Rian Johnson cut his teeth on the mystery pastiche in the form of the modern noir Brick. Since then, he’s taken on con men (The Brothers Bloom), time travelling assassins (Looper), and a Jedi or two (The Last Jedi).
Then came global success Knives Out in 2019, which launched its own franchise.
The latest instalment Glass Onion is as witty and clever as the first, but this time instead of satirising “old money”, Johnson trains his eye on “new money”, as a long-time group of friends travel to an exclusive (and frankly ridiculous) Greek island owned by a tech billionaire.
Glass Onion is everything you could wish from a sequel and more – peeling through the layers of mystery has rarely been so fun.
Just as Daniel Craig bids farewell to one secret agent, he returns to the screen as another unraveller of mysteries, reprising his role as Knives Out’s suave Southern sleuth Benoit Blanc.
In the three years since shooting the final scene as James Bond in No Time to Die – his fifth and final outing as the British superspy – Craig and writer-director Rian Johnson have managed to launch an entire new franchise together.
2019’s Knives Out – featuring an all-star cast including Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Chris Evans and Ana de Armas – earned US$300 million globally at the box office, leading Johnson [persuaded by Netflix’s very generous offer] to create his latest entry in the Benoit Blanc adventures, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.
Having filmed the first Knives Out story in New England, this time Johnson lured his new cast to the Greek Islands where they created their own pandemic bubble – just like their screen counterparts in this new story.
The title Glass Onion, in part, takes its name from an enormous onion-like crystal centrepiece at the island home of Edward Norton’s smug, name-dropping tech billionaire, Miles Bron, a character which couldn’t be timelier in his loathsome resemblance to a certain twitter billionaire.
Bron has invited his long-time frenemies to join him in paradise, a group who are all innovators in their own fields: including Kate Hudson’s fashion queen, Birdie, Leslie Odom Jr’s scientist Lionel, Kathryn Hahn’s liberal politician Claire, and Dave Bautista as an outsized representation of toxic masculinity.
Then there’s the curiously invited guest in the form of Janelle Monae’s mysterious Andi Brand, Bron’s former partner.
With this group at each other’s throats, it’s fortunate that we have Craig’s Benoit Blanc to sort out this out-of-control house party where – just like a good old-fashioned Agatha Christie whodunnit – somebody has to die.
Just like the characters they play, the A-list cast assembled for Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery weren’t exactly sure what they were getting into when they signed on, only that it was going to be exciting to try and follow up Johnson’s smash hit Knives Out and play in the sandbox with Craig.
For the star himself, a return to Blanc’s fastidious fashion and delicious drawl was practically a fait accompli before the first film was finished. Or at least he hoped it was.
“We talked about it during Knives Out, but you’re in the hands of the film gods, really,” says Craig. “You’re thinking, ‘Well, this is a really great experience, we’d love to repeat this. But who knows how this film’s going to do?’ But it worked out brilliantly. We knew it was a lovely film, but we didn’t know it was going to be so successful. And that was when the serious conversation started about where we were going to go.”
Geographically, the answer was Greece. Situationally, the answer was a weekend gathering of a group of friends with shared interdependencies, memories, secrets, and lies.
“All of them are under the thumb of this tech billionaire,” says Johnson. “He invites them to his private island for a murder mystery game. Then things go wrong.”
Bubbled together on location first in Greece and subsequently Belgrade, the actors formed a tight bond.
“It was just a delight, because Rian’s casting is always spot-on, and you get wonderful people,” says Craig. “We were just so lucky on both movies to have such a dream cast, and so funny. Everybody just tuned in to what the tone of the film was.”
In likening their experience to a summer repertory theatre troupe, Norton says, “A lot of that spirit of silliness and mirth and satire and physical comedy that comes across was really because we were having a great time.”
For multi-hyphenate Monae – who had already proved to be an actress of uncommon talent in Moonlight and Hidden Figures – Glass Onion was an opportunity to stretch her talents further.
“I think Rian set the tone to say, ‘Let’s play. Let’s have fun. Let’s collaborate. Let’s not just make a movie, let’s make an experience that we’ll always hold dear to our hearts’,” says Monae.
“I think it was, honestly, the bonding that happened outside of us filming that will always stay so close to my heart. I think that that helped, once it was time for us to start filming, for us to trust each other more and just, really, again, play. It was like summer camp, and you didn’t want your parents to come and get you.”
Norton perhaps had the most fun with his role, playing a character so repellent. “I think once Rian and I had concluded that Miles has never had an original idea in his life, then you go from there. So, everything has been pulled from something or someone. That starts to get fun because he’s a pastiche of the best/worst characteristics of many people,” he says.
Talking about a scene in which he spins Craig round and grabs him at the hips, he recalls, “It was one of those things where you go, ‘Is this the kinda thing I should ask Daniel Craig if he’s okay with me doing?’ Nah, I’m just gonna do it,” he recalls.
“And his reaction was so great. Daniel’s physical comedy is really, really great. At one point, in the beginning, you think he’s doing Jacques Tati. It was like one of those old French actors. I think we all felt this. In a weird way, you’re looking at everybody else and going, ‘Are we going that far?’ And everybody’s going, ‘Yeah, let’s go that far’. You’re slowly pushing each other up into levels of lack of inhibition, in a way, or just to try goofier things.
“But Daniel got me very comfortable with the idea that he was gonna go anywhere you wanted to go. And that was nice, because you don’t wanna piss off James Bond,” laughs Norton.
For Hudson, she enjoyed playing Birdie, a woman who is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. “I think that she might just not be that smart and so, just staying in that, one of the things that was helpful for me as a touchstone was saying to Rian, ‘I think she only really understands every third word. She’s only hearing every third word of anything that’s happening,” she says. “I love playing comedic characters.”
A lifelong Agatha Christie fan, Johnson hopes he deserves the comparisons that Knives Out has already elicited. “Christie did something completely different every time, but still scratched that same basic itch. It hit the same pleasure centres. I think just coming at it in terms of ‘okay, we’re making a new movie. It’s gonna be a mystery and all that fun stuff, but we’re gonna take a cue from Christie and try and give it its own reason for being instead of just turning the handle again on the first one’,” he says.
In insisting that the billionaire big baby at the centre of this Glass Onion story can’t be simplistically identified as Elon Musk, Johnson says, “Just in general, it’s about our relationship as a society to these Willy Wonka characters who we, on one hand, want to throw elephant poop at, but on the other hand, still, deep down inside, have some weird childlike wish that they will actually create the chocolate factory and solve all our problems.
“And the weird power dynamic of, yeah, ‘we hate him, but never bet against him’, and what that creates in society. That, to me, was a lot more interesting than just making fun of any specific so and so.”
“Plus, in the spring of 2021, some people still looked like geniuses and hadn’t revealed themselves to be idiots yet,” teases Norton. “So, Rian and I, at some point, we kind of said, ‘If you think the shoe fits’, then they were probably in our conversation.”
“But I also think Miles is kind of like the Carly Simon song, ‘You’re So Vain’, you probably think this song is about you. . . I think a lot of them will think it’s about them.”
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery from December 23, 2022