The newest incarnation of Sherlock Holmes – starring Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. John Watson – will be coming to theaters on Christmas Day. The new Warner Bros. film, directed by Guy Ritchie (“Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” “Snatch”) looks to be an fresh, action-packed take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s indelible detective.
CBR News recently had the privilege of sitting down with three of the producers from the Christmas Day release. Joel Silver (producer, “Lethal Weapon,” “Die Hard,” “The Matrix”) Susan Downey (producer, “Gothika,” “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” “RocknRolla” and wife of actor Robert Downey Jr.) and Lionel Wigram (screen story, “Sherlock Holmes”) took the time to talk about the dynamic of having Downey Jr. and Law on screen together, of the project’s comic book roots, and if we get to see Sherlock Holmes abuse anything harder than a wine cooler in the new PG-13 film.
CBR News: What was it like having Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law together on the same set? How did the two of them play off each other?
Susan Downey: They were amazing. We were really lucky to find this combination, because you don’t have a movie if you don’t have Sherlock, and you still don’t have a movie if you don’t have Watson.
The original idea for “Sherlock,” when Warner Bros. was doing it, was always [to cast] Robert. It was essentially the only name they were focused on. After he committed, the pressure became, “How do you get a Watson that’s as great?” We talked to a lot of different names, and tried to imagine it a lot of different ways. Jude’s name was the one we kept going back to.
The first time these guys met, the chemistry was there, it was immediate, Robert said it right off the bat – he knew he could do it with this guy. The partnership of making the movie – it was wonderful to watch, because they are very different. They kind of inhabited the personality of their characters when they were off screen as well as on. Robert was the eccentric; one-million-and-one ideas, bouncing off the walls; you have to contain him. He’s a little bizarre sometimes. And then Jude would come in, very well studied. He’d have made a lot of notes, both on the scene and his reference materials. He would add his ideas.
It was pure Holmes and Watson throughout the whole thing.
Lionel Wigram: It was a process, obviously. By the time we got to New York, they were so into their characters that they could literally improvise the whole scene out. We’d just be struggling to write it down as quickly as possible, and we’d just shoot.
Downey: They knew their voices so well. What was funny, for me, anyway, with Jude in particular, he’d say something, and then he’d laugh, and he’d be like, “That’s so Watson…” He knew he was speaking like Watson – that wasn’t the way Jude speaks. The same thing with Robert, it’s not just Robert talking, that’s the way Holmes spoke.
Lionel, I read that your story pitch for this movie was done as a comic book?
Wigram: Yeah, it was. Basically, I saw a quite different version [of Sherlock Holmes] in my head than I had ever seen in any movie. I thought, how do I convey that to Warner Bros. in a way that they’ll get it, and understand that Holmes isn’t that stuffy guy with a deerstalker [hat] and a pipe? If you go back to the original Conan Doyle stories, he’s a much more modern, interesting and contemporary character than he is in a lot of the later movies.
I thought the best way to do that was to put it in a presentation, which I sort of called a comic book. I wrote the story, and then I had this amazing artist called John Watkiss, who is brilliant – draw these panels – and he did about 30 panels. [I] put it together in a beautiful pamphlet, I gave it to Warner Bros. and that’s sort of what sold them on it. [Holmes] had stubble, a gun in one hand, a sword in the other. They said, “OK, we get it – that’s the Sherlock Holmes we want to see.”
Where is that comic now? Will we ever get to see it?
Wigram: I’ve got copies and I’m hoping it’ll be a DVD extra. I think it’ll be interesting for hardcore fans. It was never meant for publication. At one point we talked about it, but the train had already left the station by then, we were [already] making the movie. We had evolved the story beyond that, to go back, we would have regressed. But I hope it’ll be on the DVD.
So, the story that was in this comic is the foundation for what the movie became?
Wigram: The general idea. Same bad guy, same basic ideas. Some of the images are fantastic, and the vibe of it – the images – are very much the same spirit of the movie.
Joel, the movie-going audience is getting younger and younger, and a lot of successful movies are loaded with high-tech, big explosions – do you think Sherlock Holmes can still find the hearts of young movie fans?
Joel Silver: I think that you have seen in the last few years period movies that have got their attention. “Pirates of the Caribbean” was a period movie, but it got their attention. Even the last “Indiana Jones.” I think that it’s not so much the time period of the movie, it’s if it captures their attention. I think that what we’ve done with Sherlock is – yes, it takes place in 1891 – but it feels very contemporary. It really feels like it’s now. It feels like you’ve gone back in time and photographed a movie then. It doesn’t have a lot of artifice, it feels like its real. Downey and Jude are so great. It really feels like a contemporary movie. I think the audience will buy that, they’ll accept it, and they’re going to embrace it.
What does Sherlock Holmes mean to all of you? Do you have a relationship going back with these characters, and if so, how long ago?
Silver: I haven’t [had a relationship]. I read some of the books when I was in school, but it wasn’t something I was aware of. Lionel was really passionate about what it was, and he kind of got us all enthusiastic, and got us all focused on it.
Downey: Same thing. I’d seen some of the old movies, and I’d read a handful of the short stories. But then when we were introduced to Lionel’s vision of it, and what he sold the studio on, I got really excited and I went back and read everything I could. And I got it – it all came together with what he was trying to put on the screen. And I understood how they got to the TV versions I had seen in the past. Then I got really enthusiastic, and now, as we were gearing up to promote it, I looked at my bookshelf the other day, and I thought, “I think I want to go back there.” There were one or two stories I hadn’t gotten to, and I decided to look at (those books) again.
Wigram: I just hope that lots of people rediscover the books as a result of seeing this movie – they’re just great stories.
Can you talk to me about some of your favorite parts of the movie? Maybe scenes that were especially hard to shoot, or that turned out better than expected?
Silver: My favorite scene in the movie is this scene we had in a place called the Punch Bowl. Sherlock is [done with] a case, and the way he deals with his downtime… he goes to a punch-up with a very tough bare-knuckle fighter. You see how Sherlock thinks and you see how he deals with adversity and how he makes it work for him. You watch him think it out, and then do it. It’s my favorite scene in the movie. We showed a big piece of that scene at Comic-Con. Whenever I see it, it makes me feel great.
Downey: I don’t have a favorite scene. The cool thing is watching it evolve. Each time we’re putting a reel together, or seeing the new visual effects come in, it all comes to life more and more.
I think my favorite stuff, actually, is the banter between Holmes and Watson. There are just little moments between them that are pure dialogue moments, it feels incredibly real, it’s kind of funny and sarcastic, but not trying too hard. I don’t even know if an audience will catch it the first time they see it, but having watched it a zillion times, I laugh every time. It’s nice chemistry.
Wigram: I’m just very proud. I feel that we’ve done Sherlock Holmes justice as a character, thanks to Robert. [Sherlock] really emerged, he’s really a fully fleshed-out character. Somebody you care about, somebody you can get involved with. Someone who is vulnerable, as well as kicking ass. His relationship with Watson, with Irene, it’s just phenomenal, I think.
Silver: It’s an origin story in many ways. We come in at the middle of their relationship, and we launch, hopefully, a very beautiful, successful franchise.
So you’re hopeful that this is the first of many new Sherlock Holmes films?
Silver: Yes, of course. There’s lots of stories.
The vulnerability of Sherlock Holmes has always been a major part of the character. One of those vulnerabilities has been substance abuse. Is that something you touched on in the movie?
Silver: Not really. He has issues, but we don’t delve into them at that detail.
Maybe down the line?
Downey: No, this is supposed to be family fun entertainment. Sort of “PG” entertainment. We play with his idiosyncrasies, and he’s definitely occasionally sipping from little bottles. We do not deal with hardcore drug use, we won’t be doing that, it’s not an area that Robert wants to go, that Guy (Ritchie, director) wants to go, that any of us want to go.
But, we still have fun with him in terms of how he gets to different mindsets.
Wigram: At this stage in his career, he’s gone beyond his drug years, to me. That’s how I’ve always imagined it.
There’s a supernatural element to this film – how does someone as analytical as Sherlock Holmes take on a supernatural adversary?
Silver: That’s the movie! [Laughs] You’ve got to see it!
What does a Guy Ritchie/Sherlock Holmes movie look like? How do those two universes come together?
Downey: I think you’ll see a lot of fun style to it, that [Ritchie] is known for bringing to movies. For me, the biggest thing that Guy brings – other than knowing the exact tone he wants – he balances humor with grit and action and scale, all very well. And what we discovered in “RocknRolla” is that he’s also incredibly good with male interaction, which is obviously key with Holmes and Watson. I think that’s something he was very on top of with the actors and the scenes and really making sure that their chemistry and odd bonding was authentic and fresh and fun. He did a really good job.
The movie comes out on Christmas. Was this always the plan?
Silver: We wanted it to be a fall movie. For some reason, Christmas popped up as a realistic date, so we grabbed it.
Wigram: It’s the perfect movie to go out with your family and watch during the Christmas holidays. It really is something that your 10 year old can go, your 80-year-old grandpa can go. It’s the perfect combination for everyone to go and have fun and be entertained.