By most accounts, Rian Johnson did a masterful job crafting a modern day whodunit in the style of Agatha Christie with his Oscar-nominated film Knives Out. For a film that succeeds and entertains on as many levels as Knives Out, it’s always interesting to get some insight into the creative process. On that account, there is a specific trap that writer and director Rian Johnson was trying to avoid with Knives Out’s detective story.
In the film, Ana de Armas’ Marta asks Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc if he knew the deceased patriarch and literary magnate Harlan Thrombey, played by Christopher Plummer. The detective responds than Harlan knew his father, who was a police detective years ago. This detail was very important as Rian Johnson explained:
A solitary crumb of personal information. One trap I wanted to avoid was giving Blanc too much backstory. The mystery Blanc solves is the crux of the story, filling in ‘Who is this person?’ gaps is chasing the wrong rabbit.
This insight comes from Knives Out’s official Twitter account. With the film and Rian Johnson nominated for Best Original Screenplay, the account tweeted out pages of the script with notes from Rian Johnson himself. According to Rian Johnson, this exchange between Benoit Blanc and Marta Cabrera gave us the smallest bit of personal information about Daniel Craig’s detective.
Other than this anecdote about Benoit’s father knowing Harlan Thrombey and being a police detective years ago, we don’t really find anything out about the character. We know that he is a famous private investigator and that he was featured in a New Yorker article and that he perhaps has an unnatural fascination with donuts, but that’s about it. As we now know, this was very much by design.
Rian Johnson wanted to avoid the trap of having the detective become the mystery. The writer worried that if he gave Benoit Blanc too much of a backstory, audiences and perhaps the characters themselves would be more concerned with who he is and that the focus of the film would be on the wrong thing.
The focus of Knives Out was supposed to be on the mystery of Harlan Thrombey’s death and those were the answers the audience and the characters were supposed to be chasing, not who Benoit Blanc is. That motivation makes sense given that Knives Out is a whodunit. It’s a detective story, not a detective’s story.
It’s interesting though, because personally I would think that withholding information about Benoit Blanc would have the opposite effect. If you don’t tell the audience something they want to know they will continue to search for answers. But for whatever reason it doesn’t play out that way in Knives Out.
I suppose that’s because answers beget more questions and we are given enough with this little crumb about Benoit Blanc’s backstory that we are sated and can focus on the crux of the story, which is the mystery of Harlan’s death.
What’s exciting is that there will be another opportunity for us to get more crumbs of information about Benoit Blanc’s backstory. A Knives Out sequel is already in the works with Daniel Craig expected to return and perhaps over time we will get to know more and more about Rian Johnson’s modern day Hercule Poirot.