Exclusive Interview: Paul McGuigan on Sherlock
Not content with reinventing Doctor Who, writer Steven Moffat has turned his attentions to another British institution this time in the form of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's legendary creation, Sherlock.
Co-developed with Mark Gatiss, Holmes and his ever-reliable sidekick Watson swap the Victorian-era streets for present-day London.
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in Sherlock © BBC/Hartswood Films
ReelScotland got the chance to chat to Scottish director Paul McGuigan who takes charge on two of the three feature length episodes, the first of which airs this week on BBC One.
Known for Gangster No. 1, Lucky Number Slevin and Push, McGuigan talks about the setting transformation, how it was working with Steven Moffat, and if the iconic deerstalker hat will be making an appearance.
ReelScotland: Are you a big Sherlock Holmes fan?
Paul McGuigan: I always liked him. I think as a kid in the UK you were always aware of him with the Basil Rathbone films. I think I remember Friday night movies always being Sherlock Holmes films. Of course I'm a lot older than you are so actually let me rephrase that, in the 70s perhaps. It's always a character everyone knows, it's something we are all aware of and we are all aware of the stories. So in that way I suppose I am a fan, but I got the books and read some of the stories and prepared a little bit.
It's strange how he still seems to be of interest of people today after such a long time.
I think it all boils down to the fact that he really encompasses things people enjoy - the genre of detectives and the genre of thrillers and mystery. He's so much smarter than we are and he can piece together all these different clues so at the end of the story you are always amazed at how he can do it - hence the writing of Arthur Conan Doyle that is particularly genius, you know?
The way he is able to construct story-lines out of little clues and I think thats why people love him as they are just amazed by him. I think it was important for us when we were doing this modern day version that we are understand what those elements are that people are attracted to and not lose anything in the modern day setting.
What was the reason to update Sherlock rather have the standard Victorian setting?
To be honest with you, I don't really know because I didn't write them. All I know is that I never once thought about it, I know it's silly, but I never once thought about him being in the modern day as a challenge. I think that from speaking to Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss the idea was why should it be all Victorian gas lamps and London fog? I think they want to introduce Holmes to another audience, whether it be a younger audience or people that look at it in a different way.
We've all read the stories, we all know the stories, so it was nice to bring it in to a modern day context and therefor feel fresh and new. They used the structure of the Conan Doyle stories: Steven and Mark are kind of obsessed with Sherlock Holmes.
It's quite similar with what Steven Moffat did with Jekyll a while back.
He's this kind of young adventure boy, I don't think he's ever left his teens. I think he just lives in his teens, he has this kind of boy adventurer type of thing. It's kind of interesting. So when did you come on to the project?
Paul McGuigan ©
I was living in Los Angeles and came back to London for a couple of meetings and I met up with Steven and his wife Sue who is the producer and I met up with Mark as well and they asked me to take a look at a project they were doing.
They had already filmed the pilot for it and they were launching it into a different format - the pilot was sixty minutes and they wanted to make a ninety minute version of it. Suddenly that attracted me because it was like doing a feature film. You had all the parameters of doing a feature film which is obviously what I'd been doing the past few years. I'd never done TV here in the UK before and Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are great writers.
Then I saw the pilot and how Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman worked with each other and it was just a no brainer to be honest. I think as a filmmaker you are always chasing the best scripts and these were certainly the best scripts that were coming through my door. So like I said, it was really a no brainer for me, it was just getting my head around doing TV.
I had been living in America, and television is some of the highest stuff you will get in America as far as pure drama is concerned. I'd been looking at some of the great dramas over there like Mad Men and House and all that sort of stuff, and having respect for the writers. I think over here we tend to be a little less so.
Because you did a US TV pilot didn't you?
I did. I did a thing called Thief for FX which went to a series and the actor won an Emmy for that, Andre Braugher, so I had some success there. I'd only done one TV thing, and I remember actually quoting that I would never ever ever do telly again - I should have deleted that from my Wikipedia. Actually I've had a ball, it's been like shooting two movies since January - I don't know if you've seen anything of the show yet?
Just some of the trailers. It does look like a feature film though.
I think the difference between film and TV is really down to space and breadth and air, you know? The characters are allowed to think and be silent for a minute and I think that the ninety minute format allows to bring that back into TV a little. It's a nice space of time to develop some ideas.
So you do episodes one and episode three?
I did one and three. I did Steven's and Mark's.
With someone else doing the second one is it not a bit weird?
Yeah I didn't like it. I'll be quite honest with you, I didn't like someone else doing number two. I don't think any director would, but it was impossible for me to shoot three in the time that they had. So I had to give it up and they gave it to Euros Lyn who directed some episodes of Doctor Who and he's a capable guy.
Also I suppose the timeframe - obviously it's not as bad when you get ninety minutes¦
Well you only get twenty-two filming days where in the movies you'd get twice as much as that if not more. So obviously you're tempered by that schedule. We were doing action sequences in like five hours when normally you'd have five days to do them. But in a way it's kind of fun, it doesn't seem like fun at the time but in retrospective it kind of makes you a lot faster and a lot more able to come up with ideas and you can be very creative within those twenty-two days.
I tried not to change my style when I directed, I just kept my style while knowing that I had to do a certain amount each day and I didn't want anyone to tell me, you've got to do a wide shot, a medium shot, a close up, an extreme close up, and then we can get out of here, thats not how I work. I tend to work by doing a big master shot which you could use as one shot if you wanted to and I never changed that process at all.
So this will be the first time you've shot in the UK since Gangster No. 1, is that right?
Yeah, pretty much. I think people in the UK have forgotten about me, quite rightly, why would they? But I'm talking about the industry people. Some of them think, Oh that's you away to America. It was nice to come back and sort of remind people that I'm still around and do something, which I think, is very high quality television and getting the opportunity to do it has been great and it just opens up other possibilities as well.
Even though it's an updated version, will there be a lot of nods to the loyal Holmes fans appreciate?
I went to Comic-Con a few years ago and it would be kind of easy to smirk and laugh at these people who are passionate about their sci-fi. It kind of dawned on me that it's fantastic that people have a passion, you know? It dawned on me these are the kind of people I like in life, I like passionate people, film people like yourself who like film, it's great that in this day and age people actually have a passion.
So the Sherlock Holmes people, if they are really into it then I'll embrace that because it's great and it's another chapter in Sherlock Holmes' dramatic history. Hopefully they'll give it a chance and look at it because I think once they've watched it I think have to sort of tip their hat at the performances of Benedict Cumberbatch of Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson.
One of the reasons I was so confident doing it was because I saw the pilot and how good they were together in it and I saw how great Benedict was as Sherlock. I thought it was exciting to see this character brought back to life again. So hopefully the audience will be able to enjoy the performances and the storytelling. A modern day Sherlock Holmes - get over it already, otherwise don't watch it because it doesn't flash back to Victorian times, he doesn't have a deerstalker and a big pipe! We do have our versions of it though.
It's nicotine patches, right?
Nicotine patches and a big coat. I was wanting to get the hat going but I was told not to.
Was it not a bit nervous taking on a project that already has such a following in case they didn't like it?
I don't want to sound arrogant, but no, I'm not nervous about it at all. When you've done something you're not sure about like when I did Push for instance, it's not my greatest work. I thought it was brilliant and I put as much of my life and energy into it that I could, but I knew there was just something about it that didn't work completely. That's when you become nervous, because you always know people are going to be harsh with you, plus you're doing a genre where you're expected to do a 150 million dollars, so that always makes me nervous, but this doesn't because I feel quite comfortable in this world and what we were doing and what we were trying to give the audience.
Plus you must have been extra confident with Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss having written your scripts?
Exactly. I mean it's when you have a script that you always feel you could maybe make it better, that's when you feel nervous because you're always fighting the script a little bit. But here you have two writers who are just at the top of their game and everyday you see them at the computer writing and the stuff that they write goes on to telly. I think that's the problem sometimes in the film industry in that we don't do enough work because there isn't enough good material around. That's why I'm loving telly at the moment because it gives me an opportunity to work and that's the main thing you have to do.
When you think about it, I'm a film director but I've only done it like six times, you know? Which seems a lot, but six times to work, I cant exactly call myself an expert can I? It's always good to keep working I think, and to get the opportunity to work on such great telly with such great writers is really important to me. As a film director, writers are always important anyway, to me they are everything. When you try to write your own script you realise how hard it is and why good scripts are so rare.
It's also probably a good time for Sherlock to come out after Steven has been receiving a lot of praise for the new Doctor Who series.
To be honest with you, I'm not a Doctor Who fan. I couldn't care less about Doctor Who. Mark and Steven would kill me for saying that, but they know it. It's not because I don't think their writing is great - I've watched a couple of Mark's ones and I've saw most of Steven's ones and I can appreciate the writing in it, the writing is phenomenal, but as telly I don't tend to sit down and watch it.
I was in Hollywood the past couple of months there and I went to a meeting and a guy said to me what are you doing now and I said I was working on Sherlock with Steven Moffat and the guy was sort of in awe of Steven Moffat and told me Steven's written the best script that's never been made in Hollywood. I'd love someone to figure out what that story is and what it's doing now! Because everyone says that, it's an amazing script and just hasn't been made.
It's just sitting there waiting to be made?
It's just sitting there waiting to be made, yeah. He's a phenomenal writer.
Personally I'm not a massive Doctor Who fan either, but I watched all of the new series and really enjoyed it because of his writing I'd assume.
Aye. I really like that Matt Smith guy. Steven's taken Doctor Who and made it his own very quickly because he has the confidence of understanding a character really well. When I was directing Sherlock he didn't interfere unless something really was wrong, and when someone does that you know you have to listen to them because they don't do it very often. If he was saying it the wrong way or doing it the wrong way he would chip in. He was a great guy to work with.
Even though this is a modern day Sherlock, are you hesitant at all that audiences might be put off by another Sherlock Holmes tale after Guy Ritchie's? Maybe think, oh not another Sherlock?
No, I think people enjoyed that film so I don't know why they would get put off by it. Guy's film, I thought was fantastic, but it was much more of a romp. Ours is a little more, dare I say, English? Our's is a little bit more cerebral, it's more about the way he can detect things and the way he puts them altogether and all that stuff. We're interested in that rather than the physical, jumping around and fighting and running after people.
We've got some of that, but I kind of enjoyed the moments when he tells you how he's figured stuff out. That's the hero moments for us rather than punching someone at the top of a bridge. So you said before how good Benedict Cumberbatch was.
© BBC/Hartswood Films
I think he's a star. He's already got a part in Spielberg's next movie [War Horse] and he's also working with the director who did that brilliant vampire movie, the Swedish one, Let the Right One In, he's doing his next movie. He's also doing a play in London at the moment which is being called a masterpiece and I think things are going pretty well for him to be honest and quite rightly so, he's actually very, very talented.
Martin Freeman would always tease him and say he grew up in Hogwarts as he's incredibly posh! It's funny, because he doesn't do that accent when you put him in front of a camera, I don't know what happens, I think some actors are just like that - they get taller and bigger and better looking. Do you know what I mean?
I think he was just born to do this and be an actor and I'm glad he's doing so well and then, Martin Freeman. I always knew he was good, but he was sort of a revelation to me. They all upped their game when Martin came on board. He's a very funny, friendly person, but he takes his acting very seriously and I enjoyed the challenge of working with Martin and trying figure out what works, in who could very easily be a two dimensional character if you let him be. He was just phenomenal, a really great actor and a really nice man too.
And Rupert Graves is there too isn't he?
Yeah Rupert's in it. Again, somebody you'd always thought of as a foppish boy actor. He's one of the nicest mean you'll ever meet. He's so funny and just really nice, yet he plays this sort of grumpy character who has to accept Holmes in his life because he's not as smart as Holmes is. But again, it's traditionally played as a sort of bumbling cop where as Rupert gave it a lot of dignity.
It was quite important to me when I came on board that I'd bring it a sense of reality and bring as much of the real world in as I possibly could without being self-consciously modern about it. I never once thought, oh we've got to make Baker Street have computer screens everywhere and big bright lights and everyone's sitting on space age things. I made it look like Baker Street a touch because you have to bridge the gap for the audience who are used to seeing Sherlock Holmes in this Victorian setting.
Hopefully after five minutes it wont matter that it's modern. If it does matter, I wouldn't say they are real Sherlock Holmes fans. Just because you've set someone up against a Victorian wall with dry ice, whats the difference? It does change how smart Sherlock is, it doesn't make him less clever or more clever, it's just a different setting.
What happened to the initial pilot episode?
It was a different format. You cant bring a director on and say we want ninety minutes, but you have to use sixty minutes. Plus, a ninety minute script is a lot different to a sixty minute script so they had to completely rewrite it and reformat it. My personal thoughts when I watched it was that it needed to be longer. You want time with these characters, time to develop these characters but also time to develop the story-lines for that week so it wasn't just about who killed who or its just becomes like an episode of Columbo.
Do you think with all the budget cuts currently been discussed for the BBC that shows like Sherlock wouldn't ever make it on to television?
It's a scary thing because the budgets are getting smaller and smaller anyway, the budgets used to be a lot higher than they are now. People say our budget was OK, it was OK to make a ninety minute piece and it wasn't a massive budget. They say people are making money out of it, but I'm never going to get rich from working for the BBC thats for sure. It would be a shame to think that people collate budgets with quality and quality with budgets you can look at having less budget and more quality, but there's stuff like Sherlock and like Wallander which I can think of from the top of my head which are really high quality. If we were to put that in jeopardy by some bureaucrats deciding to cut us, but I'm sure the BBC will protect that.
I think we've all been overpaid a little bit in the past and I think we're now just coming back to reality really. But I think that's been going on for quite a few years now, I don't think anyone's ever made themselves rich on a BBC salary, apart from Jonathan Ross perhaps. I don't really know the BBC because this is my first job I've done for them so I don't know the ins and outs and I would never call myself a BBC guy. As much as I love the institution itself, I think it's really important as a cultural identity and to have that underset would be the most horrific thing that could happen.
What about the funding in Scotland? The new funding place.
That's funny, Creative Scotland sent me an email last week saying, "You're invited to an audience with Creative Scotland". Did you get this?
I didn't, no.
It says, "You're invited to an audience with Creative Scotland" and I'm thinking to myself, Fucking hell man, we've got Ken Dodd and Freddie Starr or something? An audience with, that just shows the lack of quality they are going for. Hopefully they will get it together, you have to give them time I suppose.
Hopefully they can change the funding so more things can get made, but I've heard that's not the case.
It sometimes seems that the younger generation have to try harder not to be Scottish, do you know what I mean? They have to move away and try and get a career somewhere else which is a fucking shame because it can make a lot of money for them, it can make a lot of money for Scotland, it can make a lot of money from tourism. Look what Braveheart did for us and that wasn't even shot in Scotland. It just seems they are so short sighted on everything these days.
We spoke to the producer of an animated film, Sir Billi, that Sean Connery is voicing a character for and they were turned down by Scottish Screen for funding for being too mainstream apparently.
Oh my God, mainstream, imagine that! The M word. The best thing I ever did was make a film that made money, it was the proudest moment in my career. Lucky Number Slevin came out in the cinema and the next week the theatre was still full, and you're thinking to yourself it's actually nice to be successful. No one had ever said to me, "Paul this has to make money", but when you go to America that's the deal if you like. We pay you this, we pay you that, but you've got to listen to us because we have to make money.
What's next for you after Sherlock?
I've been offered a big telly show which I'm thinking about, and I'm also working on three movies at the moment trying to get them done, but it's kind of a hard time in the industry at the moment.
Last time we spoke, you were going to do the new film from the writers of The Hangover. What happened there?
I'll be very candid about that. It just dawned on me that I have to be careful about the scripts I get involved with and this was a script that was evolving and it wasn't in the way I expected so I kind of got cold feet and decided I would stay on and do Sherlock instead. I wish the guys luck, they were really nice people and I'm sure they've got another director on board and I'm sure they'll make a good go at it. It was nothing personal, it was just my sudden panic about, I know this sounds obvious, but you just have to careful about what material you choose to get involved with.
A film is a year and a half or your life and after Push I got a little scared about taking material I wasn't 110% sure of. So you have to be careful, not being scared to do anything or you might not ever work again! But I'm just keeping myself active and the scripts I'm involved with are scripts that I really want to do.
Finally, will there be a full series of Sherlock, or is it just the three feature length episodes?
It all depends on the viewing figures, what happens on Sunday, that's where the pressure comes from. But yeah, they want to keep doing them. I've put my name down for Sherlock in Bangkok. That's my next one.
Thanks to Paul for his time.
Sherlock airs 25 July 2010 on BBC One and BBC HD.