How Daniel Craig saved new movie
IT'S been more than 13 years since Daniel Craig first signed on to play the Walther PPK-toting secret agent so iconic he needs no further introduction.
Thirteen years since Craig first buttoned himself into a dinner jacket in Casino Royale, a span of time during which he has played the role on three further occasions, with a fourth sequel slated for release in April 2020.
In that time, Craig - like many 007s before him - has become synonymous with the role, so much so that seeing him in his latest project Knives Out, one of his few non-James Bond films of the last decade, feels like cognitive dissonance.
This is Daniel Craig? This character called Benoit Blanc, a Poirot-by-way-of-Nashville private detective dispatched to solve the mysterious and twisted murder of crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer)? That's Daniel Craig doing what co-star Chris Evans, in character as Thrombey's prodigal nephew Ransom, dubs a "CSI KFC" accent?
Yes. That's Daniel Craig. And he's having the time of his life in this film, a fizzy, fantastically unhinged whodunit from writer-director Rian Johnson, of The Last Jedi and Looper fame.
"Daniel Craig signed up, he was the first piece of the puzzle," Johnson tells news.com.au. Without him, Knives Out, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and is released in Australia on November 28, would never have been made.
"Once Daniel was playing the lead role, first of all, it meant we were making the movie," Johnson explains. "Everybody wants to work with Daniel, and I think that's part of why we got the cast that we did."
Speaking of that cast, let's run it down: there's Plummer as the iconic crime author whose death activates Benoit's little grey cells, Jamie Lee Curtis and Michael Shannon as his two children, with Don Johnson and Toni Collette as his children-in-law.
Another Australian, 13 Reasons Why star Katherine Langford, plays Collette's character's daughter. (Evans is the son of Curtis and Johnson's characters.)
Then there's Benoit's compatriots in the police department, played with wry charm by Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan, not to mention Ana de Armas - soon to be a Bond Girl to Craig's 007 in No Time To Die - as Harlan's kind, compassionate nurse and close confidante.
This dream team cast was inspired by the "Avengers, assemble!" mentality of Robert Altman's Gosford Park and the works of Agatha Christie. "As much as this is inspired by (her) books," Johnson explains, "the inspiration is also the movies of those books that I was watching when I was young. The ones with Peter Ustinov as Poirot, those big, spectacle, all-star cast movies where that's part of the appeal. From Bette Davis to Mia Farrow, David Niven, James Mason … every single person who shows up you're like, 'Oh, I'm happy to see that person'. It's not character actors who are going to vanish into their parts. That was a very intentional thing."
Knives Out is tightly plotted and packed with jokes like a cup of brown sugar, but the biggest pleasure is getting to watch mega-famous actors chow down, heartily, on the scenery.
Pick your poison - you love Collette? Wait till you see her in character as Joni, a "lifestyle guru" and influencer whose wellness business is called Flam and is about "the nugget of self-care with an acknowledgment of human need". We should build entire cities in tribute to the way Evans, not so much shrugging off his Captain America suit as he is setting it aflame, tells each member of his family to "eat sh*t" with an entitled smirk on his face.
Some of Johnson's favourite scenes in the film are when his entire dozen-strong main cast are together in a single room, screaming at each other. "At a certain point it just breaks down, and they're all just yelling at each other and slapping each other," says Johnson, "and I would not yell cut. I would just let them go and go and go, and they would come up with new lines and insults for each other and keep going, and I was just giggling my head off. We should do an hour alone of the family fighting."
But if this dream team has an MVP, it's Craig's cigar-smokin', smooth-talkin' detective. For his final scene, an epic monologue in which Benoit lays out how he "determined the arc of gravity's rainbow", as he describes the process of arriving at a murder suspect, Craig memorised all 30 pages of dialogue as if he was performing a Shakespeare soliloquy. "He could do the entire thing in one go," Johnson recalls. "If I had set up one shot, he could have done it.
"I think Daniel was having the most fun," Johnson adds. "You know, having met him a few times over the years, I knew that he was a really fun guy. Like, I think just from knowing him from his James Bond performance you would think he's a very intense, serious dude, and he's actually a blast. He's really funny and has a good sense of humour.
"I could sense that he was really going to enjoy having a performance where he could cut loose and just let it rip like this. And he did, he had a lot of fun with it. I mean, he put a lot of work into it and we worked a lot on that, but it's very different to the Bond character. I know he loves playing Bond, and he's so good at it, but it's always refreshing to do something different after you've been doing something for a while."
The same can be said for Johnson, who came to Knives Out after writing and directing the 2017 Star Wars epic The Last Jedi. That film, with its message of hope and strength, was a critical and commercial success but was beset with toxic commentary from certain swampy recesses of online fandom.
One group, incensed by the movie's focus on female characters and leadership, recut the film so as to exclude these women. The end result was, no doubt, quite boring. Elsewhere, star Kelly Marie-Tran, the first Asian-American woman to appear in a Star Wars film, was driven from social media by haters.
Johnson himself became a particular target for the ire of fans, so much so that in 2018 he responded to the controversy on Twitter. "I've made it crystal clear who I'm talking about when I call out toxic behaviour," Johnson tweeted. "Not reasonable fans who dislike the movie but aggressive trolls who harass my cast and crew with insults and threats."
Watching Knives Out, you can tell the process of writing and making this film must have been a therapy of sorts for Johnson. But the director says his experience of troll culture through The Last Jedi hasn't soured his love of the franchise at all. Like millions of Star Wars fans around the world, Johnson can't wait to see The Rise Of Skywalker , the end of the trilogy, this December.
"I'm so excited to see it," Johnson says, grinning. "It's really nice being a Star Wars fan again, just being able to sit back and watch the trailer and rub my hands together and make theories about everything. It's going to be a blast."
Johnson even admits that, despite his storeyed connection to the entire cast and crew, he knows as much as you do about the plot of the finale. "I've stayed completely out of it on purpose," he says. "I want to just walk into this and experience it. I want to sit down like a 10-year-old kid in a Star Wars movie. It's going to be really good."
Knives Out premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and is in cinemas in Australia on November 28 with sneak previews on November 22-24.