We caught up with director Bill Condon recently to chat about his new film Mr. Holmes, a fictional biopic of the famous Baker Street sleuth played by Sir Ian McKellen. Condon has a vast and wide-ranging career in the movies with titles like the outstanding Gods & Monsters and Kinsey sitting beside showstoppers like Dreamgirls and The Twilight Saga.
Despite suffering from a bout of hay fever (your author was suffering too, dear reader), Bill was warm and friendly, and we bonded over our mutual love for the Disney animated film Beauty And The Beast (which he is currently directing a live action remake of).
How did Mr. Holmes come about? Was this a project that you were keen to do?
Actually, Anne Carey, the producer, came to me with the script, based on Mitch Cullin’s novel [A Slight Trick Of The Mind], by scriptwriter Jeffrey Hatcher and I was completely intrigued. And immediately thought it something I could do with Ian McKellen again, which would add to the appeal of it.
Did you specifically ask for Ian, having worked with him on Gods And Monsters?
Yes, absolutely! The first and only for me, absolutely. I sent it on and he read it quickly and said, “Well that’s a part and a half!” [Laughs] And we were on! I was so lucky he responded to it.
Was that the same with Laura Linney?
Yes, big fan. We worked together on Kinsey, The Fifth Estate, and The Big C, over and over with her.
She’s got a great English accent in the film.
Oh I’m gonna tell her you said that ‘cos it’s a very specific region. And she worked so hard on it.
You’ve tackled real biopics, such as Kinsey, did you approach Mr. Holmes in the same manner?
That’s a really interesting question, that’s the conceit of the novel isn’t it? That it is real, and he is a real person, right? There are probably biopic elements to it but I would say the model is more like Gods & Monsters than Kinsey. Kinsey was a real birth to death approach to telling somebody’s life. Gods & Monsters was more like a moment in his life, but then flashback to several moments in the past. And Mr. Holmes is more like that; it’s a very concentrated period to time, in 1947 when we’re following him.
Do you think there’s a danger that some people will think Mr. Holmes is real?
I hope so! Well, that’s the idea. I think that it’s always frightening when you see those polls and find out what people think. I’m sure the majority of people think he’s real! [Laughs] Exactly though, if we told the story well enough then I think they will.
I enjoyed the casting of Nicholas Rowe, who played the title role in Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), as the ‘matinee’ version of Sherlock – was this a knowing choice?
It was, I have to say. He was so brilliantly cast back when he was a teenager; he just captured the essence of Holmes. It was interesting going back to him because I think if it had been ten years earlier then he wouldn’t have done it. But I think enough time has passed now and he’s comfortable enough, and he’s a wonderful actor. We caught him at a moment when it was fun for him to revisit it.
It was a fun scene.
Exactly. It was the one thing I said to him when he called after reading it. He asked about certain things and I reassured him and said, “You do realise you’re going to have to go to the premiere?” and he was there last night [in London]. And played this wonderful Sherlock Holmes and endured Ian McKellen scowling and laughing and shaking his head at him. But he knew that was part of the game, but he enjoyed it. [Laughs]
Are you a fan of the Sherlock Holmes books?
Yeah I am. Can I just say I’m a fan not a fanatic. Because after I made the movie I met the fanatics and I knew I wasn’t one of them. I don’t compare to that.
But I was growing up, I went through a period of reading a lot of them and I’ve always been interested in, especially in the last thirty/forty years, how he’s been scripted in television and movies and constantly reinvented. It’s a wonderful thing about that character. All of them seem to be revealing different facets of him and the way that none of them contradict each other.
That’s what I’m hopeful about this movie is this adds one other view of him. Obviously it hasn’t been seen before, his old age and later life – this unlikely kind of place. And it’s such an anachronism living after the horrors of World War II. He usually seems like he comes from such a cosy world before the horrors of both world wars so placing him in that context was one of the really neat ideas from the novel.
Your father was a detective, wasn’t he? Did this have an influence?
He was, that’s right yeah. Probably. You know that’s really true because I really love detective fiction and novels and especially movies too, I love a straight on deceive thriller. I think it’s a great form.
Your CV is quite eclectic…
I guess so, right? [Laughs]
… so what is it that speaks to you, what is it that makes you want to be the director of a project?
That’s a good question because looking at it [his CV], it’s not a consistent thing. As you get older you have to believe in something, especially as you’re going to spend a year or two of your life on it. As you know, it’s a pretty full-on commitment.
I guess the big question is always Twilight. But I’ve always been interested in horror and suspense and I always like to revisit those genres again. But I see the consistency although I know it’s probably hard for other people. [Laughs]
You were involved in both Chicago and Dreamgirls, do you think there’s room for a Sherlock musical? [Not an entirely serious question readers!]
[Laughs] Well, it’s been tried in the theatre. It was the most expensive bomb in Broadway history, it was called Baker Street. I think half the budget went on dry ice, famously. It was back in the 60s and they couldn’t control it so they had these huge elaborate sets but half the audience would run out the theatre screaming because they were getting asphyxiated by all the dry ice. So it’s been tried.
In a way there’s always that question of, “Does the character sing?” And I’m not sure Sherlock Holmes sings.
Maybe do a Rex Harrison a la My Fair Lady?
Exactly, right? That would be it. And that’s what Baker Street was like actually.
How do you feel about switching from the big ‘Hollywood’ projects to smaller, more indie type films?
I love it. I loved every minute of it. You have tight budget constraints but we have this extraordinary design to start with and the huge array of locations. Within those constraints though, without the pressure of a huge budget, you get to cast it exactly the way it should be and there’s a real freedom you feel to make the movie the way you want to.
So, it’s a trade off almost but I love going back and forth. But I probably prefer smaller.
Milo Parker, who plays Sherlock’s new young friend in Mr. Holmes, was a great find.
Boy we got lucky there. Because we had to try and figure out someone who could hold his own with Ian McKellen and Laura Linney. The movie really wouldn’t have worked if it hadn’t been for him. He’s just a remarkable, self-possessed young man.
I saw him last night [at the London premiere] and he hasn’t gone crazy. He’s going to be in a Tim Burton movie now [Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, out in 2016] so it’s happening for him. He’s got a huge talent.
He’s got that Tim Burton-y look!
I know right! [Laughs] That’s so true.
Speaking of faces, the camera lingers on McKellen’s face in Mr. Holmes in a number of close ups. As films seem to be youth-obsessed, was this a conscious decision to champion the beauty of age?
First of all, Ian’s eyes – it’s just hard to cut away from them. Dave Elsey [OSCAR winning make-up artist] and Lou Elsey created this make-up to make him look twenty years older than he actually is and that did allow for these intense close-ups.
I think, also, it’s quite an internal movie. He’s really solving the puzzle of who he is and I felt that’s just where the movie kinda had to live. In a way that is the movie, Ian McKellen’s face.
You worked with Benedict Cumberbatch on your previous film, did he ring you up to complain that you didn’t cast him? [Again, not an entirely serious question.]
[Laughs] No, he’s a good sport about it. Every time I mentioned I was doing it, [on the press tour for The Fifth Estate] he reacted like he was hearing it for the first time. [Laughs] He’s been great. I haven’t had the chance to show it to him yet but I’m very eager to because he’s been so iconic as a contemporary Holmes.
I think it’s clear to see there’s no overlap. There’s nothing that Benedict did in this performance or Robert Downey Jnr. for that matter.
What has the future in store, anything after Beauty And The Beast?
That is my future [laughs], for the next two years until we finish it. You shoot a movie like this and that’s almost like the prep for the production which becomes the editing and creating so much of it in post [production]. In the case here, the household staff and creatures are computer-generated.
It’s an important movie to a lot of people. I was a young adult when it came out and I loved it and there’s so many people in their 20s, 30s, 40s who saw it as children and love it. In a way that’s a good thing and a bad thing because people have strong feelings and memories of it – so we have to make sure we don’t screw it up.
It’s great so far. Big and complicated but very, very fun.
Will your Beauty And The Beast be a reimagining of the 1991 animated classic, or are you sticking strictly to the source?
It’s interesting. First of all it’s a really perfect movie. What I’m hoping is, we’re expanding on things and bringing it into a third dimension means that characters can’t behave exactly in the same way. You know, Gaston and LeFou can’t be literally as cartoonish as there were in the movie. I’m hoping it’s a satisfying expansion of what people already know.
Bill Condon, thank you very much!