Rian Johnson Credits Stephen Sondheim and Norman Bates for the Film That Inspired ‘Glass Onion’

The ‘Knives Out’ writer/director explains the influence of a 1973 whodunnit on his latest project
Rian Johnson Credits Stephen Sondheim and Norman Bates for the Film That Inspired ‘Glass Onion’

Rian Johnson has continued his reign as the king of contemporary mystery comedy films with Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, and the mystery genre’s biggest fanatic has continued to draw inspiration from some of the oft-forgotten corners of film history. 

Speaking to Variety, Johnson revealed one of Glass Onion’s biggest inspirations to be the 1973 whodunnit The Last of Sheila, which was written by the unlikely collaboration of musical theater legend Stephen Sondheim and Psycho star Anthony Perkins. The Last of Sheila features an eccentric movie producer inviting his closest friends to participate in a carefully orchestrated mystery game during a luxury cruise in which all of their darkest secrets are revealed. 

Johnson discusses The Last of Sheila’s influence on Glass Onion at around the 16:20 mark — there aren’t any spoilers, but there might be a few clues:

1970s stars Raquel Welch, Ian McShane and James Coburn appeared in the cult classic that has apparently continued to inspire moviemakers to this day. The unlikely duo of Sondheim and Perkins based The Last of Sheila’s premise off of a series of scavenger hunts that the two actually arranged among their illustrious Hollywood friend groups in the 1960s and 1970s and the film’s director, Herbert Ross, was a common participant at these cryptic competitions. In fact, many of the puzzles in The Last of Sheila were taken straight from Sondheim’s real-life mystery games, though no actual murders occurred during the Broadway legend’s parties — that we know of.

There’s something endlessly alluring about this set-up that lends itself to how fresh Glass Onion feels despite being influenced by the project and parties of two entertainment legends half a century ago — eccentric rich people playing mind games with each other while concealing their own secrets is inherently intriguing, and any excuse to shoot mysterious murder scenes on an exotic island or on a luxury yacht is justified from a purely aesthetically pleasing perspective.

Glass Onion took the Last of Sheila premise and, in Rian Johnson fashion, turned it on its head, played it for laughs, kept us on our toes and created something that was simultaneously new, parodic and reverent. Johnson’s take on the duplicity and playfulness of the little games of the elite in Glass Onion was a spirited, satirical and deeply funny dissection of the Last of Sheila dynamic.

With Johnson’s extensive understanding and admiration for the mystery genre, it’s no surprise that his Knives Out films are filled to the brim with references to the greats that came before him — between all the Clue jokes, the endless homages to the work of Agatha Christie and the inspiration from The Last of Sheila, Johnson’s Knives Out films have become living archives of all the elements that make mystery films so timeless, but with the wit and self-awareness to satirize the whodunnit experience.

At this rate, Knives Out 3 is just going to be a miniseries parody of Sherlock.

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