there with Michael Curtiz and Orson Welles in terms of moving bodies around in a plane and when to move the camera in relation to them.
Johnson: And creating depth in the frame using foreground, midground, background, drawing your eye to where you want it to be. In film school, I came out always thinking in terms of cool shots, and now thinking in terms of blocking has been a whole new game to engage with.
Mottola: Yeah, it’s amazing how infinite our jobs are and what we do.
Johnson: It’s fun!
Mottola: You’ve got great performances in all of your movies. You’re obviously somebody who loves actors. Do you rehearse? Stupid, simple question.
Johnson: I never do table reads. I find that table reads are very un-useful. But I’ll take all the rehearsal time I can get—usually because of schedules, you don’t end up getting much, but even if it’s a week while everyone’s doing their costume fittings and prep or whatever, carving out some time and getting the actors together in little groups based on the scenes [is useful]. We’ll pick some really key scenes, and it’s a little bit about reading them but more about talking through them, almost doing what in television you would call a “tone meeting”—talking about what the scene is about, maybe just saying the words out loud and realizing, “This is a little awkward here,” or ‘We actually don’t need this line.” That can be really helpful. But I don’t do extensive, theatrical, working-it-out rehearsals. It’s more just talking through it, and then on the day, feeling it out.
Mottola: So, it’s usually sitting at a table or on a couch.
Mottola: And trying to block it out on location or in the set or anything.
Johnson: Blocking I do entirely on location because I don’t find that blocking is useful until you’re actually in the space with the props and everything. When I do rehearsals, it’s more about the content of the scene and the words, making sure that the actors have what they need to do their work in terms of their understanding of where the scene is going and what the purpose is. Do you do table reads?
Mottola: Yeah, I usually am forced to do a table read because somebody wants to hear it who’s paying for it.
Johnson: A dog and pony show a little bit, right?
Mottola: Yeah. I feel like what’s useful to me is hearing it out loud, both to talk to the actors and to make it better as a writer. If I didn’t write it with the writers [who are] there, I prefer what you’re describing—just sitting at a table with the script, flipping through it and reading stuff. Hearing it, you’ll sometimes find a line that needs to be improved, but mostly [you’re] getting the actors’ takes on it and what you may want to alter for them.
This is a question because I’ve done various ensemble things, and I love ensemble movies. I have discovered sometimes you have actors from all different styles and training—people who’ve trained a lot, people who are just naturally charismatic, people who are best at early takes and people who need to warm up. Is that just something you just figure out how to deal with?
Johnson: You know how it is. You just get in on the day and have to feel it out a bit. There’s not a lot of math you can do to prepare for that. I hate to again bring up James Gray, but we were just having a conversation and talking about one-ers, about how in Michael Curtiz movies, or in classic Hollywood films, they would let dialogue scenes play out all in one shot. And he had a very interesting take on why that’s less possible these days. He said it’s because back in the day, all of those classic studio actors were all operating in the same mode. They had a mode of performance that was more uniform, whereas today, you have such a wide variety of schools [and] of backgrounds that people are coming from. In terms of actors all getting in sync with each other, it’s just a whole different game, which kind of made sense. I feel like I’ve been very lucky with these two movies: In terms of the ensemble nature of both Knives Out and Glass Onion, the actors clicked together pretty damn well. So, I haven’t had to do a lot of the math that you’re talking about: This person’s good at early takes, this person’s good at late. That’s all on the actors, and I can just figure out how to block it all.
Mottola: It really is amazing. It’s a wonderful cast. Glass Onion is extremely funny. I knew it was going to be funny, but it’s probably the funniest movie I’ve seen in a long time. Do you have an aesthetic line you draw of what the style of comedy is or what kind of comedy it can’t be? I’ve heard you talk about the level of realism, and that it [should] feel like it’s taking place on planet earth as opposed to planet comedy. Is that just moment-to-moment—giving actors clues on how to pitch a joke, how to land a joke?
Johnson: It’s not even that. It’s a smell test thing, really very instinctual, and it comes down to the real job on set of being an audience: clearing all the math of out of your head and being able to just sit and watch as they’re doing the scene and genuinely react to it, and to know when something feels phony. With this film, because of the nature of the genre and where it’s set, we were allowed a level of tonal elevation beyond the previous film. So, the whole thing is operating at a slightly higher pitch. It’s just having your antenna up on set to make sure you still believe it, and that is a weird phrase in the context of a billionaire’s Bond lair.
Mottola: Right, like what’s the baseline of reality?
Johnson: But it still exists. It’s a weird thing. Then, in the edit—there’s a degree to which you dial in on set, but tone is really created in the edit through selection of takes, culling of moments, taking audio from other takes and putting it over the visual of certain other takes, all these little tricks that we do in order to cull out anything that feels tonally not in the grain of the wood. So much of that happens in the edit. We love to think about directors getting together with actors and saying the perfect thing to them to get the perfect performance on set. The reality is, a lot of it is the carpentry of how it’s put together after the fact.
Mottola: I want to talk to you a little bit about endings because in one of your interviews you talked about the importance of endings, how much you love endings. I feel like your endings deliver a certain thing that is promised by the genre, but never in the exact way you think it’s going to. Without giving anything away, at what point do you know who the killer is? Is that a discovery process in writing?
Johnson: Well, it’s tricky to talk about, not because of spoilers but just because it’s a weird, cloudy process. But the reality is, because I work so structurally, it’s not like I come up with a group of characters and then decide which one is the killer. I start just with a basic spine of what the story’s going to be, and when I begin there are no characters in my head beyond the protagonist, the detective and the killer. I don’t even necessarily know who those characters are, just in the abstract: What if it’s constructed in such a way?
Mottola: It is sort of like a parlor game, like Werewolf or Mafia, where you find out you’re assigned that role.
Johnson: A bit, but to me, the more important thing is making sure the ending is satisfying on a level beyond the whodunit. The purpose of this machine is not to provide the surprise of, “I never guessed that person did it.” The purpose of the entire machine from the first scene until the very end of it is to provide the emotional catharsis of a great ending, which is that old chestnut of “unexpected, but inevitable.” If the very last thing you have is the completion of a ball that was thrown at the very beginning, that’s going to feel incredibly satisfying in a deep, almost subconscious way to the audience. The great endings that I love in cinema, that’s what defines them for me, and that’s what we always aim for, I think.
Mottola: Yeah, I completely agree, and that’s my experience of both those movies. The end of the emotional story is what got me and made what had preceded it all so pleasing. One of my teachers at Columbia Graduate Film School was David Mamet.
Johnson: Oh wow.
Mottola: And literally the only thing I remember is that he hated us, and he quoted Aristotle saying, “The ending has to be surprising, but inevitable.” That’s pretty much what I took away from that class.
Johnson: I’m a huge, huge Mamet fan. I’m in the tank for him.
Mottola: Oh no, he was great.
Johnson: I love him. I ripped the audio from his MasterClass. He’s also such a good raconteur, but I’ve got quite a lot out of hearing him talk about writing.
Mottola: Yeah, I was joking. I got a lot out of it. It was a directing class.
Johnson: And I’m sure he hated you.
Mottola: No, he hated us.
Johnson: This all tracks.
Mottola: Yeah, and his politics are horrible. But he’s brilliant. I’m told we have time for one more question. This is the dumb question that I’m sure you’ve been asked a million times. What do you say to young filmmakers who want to break in? I usually just say some variation of, “Make stuff.” What do you have that’s an answer?
Johnson: That’s exactly the same thing I say. If you think about breaking in in terms of getting an agent or making connections or what have you, you’re putting the cart before the horse. The thing that’s going to make you break in is having a voice and being good at communicating that voice, and you only learn how to do that by making your own stuff. Don’t get precious about making it good, about making it look professional or polished. Literally, get a camera in your hand, and every single weekend shoot a movie. That’s how you develop your voice. At the end of the day, that’s the most valuable coin in this industry, I think. So, look inward and work on that. That was just all a long-winded way of saying exactly what you just said so well—make stuff. I think that’s the best advice.