A version of this story about “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” first appeared in the Guild & Critics Awards/Documentaries issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
Plenty of people have bemoaned the paltry one-week theatrical release of Rian Johnson’s “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” a comedy that proved to be a huge crowd-pleaser when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival this year. After opening theatrically just before Thanksgiving, the film was pulled after its one week “Sneak Preview Event,” and will hit the streaming service on Dec. 23.
You can count writer-director Johnson as one of those who was disappointed by the brief theatrical run, though he put a positive spin on the unusually broad (if brief) release in a recent interview with TheWrap.
“Look, I would’ve loved to have as big and long a theatrical run as we could get,” Johnson said. “But I’m grateful to Netflix for stepping out of their comfort zone and doing even this version of it. And the fact that we’re in AMC and Regal and Cinemark chains, which is something they’d never done, and that they’re spending money to promote the theatrical release, I hope that’s a first step. It’s a big thing to reach across the aisle like that with the chains, and I hope we can do more of it in the future.”
“I mean, the reality is that I’m sure most people discovered ‘Knives Out’ watching it at home with their families, and I’m sure most people will discover this one the same way.” He paused. “But it’s such a great experience seeing it in the theater.”
The idea of a sequel came during the shooting of “Knives Out,” which starred Daniel Craig as an eccentric but brilliant detective investigating a family murder. “While we were making the first one, Daniel and I were having such a good time that we started talking about how we didn’t know if this was going to work, but if it did, it’d be fun to keep doing these,” Johnson said. “And when audiences responded to the first one, it wasn’t even a conversation. We just started doing it.” (It didn’t hurt that Netflix paid more than $450 million for the rights to two sequels.)
The film finds Craig’s deliciously sly detective heading to a private island populated with social media influencers, politicians, former supermodels, YouTube stars and other assorted wannabes and ne’er-do-wells, played by a delightful ensemble that includes Janelle Monáe, Kathryn Hahn, Leslie Odom Jr., Kate Hudson, Dave Bautista and, on screen in a video chat, Stephen Sondheim and Angela Lansbury in their final film appearances. It is, to put it mildly, a hoot, in which a weekend planned for murder-mystery playacting descends into actual bloodshed.
At the center of it stands Edward Norton’s Miles Bron, a ludicrous tech billionaire with far more money than sense. When Johnson sat down to write the sequel, he was looking for a powerful, slightly malevolent and fundamentally funny figure at the center of the story — and he hit upon the right kind of guy faster than it took Elon Musk to fire the Twitter board of directors.
“I needed somebody at the top of the power pyramid,” he said. “Both a character and an actor who was gonna have the gravity to keep the solar system around them — and also have built the resentment so that every character would want to kill him.”
He laughed. “It just made sense, though the timeliness of it ended up being its own kind of tricky. Because the instant I started thinking about any real-life person, it became very boring.”
So no, Miles Bron, played by Edward Norton with the cheery certitude that comes from having enough money to hang the Mona Lisa in your living room, is not Musk or anybody else you read about. “It’s much more about the power structures that form and the big dumb lies that are told and backed up because it’s in people’s self-interests,” he said. “But every time we’d look at the news it would be, ‘Oh, God. I guess we’re making a documentary.’”
Johnson’s initial idea was to follow the lead of Agatha Christie and change out everything except the detective at the center of the mystery. “I know that audiences come to sequels expecting a continuation of what they got last time, so I wanted to plant a very clear flag that we’re doing something different,” he said. “The intention is never to subvert or flip anything on its head, but you do want to kind of let the air out of the balloon anywhere you can. It’s a fun game you can play with the audience, as opposed to a trick you’re playing on the audience.”
Before he could write the jokes or even flesh out the characters, though, Johnson needed an airtight mystery plot. “I write in little Moleskine notebooks and I spend the first 80% of the time outlining,” he said. “If I spend eight months on a script, seven of those months will be outlining and plot. I need to have the whole roadmap laid out before I sit down and start typing.”
One of the models for “Glass Onion” was the 1973 all-star mystery thriller “The Last of Sheila,” which written by Sondheim Anthony Perkins. Sondheim once said that he needed to know the characters’ secrets before he even knew who those characters were, and Johnson agreed.
“What he said resonates for me because I think you do have to start with the story, and the characters then are built to the needs of the story,” he said. “That’s kind of the way I work in any genre, but it’s even more important in this one specifically.”
At the same time, he added, he needed to give each of his actors enough to do. “Knowing that you’re gonna be getting a great ensemble together, you want every single character to have their moment and their reason to show up and be there. And you can’t make a three-hour movie. It’s a matter of trying to balance it, and that process continues all the way into the editing. But but it’s tough when every single actor in this movie could carry an entire movie easily. That balancing game is the trickiest part.”
Also tricky on a film that was shot during COVID in Budapest and on the Greek island of Spetses: dealing with the fact that the cast spent much of its time simply sitting around talking.
“There are a lot of scenes with eight or nine people sitting in a big room talking to each other,” Johnson said. “It sounds like a dumb thing, but figuring out where to put the camera and how to cover those scenes was honestly the biggest challenge. I went back and looked at directors who are masters at staging and blocking — Spielberg, who is the modern-day master, or older Hollywood films where they would have big dialogue scenes with multiple people in the frame, and they would create a pleasing shape and a dramatic dynamic with the shape of the staging. The toughest part was just dealing with the sheer number of characters in the frame at any given time.”
At the risk of venturing into spoilery territory, “Glass Onion” also has a delightful scene that just about pulls the rug out from under the whole movie in the early going. “Anything to let the air out of the balloon,” he said, laughing. “The intention is always to get to the pure pleasure of the murder-mystery genre for me. The intention is never to subvert or flip anything on its head, but to get to what I love about murder mysteries.
“We’re all so familiar with the genre, so that one scene in particular is a good example of doing something that almost talks to the audience and says, ‘OK, this expectation you had of what this is gonna be, we’re not doing that. But if you stick with us, it will pay off in a way that’ll be very satisfying. It just won’t be what you expect.’ And that, I think, is fun game to play with the audience, as opposed to a trick to play on the audience.”
Read more from the Guild & Critics Awards/Documentaries issue here.