‘Knox Goes Away’ Director + Star Michael Keaton on His ‘Jenga Game’ of a Movie

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Photo Source: Danielle Mathias/Saban Films

It’s been 16 years since Michael Keaton made his directing debut with “The Merry Gentleman.” Now, the Oscar-nominated actor is returning to the director’s chair with writer Gregory Poirier’s noir thriller “Knox Goes Away” (in theaters on March 15th), a similarly-themed story of a hitman seeking redemption through human connection. But the Keaton of today feels far more confident in telling the story of John Knox, an assassin suffering from rapid-onset dementia. Before his mental faculties desert him, Knox must help his estranged son, Miles (James Marsden), cover up a bloody mistake. 

It’s a tricky narrative to pull off. We need to see Knox losing his grip on reality, but the character must still stay ahead of the audience in his increasingly intricate plan. “[It’s] much, much more complicated, obviously,” Keaton says, comparing “Knox Goes Away” to his first feature.

“It’s complex to direct and act, for one thing, but also to tell the story,” he explains. “I keep describing it as a Jenga movie—like the Jenga game. I knew if you pulled one part out or one part didn’t work, the entire thing would fall apart, and it [wouldn’t even be] worth showing up and shooting it.” 

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What grounds the movie through all its thorny plotting is the way that Keaton and his cast—which also includes Al Pacino as Knox’s confidante, Xavier—make each on-screen relationship feel lived-in. It’s a particularly impressive accomplishment, considering that he didn’t have time to rehearse “for a month, or even three days—or three minutes,” he notes with a laugh.

Michael Keaton interview

“We never had that luxury. There was no read-through,” Keaton continues. “We were moving fast. Some of these roles weren’t cast until…certainly not the last minute; but I pondered a lot of these choices and ruminated a little bit and just kept thinking and watching and rereading scenes. And then, finally, I said, ‘OK, him or her, boom, boom, boom,’ then hoped they would say yes.” 

Luckily, Keaton is an industry veteran with almost 50 years of screen acting behind him, beginning with guest appearances on three episodes of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” in the mid-’70s. Since then, he’s starred in studio comedies like 1988’s “Beetlejuice,” comic-book blockbusters from Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989) to Jon Watts’ “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and award-winning dramas like Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s best picture winner “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).” 

Through it all, Keaton learned valuable lessons about how to keep a production rolling. “I have seen so much waste,” he says. “Not just money waste, but time waste and energy waste…. There’s tons you learn just in terms of efficiency on a set: attitudes; how you speak with everyone, including actors; and how to, oddly, not worry.” 

He jokes that, lately, he’s been in the “adult-film business,” because he wanted “Knox” to be “for mature audiences—for grownup relationships.”

Keaton’s dedication to this goal yielded positive results on set. “Every little role was just so good,” he says. “It felt good when we wrapped up: how many people came up to me, days and weeks after, and said that [this] was their favorite experience working on a film, which made me feel really, really good. I had a really great group of people.” 

There are certainly similarities between Knox and Keaton’s character in the “The Merry Gentleman.” He adds that there are even echoes of his most iconic role, Bruce Wayne, in the way these characters feel “insular and isolated” from the world. But Keaton doesn’t seek out throughlines in the characters he plays, nor the genres and projects he plays in. He hesitates to put “Knox” in a specific box.

“I never saw this as a hitman movie, because it’s not, really,” he explains. “You can’t make hitman movies better than they’ve been made [in the past], and I don’t really have a particular interest in them at all. Never have, really.”

Instead, much like his character in “Knox,” Keaton steps up to the stories that find him. “That’s what makes it really weird that this [project] came around to me,” he says. “It’s a relationship movie, and certainly a redemption story. [The situation] just falls in [John’s] lap. That’s great irony; I love these weird ironies in life.”