There’s an entire family of suspects – and not the usual ones – at play in writer/director Rian Johnson’s comedic murder mystery “Knives Out,” but a teenage alt-right Internet troll is the only one liable to irritate Colonel Mustard or Mrs. Peacock right out of the “Clue” mansion and then blast them online afterward.
“I’m sure I got a few tweetstorms from that kid,” quips Johnson, admitting that the character of Jacob Thrombey (Jaeden Martell) was inspired by the hateful social-media comments and backlash he received following the release of his hit “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Some were annoyed it wasn’t nostalgic enough, while others were irked because Jedi master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) was off being a hermit on a remote planet instead of helping the good guys.
In “Knives Out,” wealthy mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) winds up dead on the occasion of his 85th birthday, and eccentric sleuth Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) investigates his relatives afterward since they each have a motive for murder. Instead of using stock mystery characters, Johnson created new archetypes, including lifestyle guru Joni Thrombey (Toni Collette) and activist college student Meg (Katherine Langford), whom Harlan’s grandson Jacob sneeringly calls a “liberal snowflake.”
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Johnson saw “Knives Out” as a way to “investigate the modern world the way that (Agatha) Christie did with Britain back when she was writing, using it to really draw these kind of caricatures of all these different types in society at the time.”
Online toxicity is “a bigger cultural thing that’s happening everywhere with everything,” Johnson adds. “Every fandom, every journalist who’s writing right now – anything you put out in the public eye, you’re going to experience some version of this. It’s not about ‘Star Wars,’ it’s about online culture in general, and it seemed like something everyone on some level can unfortunately relate to.”
“Last Jedi” star Daisy Ridley told USA TODAY in July that the fan backlash didn’t shock her (“It’s just a different thing”) and Johnson agrees: “If you actually grew up as a ‘Star Wars’ fan, it’s not crazy or surprising at all. I was in my 20s when the prequels came out. That was bonkers how angry everybody was – it wasn’t social media-based but with your friends.”
Now, “social media adds a new way of it happening but it’s because people care so deeply about (‘Star Wars’) that everyone’s passionate about it. That’s what’s responsible for the bad and also the good,” Johnson says. “The troll thing, I’ve obviously gotten kind of a concentrated dose of it, but it’s also something that is definitely not unique to ‘Star Wars’ or unique to me.”
Johnson is still on tap to head up his own “Star Wars” movie trilogy (“Right now, I’m in my notebook, I’m scribbling and we’ll see what ends up happening”) and the filmmaker feels he “learned so much” during his four years making “Last Jedi.”
“Any huge project or experience is like a personal growth machine,” he says. “You get a little more confident, you get a little less confident in some ways, you learn stuff, you realize that the stuff that you had learned before is wrong. It’s constantly shifting.
“But there was no big sea change of ‘Boy, my eyes have been opened and now I’m going to have a whole new perspective on this!’ With every project you just sit down and write what’s on your mind and what’s on your heart and try and make it as good as you can.”