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“Serialized storytelling in the world of streaming just has the gravity of a million suns right now,” the filmmaker tells The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the Peacock series’ Jan. 26 launch. “I didn’t really anticipate exactly how much it just is the only thing people think of in terms of storytelling.”
In Poker Face, Lyonne (who also executive produces, writes and directs) stars as Charlie Cale. She’s not a detective by any recognition of the law, but her unique skill of being a “human lie detector” — and her innate desire to right some of the wrongs in the world — places her in the center of a weekly murder mystery plot in the 10-episode series. Her backstory and purpose is established in the first episode — which sees her going toe-to-toe with Benjamin Bratt and Adrien Brody — and she serves as the beating heart of the road-trip murder-mystery show as it swerves its way through distinct stories and locations with each new episode.
The first TV series from creator-writer-director Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) launches with four episodes before moving to a week-to-week release. The model, Johnson has said, is inspired by TV shows he and Lyonne grew up watching, like Magnum P.I., Murder, She Wrote and Quantum Leap — shows that had a continuous character, but where each episode told a complete story.
Below, Johnson dives into his next mystery offering and shares what he loves about working in TV while offering some insight into Knives Out 3 following the success of Netflix’s Glass Onion. He also talks about the “howcatchem” format drawing Poker Face‘s A-list cast and says he hopes for many more seasons: “I can imagine [Natasha] Jessica Fletcher-ing it. And I would be thrilled.”
You and Natasha Lyonne explained how the idea for Poker Face was born at a dinner party and from conversations between you two about your love for detective series of the past. You also said that after watching Natasha in Russian Doll, you knew she could anchor this show as protagonist Charlie Cale. What sparked between you and Natasha in that conversation?
We had been friends before that. So we knew that we grooved with each other. We knew that we got along. And we’re very, very different in a way that really works when we hang out. I don’t know how to explain it, but we both are very quickly able to get on the same wavelength of serious people who can be incredibly un-serious. (Laughs.)
The reality, though, is that it’s less me sparking to her as a person — although that was a big part of it — and it was much more the thing you said of seeing her onscreen and just recognizing that incredibly rare thing of somebody with that level of charisma and personality. And recognizing that as sort of the essential ingredient in the type of show that I had been kicking around and thinking of doing.
You have said the mystery-of-the-week format of Poker Face is rare in the binge era, and that the serialized way of taking an entire season to wrap up a mystery is more of the moment. What feedback did you get around town and what was different about the pitching process in TV land?
We did get a lot of blank stares. It was interesting. I basically wrote the pilot, that was the pitch process. And then we went out. We had sent the pilot, and a little document. But it was really just me explaining how the show was going to work moving forward [after the pilot]. Serialized storytelling in the world of streaming just has the gravity of a million suns right now. I didn’t really anticipate exactly how much it just is the only thing people think of in terms of storytelling. It really surprised me.
Even when we pitched this to some phenomenally smart people who know TV, that’s the mode of thinking right now. That that’s what keeps people watching; a serialized arc over the course of a season. And I just kept coming back and hammering the notion that all the shows that I grew up watching were not about the cliffhanger at the end. They were about wanting to come back to hang out with this character that you love and see them win, and that’s equally addictive. And it’s also something I miss, and I bet a lot of people also miss. And Peacock were the ones who really responded to that and who were genuinely excited about it. And that’s how we knew we had found the right partner.
When I spoke to Natasha about making Russian Doll, she described the writers room as being like A Beautiful Mind, with the intricate ways they tracked timelines. What was your involvement in the room and what was your writing process like with all of Poker Face‘s Easter eggs, timelines and perspectives with its nonlinear storytelling?
I dove in. I was in the room every single day. I was so lucky to have Nora and Lilla [Zuckerman, co-showrunners] to kind of teach me the ropes of how to work in a writers room. And to have an incredibly talented group of writers in there, too. And then for me, it was really a process, and it was very fun, of figuring out how to get both worlds. How to get that collaboration with everybody and also still feel like I had creative ownership, if that makes sense. It was a very new process for me. I was kind of fumbling forward. And I give a lot of credit to the Zucks and to our writers for guiding me through it. But at the end of the day, I really enjoyed it. It’s a hell of a lot less lonely than writing features!
Let’s talk about this cast. I imagine you call people up and say, “We have this great role, want to check it out?”
[Editor’s note: The cast includes Cherry Jones, Chloë Sevigny, Ellen Barkin, Jameela Jamil, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Judith Light, Lil Rel Howery, Luis Guzmán, Nick Nolte, S. Epatha Merkerson, Tim Blake Nelson and Tim Meadows.]
Nope! (Laughs.) Please keep imagining that and please manifest that for me, because that would be nice!
How did you land such stars for each episode, and was anyone hesitant about taking on a role where they die pretty quickly?
No. It’s interesting. First of all, casting is always hard and it’s all about the schedule. That’s the thing. And it’s the same thing with Glass Onion. After the success of Knives Out, it wasn’t like the world was our oyster. When you’re going for top-flight people, they’re busy people, and you’re seeing who has six months clear in the middle of the year. You’re still dealing with the reality of that.
Similar with this, we got so lucky with the cast that we got together. To me, part of that goes back to the “howcatchem” format. It’s not like there are eight suspects that we have to deal with in this hour of TV. We can really devote the story to the killer and the victim, in the secondary sense. They can really own the episode. And I think sending out a script with that, you have a much better chance of getting a star. We don’t really have any Janet Leigh cameos. We don’t have a huge star who dies after 10 minutes and that’s it — well, we have a couple, I guess. But for the most part, you recognize very quickly in the episode whose episode it is and who you lead with, and try and get someone the audience is going to recognize in that part.
Because of Poker Face‘s format, it feels like a show that could go on forever. How long do you envision?
Natasha and I keep talking about getting old doing this. I can imagine her Jessica Fletcher-ing it. And I would be thrilled. But, we’ll see. I’ve learned: One step at a time. Let’s put this out there and see if people watch it first. But this is something that’s obviously built with an engine to keep on going.
I want to also ask about your other detective … what are you brainstorming for Knives Out 3?
I’m just starting to fish for ideas, but I’m really, really excited about them. To me, what’s creatively exciting is: How can it be very different from the first two movies, and how can I do something that’s going to feel scary in the right way for myself? In the sense of: This is very different, and I wonder if I can pull this off? That’s the thing I’m kind of fishing for right now. But it’s a really invigorating creative challenge. I’m having fun, even in the first little tingles of it.
How do you imagine you would alternate Knives Out 3 with another Poker Face season?
I have no idea how it would work. We have one more Benoit Blanc mystery to deliver for Netflix. My assumption is that then I’ll have done three of these movies in a row and that I’d do something completely different next, movie-wise. And in terms of how Poker Face fits into that? I don’t know. That’s going to be a year-to-year figuring it out thing.
Interview edited for clarity.
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