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Sherlock Holmes - Lionel Wigram interview

Sherlock Holmes

Interview by Rob Carnevale

WRITER and producer Lionel Wigram talks about bringing his beloved Sherlock Holmes character to the big screen, the casting of Robert Downey Jr and his chemistry with Jude Law and why the whole endeavour feels like a dream come true.

He also reveals why the last two Harry Potter movies will be the best yet and discusses the qualities needed to become a great film producer…

Q. As a Holmes fan, was it great fun going through Arthur Conan Doyle’s original text and picking out what you wanted to use for this film?
Lionel Wigram: It was a dream come true. It really is.

Q. Did you ever imagine that when you were reading those books as a boy, you’d get the chance to revisit them in this way?
Lionel Wigram: Not as a boy, no, but probably in the last 10 years I was thinking there was an opportunity to do Sherlock Holmes. I had this gut feeling in my mind that there was something to be revisited there. I was an executive at Warner Bros for 10 years, so I would actually mention it to other producers and say: “Check out Sherlock Holmes. There might be something there…”

About three years ago, I decided to start my own company and be a producer and write. I wanted to be the filmmaker I’d always dreamed of being. So, the first thing I did was go back to Sherlock just to see if I was out of my mind and sure enough, I just read A Study in Scarlet and I thought: “Oh my God, there is!” Whatever instinct I had in the back of my head was there. It really was. The images I saw in my mind’s eye… what I imagined when I was reading the stories are very much what you see on-screen now. Guy [Ritchie] probably came up with a better version of what I did, but it was basically that. So, I’m pinching myself.

Q. What was the most challenging aspect of getting it to the screen?
Lionel Wigram: That’s a good question and the answer is that we worked very hard. I spent six months working on the original story for the comic book. I spent another year or so working on the scripts before they were even halfway decent. And then from there, with Guy and Robert [Downey Jr]‘s involvement we’d go back over it again and again and again. We’d revisit every scene, tear them apart and re-write them to try and really squeeze the best possible thing out of them. It’s hard work but also a pleasure. The reason why we do this is to be in that process. There are moments when you say: “Are we really going to go over this again?” But you do and you really discover something new and it’s incredibly exciting. So, it was challenging but it was more stimulating.

Q. Was Robert Downey Jr always in your mind’s eye as Sherlock? And was he easy to convince?
Lionel Wigram: I actually didn’t see anybody [while I was writing]. I don’t work that way. I just saw the character. I knew who I wanted the character to be. But Robert has taken my idea for the character and made it so much richer, deeper and better. Obviously, I was over the moon to get Robert. And it was really great good fortune, or kharma. Guy had just done RocknRolla, which Susan Downey [Robert’s wife] had produced, Robert was a big fan of the movie and a big fan of Guy… I think he liked the idea of doing Sherlock Holmes as it had been mentioned there was a script out there. So, the combination of Guy, Susan and Sherlock Holmes was irresistible to him and we got to do this thing. He came in, we rolled up our sleeves, tore the script apart, put it back together again, several times, until we got what we have.

Q. One of my favourite aspects of the film is the chemistry between Robert and Jude Law. When did you know you had that? It must have been one of the most nerve-wracking aspects…
Lionel Wigram: Yes, it was. Finding Watson was a challenge. There were various thoughts and ideas about who the right person could be. But Jude kept on coming up. The Watson in the book very much resembles him… he’s back from the Afghan war, he’s tough, he can take care of himself, he’s not the bumbling sort of Nigel Bruce character that he’s become associated with at all. So, we set up a meeting for Robert and Jude in a hotel. They sat down, they met for a couple of hours and then… Susan, Guy and I were waiting in the lobby of the hotel for them to come down and intrigued to see how they’d got on.

I remember them walking across the lobby and their body language, from that moment, showed that they felt right together. So, we sat down and had dinner together and it was an immediate thing, it really was. It got to the point where they became so dialled into their characters… late on in the movie there was a particular scene where Robert is taking off his nose and make-up and Jude’s sitting in the corner giving him a hard time, and we were working on re-writing that scene. But they pretty much started talking at each other, improvising it and that really became the scene, just off the cuff. They were so dialled into their relationship and who their characters were at that point… it felt right that Watson would take the piss out of Holmes.

Q. It’s obviously perfectly set up for the sequel… has that been greenlit?
Lionel Wigram: It’s all going to depend on the box office. We had a great time doing it, we’d love to have a sequel, of course… what a great opportunity it would be to do it all over again. But it all depends on the box office.

Q. At what point did you make the decision not to focus on Moriarty as the main villain?
Lionel Wigram: It opened up so many more possibilities, as Mark [Strong, aka Lord Blackwood] said at the press conference. From the start, I wanted to have a villain… I didn’t want to do a conventional murder-mystery. I love the original stories but I wanted to do a big event movie. So, I thought to do that you had to have big stakes and something more than just a murder. I didn’t want to do the Se7en version of Sherlock Holmes.

The Victorians were obsessed with the supernatural, the occult and all that sort of stuff, so I thought if we could integrate a sort of Aleister Crowley type character into this story we could have a lot of fun. To me, the whole idea of people conning people into doing things for them and making people believe that they have power they don’t necessarily have was a really, really interesting idea. So, then I thought: “Why don’t we kill Blackwood at the beginning and bring him back from the dead? That’ll be our mystery to solve.”

Robert Downey Jr in Sherlock Holmes

Q. How does working on this compare to working on something like Harry Potter [which he also co-produced] given that both have a very strong literary background and following?
Lionel Wigram: They’re both great experiences. I’ve been on Harry Potter for 10 years. The main day-to-day producer on Harry Potter, who I’ve done my best to help out over the years, is David Heyman. We’ve been friends since we were 14-years-old. He bought me the book before it was a big book. And we were literally, when we were 14, dreaming of going to make movies together in Hollywood. So, to do that was amazing. Again, what JK Rowling created was such a phenomenal thing, so to be able to go on that ride you have to, again, just pinch yourself. How lucky am I to actually have this experience, to make these movies and work with such brilliant filmmakers and actors? We’ve had such great actors working on those films and craftsmen and cinematographers.

So, the difference really is that David [Heyman] really is the main man on Harry Potter and Sherlock and the idea of it was more my baby. But I have to say that I don’t think Sherlock would have happened without Harry Potter. Harry Potter made me understand and ambitious enough to do Sherlock at this scale. It also gave me the confidence to realise that it was actually possible to do it at this scale. Harry Potter transformed my life.

Q. Is there a sense of sadness that Harry Potter is coming to an end?
Lionel Wigram: Of course! But I have to say I do think – touch wood – that these last two will be the biggest and the best. Again, it’s a wonderful thing. Every Harry Potter has been approached with real passion. We want to make the best possible movie for all these different people, especially this last one. There’s such a sense of responsibility, from [director] David Yates, from Steve Kloves, our genius writer… everybody. This is our last one so let’s do the best possible thing we can do in terms of the development of the kids, in terms of the look of the film, in terms of the visual effects and the battle sequences. We’ve really aimed high.

Obviously, we’re giving you two movies… and that really was a creative decision. I know there was some speculation that it was for commercial reasons. It’s great to have two movies, I’m not going to deny that, but it really was a question of… if you look at the book, it’s so big, there’s so much story, it would have been impossible to do it justice in one film. So, it was the right creative decision to make and it’s allowed us to really tell the story in great detail. That’s what we want as filmmakers and it’s what the fans want. But we’re so bloody lucky to be able to do that, and to have Warner Bros backing us and spending the money so we can do it to the best of our abilities.

Q. What are the qualities needed to make a great producer?
Lionel Wigram: Oh gosh… I would say ability to work well with other people. Passion, creativity and ability to work well with other people. But first of all passion… you’ve got to love this thing.

Q. You mention you dreamt as a boy of filmmaking, so what made you decide on producing as opposed to directing?
Lionel Wigram: I think what happens is that you go on a journey. Initially, when you’re first starting out you think of all the filmmakers you’d like to be like, such as John Huston and Carol Reed [director of The Third Man], but then I left university and wanted to get a job. So, I got a job and that led me down the path of producing. I found that I really had a good time doing it and was successful at it. I was then asked to be a studio executive and saw it as a great opportunity. I learned so much from doing it; it was a fantastic experience. And now I’ve come back to producing.

But what’s great about producing is that if you’re with the right people and they’re collaborative, like I was, you get to do a bit of everything. A, you get to come up with the story, but B in a sense you get to do a little bit of directing, a little bit of writing, a little bit of everything and you get to look after everybody. It’s a great mix of stuff. Again, the great joy of this is to work with all these brilliant people. As a producer, you can do that and be part of it, collaborate and it’s just fantastic. For me, I’ve got all these ideas that I want to see made as films and I think the most efficient way to do it is as a producer. But I will also do more writing, definitely.