Leading up to its release on November 27th, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out has built up an incredible amount of buzz on the festival circuit as a crowd pleaser with plenty of laughs and surprises.
I caught up with Johnson to talk about what the theatrical experience means to him on a personal and professional level.
What are the moviegoing experiences—whether while growing up or during college— that made you want to be a director?
Well, when I was a kid it was all about Star Wars. It's funny, I'm actually in Denver right now, and I lived here through grade school. I have such a vivid memory of seeing Return of the Jedi at one of the big theaters here: The Continental, it was a big, single-house theater. It was just kind of a holy experience going to the theater for something like that where you'd been waiting for it for years, and then it’s finally the day and you can't even believe it. You line up and then go in, and then you’re overwhelmed by the experience of the movie. You don't even get to really absorb it all … it’s almost like a circus. As a kid, it was all about the very special experience to going to the movies.
As an adult, my wife and I get out to go see movies a lot. We try and get to the theater to see anything we're really interested in seeing. These days, it's much more about attention. For me, it's about the fact that if I’m in a theater I know that I can't pick up my phone and look at it. I'm going to be able to zero in on that experience. I'm in the dark, and I'm with an audience of people who are having the same experience. I know I'm going to get the actual experience of the movie.
Looking at your own career, what are some of the experiences of watching your work with a crowd that stand out to you?
The way that you really get to experience them is at film festivals. That's where you get to see them with a crowd for the first time. But then there's nothing quite like opening nights. I've mostly been in Los Angeles for the opening nights, and that usually means going to the Arclight in Hollywood. There's nothing like the energy of that. Even though it's the same movie that you've been traveling around with for a while at that point—and you've seen so many times as a director—there’s an energy when those credits start up … you feel like it's a live stage play. You feel nervous that it's somehow going to go wrong. It's really wonderful.
Another amazing experience for me happened a few years ago. We did a special screening of Treasure of the Sierra Madre at the Alamo Drafthouse in Denver, which is one of my grandfather’s favorite films. My grandfather came to the screening, and I got to sit with him in a crowd of people and watch this classic movie that he adored. That was pretty special.
Speaking of festivals, what did you learn about Knives Out from watching it with festival crowds?
I've actually been sitting in on a lot of the screenings at different festivals just because it's such a fun movie to watch with a crowd. The movie is engineered to just be a blast, and to really engage the audience. And it works … it really plays. Even with movies that you're proud of, they aren't always the type of films that are going to get audiences cheering and laughing all the way through them. So I'm kind of savoring it. I'm really loving seeing [Knives Out] with all the crowds across the country, and seeing how into it they are. It feels really good.
I want to switch gears and talk about the conversation that's happening now in the industry about the dynamic between the theatrical and streaming. There’s this idea out there that somehow the two are at war with each other. As someone who works in both mediums, do you buy into this notion of them being at war or do you feel that there's a time and place for both and the growth of streaming doesn't have to mean that theatrical is “dead”?
No, I think they complement each other. I think that this kind of panic has happened cyclically in the industry over the years. The obvious example is the rise of television where theaters started freaking out thinking it was going to kill movies. And of course it didn't. As someone who goes to the movies a lot and loves going to see opening nights of whatever the next big movie is—and that includes going to see smaller, arthouse stuff—it just feels like people are still loving going to the theater and having that experience. I hear a lot of hand-wringing about how it’s dying, but while traveling around and going to theaters around the States it just seems like it's still an experience people are loving having.
It’s something that's very distinct from the experience of sitting at home. I watch a lot of stuff at home … I love watching stuff at home, but it's a different experience than going to the movies. People want to go have a night out.
Connected to that discussion is the idea that some genres or particular movies aren’t “movie theater movies.”
I don’t agree with that. I don't go to the theaters for spectacle. I go to the theater for things where I want to have the experience of just being totally immersed in a movie. And oftentimes it's the smaller movies, and the slower, more challenging movies that really require that. Those are the ones where I know I'm not going to have the same experience at home that I will if I'm sitting in a dark theater.