Writer-director Rian Johnson and Ram Bergman, his producing partner of two decades, are improbably modest for a couple who struck one of the biggest movie deals in recent history: a $469 million two-picture deal with Netflix for having their production on the T-Street shingle makes for two sequels to the 2019 whodunit Knives out.
It’s not just that the two convinced Netflix to loosen the purse strings; they pushed the company beyond its established comfort zone. The streamer is the first Knives out Continuation, Glass Onion, will debut November 23 in over 600 theaters for a week before going digital on December 23. The film’s performance in both arenas will be a litmus test for how streamer-supported films could roll out in the future. Speaking on Zoom in early November, Johnson and Bergman seemed well aware of this stake, though they also argued that seismic industry changes aren’t their priority. “We’re not really empire builders,” says Johnson, who has transitioned from indie to writing and directing Star Wars signing up The Last Jedi. “We just like making movies.”
Your first collaboration was Brick in 2005. How did you meet?
RIAN JOHNSON I wrote Brick fresh out of college, and basically spent my 20s failing to make it happen. Ram finally got the script from another producer in 2002. We got together and enjoyed each other’s arm cut. Up until we met, I had been doing the thing that everyone does… where you have a line producer friend who reads your script and tells you it’s going to cost $3 million. Ram snapped me out of that thought and said, “No, figure out what you can pull together and do it for that. Then you will own it and control it. This is 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 film. That’s all.
JOHNSON I have no brains for business at all. Ram can look at the big picture of the logistics and walk us through the negotiation and how we set things up. And he always acts in the interest of assuring us creative control. I know a lot of filmmakers who started in independent films when I did, far more talented people than me who haven’t had a Ram in their life. It makes all the difference.
Speaking of deals, taking the sequels to the open market and getting the money you got blew a lot of minds. Aside from money, what was your biggest consideration when choosing a new distributor?
BERGMAN We wanted people clearly willing to bet on us and on the film.
JOHNSON It was about being very aware that we had something special here. We wanted to make it grow in a big way. We wanted to organize it, not just for monetary success, but in a way that we could keep making more, so that we could get together with our friends and make one every two years.
Was this wide theatrical release part of those initial conversations?
JOHNSON We didn’t have anything written down, but the agreement was that we would have the conversation when the time came.
BERGMAN And, remember, we made a deal in the midst of COVID. Nobody knew where the industry was going.
JOHNSON The choice wasn’t between a big traditional theatrical release or Netflix. The big theatrical release simply didn’t exist at the time.
And the box office will not be reported, at least by Netflix?
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 will see it and then it will prove to everyone, especially Netflix, that those two things can coexist… word of mouth and prestige by the time it hits the service. It’s something that many people, not just on Netflix, are betting on.
You will soon have Poker facea Columbus-esque mystery-of-the-week, for Natasha Lyonne at Peacock. What is so attractive to you about detectives?
JOHNSON When I saw Russian dollthe whole thing worked for me. Columbus, Magnum, PI or Rockford files: The reason these shows work is because they have a central figure who is incredibly watchable. You want to hang out with them every week. It’s not really about the mystery, the way sitcoms aren’t really about the 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 enter anywhere and know how the show works. It’s something I’m missing.
Now that you’re making TV and Lucasfilm is pursuing series very aggressively, there’s a Star Wars Which series would you like to make?
JOHNSON i would do a Star Wars everything. And if I had an idea that excited me, that worked better as a show than a movie, I’d do it that way. At the moment, we are in the midst of making the next Benoit Blanc film and thinking Poker face. I continue to hang out with Kathy [Kennedy] and have conversations. Who knows? Manufacturing The The Last Jedi it was the best experience in my life so i should be so lucky.
What did you learn by doing The Last Jedi?
JOHNSON Much of that, which Ram taught me, was going into every situation — with firms, financiers, decision makers — and embracing them in the process. This has served us well in the independent 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 get people involved in the process early, they will root for you. And in the end they let you do what you want to do.
What do you think of James Gunn getting the DC job? Do any of you like being a suit?
JOHNSON To me personally? No. Not at all. May God bless him. I respect the people who do that: Pete Docter stepping up to Pixar or what JJ Abrams does with production. There are people who can engage creatively at that level and find it rewarding. I do not have it. But it’s nice to see, and it’s exciting to me that a director like James Gunn is in that position.
Sounds like the old Hollywood story, either Babylon or Once upon a time in Hollywood, is something that many great directors eventually face. Rian, your wife, Karina Longworth, is notoriously a scholar of old Hollywood. Did you mention collaboration?
JOHNSON Look, I’d like to… one day. And we’ve talked about it, but we have such a beautiful wedding, I don’t know if we want to put any work into it. The thing with Karina’s podcast [You Must Remember This] it’s that she makes every creative decision and when she goes on TV, which is something she wants to do, it has to be in a way that she can be as much in control of. We will see.
What keeps you both up at night?
BERGMAN At some point, studios and streamers will not be able to fund and fund the same amount. With the exception of DC, Marvel, whatever, budgets are going to have to come down to survive. They’re not going to make 20 or 30 movies and spend $200 million or $300 million each.
JOHNSON Whenever I get anxious about that stuff, I remember we made movies for half a million dollars. We will always be able to do something.
Interview edited for length and clarity. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the length of The Glass Onion theatrical run. It will be in theaters for a week, not a month.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to register now.