Royal flush

Royal flush

January 31, 2023

The Director’s Chair

Looper, Star Wars and Knives Out director Rian Johnson has teamed up with star Natasha Lyonne for his first television series, Poker Face. He tells DQ about his love of ‘howcatchem’ mysteries and reviving the classic story-of-the-week format for streamer Peacock.

As a writer and director, Rian Johnson is best known for creating time-travel feature Looper and helming Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi and recent murder-mystery hits Knives Out and Glass Onion.

Having previously dipped his toes into the television waters by directing episodes of Breaking Bad, he has now dived into small-screen programming with his first original series, Poker Face.

Produced by T-Street and MRC Television for US streamer Peacock, the 10-part series follows Charlie (played by Russian Doll’s Natasha Lyonne), who has an extraordinary ability to determine when someone is lying. After an opening episode in which she helps to uncover the truth behind her friend’s murder, she is forced to hit the road in her Plymouth Barracuda, with every stop leading her to encounter a new cast of characters and strange crimes she can’t help but solve.

Guest stars include Adrien Brody, Benjamin Bratt, Cherry Jones, Chloé Sevigny, Danielle MacDonald, Jameela Jamil, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Luis Guzmán and Ron Perlman. Johnson is part of a writing team that includes showrunners Nora and Lilla Zuckerman, Lyonne, Alice Ju, Wyatt Cain, Christine Boylan, Joe Lawson, Chris Downey, Wyatt Cain and Charlie Peppers, while he also directs alongside Iain Macdonald, Tiffany Johnson, Ben Sinclair, Lucky McKee, Lyonne and Janicza Bravo. The series is distributed by Paramount Global Content Distribution.

Speaking to DQ ahead of the show’s premiere on January 26, Johnson discusses his move to television, talks up his partnership with star and fellow executive producer Lyonne and reveals how Poker Face was inspired by his love of classic detective series.

Rian Johnson with star Natasha Lyonne at the Poker Face premiere

You’ve worked in TV in the past. Why was this the perfect time for you to create and produce your own series?
I had the idea floating in the back of my head of doing something that was a throwback to the sort of TV shows I grew up watching – Columbo, The Rockford Files, Quantum Leap… those very high-quality case-of-the-week, hour-long shows that were purely episodic, where it’s not about a big through line over the course of the season, but you really get the full story in every episode, anchored by an incredibly charismatic star.
I guess the reason this happened now is because I became friends with Natasha and saw her work on [Netflix series] Russian Doll. I sat down with her and just said, ‘I’m thinking of doing a show like this. Do you want to be a partner in it with me?’ We really built this together after I realised she could be the [Columbo star] Peter Falk of this show, that she has that charisma and that presence on screen to anchor it and where you’re going to want to come back every week and hang out with her.

How did you and Peacock discuss doing this kind of episodic show for a streamer?
When we were pitching it around town, I was kind of shocked at the amount of blank stares I got. It was wild to me. I feel like there’s been this cultural brainwashing where we’ve forgotten that the episodic model is how most TV worked until relatively recently in television history. There’s obviously so much great serialised television, but the notion that that’s the only way that television can keep people watching I know is wrong because I watched TV [like that] for the first half of my life.
The reason we’re with Peacock is because they got it. They responded to it. They were really into it and really genuinely excited about it as something that is a throwback but could appeal to modern audiences. Once we started working with Peacock on it, that’s when they went with the grain of it and really backed us up.

Lyonne plays Charlie, who can tell when people are lying

After creating murder mysteries for Knives Out and Glass Onion, how did you go about transferring that kind of idea to TV?
It would probably sound disingenuous to say it’s a coincidence, but I didn’t really think of it [Poker Face] in terms of doing another mystery. This is going to sound like a wonky distinction, but Knives Out and Glass Onion are whodunits. That to me is a really specific thing with a group of suspects and clue-gathering, and ‘Which one could it be?’ But Poker Face is more drawn from what they used to call the ‘howcatchem’ school, where we show you whodunit, we show you how the murder was committed and the whole thing is a chess game between the killer and the detective where you’re thinking, ‘How are they going to catch them?’
It’s [Fyodor Dostoevsky novel] Crime & Punishment, basically, but not in Russian. So that to me was a whole different challenge. It was also about the notion of doing a procedural TV show, and the idea of not coming into it with some kind of snobbery of ‘We’re going to elevate this’ or make it a movie on TV or something. I wanted to get back to the joy I felt sitting down in front of the TV and watching those procedural shows every week.

What is it about Charlie that makes her a compelling protagonist for Poker Face?
Well, 98% of that answer is Natasha Lyonne. When I saw her work in Russian Doll and became friends with her, the entire pitch was that we would make the show like a bespoke suit for her. But I also think there’s something very appealing in that she’s not a detective. She’s not a cop. This is not her job. In fact, she has every reason in the world to ignore this stuff and keep moving down the highway. But in every episode, we had to find a moral reason why she can’t let it go. She sees the little guy getting screwed over, and she can’t let it go, even though she probably should.
Charlie also has an essentially sunny disposition. She has an openness to people; she likes people. That was kind of new for Natasha to play. She was very excited about that, and if you combine that with her natural New York hard edge, it makes a very interesting concoction that to me is so appealing.

Johnson has earned widespread acclaim for Knives Out and follow-up Glass Onion

How would you describe your working partnership? You first discussed the show over a meal in a restaurant.
We had steaks and fries and talked it out, but I had brought my notebook with me. I was there to get her on board. I think she knew something was up when I showed up with my notebook and pen. Then we talked about it and I got the sense she could be interested. I don’t know if she really thought we were going to do it. But then six months later I showed up with a script and she was like, ‘Oh, I guess we’re doing this’ – and then she was all in. It really feels like this is a house we built together. She co-wrote and directed one of the episodes and she was very involved through the whole thing. The collaboration has been deep from the very beginning.

You’re the creator, writer, director and executive producer, and you had showrunners working with you. How would you describe your role through development and production?
It was interesting for me because it’s my first rodeo, it’s my first time writing with other people, and I was very lucky to have [Haven writers and sisters] Nora and Lilla Zuckerman as our showrunners to show me the ropes and show me how the whole thing works. We had a very talented room of writers.
I was also very much was able to come in and take creative ownership over the whole season and really feel like I was getting the best out of the collaboration, but still very much shaping it and feeling like I was attacking the whole season of TV as if it were one of my movies, which was a lot of work. It was fun but, my God, anyone who does TV, I have so much respect for them. As David Mamet said, ‘TV is like running a marathon until you die.’

The filmmaker was keen to work with Lyonne after seeing her performance in Netflix’s Russian Doll

Did you turn up to the writers room with ideas for each episode, or were they crafted in the room?
It was a combination plate. I did come in with a couple of distinct ideas that I wanted, and some pitches. But then we would have days where we would just throw stuff up on the whiteboard. We would just pitch mystery ideas or location ideas, and some of the distinct locations also came from people in the writers room who grew up in certain regions of the country. Joe Lawson, who wrote the episode that takes place in the world of stock car racing, grew up in the South and he knew that world. So the whole thing was a very messy throw-everything-at-it-at-once.
We also had to create 10 movies, so it was a ‘whatever works’ situation as we gathered it all together. Then when we would break the story, it would very much be working through it structurally and keeping the same structure for every episode. It became more methodical, like, ‘OK, this happens and then this happens,’ and it became much more like what I’m used to with when I break the stories for my movies.

At some point this became a road trip series as well, featuring different locations. Were you thinking about production budgets and how exactly you might film it when the time came?
Unfortunately, we weren’t, much to the chagrin of our producers. We were just like, ‘Wheeeee! Snowed-in motel in the Rockies! Desert locale! Stock car racing!’ Then you start shooting and you realise, ‘Oh, maybe there’s a reason that CSI has a crime lab that they set half of every episode at. There’s a reason it’s done this way. This is hard.’ But Judy Rhee, our production designer, did the Lord’s work, creating an entirely new environment for every episode, and similarly Tracye Field, who is our costume designer. They were tasked with making a new movie every few weeks, and I’m dazzled by the work they put into it. The fact that there’s this broad expanse of all these different worlds in this one season of TV is pretty exciting.

Poker Face features guest stars such as Luis Guzmán

What have you learned about making TV perhaps that you didn’t know before?
I think I’m still stumbling dazed out of the other end of it, but I learned I enjoy it. I think my heart and my priority is still with making movies but I had a blast, and I hope we get to keep doing it. I learned so much from the writers, from the Zucks, from Natasha, just seeing how you sustain the energy of a show over the course of that long a shooting schedule and that many episodes. For me, it was a real education in seeing how the sausage gets made.

Coming from film to TV, how do you see the world of TV and how it is affecting the cinematic world and the opportunities you have there to make features?
That’s the million-dollar question right now. Everyone’s wondering where it’s going to all land. Honestly, I don’t know, and it’s all changing so fast. You think about what the landscape was a few years ago, then just imagine where it’s going to be two years into the future. The only thing you can do if you make stuff is focus on making stuff that comes from your heart and that you really think is going to be good and believe that, whatever the landscape is, it’s going to find its place. It’s going to find its way to connect to people.
Over the history of cinema, methods of distribution – from Nickelodeons to theatres to television – have constantly been in a state of freefall and reinvention. The thing that’s been consistent across the course of it is people respond to good stories. You just have to place your chips down on that, keep your head down and do the work.


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