When Oscar-nominated “Knives Out” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” filmmaker Rian Johnson was pitching his new series “Poker Face” around town, he “got a lot of blank stares.” The show’s pilot – which he wrote in advance of pitching – introduces a character named Charlie who is able to tell when anyone is lying. The feature-length episode puts Charlie in grave danger and ends with her hitting the road. And while Johnson admits the story could become “a ‘Killing Eve’ thing” after that ending, it instead kicks off a case-of-the-week series in which Charlie (played by Natasha Lyonne) meets new characters and solves a new mystery in each episode as she travels the country.
“I guess I wasn’t prepared for how crazy a swing it would seem to a lot of people I pitched to,” Johnson told TheWrap of his idea to make an episodic TV series. He’s no stranger to (and loves) serialized storytelling having won a DGA award for directing “Breaking Bad,” but with “Poker Face” Johnson wanted to evoke the shows he grew up watching like “Columbo” and “Murder She Wrote.”
“Especially on streamers, television has kind of drawn away from [this] and gone into the realm of serialized storytelling,” Johnson said. “I really believed that this is a format that I think people might miss a little bit, and people might really take some joy in seeing again.”
All signs point to yes thanks to glowing reviews, a winning performance from Lyonne and a revolving door of eye-catching guest stars. Ahead of the “Poker Face” premiere on Peacock (the first four episodes are streaming now), TheWrap spoke to Johnson about the challenges of tackling episodic storytelling, what it was like creating his first TV show and where the character of Charlie ends and Lyonne begins.
This show is such a balm. Prestige serialized television is great, and you’ve directed some of it, but this throwback case-of-the-week kind of show done well is a treat. Where did it all start?
That makes me so happy. Yeah, that’s where it all started was kind of my memory of the type of show that I grew up watching, which was episodic. And episodic shows where you came back every week, first and foremost, to hang out with the main character, to hang out with Peter Falk, you know, but also to hang out in the form where it has a structure that you recognize, and it has like a comforting familiarity to it, and within that context you’re gonna get something totally different each time. Especially on streamers, television has kind of drawn away from [this] and gone into the realm of serialized storytelling, which is fantastic stuff, but I kind of missed the joys of [episodic].
The “howcatchthem” or “whydunit” is such an old format that it feels new again, but I’m curious, was there any pushback when you were taking this out to networks and streamers?
I got a lot of blank stares. We were pitching it around town, and I think also because the way I pitched it I wrote the pilot, and then I took it out and kind of explained how the show was gonna go. And you can imagine if you didn’t have in your head that it was a case-of-the-week that you could read the pilot and think it’s like a “Killing Eve” thing where it’s like the story of Charlie running from Cliff. I guess I wasn’t prepared for how crazy a swing it would seem to a lot of people I pitched to, the idea of doing episodic. I think there is a thing where, just because it’s been so successful, it’s become a thing where people think that’s the only thing that gets an audience to keep tuning in is the cliffhanger of one story stretched out over an entire season. But you know, having grown up watching episodic TV every single day of my life when I was a kid, I really believed that this is a format that I think people might miss a little bit, and people might really take some joy in seeing again.
You had obviously directed TV before you hadn’t ever created a show and put together a writers room and hired directors. What was that experience like? Was it what you expected?
I didn’t know what to expect. This was my first rodeo so I was going in totally blind and feeling my way forward. I was very lucky. We hired Lilla and Nora Zuckerman to be our showrunners, and they really showed me the ropes in terms of putting a writers room together and working with that team of writers, and I really took to it, I really enjoyed it. Coming into it realizing that it can be a truly collaborative experience with the writers that I can also have creative ownership over, and that I could really still throw myself into this kind of group writing process the same way I throw myself into writing my own movies. That was really liberating for me, and that’s all a testament to Nora and Lilla that they approached it with that aim of having the best of both worlds.
Was it at all similar to working with the Lucasfilm story group when writing “Star Wars: The Last Jedi?”
It was different, I would say. Just because no one on the story group was then actually going to write parts of the script. It was a different process. I’d say the story group was more kind of consultants for me to bounce stuff off of that I was thinking about as I was having my writing process, and they were supportive in that way. It’s different when you’re actually working with writers who are then going to go and write a draft of the script.
What was the challenge of not only creating a new story and mystery with each episode, but also approaching a new aesthetic and introducing new characters each time out?
I mean, honestly, it was a blast. The thing that was kind of the handhold I grabbed onto was the structure of it. That’s one thing that doesn’t change from episode to episode that was something that I was wanting to be really rigid about, especially in the first season. We’re going to make this contract with the audience that this is how the show works, and we set it up in the pilot that we see the crime and the first act, then we flash back, see how Charlie fits into it, catch up with the crime and then she solves it. So having that as kind of the skeleton that we’ve built every single episode off of helped in terms of that automatically gives you a compass, it gives you someplace to go story-wise, and then it becomes much more fun thinking about, ‘OK, in this form, what wild swings can we do? What crazy shit can we do? Can we do an episode where the whole last act is her backstage at a dinner theater like ‘Noises Off?’” We could feel the freedom to kind of get wackier because that solid base of the show is contained within the same procedural structure each time.
Charlie’s not a cop. She’s not enacting justice, she can’t arrest people. So the conclusion of each episode may be a little bit different. Was that a fun creative challenge for you to figure out how each episode was going to end in a satisfying way?
That was one of the big challenges. I’d say the two big challenges on the table in every episode were how do we personally invest Charlie in solving the crime so that she can’t help but dive into it, considering she’s not a cop? And then how do we bring about a sense of justice at the end? That is something that we kind of tasked ourselves with every single week. Not to say it’s totally off the table, but we don’t have any episodes where she just kind of decides to let it go. We really wanted to pin ourselves to we have to get to a place where we feel like justice has been served in one way or another by the end of the episode. It was a challenge, but it was a fun challenge. And it’s one that led to some really creative solutions I feel really proud of.
Natasha is so incredible in this. How did the character of Charlie change once she was cast? I know you pitched this to her and you guys worked on developing it together.
It’s kind of a chicken and the egg thing because she was there from before the beginning, and there is no separating — the entire character in the entire show was really created to fit her like a bespoke suit. So it’s hard to even pull apart where she ends and the creation of this begins. I think one thing that she and I discovered together as we were creating this character was — and this was kind of a big revelation for her — the notion that Charlie likes people. And the notion that she has kind of like a sunny, open arms sort of attitude towards people in the world. I mean for Natasha, that was like a revelation. She was like, “I don’t know if I’ve ever played a character that likes people before,” [laughs]. And I think the combination of her natural acerbic wit with a character who has kind of a Dude-like sunniness, that combination is kind of the essence. When those two things clicked together we thought, “OK, I think we found who Charlie is, and it’s somebody that I want to come back and watch every week.”
I was also thrilled to see you working with your longtime cinematographer Steve Yedlin and composer Nathan Johnson. What was it like creating the world of “Poker Face” from a filmmaking perspective?
It was a lot of conversations with Steve looking at not only old “Columbo” episodes but looking at Altman movies and feeling like, because it’s set in the modern world, we could allow the way that we shot it to feel like a bit of a throwback, and that felt really nice. The music with Nathan, I had the idea of a banjo being like the lead thing for Charlie and they called me crazy [laughs]. The second you say the word “banjo” when you’re spending millions of dollars of a major corporation’s money you’re gonna get some questions. To be fair though, it was mostly Natasha who called me crazy.
Yeah, that’s the thing. But working with Nathan to find ways of using a banjo very delicately as Charlie’s theme, there’s something just so beautiful and grounding. There’s an element of Americana to it. There’s something warm about it. And then there are some times that Nathan uses the banjo as a menacing element that I find really involving. The score that Nathan created and then Judson Crane, who then took Nathan’s themes and scored most of the episodes, those two guys working together, I feel like the music creates what this world feels like and what Charlie feels like as anything.
Did you ever intend to direct all the episodes?
I would have if I could have, honestly. But having said that, I’m glad I didn’t both because I would probably be dead right now, but also because I then got the pleasure of working with all the talented directors that we have this season. So Tiffany Johnson, Iain MacDonald, our producing director, Lucky McKee, Janicza Bravo, Ben Sinclair, we just had all of these incredibly talented people. But if there was a world where I could have just snapped my fingers and created a bubble in time where I could have directed them all, I completely would have. I was having the time of my life, the three episodes I did direct.
Are you hoping this will continue for multiple seasons?
I would love it, man. I mean, it’s obviously kind of made to keep going on, but one thing at a time. I’ll put it out and see how it does and figure it out.
Was your pitch on this always to release it weekly, or did you consider releasing the whole season at once?
You know, I’ve always been a little agnostic about that with this series, specifically. I like where they landed. We’re putting the first four out at once so people get a big dose of them, and then we’re doing the rest of them weekly. It’s good to do weekly because it keeps the conversation going and let’s it build, hopefully it gives it a little bit of time to build and people to discover it. The reality is when I went back over the pandemic and binged “Columbo,” they were all up and that didn’t detract from my viewing experience. It was really fun being able to kind of skip around and hit the ones I wanted or go through and go at my own pace. So I think with a show like this, I’m not very religious either way about weekly versus binge model. Once they’re all up, it’ll be great.
Do you at all regret releasing a TV show and a film within the span of a month?
[Laughs] It’s a good problem to have to be busy. I worry a little bit that people are seeing too much of my face and familiarity breeds contempt. But I promise I’ll be gone in a month and I’ll be off writing and you won’t see me for a year. It’s fine. I’m almost done, I promise.
The first four episodes of “Poker Face” are now streaming on Peacock, with new episodes streaming weekly.