It’s taken nearly two decades for Bill Condon to fulfil his ambition of working with Ian McKellen again. But reuniting with the British star on Mr. Holmes was worth the wait, he says.
They first teamed up in 1998 for Gods and Monsters with McKellen delivering a brilliant performance as troubled director James Whale. The film went on to be nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Actor in a Leading Role for McKellen, winning Best Screenplay for Condon.
During filming they became close friends – McKellen often stays with Condon when he is visiting the US – and the director hoped that they would make another film together although as the years slipped by, he began to fear that it wouldn’t happen – until Mr. Holmes came along.
Q: Did you plan to work with Ian McKellen again after Gods and Monsters?
A: I always thought we would work together again. I certainly hoped that we would, and then at a certain point Ian went off and became this mega star, and did all those huge things like Lord of the Rings and X-Men, and I started to think, ‘well, it’s probably something that won’t happen.’ And then script arrived and I thought, ‘Oh, this is it!’ And I immediately sent it to him, and he read it quickly and said, ‘It’s a part and a half,’ and that was it – we were underway. But that was many years ago.
Q: Ian plays Holmes at both as a 93 year old and as a man in his 60s. What was it like to see him undergo that transformation?
A: You know, the same thing happened on both movies. I think it’s something to do with the tradition he’s from. Not to make it sound superficial, but it does start, with certain British actors, on the outside. It’s like the first thing is, ‘What’s the hair? What’s the costume? What’s the look?’ That first day, when we dyed his hair white for James Whale (in Gods and Monsters) I was like, ‘There he is.’ Here, when he did the make-up for the first day, and then our wonderful costume designer, Keith Madden, had him in there – you just looked at him and there he was, it was Sherlock.
Q: Was that the older Holmes or the younger one?
A: That was the older version. It was mostly about the nose. It was about, ‘How’s that new nose going to work?’ and creating that profile. It was thrilling every day, all the invention, all the life and complexity that Ian brings to it.
Q: One of the themes of the film is ageing. Do you think it was close to the bone for Ian?
A: Well it was interesting. We had made a movie, Gods and Monsters, about this, 17 years ago, and now I’m the age he was when he made that movie, and now he’s that much older. My joke to him was that our next project, in 20 years, is Methuselah (laughs). I don’t know how to make him any older. I think that both of us are closer to what the movie is about, now.
Q: We don’t usually see such an in depth exploration of old age on the big screen. Would you say that Mr. Holmes is rare in that sense?
A: It’s true. The novelist, Mitch Cullin, wrote it because his father was suffering from dementia, so in a way, I actually think Sherlock Holmes is the springboard. He provides the opportunity for this examination of that last part of life, and that’s really what it’s about in a way, more than Sherlock Holmes the great detective.
Q: Is it true that your father was a NYC detective?
A: Yeah! That’s true. It was always interesting growing up with him, because add that to the Irish Catholic thing, so you’re always feeling like you’re guilty of something anyway. Any casual dinner conversation was like, ‘Oh God, he’s going to find something out.’
Q: Were you interested in the Sherlock Holmes stories?
A: Yeah I was, when I was a kid. I read tonnes of the stories. I love the Billy Wilder movie (The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) and even, you know, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, and other movies. I’ve seen them all, but I didn’t become a Holmes fanatic – something I really realised once I started this movie and then got surrounded by some of those people, because they are intense.
Q: Did you see any connection between Holmes and your father’s work as a detective?
A: Not much, no. In New York, I don’t think it was quite as much about deduction (laughs).
Q: Did the popularity of Sherlock Holmes in the last few years help with getting this film made? Or was it a hindrance?
A: It was a hindrance. We were all set to go before I did the Twilight movies, and it was part of why I jumped onto those. We were all set to go with these and the last bit of funding didn’t fall into place, and there was this sense, surprisingly, of resistance from England – this sense that because Benedict [Cumberbatch]’s show had just popped, and the [Robert] Downey Jr. thing had happened, there was a sense that there was too much of it. We obviously were doing such a different take on it, but yeah, cut to four years later and here we are.
Q: There is still a mystery in the film, but it’s not a typical Sherlock Holmes mystery. Explain your approach to honouring the tradition of Sherlock whilst crafting something different..
A: It’s a delicate mystery, without a body on the floor. Actually, once I got involved and started working with (screenwriter) Jeffrey Hatcher, we spent a lot of time beefing up the mystery to the point that it’s at now. The whole point of this always was that he was going to find out something really delicate about the irrationality of the world. It’s the anti-Sherlock Holmes mystery in a way, but in reality it doesn’t turn out to be. We wanted to give enough of the pleasures of those classics along the way, so that was something we worked on for a couple of years. I think it would be disappointing to go to a Holmes movie and have none of it, and it may be disappointing to some people that it’s not quite as grand a last case as some of them. That’s sort of what’s happened with Holmes with Murder by Decree, I think – by that point, it involves the Royal Family, and Jack the Ripper. And that’s what happens with the more recent movies, these big plots. And then this is the opposite; this is the tiniest little intimate thing that doesn’t even really come together.
Q: So in some ways, this last mystery that he has to solve is how to come to terms with himself?
A: Yes, I believe that’s the mystery. I believe he doesn’t understand why he’s so compelled to do it, but he is tortured by what’s happened. He can’t remember what it was that drove him here, but ultimately it’s because it opened up this view into himself, and that he’s supressed it. The ultimate mystery is Sherlock Holmes, and that’s what I always thought was cool about it. It’s like one part is shutting down, but it does open up the possibility for something that’s so undeveloped in him – the capacity for affection, the capacity for imagination, and kindness, to make connections that he otherwise hasn’t been able to make.
Q: There’s a lot resting on Milo Parker’s young shoulders in this film because it’s a three hander and he’s acting alongside Ian McKellen and Laura Linney. Was it hard to find the right young actor?
A: He’s amazing, right? We saw lots and lots and lots of kids, but the final three kids we had were three different ages, as it turned out. He was 11, there was a 14 year old, and then there was a 16 year old. In the book, he’s 14 and in the script he is 11, but there were residual things from the book that felt more like a 14 year old. I didn’t want to go older, and Milo was the only one who was 11 who had the self possession to actually be able to do these things, like when he’s imitating Holmes, and actually pull that off. There was no other kid who could do it. The fact that he actually has charisma on camera – that’s something that you just get lucky with.
Q: Were you nervous about putting Ian in a scene with real bees?
A: We had this guy, Steve Benbow, who has written books about it, and has an apiary at the top of Harrods, and he came in for a big production meeting. We were asking him a hundred questions about how to do this, and he said, at the end, ‘Can I just ask one question? Who’s playing Sherlock Holmes?’ And I said, ‘Ian McKellen,’ and you just saw his face drop. He said, ‘So I’m responsible for the wellbeing of a Knight of the Realm?’ (Laughs). But it was all fine.
Q: How do you direct an actor like Ian? Do you direct him or just let him create his character in his own way?
A: Well, the great thing about an actor like Ian is that he craves the collaboration, because he’s getting lost in a part, and he’s trying things, and he sort of wants guidance. Especially, I think, with a movie like this; it’s like haiku, this script. If you go back and look at every line, it connects to something thematically, and so reminding him of those connections, that becomes more of a part of it.
Q: You did a piece on Broadway about the Hilton sisters, and you’ve written a script about P.T. Barnum. What is it about the circus world that interests you?
A: It’s interesting. That was a kind of coincidence. Side Show – that’s the one about the Hilton sisters that I worked on for six years – I would love to make a movie out of that. I think that could make a great movie. We were really well received, but we’re closed now – it didn’t work commercially – so I think I’ve got to take a step back for a minute and then try to get that made. I’ll try again in a year or two, when people forget about the fact that nobody went to see it (laughs). Anyway, while I was doing that, a friend of mine who produced Dreamgirls asked me to write their Hugh Jackman script, and I did that as a favour. I had a great time doing it, but it’s not like I’m actually drawn to the circus, I have to say. Barnum’s a great character, and it’s a musical film, so it was fun to help them figure it out, but it’s more the predicament of the Hilton sisters, and the oddities, and so-called freaks that I find moving.
Q: One of the interesting things about Mr. Holmes is that it shows Sherlock Holmes at such a vulnerable time in his life. And it shows him as a rather dysfunctional man who works on logic and deduction but is lost when it comes to dealing with emotion. Is Holmes a freak in that way?
A: Yeah he is, absolutely. I think so. He is certainly someone who is standing on the outside and not being invited in, and not connecting in some way. I think even the first time you see him, with people saying. ‘Is that him?’ and just sort of treating him as this thing.
Q: Was the Japan part of the story as prominent in the book? Have you made changes to that section in the film?
A: It was more prominent in the book, actually. I would say it maybe takes up half of that story. There were a few more twists and turns to that story in the book. Umezaki was gay, and had a lover. I was not shying away from that at all – that was intriguing to me, and we had it in for a while, but it seemed to be a red herring that didn’t get us anything in a movie that was already dense with a lot of stuff.
Q: The Hiroshima references were in there too?
A: Yeah all the stuff with Hiroshima was already there, the idea being that Holmes has all these steps along the way towards figuring out the limitations of rationality, and that’s one of the things. It’s not something he makes an intellectual connection about, but it’s in the landscape. You watch science taken to that degree where it becomes irrational, and pure destruction. It’s science without any sense of human implications, and seeing the devastation of it becomes like another thing that’s hitting you in the face. Again, it’s not explicit, and that’s overstating it, but that’s part of what the function is, emotionally, when you’re watching the move.
Q: What is it that appeals about your next project, remaking Beauty and the Beast?
A: With Beauty and the Beast, the idea of doing another movie musical is thrilling, and I love both the Disney movie – I love the score, which we’re using, with some new songs – and the Cocteau movie. We’ve been at it for a few months now and you can see that the technology is just really at the point where you can have a candle stick that’s slightly human that can sing and dance a huge production number.
Q: Will it have singing teapots in it?
A: Yes! And I’ve seen tests on it, and it’s cool! That’s the fun part of it.
Q: And Emma Watson can sing?
A: She can, yes. She has a wonderful sound.
Q: That is an entirely different project to Mr. Holmes Do you prefer working without special effects?
A: Probably, yeah. Yes. That’s not to say I’m not intrigued by all this stuff we’re doing on Beauty and the Beast, but it was so fun to make this movie, put it together, and it was all just right there. I loved it. It is better. It’s hard, the other thing.