Published: August 10, 2009
In a dynamic new portrayal of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous characters, director Guy Ritchie sends Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) and his loyal partner Watson (Jude Law) on their latest challenge, this Christmas.
Bringing the legendary character to life in a way that has never been shown before, and revealing fighting skills that equal his legendary intellect, Holmes will battle as never before to bring down a new nemesis, named Blackwood (Mark Strong), and unravel a deadly plot that could destroy the country.
During the San Diego Comic-Con, co-stars Robert Downey, Jr. and Rachel McAdams, along with producers Joel Silver and Susan Downey, spoke to press about the realism in their version of Sherlock Holmes.
Q: Robert, can you talk about your take on Sherlock Holmes?
Robert: My take is what the puritans would expect, if the puritans knew what they were talking about, that is. Several of the most surprising things, right off the bat, are that the oft associated props have never appeared in the novels or the short stories. He never wore a deerstalker cap, except maybe once, for a minute, but even then it was described differently. And, even the long pipe was just something that William Gillette used to not obscure his face on stage. So, those landmarks weren’t really quite accurate. We just went back, as much as we could, without wanting to be reverent beyond repair, to help Doyle explain the characters.
Q: You have a great way of making all of your characters feel very natural. Is that easy to bring to this time period?
Robert: Well, it’s never easy to be relaxed, but we work really hard to make it seem that way. We would write out dialogue to make it seem more natural and have a flow to it. Doyle was an amazing writer and storyteller. I didn’t really know how great he was, until we kept reaching out to find quotes and things he had said, or descriptions he’d used, or more philosophical points of view that Doyle had with Watson and Holmes. The boundaries are that it’s Victorian England and they’re gentleman, so it’s not some of that wavy-gravy, free-flowing stuff. It’s more boundary-laden, which I think was a great challenge.
Q: Rachel, did you have a lot of fun doing this?
Rachel: Yeah, she’s a really fun character because she’s quite different from a lot of women, at that time. She’s really her own boss. She’s a real free spirit. She’s a woman of the night and of the underworld, so she’s very acrobatic and she’s traveled, all over the world. So, there’s lots to play with there.
Q: What was it like to wear the costumes and work within your character?
Rachel: I’m such a girly girl, so I was like a paper doll. I was in heaven, just being dressed from the head down. The costumes were incredible. It was real-life corsets with the bones, totally cinched in, and I would try to push my belly out in the morning, when they were coming to strap me in. It really was like something out of Gone With the Wind. I was holding onto the trailer door and trying to eek out just a little bit of space, so that I could speak properly. But, they managed to squeeze me in, every day. They tried to make me laugh and, on the laugh, they’d yank. It was so much fun to be that authentic and be really dropped right into the period . It was great.
Q: Robert, 10 years from now, do you still want to be playing characters like this?
Robert: Well, I think about rock stars and they always say they’re going to retire by this or that age. The thing is, if the material is still good and if you still love working with the people you get to work with, then why not? I wouldn’t want to launch anything else, but I think that Sherlock Holmes, in particular, has just been such a life changing experience, with the act of researching it and making it, and Joel and I getting to do something big together, and working with Lionel, Susan, Rachel and Jude.
Jude is so the right arm of this movie. He wanted to go do something undeniably legitimate, so he’s doing Hamlet, right now. But, he was a huge part of this movie working. Really, the answer to the question is that I’m down for the cause. By then, we’ll probably have another kid, maybe a Shetland pony and a non-alcoholic vineyard. I might need to really keep cranking them out.
Q: Robert, can you tell us about the relationship between you and Jude in the film?
Rachel: I’m there to break them up.
Robert: It’s called circumstantial homosexuality. Our fearless leader would say, “We need a Butch and Sundance scene here. We need a Heat scene here.” But, we kept talking about Butch and Sundance because it’s like when people are so close that they almost can’t stand each other, but they can’t stand on their own two feet without each other. That’s what we really felt. Doyle was giving us the first look at what was essentially a two-hander. Doyle is Watson because he’s telling the stories, but saying that Watson is telling them.
Jude and I met at Claridges. Joel said, “Go, sell it to him!” So, he walked down the hall and my assistant, who never cares about anything, was standing in the hall. She was like, “Oh, my God, there he is!” He walked down the hall and was dressed in that fabulous, super-expensive, underdressed way. Before he said he was going to do the movie, or that he was available, we just started talking like two serious actors about what would need to happen to make this work, as a piece of straight drama. We just became really close, really quick because we just rolled up our sleeves and started working.
Q: It seems like this is a real Steampunk take on Sherlock Holmes. Is that intentional?
Joel: To an extent, but I wouldn’t go that far. It’s not like Wild Wild West. It really is a movie set in 1891, but it is as if we shot it then. There’s no real artifice. It feels like it was shot in 1891, with incredible camera work and incredible dollies and everything. There is a part of the industrial revolution. It’s happening then, but it’s not so much what’s going on. The details aren’t that deliberate. But, Sherlock does know more than anybody else, and he’s officially the only fictional character admitted into the Institute of Chemistry. He was actually thought of as an actual chemist, in the way Doyle wrote about him. And, Holmes knows everything. It’s unbelievable, but he knows everything and he figures things out. There’s a great line in the movie where someone says, “Holmes, how did you see that?” And, he responds, “Because I was looking for it.” That’s a perfect Holmesian moment.
Robert: There are a million of them. They’re the best lines you could ever want to say.
Joel: And, they are Conan Doyle’s lines, so I think that it really feels like the way it should be. We all love the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce version of the movie, but it’s very different than what we made.
Q: What was it like to work with Guy Ritchie?
Susan: Guy is a character. Joel and I had worked with him on RocknRolla, but obviously this was a much bigger movie, with the scope, the time we had to shoot it, the money we had to make it, and all that. What’s really great about Guy is that he has a sense of what the feel, the vibe and the tone is going to be, which is what you see reflected in his movies. And, he was also very conscious that he was being given an opportunity to show a different side of himself, as a director. You’re going to recognize his sense of style, but it’s going to be brought to a whole new level.
What we observed, working with the actors, is that he gives them a lot of leeway, but there are parameters. He lets them do their thing and he’ll watch, and then he’ll come in and, if he likes it, he’ll just go with it, but if he doesn’t, everybody clears out and he steps in, puts his writer’s hat on, and sits with them and hammers it out until we get the scene right. He’s one of the most efficient directors we’ve ever worked with. He’s very time-conscious, sometimes to the point where you’re like, “Dude, just take the time you need. We’ll make it work.” He’s really good about coming in, tweaking and shaping it, but he lets everybody else do their jobs. He’s not one of those directors who’s going to micro-manage, and I think Robert’s worked with a few of those. So, it’s probably a little refreshing.
Robert: At some point in shooting, he actually took on a guitar teacher because he felt that he should be utilizing his time more efficiently, while he was waiting around for set-ups. On the first day of shooting, Rachel McAdams had prepared for six and a half hours, come to set, and there were two long-lens cameras and we did two takes. I was like, “Great, now we’re going to cover it because it’s her first shot?,” and Guy was like, “No, that’s all right. I think we got it.” And then, you look at the movie, and he had it.
Rachel: He knew he had it.
Robert: He had it, but sometimes you want to do more, particularly when you get all gussied up for half a day. You want to feel like you’re working there.
Rachel: We just want to indulge ourselves.