Why Rian Johnson Swung the ‘Knives Out’ Series in a Different Direction for ‘Glass Onion’

The filmmaker also tells TheWrap why the Netflix film is set during the pandemic, and what common thread every Benoit Blanc mystery will have


“Glass Onion” is not really a sequel. At least, not in a traditional sense. And that was entirely by design.

Not that Rian Johnson is wary of sequels – he made arguably one of the best sequels of all time with “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” But with the next Benoit Blanc mystery following his Oscar-nominated “Knives Out,” Johnson felt the only reason to do another one was to steer it in a completely different and fresh direction, and offer audiences a murder mystery of an entirely different sort.

“It’s not very interesting to me, the idea of honing what we did last time and kind of giving the audience that again,” Johnson told TheWrap during a recent lengthy interview about the making of “Glass Onion.”

“The only reason this feels interesting to me is the notion of doing something slightly scary that I don’t quite know if it will work every single time. So you always learn from every thing you do, but the objective is to do something that’s such a different swing in a different direction that you can’t lean too much on ‘OK, I know this will work’ or ‘OK, I know that will work.’”

Indeed, if “Knives Out” was a cozy mystery set in chilly New England, “Glass Onion” is a sprawling, sun-soaked destination murder mystery, with Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc summoned to the private island of a tech billionaire (played by Edward Norton) in Greece along with the billionaire’s best (and famous) friends for a carefully constructed murder mystery game.

Johnson says the starting point for “Glass Onion” was Agatha Christie’s “Death on the Nile” and “Evil Under the Sun” and the desire to make a “bright, kind of brassy destination murder mystery” for the tone. From there, the “Looper” filmmaker said he starts thinking about themes and “stuff you want to talk about,” but it wasn’t until he hit upon a specific structural idea (which won’t be spoiled here for those who haven’t seen it) that “Glass Onion” clicked into place. He was intrigued by one simple question: “Can we make this work for an audience?”

Thematically, just as “Knives Out” addressed issues of wealth disparity and prejudice, “Glass Onion” also speaks to issues facing the world we currently live in (with a healthy dose of comedy). For Johnson, that meant deciding to set “Glass Onion” during the COVID-19 pandemic, with explicit references to an event that ran the risk of being triggering to audiences.

Was he nervous about addressing “the big P” in the film?

“It was a conversation in my head, I definitely deliberated. I definitely hemmed and hawed a little bit,” Johnson said, before explaining that if he was to stay true to the nature of these Benoit Blanc films – murder mysteries for our modern times – he needed to address it. But in turn, he found a way to use masking, for example, as an easy visual cue to introduce audiences to the various characters.

“That speaks to sort of why ultimately, I felt like, ‘OK, we’ve got to treat this with a light touch, but I think it’s the right thing to do.’ The big part of what motivates these movies is the marching orders of doing a whodunit set in the here and now. And if you’re in the here and now, this is the one thing here and now that all of us have had some experience with, this massive traumatic event that we’ve all been through. It’d feel a bit ridiculous to tell yourself that’s what you’re doing with these movies and then completely ignore that.”

When we first meet the various “Glass Onion” characters, the way they wear (or don’t wear) a mask at the peak of the pandemic serves as another defining characteristic of each potential suspect when the eventual murder occurs.

“I realized also that the way into it was the fact that we all have gone through this thing where we now associate character types with exactly how they treat their mask use,” Johnson said. “The fact that we can all recognize that and you can use that as both a character revealing thing but also as a source of humor to me, I was like, ‘OK, this might work.’”

Also timely is the nature of Edward Norton’s character, a tech billionaire with maybe too much money and time on his hands. Johnson said it was the nature of Norton’s Miles Braun and the themes around him that led to the film’s comedic tone being pitched slightly higher than “Knives Out.”

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022). (L-R) Kate Hudson as Birdie, Leslie Odom Jr. as Lionel, Kathryn Hahn as Claire, Edward Norton as Myles, Jessica Henwick as Peg, Madelyn Cline as Whiskey and Dave Bautista as Duke. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022.

“The thing that led to the to the tone of the movie being different than the first is actually who and what it’s about for me,” he said. “The instant I have the tech billionaire at the center of it, and the group of friends around him that he would naturally have, and the instant I was actually trying to use that to sort of engage with the nightmare cultural carnival we’ve all been through over the past six years of every time we turn on the news – there was no discrete tamped down version of that that felt honest, in terms of our collective experience over the past six years [laughs].”

Johnson continued, likening the film’s depiction of these characters – which also includes Dave Bautista as a Joe Rogan-esque macho podcaster and Kate Hudson as a semi-canceled former supermodel – as looking through a funhouse mirror.

“It felt like you had to talk a little louder, you had to boost it up a few decibels, you had to see everything through a bit more of a funhouse mirror, because that’s actually what following the news about these folks felt like,” he said. “So that, more than anything for me, is what led to kind of the heightened tone of it. And I think the amount of humor in it probably comes from that heightened tone wanting to go down easy and not just feel shrill. And also because these people are incredibly funny.”

The ensemble cast is filled with scene-stealers, from Janelle Monáe to Kathryn Hahn to Leslie Odom Jr., and Johnson admits there was a bit of alchemy to deciding what specific group of actors fit together.

“You are trying to kind of create, for lack of a better reference, like the cover of a ‘Clue’ gameboard. You’re trying to make everyone distinct enough that the audience doesn’t have to do a ton of work in remembering who everyone is,” Johnson explained of his approach to casting. “But obviously, the most important thing is just getting the best actor in each part and making sure that the people who get cast seem cool. I mean, this sounds like a simple thing, but these movies are a little bit like throwing dinner parties, and everyone getting along and gelling as an ensemble, on set and off, is a big part of what makes them tick. So the best way to do that is just by doing the sort of the test yourself. Does this seem like someone I’d like to hang out with?”

Johnson and producer Ram Bergman made a deal with Netflix to make two “Knives Out” sequels, with “Glass Onion” being the first. And while Johnson says he’s still “fishing” when it comes to figuring out the story for “Knives Out 3,” one thing audiences can count on is for every Benoit Blanc mystery to be set in the “here and now.”

“That’s the whole kind of reason for being for them. I mean, they’ll all be completely different. Tonally they’ll be different, from the first one to kind of the bigger second one this is not their trajectory. The next one could go back to being cozy,” he said. “But that’s one thing that I think they’ll always have in common is they’ll always be set right here and right now and hopefully be kind of tapping into stuff that was on all of our minds.”

In terms of tapping into the current zeitgeist, “Glass Onion” couldn’t come at a better time.

The film is now streaming on Netflix.