Sherlock Holmes is one of the recognized characters in English literature. It also holds the Guinness World Record for the most portrayed movie character, with 70 actors playing the famous detective in over 200 films, starting from 1930 straight through to 2009. The film is based on the graphic novel created by Lionel Wigram, which in turn is based on the Arthur Conan Doyle short stories.
In London, the home of Sherlock Holmes, directors Guy Ritichie, actors Robert Downey Jr, Jude Law, and Mark Strong, producers Joel Silver, Susan Downey, Dan Lin, and writer Lionel Wigram were all on hand to tell us why they brought the world’s famous detective back to the screen and how they intend to re-introduce the character to an new audience. They believe that this film is a closer adaptation to Arthur Conan Doyle’s original’s vision of the character than any other previous efforts and most importantly, their Holmes is most importantly quintessentially English at all times (despite having an American actor playing the role).
Of all the iconic characters to bring back, Why Sherlock?
Guy Ritchie: Partly because I was invested in Sherlock Holmes as a child, so I really had a strong visual sense of who I thought Sherlock Holmes should be. But not only that. I hadn’t seen any other productions, unlike most people, I had no visual reference other than what I’d knocked up in my mind. Warners came to me with it as an idea and as soon as they mentioned it, I was fascinated.
Lionel, how did you make sure you maintained that integrity of Sherlock Holmes?
Wigram: It comes from fandom. This whole movie really. I was a fan from being a kid and everybody on this roster either was a fan of Sherlock or became a fan during the shooting of the movie. We kept constantly referring back to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. Every scene in the movie, we tried to have at least one piece of Arthur Conan Doyle dialogue and we just kept going back and back and back and really harvesting those amazing stories, which are so rich, for as much detail as we could put in there. It was essential to us. There’s a reason why Sherlock Holmes has lasted 122 years and it’s because the stories are so good and he’s created such amazing characters in Holmes and Watson. We really wanted to maintain that.
Is this an accurate film version of what Doyle intended or a revisionist version?
Downey Jr: Let’s all answer at the same time. It will be real fun.
Ritchie: It’s subjective obviously and it has to come through some sort of creative conduit. I was, as the director, to some degree that conduit. But from a very young age, I had an idea, an image, of Sherlock Holmes and the partnership. So I feel as though I’m informed by and I drew most of my creative ammunition from Doyle. But it’s subjective. Every other production, obviously, has to deal with that that came before it.
Downey Jr: Play it back later, you’ll get that. There’s an esoteric element to this as well and that sometimes you just feel like you’re in the right groove and you feel the history and the legacy of something. Particularly, I’m sure you could say this about Shakespeare and having just done Hamlet. Sometimes you just feel like you are being silently approved of from some other place and time. There were times when we were so locked into exactly as Doyle expressed it. You can’t beat the guy’s words, so we had one of his quotes on a call sheet every day. But then we had to twist it up a little bit. I think it’s no mystery that Sherlock Holmes didn’t invent the silencer. If he invented it, he certainly did a crap job because it doesn’t work. But that he’s shooting the letters V.R. is right from one of the books and I think that has to do with what the Jubilee or Virginia or something like that, so that’s a strange way to celebrate. It spoke to how strange the guy was. So it’s just an interesting way to get the job done, that we were honoring it but still being entertaining.
So is this the most authentic production of the character then?
Silver: Yeah, I mean if you look at the original movies, they were stuffy. They used to have a phrase in the old days of Hollywood: There were rug movies and dust movies. Cary Grant was the greatest rug actor of all time because he would do movies in bedroom parlor baths, kind of interior movies. And I think in those original movies, they were rug movies. They were all kind of inside, intellectual pictures. But clearly this Sherlock is a dust actor. Downey can do anything, but he is, in here, outside of the books, showed a man who is a man of action. I think that, what we did, we invested ourselves in trying to make a contemporary movie that feels fresh and original but still embraces what Conan Doyle did. I hope we succeeded.
Lin: There were two important things when Lionel first brought the graphic novel to me and brought it to Jeff Robinov at Warner Bros. and he immediately said, “I get it.” One was, there was a very hip, contemporary style to the period setting. That was really fresh. And two, Lionel had a very strict point of view that it wasn’t going to be an origin story. This was not Batman Begins. This was not Spider-Man. We’re going to catch Sherlock and Watson in the middle of their career and as a result it’s a very different dynamic between the two of them.
Was it considered to be a risk for the film for not including the deerstalker hat and the famous line “Elementary my dear Watson”?
Ritchie: It was, the “elementary my dear Watson” never happened, actually. And the Deerstalker never happened in the books. And although we all are aware of the obvious symbols of Sherlock Holmes, we along the line made a decision early on that if we were going to do this, we’d have to dust off Sherlock Holmes and create what we thought to be, to some degree, an authentic Conan Doyle version of Sherlock Holmes that wasn’t contaminated with previous symbols so we could have, to a degree, a fresh take on Sherlock Holmes.
S. Downey: We actually contemplated when we were developing it, doing something with the Deerstalker at the beginning of the movie to kind of send that message. But once we shot the first scene of the movie, it was so clear that we felt like, you know, the way Guy was telling it, the way he was shooting it, the story we were telling, the interpretation of the actors said it all. So it was almost, certainly unnecessary and almost obnoxious to try and really put it out there, that oh we’re not doing that and really let the picture speak for itself.
Robert and Jude, the relationship between Sherlock and Watson on screen reminds us of an old married couple at times. How did you create that chemistry? Where was your first introduction to Sherlock Holmes?
Law: My second job on TV was in the Sherlock Holmes TV series. I played the stable boy. We started work the minute we met, didn’t we.
Downey Jr: We were trying to get him to do the movie and you’re a pretty savvy guy, so it’s not like it’s all just talk, talk, talk, it’s, “Are you interested in making the best version of this?” The great feedback we’ve been getting today is that they say the movie is about the two of you and the third thing that creates. Well, it’s one thing to promise you can get there and it’s another thing to just roll up your sleeves and get into it. Guy created such a sublime atmosphere. There was no, we weren’t sure that it was going to turn out as well as it did, but we just really efforted and efforted and, you know, it’s this whole thing of like… It’s so funny to me, because usually I’m used to you saying, “Well you and so and so, this female, had this great chemistry,” and they’re talking about Jude and I like we should be doing romantic comedies together. But this film is not a comedy and it’s a love affair of sorts. It’s about what it’s about, but I think Holmes and Watson are aspects of all of us and I think that we knew when to Yin and Yang back and forth and we were just a good team, you know?
How do you see these characters that you’ve reinvented for this movie, how you see them as different than what we’ve seen before. And Robert, this movie is none of the seven percent solution and was that your input not to be part of something that glamorized cocaine use?
Law: When I was asked to get involved, Robert was already set as Sherlock and Guy was directing and I knew from then that it was going to be a different take on the older films of Sherlock Holmes. And it fascinated me and obviously they were coming to me not to put on two stone and fall around, put my foot in waste paper baskets, but they were going to ask me to play Watson with a bit more edge. What was intriguing, because I hadn’t read the books as a boy, was to go back to the books and realize how much of this new rediscovery, if you like, was also in the source material. So it was a kind of juggle between going back to Conan Doyle and relishing in all the accuracy that perhaps at times in the part had been overlooked. And also looking into the future and adding a new energy to an audience that we hope will discover Sherlock Holmes for the first time.
Downey Jr: I loved the seven percent solution. It was never a high enough percentage for me. (Laughs) Kind of weak, tepid solution for me. This is a PG-13 movie and even if it wasn’t, the idea is, if you go back to the source material, he’s never described as being some strung out weirdo. Also, back in Victorian times, it was absolutely legal, acceptable. You could move down to your corner pharmacist and grab all that stuff, so we thought it would be irresponsible to not make reference to it and, so again, I think a lot of the flaming hoops we had to jump through doing Sherlock were, how do you take what comes from the source material and how do you amend it so that it’s accessible and how do you not whitewash it but how do you still be respectful to that. If there’s anything that we’ve added this time around, it’s essentially, as much as it’s about this very far-reaching case and Holmes and Watson save life on Earth as we know it, you know, it’s also about a fight over, well, you, isn’t it Kelly? It’s a fight over Mary Morsten.
Sherlock Holmes is a “man of action” in this new interpretation, how was the fight choreography of the bear knuckle boxing scene Robert:
Downey Jr: : They were a choreographed version of it. I went in and got all pissy about it. Guy came in and we worked on it. So I think you were seeing version 6.0 by the time we shot it. But Guy is a Jujitsu fellow. We managed to get along somehow. It was so fun. And by the way, by the time we were done shooting that scene, I felt like we really had a handle on the movie. Not because we’d finally top-lit me and I’d shown my rippling abs and all that self-important garbage, but because this was Guy’s ideas, Holmes vision, and it was a really bold thing and it could have gone very poorly in which case the rest of the movie is trying to recover from the bad Guy Ritchie idea that we went out and shot. It was literally perfect and I think it set the tone. It was just his take on the film, so it was about me trusting him and us getting each other’s approval, so to speak.
Finally, what is it about Sherlock Holmes that makes him quintessentially English:
Law: I don’t know. In part it’s the period. He’s a caricature of that period, but what Doyle managed to create was a three dimensional character. He’s flawed, which isn’t necessarily conspicuous in many of our contemporary heroes. And the fact that he is rather selfish, rather arrogant and suffers from depression, I think we can all, there’s things about Sherlock Holmes that make us interested in him as a character. But I don’t quite know why he’s so quintessentially English. Robert, perhaps you’d like to try and answer that one.
Downey Jr: Ask an Englishman. Mark? (Laughs)
Strong: I don’t think Conan Doyle wrote him with a view to him being quintessentially English. I think the point is that he’s become considered as being quintessentially English. And what this film does is reexamine that and make it something much more interesting than the slightly stuffy version of Holmes we’ve all become used to.
Sherlock Holmes is out nationwide on Christmas Day.