‘Knives Out’ filmmaker Rian Johnson on his first Oscar nomination

Director Rian Johnson, from the film "Knives Out," photographed in the L.A. Times Photo Studio at the Toronto International Film Festival, in Toronto, Ont., Canada on September 08, 2019.
Director Rian Johnson, from the film “Knives Out,” photographed in the L.A. Times Photo Studio at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 8.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Rian Johnson received his first Oscar nomination on Monday morning, recognized in the original screenplay category for “Knives Out.”

The movie has proven to be a worldwide success, so far making more than $265 million from a reported budget of approximately $40 million. It has already spurred talk of a sequel.

A playful reimagining of a classic whodunit, “Knives Out” has a formidable ensemble cast that includes Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ana De Armas, Christopher Plummer, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon and Toni Collette. The story is what happens when a wealthy mystery novelist dies unexpectedly and his family find themselves at odds over his fortune, while a famed detective becomes involved in unraveling the mystery.


Johnson’s previous movie, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” for which he received sole screenplay credit, earned more than $1.3 billion worldwide. His previous movies include the original stories “Looper,” “The Brothers Bloom” and “Brick.”

Not long after the nominations announcement on Monday morning, Johnson got on the phone from his home in Los Angeles. For the record, Johnson politely declined to comment on anything “Star Wars”-related.

Did you get up for the nominations?

Rian Johnson: I was like half asleep when Ram [Bergman, producer] called me. I wasn’t up-up watching them, but I got a wake-up call, which was very nice.
And how are you feeling about it?

It’s surreal, man. It hasn’t quite registered, but man, I’m happy. I mean, this is nothing to be unhappy about it. It’s pretty cool.

You and I talked before the film’s world premiere and I specifically asked you then about the fact that the movie was premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival and had a Thanksgiving opening. In some ways it was an award season launch and yet you weren’t really thinking of it like an awards movie. And here you are now nominated for an Oscar.


I know. It’s completely crazy. It’s funny because the Thanksgiving release date ended up being fantastic for the reason that we dated it then, which was not [for] award season, but just families being together and we’re making a movie that hopefully families can go to and enjoy. And so we, or at least I, never honestly thought we would be in the awards conversation. I thought we were just making a genre movie that hopefully would really connect with audiences. So it’s a very incredibly pleasant surprise. It’s pretty wonderful.

The film has been such a commercial success, that must be gratifying both creatively as the writer-director but also as a producer as well.

I mean mostly creatively, just knowing that the type of success it was, where it’s not like we had the biggest ad budget in the world or we had like a huge [intellectual property] or something behind it. The fact that it was just people seeing the movie and digging it and telling their friends and family, “Oh, you should go see this. It’s fun.” And that’s really what drove it. That for me is the coolest thing. It just kind of shows that audiences like the movie and that feels really, really good.

And then what do you think it is that audiences are responding to?

I think it’s just fun. I think they have a good time in the theater. You know, from our very first preview, just seeing that audiences were laughing during it, were on the ride from the beginning to end and just kind of left the theater with a smile on their faces, having had a good time. I think it’s as simple as that.


And now for all the talk about sequels and franchises dominating Hollywood right now, it must be gratifying to see an original story like “Knives Out” do as well as it has commercially and then also be nominated for this Oscar.

I’m not like leading an original versus sequel or remake charge. There’s a lot of remakes and sequels that I love. I think a good movie is a good movie. But even just looking in the best original screenplay category and looking at the other nominees and seeing how strong a year it was for original stories, that’s just really a great sign in terms of the creative vitality of the filmmakers that are out there right now.

Do you feel like there’s any added pressure or difficulty in getting an original story made now?

It’s difficult to get anything made. It’s a miracle that any movie gets made, it really is. And for us, this movie came together quicker and in some ways easier than anything we’ve ever put together. So you can do it, you can get original stuff made. I think it’s just a matter of believing in the hand that you’re holding.

For all the efforts that the Academy has made to broaden its membership, the overall nominations today still felt pretty homogeneous. There’s only one woman nominated each in original and adapted screenplay, obviously no women nominated for director, very few people of color in acting. Do you think there’s anything more that can be done to speed the process of having the nominations feel more inclusive?

I’m sure there is. I’m sure there’s things that can be done and that have to be done. I think just kind of letting the tide take its course is not good enough. I think we’ve got to figure something out. I don’t know what that is. And the one thing about, for example, there being no female directors nominated is I hope it’s just going to stoke the conversation and hopefully spur some activity. We gotta figure something out.