A Knives Out Mystery Filmmakers on Netflix’s High-Stakes Rollout – The Hollywood Reporter

Writer-director Rian Johnson and Ram Bergmanhis producing partner of two decades, are incredibly modest for a pair who have struck one of the biggest movie deals in recent memory – a $469 million two-picture pact with Netflix for their T-Street production to make two sequel to their 2019 thriller Knives out.

It’s not just that the two convinced Netflix to loosen the purse strings; they pushed the company beyond its well-established comfort zone. The Streamer’s First Knives out after, Glass Onion, opens November 23 in more than 600 theaters for a one-week run before the digital switchover on December 23. The film’s performance in both areas will be a litmus test for how streamer-backed films might fare in the future. Speaking on Zoom in early November, Johnson and Bergman seemed well aware of these issues – although they also argued that changes in the seismic industry are not their priority. “We’re not really empire builders,” says Johnson, who went from freelance darling to writing and directing star wars hall The Last Jedi. “We just like making movies.”

Your first collaboration was Brick in 2005. How did you meet?

RIAN JOHNSON I wrote Brick right out of college, and I basically spent my 20s not succeeding. Ram finally got the script passed to another producer in 2002. We got together and liked each other’s jib cut. Until we met, I had done what everyone does…where you ask an executive producer friend to read your script and tell you it will cost $3 million to make. Ram snapped me out of that thought and said, “No, you find what you can put together and do it for it. Then you will own and control it. That’s what we ended up doing.

What is the key to such a long and monogamous creative marriage?

RAM BERGMAN We know each other and we just want to make the best movie. That’s it.

JOHNSON I don’t have a commercial brain at all. Ram can look at the logistics as a whole and walk us through the negotiation and how we organize things. And he always acts in the interest of making sure we have creative control. I know a lot of filmmakers who started in independent cinema when I did, people much more talented than me who didn’t have a Ram in their lives. That makes all the difference.

Speaking of trading, bringing the sequels to the open market and getting the money you got has blown a lot of minds. Other than money, what was your biggest consideration in choosing a new distributor?

BERGMAN We wanted people who were clearly willing to bet on us – and bet on the movie.

JOHNSON It was about being very aware that we had something special here. We wanted to develop it in a big way. We wanted to set it up – not just for financial success, but so we could keep doing more, so we could get together with our friends and do one every two years.

Among the loot and memorabilia from his own projects and those of others, Johnson has a slate of Poker face and a framed copy of the transit letters presented in casablanca.

Philip Cheung for The Hollywood Reporter

Was this wide theatrical release part of those initial conversations?

JOHNSON We had nothing in writing, but the agreement was that we would have the conversation when the time came.

BERGMAN And, remember, we made a deal in the middle of COVID. No one knew where the industry was going.

JOHNSON The choice was not between a big traditional theatrical release or Netflix. The big theatrical release just didn’t exist then.

And the box office won’t be reported – by Netflix, at least?

JOHNSON This is our understanding. We want as many people as possible to see it in theaters. And then we want it to work incredibly well when it comes to Netflix – so many people see it and so it demonstrates to everyone, especially Netflix, that those two things can co-exist… that a great theater run will only build the word-of-mouth and the prestige when it hits the service. It’s something a lot of people, not just at Netflix, are betting on.

You will soon Poker facea Colombo-esque mystery of the week, for Natasha Lyonne at Peacock. What attracts you so much to detectives?

JOHNSON When I saw Russian dollthis all clicked for me. Colombo, Magnum, IP Where Rockford Files: The reason these shows work is that they have a central character who is incredibly watchable. You want to spend time with them every week. It’s not really about mystery – the way sitcoms aren’t really about jokes. And it’s a form of storytelling that has been relegated to network procedures. This is in the tradition of non-serialized shows, case of the week. You can step in anywhere and find out how the show works. It’s something I miss a bit.

A collection of photos — Natasha Lyonne on the Poker Face set and the original Polaroids used in Glass Onion — sits on Johnson's shelf.

A collection of photos — Natasha Lyonne on the Poker face set and original Polaroids used in Glass Onion — is on Johnson’s bookshelf.

Philip Cheung for The Hollywood Reporter

Now that you’re making television, and Lucasfilm is pursuing very aggressive series, is there a star wars series that you would like to do?

JOHNSON I would do one star wars anything. And if I had an idea that excited me, that worked better as a show than a movie, I would do it that way. Right now, we’re between shooting Benoit Blanc’s next film and thinking about Poker face. I keep getting together with Kathy [Kennedy] and have conversations. Who knows? Manufacturing The The Last Jedi was the best experience of my life, so I should be so lucky.

What did you learn by doing The Last Jedi?

JOHNSON Much of it, which Ram taught me, was showing up in every situation — with studios, financiers, decision makers — and embracing them in the process. It has served us well in the indie world and with Bob Iger, Alan Horn, Alan Bergman and Kathy Kennedy and everyone at Lucasfilm. It was just a very respectful and joyful process.

BERGMAN If you bring people into the process early, they support you. And they finally let you do what you wanted to do.

Left to right: Johnson and Bergman were both immortalized as Stormtrooper minifigures after making Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Left to right: Johnson and Bergman were immortalized as Stormtrooper action figures after making Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Philip Cheung for The Hollywood Reporter

What do you think of James Gunn getting the DC job? Does being a suit attract any of you?

JOHNSON To me, personally? Not at all. God bless him. I respect people who do it – Pete Docter getting involved at Pixar or what JJ Abrams is doing with production. There are people who can engage creatively at this level and find it rewarding. I do not have that. But it’s cool to see, and it’s exciting for me for a filmmaker like James Gunn to be in that position.

It sounds like the old Hollywood story, be it Babylon Where Once upon a time in Hollywood, is something a lot of great filmmakers end up tackling. Rian, your wife, Karina Longworth, is known for her knowledge of old Hollywood. Did you talk about collaboration?

JOHNSON Listen, I would like – one day. And we talked about it, but we have such a good marriage, I don’t know if we want to bring work to it. The thing about Karina’s podcast [You Must Remember This] it’s that she makes all the creative decisions, and when she goes on TV, what she wants to do, it has to be in a way where she can have that same control. We will see.

What keeps you both up at night?

BERGMAN At some point, studios and streamers will no longer be able to fund and fund the same amount. With the exception of DC, Marvel, whatever, budgets are going to have to come down for them to survive. They’re not going to make 20 or 30 movies and spend $200 or $300 million each.

JOHNSON Whenever I get anxious about this stuff, I remember we made half a million dollar movies. We can always do something.

Interview edited for length and clarity. An earlier version of this story misrepresented the length of Glass Onion’s theatrical run. It will be in theaters for a week, not a month.

This story first appeared in the November 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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