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The cast and creative team of the whodunit talk about how they moved from New England browns to the blues and yellows of Greece with all new characters for Benoit Blanc to grill.
By Beatrice Verhoeven
Deputy Awards Editor
A good mystery often begins with a clue that’s right out in the open, even if no one recognizes it at first. In a similar way, the extravagant Greek villa that serves as the principal setting for Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery impressed production designer Rick Heinrichs when he first visited it early in his location search, but it wasn’t immediately selected for the movie’s game of murder that turns deadly. “It was a place that had a modernist take on classical architecture and had a hierarchy of stairs that led up to it, and I could see us placing a dome on top of it,” Heinrichs tells THR. “But our experience always tells us that the first place is never the one you end up with.” Instead, he conducted “a worldwide search and looked at everything, and it was only then that we fully appreciated the villa we had found.”
With its sweeping view of the Aegean Sea, the Aman Resorts’ Villa 20 in Greece’s Porto Heli not only looked as if it could double as the lavish island estate of Edward Norton’s new-money billionaire Miles Bron, it also guaranteed that Glass Onion would have an expansively different look than writer-director Rian Johnson’s first Knives Out mystery, set in an old-money Massachusetts manse.
When the first Knives Out, produced by MRC on a modest $40 million budget and distributed by Lionsgate, proved an unexpected hit, grossing $313 million worldwide following its November 2019 release, a sequel became inevitable. Johnson tells THR, “Even when we were making the first movie, I was thinking, ‘If this does well, it would be fun to keep making them, but always in the way that Agatha Christie did her books,’ ” continuously challenging her detectives Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot to unravel the usually fatal relationships among a new cast of suspicious characters. Johnson says Glass Onion isn’t strictly speaking a sequel but instead is a new Benoit Blanc mystery, Blanc being the Southern-accented sleuth created by Johnson and played with sly wit by Daniel Craig.
“That led to some creative choices,” Johnson continues. “The setting was a way of showing the audience very clearly we were going to be in a whole new deal with this one, trading in the browns of New England for the blues and yellows of Greece.” For his part, Craig was more than game, telling THR, “The success of the first one took us all by surprise, and no one dared to believe we could make another, so it was just a thrilling prospect.”
Even as Lionsgate signaled it was ready to greenlight a follow-up, in March 2021 Netflix swooped in, winning an auction with a whopping $469 million offer for two more Knives Out movies.
So, Johnson got to work. He says the first 80 or 90 percent of his writing process involves outlining, which proves particularly useful in whodunits, where every loose end needs to be tied up and every clue has to be dropped in plain sight. Working in Moleskine notebooks, he drew arcs so that he could sprinkle in clues along the way.
He decided on “the idea of a murder mystery on vacation,” inspired by Poirot outings like Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun. “I thought it’d be nice to have an island because then you can isolate everyone together. And who would have a private island? Oh, maybe it’s a tech billionaire.” And then, what if that tech billionaire — like James Coburn’s movie producer in 1973’s The Last of Sheila — invites “all of his friends for a murder-mystery game?” Quickly, the game was afoot. Johnson chose Glass Onion for a title since it refers both to the translucent dome atop Bron’s villa and the name of a bar where the billionaire and his chums once hung out, while also providing a metaphor for the many layers of mystery to be peeled away. And even though the musical rights were expensive, he also acknowledged a debt to The Beatles’ tune “Glass Onion,” which plays over the closing credits.
To add that “glass onion” atop the Villa 20 without harming the resort’s architectural integrity, AR and VFX was employed to augment the exterior shots. But for the interior of the dome, Heinrichs’ team built a set on a soundstage in Belgrade, Serbia. Originally, the plan had been to shoot interiors in London, but with so many films rushing into production post-COVID, the London studios already were booked.
“We thought we would shoot in London for something like this because we were going to be really dependent on a lot of resources available to us there,” Heinrichs explains. “The glass unit was built in London, and it was engineered and constructed and fully set up onstage not too far from Pinewood. Then they took it apart, put it in a truck and sent all the wood elements that represented glass panes off to a glass company in Germany, where they were separately cut up and sent to Belgrade, where it was all reassembled.”
Meanwhile, the cast was gathering to begin filming exteriors in Greece. In addition to Craig and Norton, the star-studded lineup includes Kate Hudson, Janelle Monáe, Kathryn Hahn, Dave Bautista, Leslie Odom Jr., Madelyn Cline and Jessica Henwick. Most of the cast is introduced during the solving of an intricate puzzle box in the opening sequence, which Johnson concocted with props master Kris Peck. But having so many principal characters proved to be challenging on many fronts, from filming to editing.
Costume designer Jenny Eagan, who worked on the first Knives Out, says everything was “bigger and broader” the second time around, since the characters converge in Greece in all manner of colorful resort wear and, unlike the first film’s family, none of the characters are related to one another.
For Hudson’s Birdie, a flamboyant influencer, it was about “her outrageous personality,” says Eagan. “We wanted to make it bold and ridiculous. The hats and, of course, there’s a little bit of her mom [Goldie Hawn] from Overboard in there.” Again, with a nod to Evil Under the Sun, “These are very high-class, over-the-top people, and that’s where I thought with Birdie we could definitely make that character.”
Adds Hudson: “Any character that is over-the-top and gets to wear hats and has the fabulous costumes is so much fun to play as an actor. It’s a throwback to old movies and old Hollywood but still modern, and that’s something that Rian was able to do in the whodunit genre. … You just don’t read characters like that very often, that truly pop off the page and then are supported by such a nuanced writer. She’s not like a one-note flamboyant character — she is layered and has purpose and motivation and all of the things that you need to give to characters for a good whodunit.”
For Craig’s Blanc, Eagan carried through some design elements from the first film, like the bold and colorful neckties. “There’s also some silliness to Benoit that we wanted to keep there,” adds Eagan.
(Beware, spoilers ahead!)
In the case of Monáe, who plays both Andi, Bron’s estranged partner, and Andi’s twin sister Helen, costuming was especially critical. Eagan and her team began by outfitting Andi because, Eagan says, it would serve as a base for Helen’s character. For Andi, Eagan used circular shapes and straight lines that were very determined and bold with strong colors. The most difficult costume to nail down was the suit Monáe wears in the final sequences — given the amount of action required of Monáe in those scenes — to ensure the actress was both safe and comfortable.
Monáe says she felt like she was playing three characters — Andi, Helen and Helen-as-Andi, and so she kept three different notebooks “to manage the energies.”
She says: “The first two weeks, we stayed a lot more on Helen pretending to be Andi because we were in Greece. It was the most fun and challenging thing I’ve done to date, in the best possible way. I’m thankful for all the films I’ve done, from Moonlight to Hidden Figures to a show like Homecoming. When I look back, honestly, it was really setting me up for this role. I can see that I’ve used everything I’ve learned for this sort of role.”
Once all the characters meet up in the film, after lounging by the pool and strolling in the surrounding gardens, they converge in the central atrium of Bron’s home that Heinrichs designed as a mix of clashing styles, with dozens of glass sculptures and even da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, which Bron has secreted out of the Louvre.
“He’s someone who needs to impress and show off, and this is how he exerts power,” Heinrichs says of the way the set helped to delineate Bron’s commanding character. “[The dining area] is almost like a Greek pavilion. I’ve been to The Met in New York, and they have these little temples that have been extracted from archaeological sites, so I thought that makes sense for this character.”
Adds Johnson: “That space was crazy because when you actually walked onto the set, it was so ugly — it assaulted your eyes because it’s all these things that don’t fit. You have a faux classic Greek ruin on one end and then this weird Death Star-like floor with all these plinths with the glass, and then you have this weird ’70s-like orgy pit with a red couch. It’s like an interior designer threw up on it. But when you film it through a camera, you start separating the sections out and it looks gorgeous in a weird way that doesn’t make sense.”
Johnson decided to include the Mona Lisa — actually copied from photos of the original by scenic painter James Gemmill — because it was a “sacred cow and was something the audience could really be appropriately in awe of. She’s always watching [and] also the ambiguity of her smile. There are a lot of things where, thematically, it made a lot of sense to put that front and center.”
Juggling so many characters in the same space was the “most challenging thing,” the director says, “especially when you start dealing with that sequence in the atrium, where it’s very specific in terms of what you want the audience to notice and not notice, and you’re planting clues, hopefully in subtle ways but that are also in plain sight. There’s a lot of math going on.”
Film editor Bob Ducsay was charged with not only making sure every principal character had ample screen time but also that enough tension was built into the scenes leading up to the grand reveal. At the same time, he had to edit the film in such a way that the audience wouldn’t feel “manipulated” when the case was solved, he says, so clues had to be in plain sight without being too obvious.
Further complicating matters was the fact that the main set contained so much reflective glass. But cinematographer Steve Yedlin — who worked with Johnson on Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi and the first Knives Out — says rather than try to avoid reflections, his team embraced them. “We said, ‘Let’s make sure there are reflections.’ We didn’t want to just get rid of reflections, because that would be the same as not having any glass — like a 1940s movie where the glass door just didn’t have any glass. We wanted to see the glass — glass is in the title of the movie. So, number one was making sure that we had good reflections.”
The film’s big finale, involving extensive VFX work, required extra careful planning since not only does it involve Blanc solving the central mystery, but the reveal leads to wholesale destruction, with most of the principal cast joining in. There were only two sets of glass sculptures on hand, so it was all about “practice,” says Johnson. “We only had two takes of the actual smashing of the glass sculpture. We had been tiptoeing around these delicate glass structures the whole shoot. All the actors were so ready to start smashing them up. They were actually calling dibs on which ones they wanted to smash. It was just prep and you have a lot of meetings and a lot of diagramming it out.”
Adds Monáe: “I loved breaking the glass. It was cathartic. I was ready!”
Heinrichs notes that while they were preparing the sets in Serbia for the finale, a prop warehouse burned down as they were trying to figure out how to make all the glass sculptures for inside the atrium: “We had to make two or three out of everything, but the heat of the glass would destroy the molds, so we made them out of resin. But our whole resin operation got shut down by the fire.” Instead, they sent everything up to glass factories in Prague.
Of course, the grand finale also includes the burning of the Mona Lisa. Johnson says that Craig was “a little bit nervous” about destroying the most famous painting in the world, even if it was fiction. “He was like, ‘Are people going to turn on us when we burn down the Mona Lisa?’ ” says Johnson. “It’s almost more famous for being famous than it is for being a work of art people have a deep connection to, and I think it’s so much of a sacred cow that people get the joke.”
Netflix granted the finished film a one-week run in about 600 theaters — including the three major chains, AMC, Regal and Cinemark — on Nov. 23, in advance of Glass Onion debuting on the streaming service Dec. 23. And while Johnson would still like to see more theatrical dates for the film, he defends his and producer Ram Bergman’s decision to go with Netflix.
Between the release of the two Knives Out films, COVID had upended the exhibition business and streamers had rewritten distribution models. Says Johnson: “The world had changed since we put the first movie out. It’s not like it was a choice between Netflix and the theatrical experience. The theatrical experience of Knives Out didn’t exist anymore. The reality was, if we had sold the movie to another studio, the great likelihood is they would turn around and flip it to a streamer, so it would be day-and-date regardless. Netflix was the right choice to go with.”
Offers Bergman, “We were already in preproduction on the second, and we were still in the midst of the pandemic and had no idea what the world would look like. Today, I still don’t know what the world looks like. The guys at Netflix made the most aggressive offer, and you could see they believed in it.” Even though box office analysts charge that Netflix left money on the table by limiting Glass Onion‘s theatrical run, Bergman says of the experiment: “I hope it’s the first step toward doing this with more movies and figuring out how to calibrate a new way of releasing movies. We can see what’s going on in the theaters, and it’s not pretty — so maybe there is a different model and maybe you can show the world, whether it’s the streamers or the studios or the exhibitors, that those things can coexist.”
For his part, Johnson has already started thinking about the third Knives Out mystery: “I’ve very vaguely started clustering ideas together. I’m really excited about the challenge of figuring out something that’s thrillingly different from both of them, and that feels scary but still gives the pleasures of a fun murder mystery.” Johnson adds that the franchise has a creative hold on him at the moment: “I thought that I was going to do something completely different before I did the next Benoit Blanc mystery, but every time I start thinking about other stuff, my brain just comes back to this. It’s the most exciting thing in the world to me. I feel like it’s an endlessly malleable genre and I would be absolutely thrilled to come back every couple of years and do another one of these for as long as we can.”
Echoes Craig: “As long as we can keep entertaining people, we will keep making them.”
This story first appeared in the Jan. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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