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'Knives Out' director takes a stab at tech moguls in 'Glass Onion'

Edward Norton (left) plays a tech billionaire who hosts a murder mystery party for an assortment of guests (Madelyn Cline, Kathryn Hahn, Dave Bautista, Leslie Odom Jr., Jessica Henwick, Kate Hudson, Janelle Monáe and Daniel Craig) in <em>Glass Onion. </em>
John Wilson
Edward Norton (left) plays a tech billionaire who hosts a murder mystery party for an assortment of guests (Madelyn Cline, Kathryn Hahn, Dave Bautista, Leslie Odom Jr., Jessica Henwick, Kate Hudson, Janelle Monáe and Daniel Craig) in Glass Onion.

In his 2019 film Knives Out, director Rian Johnson crafted an Agatha Christie-style whodunit that also spoke volumes about class inequality and privilege in America. Now he's back, and this time he's taking aim at the tech billionaires.

Johnson says that America has a unique relationship with tech moguls. We want to sling arrows at them and make fun of them, but "we also kind of want them to be Willy Wonka. ... We think maybe they'll take us up in the great glass elevator and take us to Mars."

Johnson's new film, Glass Onion, centers on tech billionaire Miles Bron (played by Edward Norton), who's invited an assortment of friends and so-called "disrupters" to his private island for a long weekend getaway during COVID to play out a murder mystery game.

The cast of characters include a governor running for Senate, a "men's rights" YouTuber and a former model who thinks of herself as a social media truth teller. Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), the Southern gentleman detective featured in Knives Out, appears on the scene to help unravel the mystery.

Though the sequel follows a similar structure to Knives Out, Johnson insists that Glass Onion is a "completely different ride."

"This film is a little tonally bigger than the first one," he says. "A big part of making this movie was thinking of it not really as a continuation of the first one, but kind of going back to the source of inspiration for me, which were Agatha Christie's books."

Johnson says there's a misconception that Christie told the same story again and again, but, in fact, the opposite is true. "She was doing wildly different things with every book and taking crazy narrative swings and shaking up not just the location and the cast of characters and the type of murder," Johnson says.

"And that, I guess, was the main thing I wanted to do with this," he says of Glass Onion. "I wanted to create another fun murder mystery. But I wanted to tell the audience, 'If we keep making these movies, each one is going to be a completely different ride.' "

Interview highlights

On how Glass Onion differs from Knives Out

The first one is about a family in New England and it's a little closer to the ground. This one, just out of necessity of ... the fact that there's a tech billionaire in the middle of it, it felt like we had to raise our voices a little bit. ... A big part of these movies is trying to connect up with the present moment. ... It gets a little wacky. But to me, that's because this stuff has just been getting progressively wackier over the past however many years.

On making fun of the idea of "disrupters"

Miles is obviously at the top of this power structure. He doesn't actually want to disrupt anything. He's sitting pretty. ... So the notion of disruption actually being applied to that would be actually horrifying to somebody like that. So that seemed interesting to me.

On Benoit Blanc's Southern gentleman accent

When I wrote the first script, I think I didn't want to freak out any potential financiers and so I described it as "the slightest hint of a faint whisper, of a gentle lilt of a Southern accent." I used, like, 18 adjectives to tamp it down. And then, of course, Daniel [Craig] and I started going, we went to town. We sent clips back and forth. My only directive was I wanted it to be a pleasing accent to listen to. And ultimately, [what] we kind of settled on is largely based on Shelby Foote, the historian who's in some of the Ken Burns documentaries. ... He has, I think, a Mississippi accent, but it's a very honeyed accent. And that's kind of what we aimed for.

On his father and grandfather's love of film

My whole family loves movies and my dad loved movies and he really worshiped film directors. And so my dad introduced me to Scorsese and showed me Raging Bull, through the lens of, "Here is an artist who is really doing something." And my granddad loved Fellini. I think that's very important as a young person — not just watching these movies and being exposed to them, but for me seeing older men that I respect, seeing it through the lens of their respect for this thing. ...

Filmmaker Rian Johnson attends the premiere of <em>Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery</em> in Los Angeles on Nov. 14.
Emilio Madrid / Netflix
Filmmaker Rian Johnson attends the premiere of Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery in Los Angeles on Nov. 14.

When I got into film school ... I just watched three or four movies a day sometimes and would just absorb all the film school canon. [My dad] was always my biggest cheerleader. ... If there was any just bitter sweetness to the whole thing, it's that he passed away a few months before I was approached for the Star Wars job. And that would have been — I can only imagine. So much of making movies since then is always framed by, "My God, what would dad say if he were here right now?"

On directing Star Wars: The Last Jedi

This was the ultimate dream come true. This was the heavens opening, and all the clichés you can imagine ... the whole thing from writing it to working at Pinewood Studios and working with those amazing craftsmen and those actors and shooting a Star Wars movie to putting it out. And the experience over the past few years of getting to know Star Wars fans and people connecting to the movie and talking to me about it. I mean, the entire thing has just been, it feels like a mountain in the middle of my life. I doubt I'll ever top it, in terms of just the breadth and depth of the experience.

Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Sam Briger