Why Rian Johnson switched up his mystery writing format for ‘Poker Face’

Rian Johnson
Natasha Lyonne as Charlie Cale in ‘Poker Face.’
Evans Vestal Ward / Peacock

Rian Johnson is known for crafting intricate puzzles for some of his work including the ‘Knives Out’ franchise of films. But with this latest venture into the world of mystery, ‘Poker Face,’ the format for this new Peacock show starring Natasha Lyonne leaves the question of “Who’s the killer?” at the door and instead turns to ask “How did you catch them?”

Lyonne stars as Charlie Cale, who we see in the first episode working at a casino in Nevada when she gets thrust into the world of murder (not to reveal any spoilers on how). From then on out, she’s on the case and travels around solving crimes herself without a badge or detective background. Instead, she has an uncanny ability to detect lies which leads her down some pretty intense roads.

‘Poker Face’ also features a bevy of impressive guest stars—Adrien Brody, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Barkin, Nick Nolte and more join in—which was part of the appeal for writer/director Rian Johnson. And to dive a little deeper into the series, he sat down to discuss what’s in store for this new show, which premieres Jan. 26.

Why return to the case-of-the-week format for ‘Poker Face’? 

A few things…It’s a format that I really found myself missing. I think there’s so much good TV right now that is serialized where if it’s a mystery show, the mystery stretches over the entire season.

Having it be a case-of-the-week gives you a couple of things: First of all, you can just sit down and get a full meal and full mystery in one hour of TV at the end of the night. Also, because it’s truly episodic, the middle episodes of the season are not even really in order. If you hear, oh my God, you have to see the one with Nick Nolte, you can skip ahead and watch it, you don’t have to watch all the way up to it. 

But the other big thing to me is guest stars. That’s [something] those old shows had that we’re really trying to follow in the tradition of—every episode having a true guest star who really owns the episode. So when you watch a trailer and you see 30 names in a row, it’s not like those are all cameos in one episode. Every one of those people has an episode that’s their episode and they’re going up against Charlie, Natasha’s character in it. I think that’s really fun to see, it’s like ten little movies basically. 

With most great crime series, the detective or the person doing the investigating is normally a big personality. What is it about Natasha that made her right for this role?

It’s kind of undefinable, like a movie star quality. There is just something that she’s got and it’s also very, very rare, which is the reason why when I became friends with her and saw her work in ‘Russian Doll’, a light went off in my head. I thought this is somebody who could be the Peter Falk for a series like this. There are not a lot of those people out there. So, I don’t know that I can put my finger on what it is, but I know that it’s there. 

My job really was to work with her and kind of construct this show to be a bespoke suit for her, it really took advantage of everything that I love watching in her performances. She’s really been a collaborator from the start and we built this thing together. 

Glass Onion
Rian Johnson, writer/director of “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” and “Poker Face” poses for a portrait during the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, Saturday, Sept. 10 2022, at the Shangri-La Hotel in Toronto.AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

You called the episodes mini-movies, and they truly all feel different in their own way. What were some tricks or techniques that you used visually to help achieve that?

That was something I was excited about, the notion of it being a road movie. But really what that allows us to do is delve into a different world with every episode, and in that way it was kind of inspired by ‘Quantum Leap’ where every episode is plunking you into a whole other little ecosystem of people, a little micro-society and examining that. When you have ten episodes and you’re creating a new world with everyone, it’s a lot of work. 

Our production designer, Judy Rhee, did the Lord’s work. I still can’t believe what she did in terms of creating all of these vastly different worlds. Also, [with] Trayce Field, our costume designer and with casting— everything goes into trying to create a whole different world each week. 

In this show, we see a lot of actors you’ve worked with in the past. Is that true for the behind-the-scenes crew as well, especially since this show took so much to craft?

Some of them are. Two of the episodes I directed with my cinematographer Steve Yedlin, who I’ve worked with in all my movies. And then Jaron Presant who I’ve worked with, he’s been our second unit DP and has shot lots of movies on his own. But then also we had new people, Christina Ng was our other DP and she shot one of the other episodes I directed, and I had a great experience with her.

Judy, who I mentioned, I haven’t worked with, or Trayce. So it was a mixture of old and new friends basically, and a lot of new friends who are now going to become old friends who I hope to work with again. 

Natasha’s character Charlie can tell when people are lying. Was that tidbit inspired by her or was it in the script for other reasons?

Well, Natasha does have a really good bullsh*t detector [laughs], kind of infuriatingly so. But no, that was kind of constructed for the character. Part of it was knowing that she’s not a cop and she’s not a detective, this is not her job. So [we wanted] to give her something that’s just a little bit extra that made her particularly good at this. I think beyond just her being smart or her being good at mysteries, just a little something where it made sense that only she could step in and solve these crimes. 

The other aspect of it was because there is a little bit of the ‘Murder, She Wrote’ thing where everywhere she goes, a murder happens—which is just a buy-in that we asked for from the audience. I’m not gonna say, yeah, we made that make sense. It’s just, this is the show and it’s fun and we’re going with it. But there was a little bit in my head of, okay, if she has this power, the notion is if any of us could detect lies around us we’d probably be privy to a lot more terrible stuff happening in the world around us. So there’s a little bit of that too.

The first four episodes of ‘Poker Face’ drop on Peacock Jan. 26 with additional episodes released weekly.