Reissued for the first time this century, John Dickson Carr’s The Problem of the Wire Cage is an atmospheric and amusing Golden Age mystery with a memorable puzzle at its center. Dickson Carr is famous for his puzzling “impossible crime” plots in which corpses are discovered in scenarios that seem to lack any logical explanation. Among all of Carr’s ingenious crime scenes, the present case is one of the best known: a dead man is found strangled in the middle of a clay tennis court, just after a storm. In the damp dirt, there is one set of footsteps—his own—leading back to the grass; the court is otherwise untouched. This edition from American Mystery Classics has a new introduction by Oscar-nominated writer-director Rian Johnson.
Rian Johnson made his directorial debut with the neo-noir mystery film Brick (2005), then received recognition for writing and directing the science-fiction thriller Looper (2012), followed by writing and directing the blockbuster Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), which grossed over a billion dollars. He returned to the mystery genre with Knives Out (2019) and its sequel Glass Onion (2022), which earned him Academy Award nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay, respectively. Johnson also directed three of the most lauded episodes of the series Breaking Bad (2008–2013): “Ozymandias,” “Fly,” and “Fifty-One.” In 2023, he released the TV series Poker Face, which he co-created with Natasha Lyonne for Peacock. Johnson was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2023.
Our editor Olivia Rutigliano sat down with Johnson to talk about whodunnits, detectives, movies, books, ice cream, Columbo, Sondheim, if Poker Face exists within the Knives Out cinematic universe, and how Daniel Craig got Benoit Blanc’s voice just right.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.
Olivia Rutigliano: I showed my parents Looper last night. I put it on and my dad did not fall asleep, which is the biggest achievement because we started at 9 p.m.
Rian Johnson: As someone of ‘dad age’ myself, that’s a big, big win.
OR: He was really excited.
RJ: That’s awesome.
OR: My mom was sitting next to me the whole time going, ‘that’s not Joseph Gordon-Levitt is it? He looks like Bruce Willis.’ And I was like, ‘Wow, they really made Joseph Gordon-Levitt look like Bruce Willis.’ My first question for you is… how did you guys do that?
RJ: There’s a brilliant makeup artist, Kazu Hiro, who we worked with. He is incredible. I forget what Joe had worked on with him before, but recently he has done all the work with Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour. He did the makeup for Bradley Cooper for Maestro recently. But he also does fine art. For a while, he retired from movies and was just doing sculpture. He’s a genius.
OR: And Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s acting… the way he was smiling with the corner of his mouth like Bruce Willis…
RJ: Yeah, and the voice. Bruce recorded himself saying some of Joe’s lines so that he could study it. But also those prosthetics meant that Joe was in the chair for like 3 hours every morning. And he couldn’t eat! Because if he ate physical food, the lips would fall off. So he had to eat his meals through a straw.
OR: I was confident it was prosthetics, but then the part where Emily Blunt goes to kiss him—and she kisses him really forcefully—made me think, ‘maybe it’s VFX!’
RJ: We only got a few takes of that! My joke was that they were going to do the kissing scene and come away and she was going to look like Bruce Willis, was going to be wearing his lips, at some point. Yeah, that was a high stress moment. We were like, ‘we only got a couple of takes of this but this is going to start to go bad.’ But it held up pretty well, actually.
OR: It was awesome. It looked so good. Immediately after watching Looper, I was like, ‘Oh man, I miss David Addison! Thank God Moonlighting is streaming now!”
RJ: [My wife] Karina and I just started re-watching Moonlighting, actually! We’re in Season Two.
OR: Isn’t it so good?”
RJ: It’s so good! And in Season Two it really starts finding its footing. Yeah, yeah, it’s so fun.
OR: I spent like all my money on the DVD set.
RJ: Because it takes such wild swings, though, it’s a mixed bag. You can hit one where you’re like, ‘oh, boy.’
OR: There’s one, like the third episode of Season One…
RJ: The train?
OR: No… Cybill Shepherd’s old friend turns out to be the murderer… and they’re in a factory and it’s not good! But then you build toward the Shakespeare episode and it’s crazy!
RJ: And the black and white flashback episode.
OR: Yes, the noir one!
RJ: The noir one is amazing. And, storytelling wise, it’s brilliant how in the dream thing they get to pay off the will-they-or-won’t-they but not with David and Maddie.
OR: To shift a little bit toward books… John Dickson Carr! I’m very interested in how you came to discover John Dickson Carr.
RJ: Well, it was indirectly through Otto [Penzler], because my wife and I always stay in this area when we’re in New York, and at one point I was just looking around, are there any bookstores here? Years and years ago! I saw the Mysterious Bookshop. And since then, every time I visit, I’ve just kind of gone into the shop and browsed. And the Mysterious Press bookshelf that they have is always one of the first places I’ll look. And I randomly picked up… The Crooked Hinge… no, it was The Mad Hatter Murders, because the cover was so cool. I don’t think I had even read The Hollow Man/The Three Coffins. I started with The Mad Hatter and I was completely enamored with it. And that drew me into the world of John Dickson Carr. It was Otto doing his series of books, although I didn’t know it at the time. I was enamored with this series of books. And then it was after Knives Out came out that when I was going in the shop, I think Ryan (who works in the shop) was the first guy to say hello. And then I started to get to know the guys and Otto.
OR: Yeah, they’re a wonderful crew.
RJ: Lovely, lovely folks, man. By the way, I should say that I’m not a scholar… I’m an enthusiast.
OR: Well, I read your introduction to The Problem of the Wire Cage, so you could have fooled me!
RJ: Ha, I know a lot about a little.I let go of trying to create a character and just wrote to the needs of the story, knowing that I would cast, hopefully, a great actor who would take it… and give it its own thing
OR: My friend and I were talking about John Dickson Carr, and we were like, ‘I think this is the push we needed for the JDC renaissance… Rian Johnson’s going to kick Carr into the big time! There’s the tennis star reference in Knives Out and now this… we’re on our way!’
RJ: I grew up reading Agatha Christie. That was kind of the extent. Even when I sat down to write Knives Out, that was kind of the breadth of my mystery knowledge. And I feel like Knives Out… first of all, my experience was so good making that movie. It was so much fun, and I got very excited about the genre. And suddenly over the past five years, I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to read everything I can now!’ And finally, for the first time, I read the complete Sherlock Holmes, and the Father Brown books, and now I’m going back and reading Dorothy Sayers. I’m reading all the stuff I probably should have read before I wrote it, now.
OR: Knives Out is so wonderful. I saw it three times in the period before it even had its wide release. And it was one of the first reviews I wrote for CrimeReads. Benoit Blanc is such a fun character. I’m so interested in how you arrived at that personality—how he emerged.
RJ: Man, I’m really glad you like the movie that much. It’s interesting… when I started writing it, I had in my head that I’d write a real character for the detective. And that kind of messed me up. I found that I was writing him as an accumulation of quirks. Terrible stuff. He literally had an eyepatch. And at some point, I realized ‘this is just kind of silly, this is becoming a Halloween costume.’ So what my actual approach to it was: I gave him the thing of having a Southern accent, and then I let go of any notion of creating a strange character and just wrote him completely straight, and wrote him to the needs of the story. He kind of found… I guess an ethos throughout the course of it, sort of a moral center, which was the main thing that I grabbed onto in terms of his relationship with Marta.
And I found a very subtle way of being… there is the very slight pompousness of Poirot in there, just because I find that hilarious. But overall, I let go of trying to create a character and just wrote to the needs of the story, knowing that I would cast, hopefully, a great actor who would take it and not change what’s on the page, but just through embodying it, bring it to life in a way that would give it its own thing.
And that’s what happened. Honestly, the challenge now (especially because I’m in the middle of writing the third movie) is for me to try and still do that and not to write to the voice I have in my head from making those first two films. Which is similar with Natasha and Poker Face. You can get yourself into trouble as a writer if you try writing what you think her voice sounds like, right? Because then it’s a photocopy of a photocopy. With Benoit, it’s largely just trying to find the basic character stuff. What does he care about? Where is his heart at in the story? What is he interested in? What gets me excited? And just write it pretty straight.
OR: I have two questions that are forking off from this. The first is, how did the casting process work? I mean, Daniel Craig is the perfect embodiment of this character. Did you try a bunch of different actors or was it kismet?
RJ: Oh, no. I mean, the casting process went for a while. It’s hard to get a big movie star to say yes!
OR I can only imagine!
RJ: It’s really tough, because they’re all so busy! They all have commitments going way deep. And so did Daniel. We didn’t approach him for the part at first because he was doing James Bond. I think it was Spectre. But we didn’t even go to him because we knew he had commitments. I had met him a few times before, but I didn’t think he was available. And then there was something that delayed the shooting of the Bond movie for like three months and we had a window and I was on vacation with Karina and I got a call like, ‘you’re getting on a plane in New York to meet Daniel Craig.’ We were at this beach resort, and I literally got on a motorboat. I was waving to my wife like, ‘I’ll be back in a day!’ I felt like James Bond. And I flew up to New York, met Daniel, and it was on! We jumped on it. It happened really quick.
But then once Daniel was cast, we did a lot of work between the two of us trying to find the accent. [There were] a lot of references sent back and forth. And, you know, ‘is it Faulkner?’ It sounds like it should be Faulkner but then you listen to how Faulkner actually sounded, and you realize, ‘no that’s not it.’ The one thing that I knew was I wanted it to be… not even subtle, but I wanted to be sonorous. I wanted it to be pleasant to listen to, as opposed to twanging. At some point, Shelby Foote came up. He’s a historian who is in a lot of the Ken Burns documentaries, and I forget where Shelby is actually from… is it Mississippi? But he has that kind of honeyed, you-could-just-listen-to-him-for-hours type of thing. So that was a big reference that we finally found.
OR: He’s so good at accents. The first time I saw Daniel Craig was in Road to Perdition. And he’s—
RJ: —terrifying in that!
OR: He’s so incredible.
RJ: He’s so good. He can do anything. He really convinces. He is a toolbox that’s like Mary Poppins’s carpet bag. Yeah. I really feel that he can do anything at all.
OR: He’s fantastic. My second question is: I know that Natasha Leone was more involved in the creation of Poker Face.
OR: So how was the creation of Charlie Cale then, with Natasha on board? Did you collaborate on the character before writing the script?I saw Russian Doll and I was like… ‘I think this is it! I think this is somebody who can actually be a Peter Falk and anchor a show like this!’
RJ: The whole thing with Natasha started because I had kicking around in my head the idea of doing a TV show-TV show. Like, not a prestige-y eight-hour movie, but the type of stuff that I grew up watching as a kid. Rockford Files, Columbo, A-Team, Quantum Leap, you know, Highway to Heaven. And the one thing that all of those shows or their successors have in common is a charismatic lead character. And all of them had very good mystery writing… but all of them, for the most part, are actually hangout shows. Same thing with Moonlighting. You want to hang out with these characters.
OR: You just want to be there!
RJ: Yeah, you just want to be there. It’s fun to be there. And that’s tough to find. So, Karina had actually gotten to be friends with Natasha because Natasha was a fan of her podcast. And I saw Russian Doll and I was like… ‘I think this is it! I think this is somebody who can actually be a Peter Falk and anchor a show like this!’
So, I had dinner with Natasha, and I told her exactly that. I didn’t have anything more than that. And we started kicking ideas around. Over that dinner that we came up with this thing of: what if she’s a human lie detector? That could be interesting in these moral ways. And we go, ‘okay, great, we’ll think about it.’ And we went off and then the pandemic happened, basically, and I wrote the pilot script off on my own. And I think Natasha thought it was one of those Hollywood things like… ‘Yeah, let’s work together babe,’ and nothing ever happens. Which happens a lot. So, I think she was actually very surprised when I dropped the script into her lap. And she was like, ‘Oh, you actually wrote it?’ She was into it and that’s how it started.
OR: Yeah, that’s awesome. And I mean, congratulations. Poker Face is so wonderful. I just introduced a new friend to it. I watch Columbo with my grandmother every Saturday; it’s the most comfortable show in the world and Poker Face really captures that. You want to hang out with everyone, but you also want to take down everything the detective is saying as life advice. It’s such a triumph in many ways. And it’s also like Columbo in that it’s got a murderer’s row of guest stars!
RJ: That was the other huge, huge thing! It was interesting with the casting… this is also true about Columbo… it’s not about getting big A-list stars but it’s about getting stars that you are genuinely happy when they show up on the screen. And giving them a chance to maybe do something they haven’t quite done before. And it’s hard because, like I said, it’s hard getting movie stars into things. But I think it was helped by the unique nature of these—where it’s not like a little guest part where they’re playing patient number seven or whatever. Genuinely, it’s their episode. Man, I still think about the people that we were able to rope into it. I’m still pretty amazed.
OR: I mean, when I’m watching Columbo with my grandma, I call my mom and dad to be like, ‘it’s Dick Van Dyke! It’s James Mason! Myrna Loy! And of course he got John Cassavetes, it makes so much sense, they’re friends.’
RJ: And Ida Lupino and Johnny Cash, holy shit!
OR: And that’s what I was doing with Poker Face. I was like, ‘Oh my God, Tim Meadows and Ellen Barkin!’
RJ; And you also realize with those Columbo stars, those folks were around and they were working. That’s the other thing. They were like in the studio!
OR: They were on the lot!
RJ: Yeah, they were on the lot. So, there’s an expediency to it and a workmanlike vibe. You know, maybe not Cassavetes. I feel like that was a phone call.
OR: Yeah, that was a phone call. That was a Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Noah Segan call.
RJ: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And… TV-TV! I felt myself craving that recently.
OR: So is there a chance you worked on Glass Onion and Poker Face around the same time?
RJ: Oh, yeah. There’s a very good chance. Yeah, it was an absolutely insane year that I was honestly kind of destroyed by, at the end. In a good way?
OR: Thank you… but I’m sorry.
RJ: It’s a good problem to have. But, yeah, we were doing the writers room for Poker Face at the same time I was editing Glass Onion, and then we were basically shooting Poker Face as I was releasing Glass Onion. So it lined up in a way where it was manageable… but they were both happening at once. And poor Natasha was releasing Season Two of Russian Doll while we were shooting Poker Face and she was just working her ass off during the week and on her one day off, driving down to the city to do press all day. She was a champion.
OR: No wonder Charlie Cale is so tired!
RJ: Method acting!
OR: This is the most ludicrous question, but does Poker Face exist in the Benoit Blanc-Knives Out-Glass Onion universe?
RJ: You know, this is funny because I had to do the math on this! Because in the opening of Glass Onion, she’s on the zoom call with Sondheim and Angela Lansbury and Kareem!
RJ: But she’s on it as Natasha… yeah, so, in the world of Knives Out, Benoit Blanc is friends with Natasha Lyonne, who when we zoomed with her, was in her trailer shooting Poker Face. Yeah, that’s actually when we recorded the zoom. So in the world of Knives Out, he’s friends with Natasha Lyonne, who’s making a show called Poker Face! We could have an episode of Poker Face on a TV in the background, and it would work!
OR: And Kareem seems like the coolest man in the world.
RJ: Sweetest dude in the world! I mean, when I went to film those things, I literally sat down with him with my laptop. Same with Angela! I went to her house. I was just sitting there with the laptop and then talking them through this weird thing. They were both so sweet. And Sondheim, I zoomed with. He was up in his house.
OR: Amazing. One thing that you’ve done that means so much to all the people who love movies is that you’ve captured these epic stars and given them a final credit that’s really meaningful and special.
RJ: I feel very lucky. I feel very lucky to have gotten to work with all these people.
OR: Christopher Plummer and Maximilian Schell!
RJ: Oh, Maximilian Schell. He was so cool and I was a young, green filmmaker and he was so incredibly kind and sweet. And he played that crazy role where he’s dressed up in this wild costume. And we were shooting it in Prague and he said, ‘I want to walk around the city in this costume just to see, okay?’ And so we took a walk together through the streets of Prague with him dressed in this outrageous get up with an eyepatch with a jewel on it.
OR: Topkapi 2.0.
RJ: Oh my god, Topkapi. So, so good.
OR: And thank you for doing this and including Sondheim, because also Last of Sheila is one of the great undersung mysteries.
RJ: Have you read the play that he wrote?
OR: No, I haven’t!
RJ: It’s interesting that the one play, the straight play that he wrote, was a murder mystery! But Last of Sheila, my god! Obviously Glass Onion owes a lot to Last of Sheila.
OR: It’s stamped right at the beginning. Like, ‘oh, there’s Sondheim. We know what’s coming.’ There are so many other fun cameos, too, in Glass Onion. I’m so curious about Ethan Hawke showing up for 5 seconds.
RJ: Yeah, we knew we wanted to get someone really fun for that part. And it was very specific to this movie, all these celebrity cameos. This isn’t going to happen every time. It felt right for the Miles Braun universe. I had met [Ethan] a few times, but he was in Budapest with Oscar Isaac shooting that Marvel show, so he happened to be a flight away. We basically offered him, like, ‘come down for the weekend, we’ll put your family up in this big resort, we’ll shoot one day, it’ll be fun.’ He got to come to our kickoff party that Daniel threw. He was really gracious. He came down for a day and did this weird little part and then was gone. And it was at the beginning of the shoot, so, like a shaman, he blessed the shoot. He gave a blessing and then he stepped off and we never saw him again.
OR: And, you know, I have to ask about Hugh Grant. That’s a cute cameo. The bread making, the pandemic…
RJ: We didn’t know if we were going to be able to get him! He was my first choice. If I can picture Benoit Blanc with anyone, it’s Hugh Grant. It was very sweet of him.
OR: So the pile of books next to Benoit Blanc’s bathtub. He’s doing puzzles, he’s bored…
RJ: Cain’s Jawbone, yeah.
OR: Exactly. So, the Cain’s Jawbone inclusion was so interesting because Natasha Leone is right there. And I started watching Poker Face not long after, and immediately started to wonder about the order and organization of Poker Face—if each episode is a standalone taking place, Fugitive or Quantum Leap style in a different city, if it all had to be presented sequentially, or if you can shuffle all the episodes like Cain’s Jawbone and a different story or a version will emerge. And then at the end, a detail completely debunked my theory.
RJ: Well, you can shuffle most of it… I mean, there is that little montage at the end, flipping through the year. I guess that kind of pins it. The reality is that, before we shot them, we did shuffle some of them. The intent is that you can just drop in and watch anything anywhere and enjoy it, get a full meal. If you kind of know the deal about Charlie Cale—she has this ability and she’s on the road, blah, blah, blah—then you can skip ahead. And that was really intentional and that’s going back again to watching reruns of these procedural shows as a kid, which were not done in any kind of order, which would hop around and you never knew what you were going to get! And you could just plunk down and watch it, an hour of TV, and be done.
OR: A Columbo rerun on a Saturday night! So, your first feature was Brick. By the way, our Editor-in-Chief of CrimeReads is a huge fan of Brick. And Brick plays with expectations of neo-noir. But now you’ve been spending time with gentlemen sleuths… but also the crappy Columbo-inflected P.I.-ish type—
RJ: It’s funny that they’re all under the banner of ‘mystery.’ But mystery fans know these are such different genres.
OR: And heists and con artists, too. Your oeuvre is like the greatest hits of everything that appears on our site! I’m so interested in what’s drawn you to that umbrella of crime stories and those different subgenres.
RJ: I think that the only way that I know how to figure out what to do next is to follow my nose… like Joseph Campbell says, follow your bliss. You just have to go after whatever the shiniest object is to you in that moment. I guess the answer is just that I really love all of that stuff. And I grew up watching it, and I’ve always been intrigued by it.
OR: The best genres, says the CrimeReads employee!
RJ: Yeah, you’re a little biased, that’s fair.
OR: You’ve dabbled in all the different, major crime personalities… hitmen, con artists, et cetera, et cetera….
RJ: Oh, that’s true, with Looper! I didn’t think of that.
OR: Yeah! The Rian Johnson bingo card is being assembled! A carnival of crime subgenres! So, besides gentlemen sleuths, is there a particular archetype that you feel begs additional exploration?
RJ: In terms of something that I’ve done that would be fun to do more of?
OR: Yeah… Brick is a neo-noir, and that’s your most hardboiled movie. Are there more, you know, forties-style, fast talking sleuths you’d be interested in exploring? Or the Brothers Bloom are con artists but is there a big Ocean’s Eleven style heist in you?
RJ: Yeah, I don’t have, in my head, like a checklist. But it’s a good question… I don’t know, I guess the best way I can explain it is: for me, the process of wanting to work on something comes from having kind of two things that are sort of separate until they’re not. And one of them is the heart of the story and what it’s actually about. Or it could be a character, it could be an emotion, it could be a question that I’m wrestling with. The other thing is the genre element, which is the kind of thing that you described. And I don’t really get rolling until I have two of these things that fit together like teeth of gears and work with each other. And so in that way, in a vacuum, I’m not excited about doing specific genre elements. It’s only when I realize, ‘oh, I can put this engine in this car.’
OR: Speaking of heists and capers, if you were casting a heist movie, do you have any ideas of who you would want on the crew?
RJ: In the cast? Or on the crew?
OR: In the cast of the crew?
RJ: I mean, I have a thousand actors that I want to work with. That’s one of the fun things about these Benoit Blanc movies… although it makes the cast that I work with very sad because at the end of the process of putting it out, they’re all like, ‘are you sure you can’t have a recurring character?’ I think Jamie Lee Curtis is still upset with me.
OR: She is so great! We’re in a Jamie Lee Curtis renaissance. She’s killing it in The Bear right now, too.
RJ: She’s so good. And she’s such an amazing person. You meet her and she’s an absolutely wonderful human being. So, I have so many actors I work with. For me, when I’m writing (this will be kind of a boring answer to a fun question), I try not to think about actors generally because I feel like that’s kind of unfair, because that means I’m just kind of duplicating their voice. And then I probably won’t get them anyway. So, I don’t know. Yeah, I try to just write the characters. And I work with my casting director Mary Vernieu to figure out, okay, who would be fun to see in this part?
OR: I mean, John Darnielle!
RJ: He’s the sweetest! He’s the coolest! I mean, I’ve known that guy a long time. It’s fun because I started out being the biggest super fan of The Mountain Goats, and now I’ve known him for years and he is an incredible person. I felt so happy roping him into being in the Poker Face episode.
OR: Have you read his new novel?
RJ: Yeah, it’s fantastic.
OR: He’s so cool. I was so excited to see him in Poker Face. Who wrote the songs for that episode?
RJ: John did! And he collaborated with a guy who’s a serious metal writer [Jamey Jasta]. But John is a big metal guy. I asked him ‘do you want to be in this episode?’ And he’s like, ‘okay.’ And I go, ‘oh, wait a minute, can you act?’ And he sent me a video of him doing a Shakespeare monologue. ‘Alright, you’re hired.’
OR: Was there an episode of Poker Face that was particularly memorable (by directing it or writing it)? Or, if you’ve got one episode of Poker Face that you could show an alien, what would it be?
RJ: I mean, the thing is, they’re all so different. It’s a tricky thing because they’re different in terms of tone. Mm hmm. So, for instance, I love and had such a great experience working with Joe on the ‘Escape from Shit Mountain’ episode, but if you watched that and then watched the community theater episode, you would think, ‘is this even the same show?’ And I love them both so much. So, it’s hard for me.
I think just in terms of my experience, I also had a great experience shooting Episode Two, getting to work with Hong Chau, who I wanted to work with for years. And Colton Ryan and some other great young actors. But… I think [‘Escape from Shit Mountain’] was the first time Joe and I had worked on a set together since Looper, so that was really special.I have a thousand actors that I want to work with. That’s one of the fun things about these Benoit Blanc movies
OR: Oh yeah, because in Knives Out, he only does the little voiceover, the fake TV show thing?
RJ: Yeah, and in Star Wars he did an alien voice. But it hadn’t been since Looper that we worked on a set together. So that was a really special experience.
OR: What have you seen recently that you like? What’s your best movie or TV show of the year or something you’re really excited about? And I have the same question about books.
RJ: What have I enjoyed recently? Oh, you know what I saw that I thought was absolutely fantastic. Have you seen Anatomy of a Fall?
RJ: Yeah, I loved it. Absolutely loved it. And talk about another subgenre of mystery that I’m fascinated with and would love to do something with someday: the courtroom thriller! I love a good courtroom thriller and this was, on every level: the performances, the story, the filmmaking. Yeah, that’s one of my favorites of the year. That was incredible.
OR: I thought the flashbacks were done so perfectly. It was just the right balance.
RJ: It was, man. But mostly Karina and I, we go on Criterion and look for pre-code movies that are under 90 minutes. That’s our jam. I think it’s probably rolled off the channel by now, but there was an Ida Lupino movie called Ladies in Retirement.
OR: I don’t even know this one.
RJ: It was so fun. It was so good. I’ve been in a kind of gothic, misty-moors type vibe. And this is just absolutely delightful.
OR: I’m really hoping we get an Ida Lupino renaissance as well. She’s amazing.
RJ: She had an incredible career. And in this movie, she’s like 23 years old but she has this gravity that’s amazing.
And the book question. What did I think of what I’ve read recently? Oh, actually because my short-term memory is so bad, I keep a diary. I did love Rebecca, which I read for the first time. Oh, you know what I read that was fascinating? I got really interested in spiritualism, and so I read Houdini’s book, A Magician Among the Spirits, which was amazing.
OR: Did you read Daniel Stashower’s biography of Arthur Conan Doyle? Because if you haven’t, you are in for a treat. It’s called Teller of Tales. And it won the Edgar for best biography in 1999. He describes two scenes that were so unbelievable. The first is that Arthur Conan Doyle, spiritualist, arranged a séance for himself, after he died, at the Royal Albert Hall. And it also details a showdown between Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle. They fought about spiritualism!
RJ: Oh, my God, I know! Houdini talks about it in his book. I’m fascinated by the séance that Conan Doyle set up for Houdini with his mother. And then afterwards, he’s like, ‘my mother didn’t speak English.’ But it’s a fact that they still remained friends even though there was this difference.
OR: What are you currently reading right now?
RJ: I’m just finishing up The Razor’s Edge. I got really into Maugham this year. I read The Painted Veil and then I read the big one, Of Human Bondage. Yes. Which is absolutely, absolutely incredible. He’s an amazing writer. I always have like eight audiobooks going at once. I’m an audiobook freak. But I’ve been trying to discipline myself to do actual reading. I’m reading Jamaica Inn right now and I’m excited to get into the short stories. Mostly I’m writing and writing, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for reading, unfortunately.
OR: I was reacquainted with the joy of pleasure reading as soon as I handed in my dissertation.
RJ: So nice, right? To have time off and actually be able to read? And you need it. You need to fill the well back up. You’ve got to recharge.
OR: No, it’s true. I mean, I don’t know anything anymore. I put everything I know into a 200-page thing and now I’ve got to learn new stuff. And do other things.
RJ: I make ice cream also.
OR: You make ice cream?
RJ: Yeah, it’s a hobby of mine.
OR: That’s fascinating.
RJ: I haven’t done it recently, but I really got into it for a while. We have this big Italian ice cream maker that can freeze anything. And so I’ve made all kinds of wacky ones… I made a cigar ice cream once! When I was developing the Star Wars movie, I brought the ice cream maker up to San Francisco with me, and that’s how I got on the good side of all the Lucasfilm folks: I would bring in wacky flavors at our end-of-the-week party every week.
I collect weird hobbies. I’ll get on different tracks. I’ve always been into photography and recently I got into large format photography, like eight by ten negatives, with the big camera with the bellows and you put the sheet over your head. And then developing and contact printing them myself, which is a cool trip.
OR: What year is the make of that camera?
RJ: It’s a new camera, actually. But it’s not like you can buy it off the shelf like you buy a Nikon. You buy the camera body itself which is made of wood from a guy in Arizona who makes them. And then you have to get a plate for the lens, custom made. And then get a custom ground glass. But there’s a network of people, because it’s not a very big community of people who do this. You get on the phone, you talk to the guy, and you kind of figure it out and then you Paypal him and he sends you this beautiful work of art that is this camera.
And so, I love getting into weird, esoteric hobbies. But I’m also kind of a dilettante, I guess. I don’t stick with any long enough to truly become an expert. I hop and taste test.
OR: Yeah, well, the unexamined life is not worth living.
OR: Hey, cheers! Cheers to that!
John Dickson Carr, The Problem of the Wire Cage
(American Mystery Classics)