In the words of Rian Johnson Conquered the art of the Whodunit. Moving on to the Howcatchem now. Rian Johnson denies reinventing the wheel. The director and screenwriter are known for blending classical and modern styles.
Brick, his first film, was a detective noir set in a current 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; and the Benoit Blanc movies bring Agatha Christie into the age of Twitter and COVID-19. Johnson tells The Ringer he needs to be actively updating these timeless templates. “The goal is to do it well, not reinvent,” he says. It will feel new if you do it well in your voice. Fresh.”
Read more: Who Will Be Nominated And Who Could Potentially Be Overlooked.
It’s new. Johnson and Natasha Lyonne’s Peacock series is billed as a return to the case-of-the-week procedural. However, it is also the product of modern prestige, a world in which Adrien Brody, Chloë Sevigny, and Ellen Barkin can play villains, and a filmmaker like Johnson can follow a smash hit like Glass Onion with his first TV show. (Johnson authored Poker Face’s pilot and directed its first two episodes, but a writers’ room and showrunners Nora and Lilla Zuckerman completed the 10-episode season.)
Lyonne, a raspy, quick-witted raconteur, can seem like a throwback. She’s a natural successor to Jim Rockford or Jessica Fletcher as Charlie Cale, a casino worker who can spot a liar. Charlie is also an unusual procedural protagonist. She’s not a lawyer, cop, or rural Maine mystery writer. She tells and sees the truth. After the pilot, Charlie runs away in her Plymouth Barracuda and solves crimes without law enforcement’s help.
Poker Face has a Columbo-like structure. We see the crime first, and once Charlie turns up, often about 20 minutes into an episode, the mystery is a “howcatchem,” not a whodunit like Glass Onion or Knives Out. It’s also a stylistic potpourri, switching between a gambling caper, a musical drama, and a theatrical farce. Poker Face gradually resembles the episodic anthology, a throwback to the medium’s roots. Ben Sinclair directs an episode.
Lyonne inspired Poker Face, but Johnson used it to express his style and interests. The play is a vintage romp and a modern revival that never feels forced. Johnson makes the switch from film to TV appear effortless. The Poker Face creator chatted with The Ringer via Zoom just before his Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay about his love of procedurals, balancing two shows, and how Breaking Bad compares to producing a presentation from scratch.
Since this show is based on 20th-century procedurals like Columbo and Magnum P.I., your relationship with such series over the years would be an excellent place to start.
The Rockford Files, Quantum Leap, Highway to Heaven, and The Incredible Hulk. It’s like that stuff’s DNA. That’s what I watch every afternoon on my family’s TV. My childhood TV.
It brings profound satisfaction. 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 true pleasure of the procedural—something with the same pattern, repeated every episode, but with a charismatic, wild-card lead that will draw you back every week.
Do you watch those shows now? Return to them?
Columbo was my pandemic binge. It was a group decision. I rewatched Magnum, Rockford, and other older shows. I’m quickly captivated by those optical titles—like it’s Ratatouille. Back on the shag carpet in front of the furniture-encased TV.
As an adult filmmaker, what stands out to you when you see those shows again?
They’re filmic, which is intriguing. However, I admire its meat-and-potatoes craftsmanship. Recognizing that many of them were shot on the lot and that it was television workmanship.
But then you reach an episode like Spielberg’s that has fantastic stuff that leads into his Sugarland Express shots. He played with form in those long zooms. A unique combo plate. Having recently finished a season, I have a lot of admiration for TV producers—they made that many outstanding episodes. That dazzles me more.
You stole Columbo’s crime-first, solution-later format when you thought of developing a procedural. Any more aspects you intend to use?
I was conscious about adding guest performers each week. That joy undoubtedly stems from consuming Columbo again. Just the pure delight of, “Oh my God, Dick Van Dyke is in this one.” I believe this connects very much to the structure of it, what they sometimes call the how-catch-them thing—crime first, solution later, as you mentioned.
Because you can clean the deck and not spend time on eight suspects, it lets the guest star killer steal the show. It enables the detective to play a cat-and-mouse, crime-and-punishment game. That’s why we got the talent we did. We sent scripts with more than a cameo. Your episode. And trying to build unique characters who could do something they hadn’t done before.
You indicated that doing this gives you respect for individuals who’ve made TV, but unlike many directors who started in film and then moved to TV, you’ve done episodic TV before. Breaking Bad prepared you for this?
It prepared me. Breaking Bad was different because I had to come in and have fun. I received terrific scripts and worked with the best production staff and actors on a program in its prime. I got to direct on set, like eating the frosting off the cake. You must be ready to move quickly. To succeed, you must be organized and know what you’re doing. I’ve made quick-paced indie films previously.
It’s a different game when you’re producing the complete ball of wax, from start to end, and trying to build something you’ve got in your head in a writers’ room across ten episodes.
It prepared me, but it’s a different beast. After seeing Breaking Bad, I appreciate Vince Gilligan, Melissa Bernstein, Peter Gould, and the entire writing crew. … After directing The Last Jedi’s Yoda scene, I wondered how someone made a puppet movie. “You people are superhuman gods,” I said. How did you do this?”
I found it intriguing that these older procedurals appear like they were shot on a studio backlot. They’re made within these constraints, which doesn’t lower their value. Poker Face’s classical TV framework, outstanding production qualities, and authentic locales caught my attention. How did you choose classical and modern?
Strangely, trusting the procedural format’s conventions. Knives Out and Glass Onion, my mystery films, are comparable. I learned not to reinvent genres. Love has a cause. Do it well, not reinvent. If you sing it correctly, it will sound new. Fresh. Audiences make it work.
That’s the goal. Because it’s my team and I, I enjoy making movies, and Natasha and I are cinema buffs; we’ll work our asses off to make it seem nice. Also, Judy Rhee and Trayce Field are our production and costume designers. I underestimated the difficulty of a show with no standing sets and no recurrent actors besides Natasha. Work is massive.
I’m amazed our wonderful group did it. We wrote without considering that in the writers’ room. Just what we desired. The production budget didn’t limit us, but we made it work.
This character was written for Natasha, which is unusual in your filmography.
What parts of Charlie suited Natasha?
The garment is custom-made for her. Even more fundamental, because when I initially came to her, all I had was the idea of a procedural show, case-of-the-week thing, with you at the center. All I had. We began talking and collaborating after that.
I realized that I don’t watch the shows we’ve been mentioning for the mystery. I to see James Garner and Peter Falk, I watch them. And seeing Natasha as a charismatic performer, which is rare. It tried to capture and enhance my love of Natasha on screen. Hers is custom-made.
Knowing Poker Face was a case-of-the-week show, I was surprised Charlie is not a cop. No PI. She has no natural professional relationship with the mystery. Why that setup?
I liked that she had to find a personal way in every week. This is a worthwhile challenge despite its difficulty. The writing was scary. Because I wrote the pilot alone like I do my movies, and then we started the room to create the remainder. I knew we could accomplish it, but the scary part was, how would we develop a new way to lure her into solving the crime every week?
But it was a struggle that turned into an opportunity. Because of the small flashback structure I incorporated, you see her relationship with either the killer, the victim, or the dog, who is also the victim. That let us reach her emotionally. It’s unique to this program and adds to the character’s appeal. It wasn’t easy, but it paid off.
Anthology shows—a fancy term for procedurals—often have a tension between what makes each episode different and what makes it the same. Was the room challenging to figure out?
Sort of. However, the ongoing presence of Charlie and the structural similarities of each episode—showing the murder, flashing back, catching up with the culprit, and ultimately Charlie solving it—were advantages.
That and Natasha meant we could have a bedrock of “this is what the show is” and do drastically varied tonal swings and plot games from episode to episode. That’s why we can have an attack that feels like Noises Off in the same season as Episode 9, which hasn’t been pushed out yet but is virtually a horror movie. I thought that was fun. Knowing we had that basis to work off that defines the show made it easier to be a looser week-to-week. It felt like the audience would enjoy not knowing what to expect each time they clicked play.
I also liked Charlie confronting the killers with no clear departure route. Not self-serving. Why did Charlie’s tic matter in this show?
If she were reasonable, she would keep moving. Just drive her Barracuda. Natasha and I discussed the idea that there must be something—not unhealthy because it’s a righteous attitude to want to stop these crimes—but something a little bit like an addict who gets a clouded vision and becomes a dog with a bone going after it then blinks and realizes they’re on the edge of a skyscraper. I like some of that. And mentally explains how she moves deeper on solving these.
In the theatre scene, she adds, “I’m De Niro at the end of Heat.” I always referenced that. You know she’ll turn the automobile. Her presence in the game. Natasha and I do crossword puzzles, Wordle, Duotrigordle, and all that stuff, and the idea of it being an obsessive thing, “I have to finish this puzzle,” until she looks around and realizes, no, she’s not behaving out of self-interest.
There are persistent themes, mainly around truth-telling, why people lie, and the significance of the truth, even though there is no ongoing plot.
How did Charlie’s journey shape those ideas?
We did it inside. Then the trenches. It’s a funny mix of cutting and machete-ing through the forest and trying to make the plot work but also holding all this stuff in the back of your skull, and it all gets in there. Giving a character in a program like this that gift and figuring out methods to keep the show from ending in five minutes—having to locate the side door to the estate repeatedly—was fascinating. Exploring how and why people lie was natural. Its DNA contained that. The boulder rolls down the slope and collects everything at the end.
You mentioned being fascinated by the production apparatus of various TV series over the years. Still, I couldn’t help being astonished by the back-to-back releases you’re currently in the middle of—and just logistically, what that undertaking must have been like.
My publicists laugh.
Since November, you’ve probably been on Zoom. Sorry.
How did those work for you creatively and logistically?
Interesting. Creatively, I’m not sure. It felt different. Despite being vague, it felt like utilizing various muscles. Whodunit versus howcatchem feels odd. But those two objects have other engines. I was editing Glass Onion and writing Poker Face, but it didn’t feel like grinding. Switching between them was refreshing. They were different enough that I don’t know if one inspired the other, but one didn’t burn me out on the other.
Making a movie and shooting a TV show in the same year is crazy. Lots. A lot. But I had so much joy doing the show; it’s just figuring out how to do it again. I would be the happiest person in the world if I could wave a magic wand, make a tesseract, and carve off time so I could direct all the episodes. I loved doing this show. First, let’s release this season and see whether anyone watches.
Do you find howcatchems harder than whodunits?
It’s more enjoyable than the whodunit. I’m always looking for the genre to put inside the whodunit to make the car go. It nearly adds a whodunit layer. The howcatchem is an engine because Charlie and the killer play a delightful cat-and-mouse game. 1,000 possible outcomes. There are 1,000 versions of the killer, Charlie’s relationship, and how we get in.
But they all have the same engine: the cat and mouse chasing further and deeper till he’s cornered, and they can’t escape. Its form and approach are very different.
Columbo epitomizes the howcatchem. Studying how those writers addressed it and noticing subtle tricks—like the first act of murder, they don’t show you everything. They always leave something out so Columbo can surprise them with something they missed. Little things like forensically tearing this object I adore apart and analyzing it, and figuring out how it works were part of the fun.