How ‘Knives Out’ Turned Three Locations Into a Single Mansion of Murder


While the production design of every movie ever made faces numerous complications, those complications become even more, well, complex when it comes to a murder mystery like “Knives Out.” Production designer David Crank, for instance, had to turn three shooting locations into a single mansion that serves as the film’s bloody crime scene.

When Crank and his team got started, director Rian Johnson and his location team had already found a pair of mansions that would serve as the domain of Harlan Thrombey, the multi-millionaire mystery novelist portrayed by Christopher Plummer, whose bloody demise sets the events of “Knives Out” into motion.

The exterior of the house was a gothic revival mansion built in 1890 and located just outside of Boston, but the interior scenes were filmed at the Ames Mansion, a 20-room historic site located at Massachusetts’ Borderland State Park. The Ames Mansion, previously seen in Martin Scorsese’s 2010 thriller “Shutter Island,” was used in “Knives Out” to shoot the tense fights Harlan would have with his money-grubbing family, and the intense questioning that private eye Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) would put that same family through after Harlan’s death.

“There wasn’t a specific kind of architecture that Rian was looking for,” Crank told TheWrap. “The general rule was that both the inside and outside of the house needed to look like the sort of house that Harlan would describe in one of his mysteries. The moment we walked into the mansion we knew right away that it had the personality we needed.”

But neither the Ames Mansion nor the gothic revival could provide the floor plan needed for the most important room in Johnson’s script: Harlan’s office. The script for “Knives Out” required several characters to sneak in and out of the house and up to Harlan’s inner sanctum, a cozy red study with a low, curved ceiling that allows for intimate conversations between Harlan and his nurse Marta, played by Ana De Armas.

To accommodate the script, Crank built the office and connecting hallway on a soundstage, working with Johnson to line up the characters’ movements in the script with the actual layout of the houses and sets used for shooting. In doing so, they were able to help the editors create a seamless transition as the Thrombeys scurry through the halls of their patriarch’s domain.

“We had about three weeks to get the office ready for shooting, so we had to work very fast,” he said. “The funny thing is that the way the office hallway and the upper floor we built on set was designed, it wouldn’t have fit in the actual house you see in the film. But it was made for these scenes where people are sneaking around trying to not get seen and I’m really proud of how it ended up looking in the final cut.”

Another important task for Crank was to fill the Ames Mansion with the sorts of novels and knick-knacks befitting Harlan’s personality. But even though one of the cops in the film quips that Harlan “lives in a Clue board,” the famed board game or the Tim Curry film that it inspired weren’t the main inspiration for the set design.

Instead, the chief influence was “Sleuth,” a 1972 Oscar-nominated mystery film starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine that also served as Johnson’s main inspiration for “Knives Out” as a whole. Like “Knives Out,” the film takes place at the luxurious home of a famed crime novelist who is a collector of automata, or moving dolls. In honor of the film “Knives Out” features dozens of automata and dollhouses strung around the mansion.

“There’s a large dollhouse that you can see over Daniel Craig’s shoulder that I thought was a really fun addition,” Crank said. “The automata were Rian’s nod to ‘Sleuth,’ particularly a sailor figure by the door, but they also really fit for the character of the mansion because they were so mysterious and creepy. We found a collector that provided them for us and tried to fit them into rooms where they would feel like they belong there.”

Knives OutBut the biggest prop in the house is the ring of knives in the Thrombeys’ living room, all set in front of a chair and positioned so that the knives appear to be pointing right at the head of whomever is sitting in the chair. When asked if the Iron Throne from “Game of Thrones” was an inspiration, Crank laughed.

“It wasn’t, but I can see why people might make that connection,” he said. “It actually wasn’t originally meant to be that way. It was initially a rectangular structure and the knives were pointed out. Eventually, after various versions, we got down to the final version you see in the film. Rian wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted with the knives, but he knew what he didn’t want, and once we got to that ring of blades pointing in, it finally clicked.”

You can check out David Crank’s work in “Knives Out” now in theaters. To see more of his production design, see his depiction of Civil War-era Washington in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and his design of the residence of amoral oil magnate Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.” Crank has also just finished shooting two 2020 films starring Tom Hanks: the WWII film “Greyhound” and the Paul Greengrass western “News of the World.”

Every Rian Johnson Movie, Ranked Worst to Best (Photos)

  • Brick Last Jedi Knives Out

    Rian Johnson is one of the most promising filmmakers to emerge in recent decades, with an energetic storytelling style and a penchant for narratives that capture the feel of familiar genres while subverting his audience’s expectations at nearly every turn. With a film career that — so far — almost exclusively spans the mystery and sci-fi genres, he has become one of the most intriguing contemporary pulp filmmakers we’ve got. But sometimes his cleverness can overwhelm his films and undermine what he seems to be trying to accomplish. So let’s explore his impressively creative and eccentric filmography, and rank his films from the least effective to the most.

  • 5. “Looper” (2012)

    The first half of Rian Johnson’s first sci-fi film is so intricately realized that you might not even notice it doesn’t make sense. “Looper” takes place in a world where assassins like Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are hired to kill people who are sent back in time from the future, and are eventually expected to kill older versions of themselves. When his future self (now played by Bruce Willis) comes back, he escapes, and it’s up to this reckless young man to literally destroy his own future. “Looper” is inventive and electric, cleverly combining film-noir, western, time-travel and cyberpunk genres, but the second half devolves into uninspired “Terminator” territory, and the subplot about psychic powers feels like it’s from a completely different and significantly less interesting movie.

    Photo credit: Sony

  • Knives Out

    4. “Knives Out” (2019)

    Johnson assembles a superlative cast for his Agatha Christie–esque whodunnit, with Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, Toni Collette and Don Johnson playing the family of a wealthy mystery novelist, played by Christopher Plummer, whose sudden, suspicious death attracts the attention of Daniel Craig’s super sleuth. They’ve all got motives, but “Knives Out” is more interested in the victim’s hired help, played by Ana de Armas, who has one hell of a secret. Johnson’s whirligig direction and gleaming ensemble keep “Knives Out” engaging and kooky, but the filmmaker’s efforts to give this airplane-novel narrative deeper meaning feel perfunctory. Worse, the mystery runs out of steam quickly and, despite some valiant efforts, never quite picks up again. “Knives Out” is never dull, but it doesn’t have much of a point.

    Photo credit: Lionsgate

  • "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" Finn v Phasma

    3. “Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi” (2017)

    The second film the latest “Star Wars” trilogy somehow manages to be just as bold, fresh and invigorating as “The Empire Strikes Back,” while still following that movie’s same basic structure. Johnson’s film splits the cast up, teaches us brand-new ideas about the Force, explores the connection between fascism and capitalism, builds on the connection between the hero and the villain, and gives us one hell of a twist. It’s so overstuffed with amazing set pieces and fascinating ideas that it can’t help but burst a little at the seams. Not every idea is explored to fulfillment, and some of the plot points are controversial, but “The Last Jedi” dares to take a familiar franchise into exciting new directions, and effectively takes the safety off of the entire “Star Wars” mythology. As a stand-alone film it’s messy, and yet it’s exactly what the series needed.

    Photo credit: Disney

  • Brothers Bloom

    2. “The Brothers Bloom” (2008)

    The con-artist sub-genre is typically a cynical one, in which nobody can be trusted and even the audience is treated like a mark. But Johnson’s effervescent, romantic “The Brothers Bloom” is an entirely different kind of racket. Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo play brothers who don’t just trick their victims, they weave complicated fictions full of subtext and character development which leave everyone happy. Even if they just got bilked out of all their money. When their latest target turns out to be a quirky genius, played to perfection by Rachel Weisz, their story begins to unravel in unexpected ways. Crackerjack entertainment and thoughtful character-driven drama, with a villainous turn by Maximillian Schell that will make your skin crawl.

    Photo credit: Summit Entertainment

  • Brick

    1. “Brick” (2005)

    Johnson’s debut feature is still, impressively, his best. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as a high school iconoclast investigating the disappearance of the only girl he’s ever loved, played by Emilie de Ravin. His search reveals shocking truths and fascinating characters inside all the high-school caste systems, in a narrative which successfully transforms John Hughes archetypes into a densely crafted, hard-boiled noir ensemble. “Brick” gets playful with the teen sleuth premise, and occasionally gets a guffaw for taking its gritty style too seriously, but beneath the high-concept veneer, Johnson is telling a powerful story about love, loss and loneliness. It’s as potent as any neo-noir, and Johnson’s trademark cleverness never gets in the way of the story’s walloping gut punches.

    Photo credit: Focus Features

1 of 6

Where do we file “Knives Out” among the filmmaker’s output?

Rian Johnson is one of the most promising filmmakers to emerge in recent decades, with an energetic storytelling style and a penchant for narratives that capture the feel of familiar genres while subverting his audience’s expectations at nearly every turn. With a film career that — so far — almost exclusively spans the mystery and sci-fi genres, he has become one of the most intriguing contemporary pulp filmmakers we’ve got. But sometimes his cleverness can overwhelm his films and undermine what he seems to be trying to accomplish. So let’s explore his impressively creative and eccentric filmography, and rank his films from the least effective to the most.

Story first appeared at TheWrap.com


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