Writer-director Rian Johnson and Ram Bergman, his producing partner of two decades, are improbably modest for a pair who made one of the biggest film deals in recent memory — a $469 million two-picture pact with Netflix to have their T-Street production Shingle make two sequels to their 2019 whodunit Knives Out.
It’s not just that the two got Netflix to loosen the purse strings; they’ve pushed the company beyond its well-established comfort zone. The streamer’s first Knives Out sequel, Glass Onion, opens Nov. 23 in 600-plus theaters for a weeklong run before a Dec. 23 shift to digital. The film’s performance in both arenas will be a litmus test for how streamer-backed films may roll out in the future. Speaking over Zoom in early November, Johnson and Bergman seemed well aware of these stakes — though they also maintained that seismic industry shifts are not their priority. “We’re not really empire-builders,” says Johnson, who went from indie darling to writing and directing star Wars entry The Last Jedi. “We just like making movies.”
Your first collaboration was Brick back in 2005. How’d you meet?
RIAN JOHNSON I wrote Brick right out of college, and I basically spent my 20s failing to get it made. Ram was eventually passed the script by another producer in 2002. We got together and liked the cut of each other’s jib. Until we met, I’d done the thing everybody does… where you have a line producer friend read your script and tell you it’ll cost $3 million to make. Ram broke me out of that thinking and said, “No, you figure out what you can scrape together and make it for that. Then you’ll own it and control it.” That’s what we ended up doing.
What’s the key to such a long and monogamous creative marriage?
RAM BERGMAN We know each other, and we just want to make the best movie. That’s it.
JOHNSON I have no business brain at all. Ram can look at the big-picture logistics and guide us through dealmaking and how we set things up. And he’s always acting in the interest of ensuring we have creative control. I know plenty of filmmakers who started in indie films when I did, people much more talented than me who didn’t have a Ram in their lives. It makes all the difference.
Speaking of dealmaking, taking the sequels to the open market and getting the money you got blew a lot of minds. Other than the money, what was your biggest consideration in picking a new distributor?
BERGMAN We wanted people who were clearly willing to bet on us — and bet on the movie.
JOHNSON It was about being very conscious that we had something special here. We wanted to grow it in a big way. We wanted to set it up — not just for monetary success but in a way we could keep making more of them, so we can get together with our friends and do one every couple of years.
Was this wide theatrical release part of those initial conversations?
JOHNSON We didn’t have anything down in writing, but the agreement was that we’d have the conversation when the time came.
BERGMAN And, remember, we made a deal in the middle of COVID. Nobody knew where the industry was going.
JOHNSON The choice was not between a big traditional theatrical release or Netflix. The big theatrical release just didn’t exist at that moment.
And box office is not going to be reported — by Netflix, at least?
JOHNSON That’s our understanding. We want as many people as possible to see it in theatres. And then we want it to do incredibly well when it hits Netflix — so lots of people see it and so it demonstrates to everybody, most of all Netflix, that these two things can coexist … that a great run in the theater will only build the word-of-mouth and the prestige for when it hits the service. That’s something a lot of folks, not just at Netflix, are betting on.
You’ll soon have Poker Facea columbo-esque mystery-of-the-week, for Natasha Lyonne at Peacock. What’s so appealing to you about detectives?
JOHNSON When I saw Russian Dollthis whole thing clicked for me. columbo, Magnum, P.I 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 nonserialized, case-of-the-week shows. You can jump anywhere and know how the show works. It’s something I kind of miss.
Now that you’re creating TV, and Lucasfilm is very aggressively pursuing series, is there a star Wars series you’d like to make?
JOHNSON I would do a star Wars anything. And if I had an idea that I was excited about, that worked better as a show than a movie, I’d do it that way. At the moment, we’re in between making the next Benoit Blanc movie and thinking about Poker Face. I keep getting together with Kathy [Kennedy] and having conversations. Who knows? Making the Last Jedi was the best experience in my life, so I should be so lucky.
What did you learn from making The Last Jedi?
JOHNSON A big piece of it, which Ram taught me, was coming into every situation — with studios, financiers, decision-makers — and embracing them in the process. That served us well in the independent world and with Bob Iger, Alan Horn, Alan Bergman and Kathy Kennedy and everybody at Lucasfilm. It was just a very respectful, joyful process.
BERGMAN If you bring people into the process early, they’re rooting for you. And they eventually let you do what you want to do.
What are your thoughts on James Gunn getting the DC job? Is being a suit appealing to either of you?
JOHNSON To me personally? No. Not at all. God bless him. I respect people who do it — Pete Docter stepping up at Pixar or what JJ Abrams does with producing. There are people who can engage creatively on that level and find it rewarding. I don’t have that. But it’s cool to see, and it’s exciting to me for a filmmaker like James Gunn to be in that position.
It seems like the old Hollywood story, by it Babylon or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is something a lot of big filmmakers eventually tackle. Rian, your wife, Karina Longworth, is famously a scholar of old Hollywood. Have you talked about collaborating?
JOHNSON Look, I would love to — someday. And we’ve talked about it, but we have such a great marriage, I don’t know if we want to bring work into it. The thing with Karina’s podcast [You Must Remember This] is she makes every creative decision, and when she does go into TV, which is something she wants to do, it has to be in a way where she can have that same control. We’ll see.
What keeps you both up at night?
BERGMAN At some point, the studios and streamers won’t be able to fund and finance the same amount. With the exception of DC, Marvel, whatever, budgets are going to have to go down for them to survive. They’re not going to make 20 or 30 movies and spend $200 million or $300 million apiece.
JOHNSON Any time I get worried about that stuff, I remember that we’ve made movies for half a million dollars. We’ll always be able to make something.
Interview edited for length and clarity. A previous version of this story misstated the length of Glass Onion’s theatrical run. It will be in theaters for one week, not one month.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporters magazine. Click here to subscribe.