clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Rian Johnson Mastered the Whodunit. Now He’s on to the “Howcatchem.”

In an interview with The Ringer, the ‘Glass Onion’ director discussed his new crime mystery series ‘Poker Face,’ his TV experience with ‘Breaking Bad,’ and why Natasha Lyonne is the perfect collaborator

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Rian Johnson insists he isn’t reinventing the wheel. The director and screenwriter has made a signature of wedding classical forms to a modern sensibility. His debut feature, Brick, was a detective noir set at a contemporary high school; Breaking Bad’s “Fly” was a bottle episode about making meth; The Last Jedi was a Star Wars film with expansive ideas about who could lead the franchise; most recently, the Benoit Blanc movies bring Agatha Christie into the age of Twitter and COVID-19. But Johnson tells The Ringer that he isn’t actively trying to update these timeless templates. “The object is not to reinvent; it’s just to do it really well,” he says. “And if you do it really well, in your voice, it will feel new. It will feel fresh.”

Poker Face feels fresh. The new Peacock series, a collaboration between Johnson and star Natasha Lyonne, has been sold as the return of a lost art: the case-of-the-week procedural. But it is also unmistakably the product of latter-day prestige, a world in which movie stars like Adrien Brody, Chloë Sevigny, and Ellen Barkin no longer seem out of place as the villain of the hour—and in which it’s not unusual for a filmmaker like Johnson to follow a smash hit like Glass Onion with his first TV show. (Johnson wrote the pilot of Poker Face and directed its first two episodes, but worked with a writers’ room as well as showrunners Nora and Lilla Zuckerman to round out the 10-episode season.)

Lyonne herself can feel like a throwback: a rasping, quick-witted raconteur who’s lived many lives in her 43 years. As Charlie Cale, a casino worker who can innately tell when someone is lying, she’s a natural heir to Jim Rockford or Jessica Fletcher. But Charlie is also a unique spin on the procedural protagonist. She isn’t a lawyer, or a cop, or even a mystery writer in rural Maine. She’s just a woman who can’t help but tell, and see, the truth. When the events of the pilot force Charlie to take her Plymouth Barracuda on the run, Charlie starts encountering murders wherever she goes—and taking it upon herself to solve them, even without any backup from law enforcement.

The structure of Poker Face is pure Columbo, the classic ’70s detective drama starring Peter Falk as the namesake lieutenant. We see the crime first; the mystery once Charlie shows up, sometimes nearly 20 minutes into an episode, isn’t the whodunit of Glass Onion or its predecessor, Knives Out, but what Johnson calls a “howcatchem.” Yet it’s also a stylistic medley, taking advantage of its flexible setup to switch gears from a gambling caper to a musical drama to a theatrical farce. Over time, Poker Face starts to resemble another mainstay of recent media: the episodic anthology, itself an homage to the medium’s beginnings. Ben Sinclair of High Maintenance even directs an episode.

Johnson developed the idea for Poker Face with Lyonne in mind, but it’s as much a showcase for his own interests and style as those of his collaborator and muse. The show is a vintage romp that never feels stuck in the past, and a modern revival that never feels try-hard. The transition from film to TV has tripped up some auteurs, but Johnson makes it look easy. Shortly before his Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, the Poker Face creator spoke with The Ringer over Zoom about his own affection for procedurals, juggling two productions at once, and how stepping into Breaking Bad compares to building a show from the ground up.

Obviously, this show is modeled after procedurals from the 20th century, like Columbo and Magnum, P.I. I figured a good place to start would be your personal relationship with those shows and what it’s been like over the years.

I’d include The Rockford Files and Quantum Leap, but also Highway to Heaven and [the 1978 TV series] The Incredible Hulk. It’s kind of got the DNA of all that stuff. And that’s the stuff that I was sitting on the rug in front of my family’s TV watching reruns of every single afternoon as a kid. It’s the TV that I was raised on.

In that way, there’s a deeply seated pleasure in it. Part of the appeal of trying to do one of those shows is recognizing the comfort food element that I have with it and getting back to the notion of the true pleasure of the procedural—of something where it has the same pattern, it repeats every single episode, but with a very charismatic, wild-card lead in the middle that is going to draw you back every week.

Have you revisited those shows as an adult? Do you come back to them over the years?

I binged Columbo, like many people, over the pandemic. I think that was just something we all decided collectively to do. But then I’ve gone back and been rewatching some Magnum and some Rockford, and some of the other older shows. Those optical titles come up at the beginning, and I’m just instantly—it’s like that scene in Ratatouille. I’m just right back on the shag carpet in front of the furniture-encased television set.

It’s your Proustian procedural.

Very Proustian!

When you’re revisiting those shows as an adult, what are the elements that jump out to you now that you’re an experienced filmmaker and have that extra perspective on things?

It’s interesting because on the one hand, they’re very filmic. On the other hand, and this in a way that I really respect, it’s interesting watching it and seeing the meat-and-potatoes workmanship of it. And recognizing that a lot of them were shot on the lot, and that it was obviously in the mode of television craftsmanship at the same time.

But then you hit an episode, like the one that Spielberg did, that has incredible stuff that you can see leading into the type of shots that he was using when he was doing The Sugarland Express. You could see those long zooms and see the form that he was playing with. It’s an interesting kind of combo plate. For me also, having just gone through and done a season of it, just having a tremendous respect for anyone who makes TV—for the fact that they pulled off that many episodes and made them all that good. I feel like I’m even more dazzled by that.

When you started to think about making a procedural of your own, obviously the episodic structure is a huge element of it, and specifically with Poker Face, you borrowed Columbo’s crime-first, solution-later setup. But were there any other specific elements you wanted to pull out and repurpose for your own?

The guest stars of the week was something that I was really conscious of wanting to build into it. That’s a pleasure that I think goes probably most directly back to Columbo when I started binging it again. Just the pure delight of, “Oh my God, Dick Van Dyke is in this one.” And also, I think this ties very much into the form of it, what they sometimes call the how-catch-’em thing—crime first, solution later, as you said.

Because what that allows you to do is clear the deck and not have eight suspects you have to spend time on. It really allows the killer, the main guest star, to be the star of the episode. And it allows that cat-and-mouse, crime-and-punishment game between them and the detective to take center stage and to have the breathing room to really develop. And that, I think more than anything, is why we were able to attract the kind of talent that we did to the show. Because we were sending them scripts where it wasn’t just a cameo. It was, this is your episode. And really trying to write distinct characters that would let them do something juicy that maybe they hadn’t done before.

You mentioned the respect that doing this gave you for people who’ve made TV, but unlike a lot of directors who were primarily known for their film work and then transitioned into television, you actually have done some episodic TV work before. How did that experience on Breaking Bad help prepare you for this one?

I guess it did help me prepare. But in another way, it was entirely different, because with Breaking Bad, I kind of got to come in and just do the fun part. I was handed these incredible scripts and got to come in and work with the best production team and the best actors on a show that was in its prime. And I just got to come on set and direct, which honestly, it feels like eating the frosting off the cake a little bit, for me at least. You’re moving fast and you’ve got to come in prepared. You have to have your ducks in a row and really know what you’re doing in order to make your days. Although I guess that’s also true of—I started making indie movies that were quick schedules, so I’ve kind of done that before.

It’s an entirely different game, obviously, when you’re creating the whole ball of wax, and when you’re coming up with a show and from start to finish, really seeing it through and trying to create something that you’ve got in your head in the medium of writing in a writers’ room and doing it through 10 episodes.

In a way it prepared me, but in a way, it’s such a different animal. Talk about getting respect: When I think about Vince Gilligan and Melissa Bernstein as producer and Peter Gould and the whole writing team, what they did with Breaking Bad, after having gone through it. ... It’s similar to after I directed the Yoda scene in The Last Jedi, wondering how someone did an entire movie of puppets. I was just like, “You people are superhuman gods. I don’t know how you pulled this off.”

I thought it was interesting how you said these older procedurals look like they’re shot on a studio backlot. It doesn’t detract from their value at all, but you can tell they’re made under these constrained circumstances. One of the things that jumped out to me about Poker Face is that it combines that classical TV structure with, frankly, incredibly high production values and real locations. How did you pick and choose the classical and modern elements?

In a weird way, putting faith in—I was about to say tropes, but I guess that’s kind of the right word—the things about that procedural format that work. That, in a way, is similar to Knives Out and Glass Onion, the mystery movies that I’ve done. That’s one thing I learned in terms of approaching genres, is to not feel that it has to be a reinvention. If you love something, there’s a reason you love it. The object is not to reinvent; it’s just to do it really well. And if you do it really well in your voice, it will feel new. It will feel fresh. If it works for audiences, it’ll work.

That, I guess, is kind of the aim. And of course, then, because it’s me and my team doing it, and because I love making movies, and because Natasha and I, all our references are cinema, we’re going to just work our butts off to try and get it to a level where it looks good to us. But also, I have to shout out our production designer Judy Rhee, our costume designer Trayce Field. I didn’t appreciate, coming into it, the true challenge of a show where there are no standing sets and there’s no recurring cast besides Natasha. It’s a mountain of work.

It is miraculous to me, looking back, that our amazing crew pulled it off. In the writers’ room, we kind of wrote not thinking about that at all. We just wrote whatever we wanted to see. We weren’t restricting ourselves based on trying to have it all work in the production budget, but somehow we made it work at the end of the day.

I know the fact that this character was written with Natasha in mind is relatively unique in your own filmography. What aspects of Charlie were tailored around Natasha’s talents?

The whole thing is a bespoke suit, cut entirely to her. Even more fundamental than that, because when I first came to her, all I came to her with was the notion of a procedural show, case-of-the-week thing, you at the center of it. That’s all I had. And then we started up conversations and went back and forth and really started true collaboration.

But, for me, thinking back to the shows that we’ve been referencing, I realized that I don’t watch those shows for the mysteries. I watch them to hang out with James Garner, to hang out with Peter Falk. And seeing in Natasha someone who could do that for a show, which is a very rare quality that you don’t see a lot, someone who has that amount of charisma. Everything about it was trying to harness and even amplify everything that I love about watching Natasha on screen. The whole thing is completely cut to measure for her.

Knowing that Poker Face was a case-of-the-week show going in, I was surprised to realize Charlie is not a cop. She’s not a PI. She doesn’t really have that organic professional connection to the mystery. What drew you guys to that setup?

What I liked about that is that it necessitates finding a personal way in for her every single week. Even though this is hard and this is a difficult challenge, I think it’s one that’s worthwhile. And that was probably the scariest thing, approaching writing. Because I wrote the pilot just on my own, the way I write my movies, and then we started up the room to write the rest of the series. And I believed we could do it, but the scariest thing was, OK, how are we going to find a different way every week to pull her into solving the crime?

But it ended up being something that was one of those challenges that became an opportunity. Because the slight flashback structure that I built into it, where you do a flashback after you see the opening act, you see her relationship with either the killer or the victim, or the dog who’s also the victim, what have you. That allowed us the opportunity to find an emotional way in for her. And that’s something that is kind of unique with this show, and it’s also something that adds to exactly what I think I find endearing about the characters. So yeah, it was one of the real challenges of it, but it’s one that I feel like paid off.

With these anthology shows, which I guess is kind of a fancy term for a procedural, I find that there’s often this tension between what makes it different from episode to episode, and what makes it the same. Was there a challenge in figuring that out in the room?

I’ll say, kind of not. But I feel like one of the things we had the benefit of was, first of all, the continuing presence of Charlie, but also the structural similarities of each of the episodes: the basic thing of showing the murder, flashing back, catching up with the murderer, and then Charlie solving it.

That plus Natasha meant that we could have a base of, this is what the show is, and could take wildly different swings tonally, and also the specifics of the games that we play with the plot from episode to episode. And that, in my mind at least, is why we can have an episode that feels like Noises Off in the same season where we have Episode 9, which I know hasn’t been sent out yet, but which is almost more of a horror movie. And that to me seemed really, really fun. It felt very freeing, knowing that we had that foundation to work off of that defines the show, so we could be looser with what it is week to week. It also seemed like it’d be really fun for the audience to not exactly know what they’re going to get every time they hit play on the next one.

One of the other mainstays that I really enjoyed, which I feel like isn’t necessarily typical procedural stuff, is Charlie confronting the killers with no clear exit strategy. It’s not very self-interested. Why was that character tic on Charlie’s part an important throughline of this show?

The reality is, if she was approaching any of this rationally, she would just keep moving. She would just get her Barracuda and drive. Natasha and I talked a lot about this: The notion that there has to be something—not unhealthy because it’s a righteous attitude to want to stop these crimes—but something that is a little bit like an addict who gets clouded vision and is suddenly a dog with a bone going after it, then blinks and realizes they’re on the edge of a skyscraper. A little bit of that I find very endearing. And also, to me, helps psychologically explain how she gets deeper and deeper into solving these.

In the theater episode, she says, “I’m De Niro at the end of Heat.” And that was always a reference I would throw out. She can’t help it, but you know she’s going to turn the car around. The notion of her being so in the game of it. Natasha and I play crossword puzzles and Wordle and Duotrigordle and all that stuff, and the notion of it being kind of an obsessive thing, “I have to finish this puzzle,” until she looks around and realizes, yeah, she’s not been acting out of self-interest.

Even though there’s not necessarily a continuous plot from week to week, there are very consistent themes, particularly around the idea of truth telling and why people lie and the value in the truth. How did you think about those ideas and cultivating them through Charlie’s journey?

It was something that we did in the room. We did some vague philosophical talking, and then the reality is in the trenches. It’s sort of a strange combination of hacking, machete-ing your way through the forest and trying to make the plot work, but then holding all this stuff in the back of your head and it all finds its way in there. I think it was an interesting byproduct of giving a character in a show like this that gift, and figuring out ways for the show to not be over in five minutes—having to find the side door to the gift over and over again. One of the things that naturally led to was exploring different facets of how people lie and why. That ended up being something that kind of found its way into the DNA of it. The boulder rolls down the hill and collects all the different stuff, and at the end it’s all there.

You mentioned being impressed by the production apparatus of various TV shows over the years, but I couldn’t help being impressed by the back-to-back releases you’re currently in the middle of—and just logistically what that endeavor must have been like.

My publicists are giggling back here.

I know, you’ve probably been on a Zoom continuously since November. I’m sorry.

No, that’s good. It’s good.

I did want to just ask, both logistically and creatively, how those meshed together for you.

It’s interesting. Creatively, it’s harder for me to gauge. I will say it didn’t feel like drawing from the same well. Even though they are both technically mysteries, to mix metaphors, it felt like using very different muscles. It seems like a wonky distinction, the whodunit versus the howcatchem. But it’s a very different engine that’s running those two things. At a certain point, I was splitting my days between being in the edit for Glass Onion and then being in the writers’ room for Poker Face, and it didn’t feel like grinding the gears. It felt refreshing when I would go from one to the other. So whatever that means, I don’t know, they were different enough from each other where I don’t necessarily know that one inspired the other, but one also didn’t burn me out on the other.

In terms of the logistics of making a movie and shooting a TV show in the same year, yeah, woof. It’s a lot. It’s a lot of a lot. But I mean, I had so much fun doing the show, it’s going to be a matter of figuring out how to do it again. And if I could wave a magic wand and create a tesseract, and carve out the thing of time so that I could just go and direct all the episodes, I’d be the happiest person in the world. I had so much fun doing this show. First things first, let’s put this season out and see if people watch it.

When you say that they’re different muscles, is a howcatchem a different kind of challenge for you than the whodunit?

In a way, just as a form, I find it more fun than the whodunit. Because with the whodunit, I’m always looking for the genre to place inside that genre to actually make the car go. And the whodunit element of it is almost laid on top of it as an extra layer. Whereas, with the howcatchem, the way it’s constructed is itself an engine because you have the cat-and-mouse game of Charlie versus the killer, which is really delicious. And there are 1,000 ways that can play out. And there are 1,000 different iterations of who the killer is, what’s Charlie’s relation to them, how do we get into it.

But they all have the same basic engine, which is the cat and mouse chasing in deeper and deeper until he’s in the corner and there’s no way for either of them to go. So yeah, it’s incredibly different in terms of the form and the approach to it.

Columbo is probably the ultimate example of the howcatchem. Studying how those writers approached it and seeing little tricks—like the murder that they show in the first act, they don’t show you everything. They always hold back some detail so that there is an element of surprise when Columbo reveals one element of what they missed or something down the line. Little things like that going into it and forensically kind of picking this thing that I love apart and dissecting it and figuring out how it works, that was part of the pleasure of it, as well.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.