Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes has been played by more actors than any fictional character in history. And director Bill Condon's Mr. Holmes, currently in theaters, adds a new chapter to that storied legacy by casting Sir Ian McKellen (re-teaming with his Gods and Monsters director) as the legendary sleuth during his sunset years, as the nonagenarian Sherlock battles the onset of dementia as he attempts to unravel the secrets of his final case.
It's a moving performance from a master, helped along by Condon's meditative direction and a thoughtful, poignant script by screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher (adapting Mitch Cullen's 2005 novel A Slight Trick of Mind). I absolutely adored this movie, and was very lucky to be able to pick the writer's mind about the movie, the character, and Sherlock Holmes' literary and cinematic lineage. Read on for my chat with Mr. Hatcher about Mr. Holmes!
Sherlock Holmes has the distinction of having more different iterations than anyone else; right now we're in the midst of Jonny Lee Miller on CBS, we've got Benedict Cumberbatch occasionally on the BBC, we've got Robert Downey Jr. still doing his thing, and then we have of course Sir Ian McKellen. What is it about Sherlock Holmes that makes him so elastic?
Well I'd like to say it's something about the Victorian era. It's the same that you can say about some Dickens characters, that there's a high theatricality in terms of this is exactly what he looks like, feels like, sounds like, but there's also just enough of a gap into which you can fill other things, and those other things can be the actor's persona, it can be the time period that it takes place in.
Obviously we like him because he's a hero. He is like Bond and Robin Hood and all the rest, so he's on the good guys' side. We like the fact that he doesn't resort to brawn and fist and that sort of thing, and we like I think that there's loneliness and sadness too. I don't think that one would have thought about Robin Hood that way, or some of the other heroes.
Sure. Our image of Robin Hood is laughing merrily.
Yeah, and I think that's sometimes because people don't read closely. If you read James Bond closely, you can see sadness and emptiness, which the new films pick up rather well.
Very much so, yeah.
But it is there in Fleming; you can find it. But Sherlock seems to be able to accommodate himself to many different views and still remain who he is. I don't know if Conan Doyle would have said "Oh yes, that's exactly what I meant," but that elasticity has allowed everything from the Victorian, Edwardian portrayal on stage when William Gillette did it. You can hear his recordings and you image a very [adopts affect] stentorian kind of performance. During the war it makes perfect sense that Basil Rathbone was Holmes. It made sense during the eighties that Jeremy Brett was this cracked...
That's my Holmes, Jeremy Brett.
Yeah, I remember my favorite Jeremy Brett moments were always him very silent and then going "GAH!", which seems like too big, but you are kind of watching a brain that can easily crack and leech out bile and bitterness. So I think Holmes is a good litmus test. It's a good negative impact on things in terms of what's the flip side, what's the highlight, what's the dark side, so I think we're always going to be drawn to that.
And what's interesting is when you apply that template to what the actor does, what the writers do. You can always kind of tell when some gear grinds in the wrong way. You know what I mean? I think that's the genius of the Sherlock TV show, that if you described that show to me, I would have said "Oh god, I don't want to see that."
And then I see it and I think I know what they're doing, I understand what they're doing, I see why this does work or this doesn't work; it seems to fit nicely in its own niche. I hope we do too, but you can always tell when someone's trying too hard one way or the other, either to fit in too perfectly or be too different. I like versions of Sherlock, as I would I suppose Bond or George Smiley, where you say yes, this is your version, but it doesn't break with the tradition.
I think that's the magic of Holmes, and I try to think of a modern analog where you have a character that's so elastic, and the only thing I can think of is something like Batman, for example.
Part of it is the costume though, that if you have a character that has a mask to a degree, and I think Holmes has a mask. It's the automaton. "I am a machine, Watson. I'm brain and nothing else." That's something to hide behind, and that's the mask, and that's the... more so than the cloak and the deer stalker and all those things. But I think it helps if the character's already one step removed from his presentation, whereas Holmes is not. He is what he is. Whereas with Holmes, you'll always see that there's something one step behind the curtain.
And that draws to mind parallels with...I mean obviously you've worked on episodic television with procedurals and things like that. Columbo, etc., they're all part of that same lineage.
Different though if there's a literary forebear, you know?
It's like because there are all the Holmes stories to turn to, there is kind of a bible. It's the same thing you can say about Smiley and Bond and all that; you can always return to the book and say "The book really says this" because there's authority there. Whereas... I only know this because I knew Falk. I wouldn't say very well, but I knew him.
Knowing how things accumulate from actor to producer to the way television is put together, authority sometimes doesn't reside where you think it resides. It's a little bit like the costume thing, because we know now that the deerstalker and infamous cape were all the illustrator. So at no point does Conan Doyle say "I want him to look like that." By the same token, Richard Levinson and William Link didn't say "Columbo wears a raincoat." Peter Falk said "I want to wear that raincoat."
And I mean Columbo predated Peter Falk, but it's interesting how unlike Holmes, we can't imagine anybody but Peter Falk in that role. Like, the character died with Peter Falk.
Television does something. Bond is a little bit like that. Some people say Sean Connery...The fact that right before Fleming's death he writes You Only Live Twice, and Bond dies. It's a fake, but he dies, and he gives him Scottish ancestry, and it's a nod to, "Well there's this fellow who's playing him in the movie. He's Scottish."
It's like a really weird retconning kind of thing. "I can explain that accent that he can't quite get rid of in the movies by saying this is this." But I think before the sixties, you wouldn't see anything like that, but it's fascinating that all of these guys try to kill their heroes at some point, and they can't.
And it's because do they feel the character has overshadowed them?
Yeah, I mean Conan Doyle was like "Oh my god. I've got to really kill him," and he couldn't. Even when he wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles as, "This happened before Reichenbach falls," it's like "No, we want him back alive." And so, that happened with Bond too. In From Russia with Love, you got the idea he's dead at the end. So everybody gets tired at a certain point.
In the course of adapting this story, what did you learn about Holmes that you were surprised by?
Well when I read the book, the big shocker of course was the notion that a defeat of such...Holmes has had defeats before. People have died on his watch, so to speak, but eventually he wins. There's isn't any story where he loses completely, and Mitch came up with a story where he did lose completely. One of the things that's not explained in the stories - it's not a huge mystery - is why Holmes retires to Sussex and becomes a beekeeper.
It's simply a fact, and you accept it as "Well, people get old and they retire," but Mitch says "Let's find a reason for this. Let's see if there might be something more interesting than 'I simply retired.'" So that was the most interesting thing initially. Following that was trying to come up with, as he did, relationships with people in the day to day, because Holmes is always understood in relationship to an investigation. It's like people who don't meet anybody romantically except through work. Actors are like this.
Everybody I've ever dated was in the theatre. Holmes only seems to meet people through investigations, so to see him meet people in terms of a domestic situation is very interesting. Of course that turns into an investigation too, but not at the level of "The Hound of the Baskervilles", and a very ruminative one. I thought it was a lovely story also about Holmes embracing fiction, and it's to my knowledge the only Holmes story written post-Conan Doyle in which Holmes is aware of himself as a fictional creation as well.
I mean naturally it's, "Well Watson wrote these books, and the books are exaggerations," but it's the only time where you see the man saying "I'm struggling with the way the public perceives me versus the way I know I am myself," and I thought that was just fantastic. In fact, Bill Condon, when we were working on the script he said "I think it would be really cool if we went to see a movie where the story he's working on has been turned into, like, a Basil Rathbone movie."
And that actor is, I just found this out, he was in Young Sherlock Holmes.
Yes! I met him on set and it was just amazing. He's, like, 51 now; he's, like, 6 foot 4. There's a "down the rabbit hole" kind of thinking. And he was a lovely guy, but Bill said "Yeah, wouldn't it be cool if we see that in a forties kind of way?" Because in that way you're seeing Holmes' reality digested through Watson's rewrite digested through Hollywood's version. And some of my favorite shots of McKellen in the movie are McKellen looking out like "What a bunch of crap."
Well let's talk about Ian McKellen, who was fantastic. I mean that's, like, a statement that can apply to anything, and at what point was he involved? Did you write knowing that he was...?
No, no because the early drafts of the scripts popped up years and years ago. He was always somebody that was more than on the radar, but when Bill got involved, I want to say three years ago -
They already had the history.
Yeah, exactly. He said "I want to do the script, I want to do it with Ian, I want to doi it when Ian's free," because he had a very busy schedule. In fact at some point we were supposed to do it in two parts, like he would be six weeks and then a break of two months, but that didn't happen, so once he came on, it was, like, fantastic. Everything fell into place, and he brings a lot of wonderful baggage with him. There's a lot of authority that comes through. It's a wonder that nobody ever asked him before. It's bizarre how many people have walked into this world, but not him.
I mean to me it's like "Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes? Sold."
Yeah. What's lovely about it too is that his respect for it is...you can tell he's not doing things in quotes. Of course there's no camp, there's no winking at it, which would be easy to do. He takes it very straight, and some of the parts I like best in the film are whenever he's talking about the difference between the character and himself, versus things like, "I prefer cigars," and then he says "Well actually, I do smoke a pipe," but seemed silly to do so after Watson had made such a big deal about it. So it's a man struggling with his own persona within the quotes that other people have out it in. It's almost about consciousness and self-consciousness.
Many thanks to Jeffrey Hatcher for his time. Look for Mr. Holmes in select theaters now, and to hear the audio of this conversation, be sure to check out the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast via this link or the embed below.