Rian Johnson talks Poker Face, with Natasha Lyonne

Rian Johnson’s new Peacock show Poker Face sees the director plumb his passion for a TV genre that hasn’t gotten enough love lately.

“I was aiming for the pleasure centers in my memory, remembering staying in front of the TV as a kid and watching Colombo, The Rockford Files and Magnum P.I.,” says Johnson. “They’re case-of-the week, star-driven shows, and I’m trying to get back to the pleasures of those.”

And what could be more pleasurable than watching Natasha Lyonne play cocktail waitress Charlie Cale? Every week, Charlie stumbles from town to town in her Plymouth Barracuda and uses her inexplicable inner lie detector to solve crimes. If that’s your idea of a good time (if I may editorialize: it is), then Poker Face’s 10-episode, mystery-of-the-week series is for you. The first four episodes debuted Thursday and will be followed by new episodes for six weeks.

MovieMaker recently sat down with Rian Johnson to discuss all things Poker Face. Johnson discusses Robert Altman’s influence on the pilot episode, how the show’s format lets him work with his favorite actors, and how directing episodes of Breaking Bad helped streamline Poker Face’s creative process.

Joshua Encinias: I didn’t know how much I needed to see Natasha Lyonne’s character play a cocktail waitress. Charlie is like a character out of Robert Altman’s movie California Split.

Rian Johnson: [Laughs.] She’s good at it, man. Janicza Bravo directed one of our episodes and I think she put a very subtle, intentional California Split reference in her episode. We talk about that movie a lot on set.

Joshua Encinias: Are you influenced by Robert Altman? Like Altman, but completely in your own way, you’re an actor’s director, and you give them great characters. 

Rian Johnson: I mean, look, I should only be so lucky. Altman’s Nashville was definitely a big reference point for me when I was approaching how to shoot the pilot. I will say each one of the episodes very much has its own personality. Colombo was set in Los Angeles, but he was diving  into a different profession every single time, based on what the killer did. There’s an anthropological element to it, where you’re doing a little deep dive into a different world every time. That’s very much a part of the show going forward and we allow ourselves, tonally, to give ourselves over to that. There’s an episode, for instance, set in a regional dinner theater with Ellen Barkin and Tim Meadows that’s absolutely hilarious and very comedic in tone, almost like a Noises Off style. The one I did with Joseph Gordon-Levitt is set in this snowed-in motel within the Rockies and it’s almost more like a Coen Brothers horror movie. But yes, absolutely, in the pilot I was looking at a lot of Altman. Also in terms of the looseness of the style of shooting. It seemed like a fun route to go.

Joshua Encinias: Why did you make Poker Face as a show instead of a movie?

Rian Johnson: I really wanted to make a TV show, doing what shows like Columbo did: a story centered around a charismatic character, with a complete mystery every single week. They had fun guest stars. And I found that so much of the TV I love these days, which is fantastic, is so serialized. If it’s a mystery, it’s a mystery that spans the entire season. That’s great and very involving — I love those shows — but I felt myself yearning for the old case-of-the-week format, which these days you mostly see as network procedurals. They’re terrific, but I wanted to see a slightly more bespoke version of that, which there used to be a lot of on TV when I was younger.

Rian Johnson, photographer by Emily Soto.

Joshua Encinias: Will some guest actors have storylines that extend into future episodes?

Rian Johnson: BenjaminBratt pops up a little bit here and there throughout the season. We kind of bring the story back around at the end of the season. But when he pops up, it’s the equivalent of Sam getting home in Quantum Leap, or the people that are chasing the A-Team catching the A-Team. It’s not the thing that’s actually driving the show. The show’s not about Charlie running from Cliff, Benjamin’s character. It really is completely driven by the new place that she’s in every week and the new mystery that she’s solving every week.

Rian Johnson on Special Guest Stars

Joshua Encinias: Benjamin Bratt’s having a great run with Walter Hill’s Dead for a Dollar last year, and now the Poker Face pilot episode. 

Rian Johnson: So good. I really dug Walter Hill’s new movie. Bratt’s incredible. When we got him on set and started working with him, Natasha and I looked at each other and said, “Wow, we lucked out.” He’s got such an incredible presence. He’s such a good actor, but also on set, he loves acting so much. He loves making movies so much. The process and the joy of it. He’s an absolute pleasure to work with in the best way. And it feels like you’re getting to play with another little kid when you’re on set with him. It’s a total joy.

Joshua Encinias: It’s apparent you really love actors and want to work with as many as possible.

Rian Johnson: One of the big appeals of doing this kind of show is the notion of having fun guest stars every episode. I love actors and there’s so many actors I want to work with. And there’s so many actors I’ve worked with that I want to work with again. In a situation like this, I love being able to bring in Adrien Brody, who I hadn’t worked with since The Brothers Bloom, for a really fun, one-off part. It’s not a huge commitment. You can come up to upstate New York, where we were shooting it for a few weeks, and just play this character. This is the first time Joseph Gordon-Levitt and I worked together on-set since Looper. So, to me, being able to punch above our weight class, and get truly world-class actors to come in for these guest star roles, is fun. 

Joshua Encinias: Who is the actor on the phone in the pilot as the voice of Adrian Brody’s father?

Rian Johnson: I don’t think we’re gonna keep it a secret: it’s Ron Perlman and he will make an appearance at some point. It’s not the ongoing story of Charlie being on the run from him, but I would be a fool to have Ron Pearlman’s voice and not bring him into the show at some point. I promise he will appear!

Natasha Lyonne in Poker Face, created by Rian Johnson. Courtesy of Peacock.

Joshua Encinias: In shows with a case-of-the-week format, the guest star is usually the star of the episode.

Rian Johnson: It’s fun that they’re not popping in for a cameo, they’re not popping in and doing a few scenes. It’s similar with Colombo, where the guest star really is the star of the episode. Every episode has a similar structure to the pilot, where it starts with the crime. It starts with a segment that Natasha is not in, where we see the killer do the crime and most of how they did it.

Joshua Encinias: Were there any takeaways from directing episodes of Breaking Bad that you brought to Poker Face?

Rian Johnson: One of the huge lessons coming away from Breaking Bad was seeing how a well-run production affects everything creatively down the line. I mean, obviously Vince Gilligan is the master of ceremonies of that show and it’s his vision, but the fact that his producer Melissa Bernstein was so on top of everything and ran the show so well on an organizational level — that has a straight-down effect to when you’re standing on set and creatively being able to get the show on the screen. I knew when it came time to set up my show to hire people like Lilla and Nora Zuckerman as our show runners, who were very experienced and who really taught me the ropes in terms of putting a room together, and running it, and then translating that to set. It taught me to surround myself with good people who really know how to get this thing done.

Joshua Encinias: In the last few years have you been going through a Paul McCartney phase? The first episode of Poker Face ends with “Junior’s Farm” by Paul McCartney & Wings and Glass Onion ends with the Beatles song.

Rian Johnson: I’m always going through a Paul McCartney and Beatles phase. [Laughs.] I had “Junior’s Farm”in my head since I wrote the script, and I don’t know why. I think maybe because it’s a great tune that is a little bit of a deep cut and he mentioned poker in it. So that’s enough for me. But also, I wanted the energy of the end to propel us forward. I wanted it to be, “Okay, here we go off on an adventure.” And the song has that tonally.

Main image: Natasha Lyonne in Poker Face, created by Rian Johnson. Courtesy of Peacock.