A ‘Glass Onion’ Spoiler Q&A With Rian Johnson

The filmmaker tells TheWrap how he structured and executed the film’s many twists and turns


Note: The following contains spoilers for “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.” If you haven’t seen the film, turn back now!

To appropriately discuss the most challenging part of putting together the “Glass Onion” script, writer/director Rian Johnson has to get into spoilers. This second Benoit Blanc mystery spends its first hour or so in one mode, but a key reveal midway through the movie re-contextualizes everything the audience has seen up until that point, and then takes viewers on an even more surprising roller coaster thrill ride up through the film’s striking final shot. And ensuring that structure worked in all respects was a tall order for Johnson and his cast.

In a spoiler-filled Q&A with TheWrap (read the spoiler-free portion of our “Glass Onion” interview here), Johnson delves into how he pulled off the film’s structural twist without boring the audience (“I was dragged kicking and screaming to identical twins”), the challenge that faced Janelle Monae in playing essentially four characters (“It just kind of asks everything an actor can do in a part while playing 3D chess”), how the past six years in America inspired the twist involving Edward Norton’s character Miles (“It is exactly what it looks like, and they’re just doing it to keep power”) and how one of the film’s most intense sequences was perfected in post-production (“It’s kind of a lesson in just always keeping your eyes open throughout the entire process”).

I want to talk about casting Janelle, because she has the hardest role in the film. What were those conversations with her like about the character?
The elephant in the room was just whoever it was going to be in that part, it was just going to be a hell of a lot of detailed work. I could be able to help them with orienting them day-to-day, but a lot of it was just going to be on their shoulders. So Janelle, I think part of what made me comfortable casting her in the part, besides just that I could see she was a great actor, is being a fan of her music and knowing that she’s a storyteller, knowing that with her album, she’s creating characters. She’s thinking in narrative terms with her albums. And that more than anything is what this part required, was a collaborator who had storytelling instincts, and who could come into it and think not just about making choices scene to scene based on what they’re getting from the other actors, but think about the map of the entire story and where that scene lands and calibrate it for that.

I just have to give all the credit in the world to Janelle. She just did the work to the point where — I mean, because really, it’s four parts. It’s Andi, it’s Helen, it’s Helen playing Andi when the audience doesn’t know it’s Helen playing Andi, and it’s Helen playing Andi when the audience does know it’s Helen playing Andi, and there’s a distinction between how she plays it in both of those. So it’s a lot of math and on top of that, to do physical comedy, to have to tap in for some emotional scenes and play some really distraught anger, sprinting physical action. It just kind of asks everything an actor can do in a part while playing 3D Chess. So I can’t give it up enough for Janelle Monae, she was just an amazing collaborator.

You said the script unlocked for you when you came up with the structural idea of revealing that Andi is actually Helen and then flashing back. Practically, how do you approach that? Because you could fall into the trap of boring the audience by going backwards halfway through the movie and pausing the momentum of the story. How do you avoid the pitfalls of such a risky move?
I mean, that’s a challenge. I feel like the first question, OK, how do you pull this off? And I guess the primary thing was, it can’t just be seeing it from a different angle. It has to be enough of a basic perspective shift that there’s a new tension that’s introduced in the repeat of all the different scenes. This is what led to the idea of twins. By the process, I was dragged kicking and screaming to identical twins. I didn’t want to do it, it seemed like a horrible trope, and just, “Will the audience ever forgive me for this?” [laughs]. But I think we get away with it because it’s not like a reveal at the end of “Aha! It was a twin!” It’s a complication in the middle that leads to a deepening of the stakes and the story. So I think that’s why we get away with it.

So the big massive answer to your question is, introducing the emotional stakes of the entire movie at that midpoint. Is introducing a character who you like, and who you suddenly have this emotional investment in casting your mind back to the first half where you’ve kind of perceived them as something else, knowing in the back of your head we’re leading up to that scene where she’s gonna get shot, and then throwing her into this back half, but through her eyes. That, I think, is what I put my cards down on.

And in that way, the bigger risk actually becomes going that first half of the movie without it. It’s like if we played the first movie for half of it without introducing Marta. What was scarier to me is, is the audience gonna stick with this group of terrible people up to the point where we actually give you someone to care about when we introduce Helen? And then from that point on, it was kind of a trial and error calibration of how much do you repeat? How much will the audience stick with actually seeing stuff play out again? A lot of just pacing stuff, it’s just kind of the patient work that goes into any other movie, but the calculation is slightly different, because the fact that we’re going through the second time now also plays into the audience’s experience.

Is that partly why this is pitched a little higher on the comedy, because the first half of it doesn’t have as deep emotional stakes as the second half?
I mean, in my mind, the thing that led to the tone of the movie being different than the first is actually who and what it’s about. For me, what ends up kind of notching it up was just 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.

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 kind of felt like. So that, more than anything for me, is what led to the heightened tone of it and I think the amount of humor that 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 reveal of the killer is hilarious because Blanc is just so annoyed that it’s so stupid.
I feel like a lot of us have had the common experience of trying to parse a lot of stuff over the past six years in terms of what kind of 3D chess are these people playing? What is the real game here? They’ve gotten away with quite a lot. And you realize, “Oh, no, it’s just a big dumb obvious lie.” It is exactly what it looks like, and they’re just doing it to keep power. So that, to me, felt like a very satisfying kind of — all of us seeing a little bit of ourselves in Blanc at the end.

What was it like working with Edward Norton to develop that character? Because you have to offer enough breadcrumbs along the way that it adds up without showing your hand.
I think that you kind of lean on that basic tension. When it comes to these guys, on the one hand you kind of want to call them idiots. And on the other hand, I think there’s just a very American instinct to mistake wealth for competence or wisdom. Honestly, though, the other thing was — and I talked to Edward about this in our first conversation — I think casting him helped quite a lot. Because if I cast an actor who’s known for playing dumb guys, I’m sure the whole thing might have collapsed like a bad souffle. I think the fact that Edward is a very intelligent guy, but more than that, that audiences read intelligence into him on the screen, gave us a lot more leeway in terms of how much the audience could see him doing and would not necessarily just dismiss him.


He’s so good when you realize that he’s dumb and he knows that he’s dumb.
[Laughs] He’s so funny. As a big “Death to Smoochy” fan, I love seeing him back in big comic mode.

How do you decide who the killer is? When does it come in the process? Tell me a little bit about structurally assembling the puzzle.
Well it’s not like I come up with a group of suspects and then decide which one is the killer and build backwards from there or something. In a way, when I start working on something, I’m playing chess with three pieces: I’m thinking about the victim, the protagonist, and the killer, basically, and I don’t even know who they’re going to be. But I know who the killer is because I know their dramatic place in it, and I know their relationship to the protagonist — not the detective, that’s outside of this — but the protagonist being Marta in the first one and Helen in this one. So it’s really thinking in terms of the bare bones structural, what is the essential gambit here that we’re trying to pull off with the murder? And then something kind of clicks in with it, I kind of figure out the shape of it before I even fill out the details of who the suspects are, and even necessarily what the details of the character of the killer is. So it starts very conceptually, I guess is what I’m saying. And then I kind of turn the focus knobs and kind of bring everything into focus, step by step, if that makes sense.

The final shot of the film, with Janelle and the Mona Lisa, is so great. Tell me about when that idea came about.
That kind of gelled fairly early, the connection between the two of them and also the notion of seeing something and then squinting a little closer and seeing something different was baked into the structure of it. I had a great conversation with [“Everything Everywhere All at Once” filmmaking duo] the Daniels recently and they’re also big structural writers, and they put it in a really beautiful way, they say the meaning of the movie is contained within the movie’s structure. And to me this is very much reflecting that, and everything Edward says when he’s talking about the Mona Lisa, in front of everybody, suddenly fusing that up to this character of Helen at the end. And you know, she burned the Mona Lisa but the Mona Lisa lives on in Helen.

One of my favorite sequences in the film is the moments leading up to the death. It’s this wonderful symphony of direction and editing and performance and sound design with the opening and closing of the Mona Lisa shield ratcheting up the tension. How do you go about modulating and putting a sequence like that together?
On the day, it was a lot of blocking and choreography and a lot of math in terms of where do I want the audience’s eyes to be. There’s also a lot that’s happening in that scene in plain sight that we don’t want the audience to see the first time, but we want to play fair. So that was very much just a shot-to-shot kind of game on set. It was fun when we got the thing together in the cut and put that [David] Bowie track under it and started showing it to friends and family audiences, just small groups of filmmaker friends, I didn’t have the little pops of the Mona Lisa in there. People kept saying it’s a very tense sequence, like I find myself tensing up over the course of it, and then a friend of mine, Mike Lerman, he made some reference to “Yeah, it reminds me of that scene in ‘Boogie Nights’ with the firecrackers,” and I started thinking, “Oh, well, let’s push more. I mean, let’s steal from the best. Let’s try and push more in that direction.”

So we grabbed these little second unit shots that we had of the Mona Lisa and added the effect of the thing closing and put those in to be the firecrackers in the scene, see if we could push that tension even further. So yeah, it’s kind of a lesson in just always keeping your eyes open throughout the entire process, even into post, of how can you “plus” something, I guess you would say.

“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” is currently streaming exclusively on Netflix.