How do you successfully resurrect a 120-year-old, quintessentially English character and refashion him for a modern, international audience? It’s elementary, my dear: Simply take the world’s most charismatic action star (Robert Downey Jr.), pair him with a dynamic director in the midst of a post-Madonna revival (Guy Ritchie), throw in a few hotties (Rachel McAdams, Kelly Reilly) and some explosions for good measure, and voila, you’ve got yourself a high-octane, thoroughly 21st-century Sherlock Holmes.
Last week Ritchie, Downey, Jude Law (who co-stars as Holmes’s sidekick, Watson) and several other members of the film’s cast and crew gathered at the stately Freemasons’ Hall in London for a massive international press conference, wherein they spilled the secrets behind their elaborate plot to introduce Sherlock Holmes to a new generation of movie fans. Here are the highlights:
Jude and Robert, how do you see these characters as different than what we’ve known as Watson and Holmes before? And Robert, this movie has none of the “seven percent solution.” Was that a result of your input?
Jude 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. Obviously, they were coming to me not to put on two stone and fall around and 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 happy 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.
Robert 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 go 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?
Robert, were you scared at all about taking on such an iconic English character?
Downey: Scared? I don’t get scared anymore. I just get busy. I already knew by the time Guy was directing this that it was a fresh interpretation. And then, I’ve worked with Joel Silver a bunch, I’ve lived with Susan Downey a bunch. Lionel Wigram [Sherlock Holmes' screenwriter] basically is the person who figured out how to reprise this as a film. So I knew I was in good hands and then it was just a matter of getting down to business. Fortunately I’d spent some time here in the late ‘80s playing Chaplin and I had a great tutelage in all things British from Lord Attenborough so I felt like I’d definitely passed go, but definitely felt the onus of, it’s not the fear of the judgment of others, at a certain point it just comes down to, will you meet the standards that people are expecting of you and you expect from them.
Guy, your films in the past have been significantly smaller than Sherlock Holmes. Why did you choose this one?
Guy Ritchie: I chose this really because I needed the job. Outside of that, I wanted to go from small, independent films and this seemed to be the perfect segue. But I managed to hold onto an English identity but at the same time we had American muscle — and American pockets. So it’s kind of been the perfect segue for me, to have something that’s big and broad, but is essentially English, with all the American muscle.
Robert and Jude, the relationship between Sherlock and Watson in the film is reminiscent of an old married couple at times. How did you go about creating that chemistry?
Law: [to Downey] We started the minute we met, didn’t we?
Downey: Yeah. 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 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 on set. And really, we weren’t sure that it was going to turn out as well as it did, but we just really efforted and efforted. It’s so funny to me, because usually I’m used to you saying, “Well you and so and so — it’s always female — had this great chemistry,” and they’re talking about Jude and I like we should be doing romantic comedies together or something. This film is not a comedy and it’s a love affair of sorts, but it’s about what it’s about, and 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?
Is this a more accurate film version of Doyle's original work or a revisionist version?
Ritchie: I think it’s subjective, obviously, and it has to come through some sort of creative conduit. I was, as a 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, had to deal with that that which came before it.
Downey: There’s an esoteric element to this as well in that sometimes you just feel like you’re in the right groove and you feel the history and the legacy of something. 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, and you can’t beat the guy’s words. We had one of his quotes on a call sheet every day. But then we had to twist it up a little bit...we were honoring it but still being entertaining.
Robert, can you tell us about how you prepared for the bare-knuckle boxing scene?
Downey: There was a choreographed version of it. I went in and got all pissy about it. Guy came in and we worked on it. 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 idea, “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 his take on the film. So it was about me trusting him and us kind of getting each other’s approval, so to speak. [to Ritchie] Do I have your approval?
Ritchie: [Laughs] Yes you do, Mr. Downey.
Guy, are we going to lose you to Hollywood now, or will you still make the smaller films as well?
Ritchie: I make the films that I want to make. The interesting thing about this experience is that it wasn’t the cliche experience between filmmaker and studio. I argued for the studio. I wanted to make an accessible, broad, what they call a “four quadrant” movie. What they wanted was “Guy Ritchie-isms,” so to speak. So I argued for the studio and the studio argued for me. It was like two people trying to get to the bar and the other one was trying to insist that they should pay. So all the arguments between the studio and myself were always coming from a positive place. I think studios have changed with their approach towards filmmakers. They want, and I’ve certainly found this with Warner Bros. and Jeff Robinov, who really does seem to support a filmmaker’s vision. So I had a tremendously positive experience from beginning to end. I had no negative arguments. There was no “us and them,” which I had anticipated and I’d heard was inevitable. That just didn’t happen.
Why did you decide to cast an attractive Watson?
Ritchie: Oh yes. It’s been coined the “Hotson versus Potson” scenario. What we wanted, we really wanted a good-looking Watson and then in the tabloids it got coined “Hotson.” And this was because I’d always seen their relationship as much more of an equal partnership, more like Butch and Sundance, than I had seen it as this kind of bumbling “Potson.” So I just thought that was fair to Conan Doyle and also Lionel and I agreed on that. Lionel and I were always in agreement with how we thought this partnership should be portrayed.
Sherlock Holmes opens Friday, December 25, 2009.