Interview: Lionel Wigram, Producer and Writer For The Sherlock Holmes Movie

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By M@ Last edited 101 months ago
Interview: Lionel Wigram, Producer and Writer For The Sherlock Holmes Movie

holmesposter.jpg Sherlock Holmes, from Warner Bros. Pictures, opens in UK cinemas on Boxing Day. The film's screen story writer and producer Lionel Wigram was one of the driving forces behind the character's rejuvenation. We spoke to Lionel about his influences and experiences in making the film, which stars Robert Downey Jr as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson, and is directed by Guy Ritchie.

The following interview excerpts relate to the part London plays in the film and the original Holmes stories. Tomorrow, we'll publish the second part, which looks at Holmes himself and how Lionel Wigram went back to basics to bring something new to the character and his world. We'll also post the complete transcript (3000 words) for die-hard Holmes fans.

On Holmes' relationship to London

London is everything. London is a place that Sherlock Holmes knows like the back of his hand. In fact, in one story, there's a reference to how, for fun, Sherlock would walk around London and take every single possible route to different places so as to teach himself to get from one place to another in the shortest possible time. A bit like The Knowledge that London cabbies have to pass. So he really knows London better than anybody. He also fraternises with people of all walks of life, and enjoys their company.

On the feel of the city in Holmes' time

London is the greatest city in the world at that time. It is the ultimate Victorian city. There's all this building going on right at the heart of the British Empire.You've got Tower Bridge being built at that period - we've actually got that in our movie. All these grand buildings side by side with all these terrible slums and tenements, and the docks of London, of course. England at that time was a huge trading empire so the docks were incredibly important.

On finding inspiration for the setting

What is so great about that period is that we have an enormous amount of photographs...our amazing production designer Sarah Greenwood put together right at the beginning of preproduction a collage of images of Victorian London and of the Victorian world, which literally ran the whole length of a 30 foot corridor. Every day, in order to get into the office, we all walked past it. Extraordinary photographs....of the docks of Tower Bridge being built, of the ships being built, and the scale of the workers, the way people were dressed, the streets of London, the omnibuses, the crowds, the carriages - all that stuff. It really was beautiful. Those images inspired us every day. Personally, I have this very dog-eared...I think it's a Penguin 2-volume complete Sherlock Holmes in paperback, which was the book I started on when I started rereading this about three and a half years ago and that has a beautiful photograph of what would be Baker Street on a foggy day with omnibuses and crowds. That was an image that was particularly important to me. In fact we tried to recreate that for our actual Baker Street set. I think we probably did pretty well.

On recreating London

I grew up in London and love London, as does Guy Ritchie who directed the film. So for us, and pretty much all the crew, it was incredibly important that London be a character in our film. And we've really tried, and I hope succeeded, to use new computer graphics to recreate the London of the day, so you really get a sense of the city. One of the things I'm most proud of is a shot of Piccadilly Circus as it would have been at the time, with carriages going through it. That's the magic of CGI.

On shooting the film

We had a really great time filming in London. I felt that going to the location we went to actually inspired all of us. In terms of how we portrayed what was going on. It was very exciting. After weeks of shooting, long days when we were very tired, to go to a new location that was very beautiful...it was fantastic. I remember in particular one morning quite late on in the shoot when we went to the naval college at Greenwich, which is that magnificent Wren building with the wonderful Inigo Jones building in the background. It was early in the morning, we watched the sun rise over the Thames. It was misty. The whole crew had big smiles on their faces. We were in this wonderful place.

On the importance of the Thames

The river is obviously the heart of London. The reason the earliest settlements, dating back to Rome and pre-Roman times, settled in the location that became London is really because of the river. And, of course, London was the commercial capital of the Empire, so the docks were incredibly important. The Tower of London was the building from which the rulers of England controlled that area from the 1070s on [and] is also on the edge of the Thames. Of course, our modern Houses of Parliament are also on the Thames. So I think it's an essential part of the film and the story and part of Sherlock Holmes. In fact, the story which inspired me the most, which is the Sign of Four, takes place in and around the Thames. And a lot of our story also takes place in and around the Thames. there's a certain point where Blackwood, our villain, makes his escape on a boat on the Thames. Our final sequence takes place under and in the Houses of Parliament. And we have a final fight sequence, which is on the top of Tower Bridge, which is under construction. So, yes, The Thames is very important to the film.

On exploring London

When you're walking look very carefully around you because there are all sorts of clues in the architecture of London to the characters of the people who built the buildings and to the society of the time. The buildings had all sorts of significant meanings. There are theories that a lot of Wren's buildings were actually built according to some kind of masonic code. In fact we've employed that idea in the film. When you're walking around looking at these things, imagine the intentions of the builders and how there may be more to them than just the brick and stone.

On whether Holmes and Watson would like modern London

I think they'd love it. I think they'd love it. London continues to be this extraordinary place which is constantly renewing itself. I can say that I've had a really interesting experience of London having moved to America and having spent most of my time here since the late 80s and then coming back periodically to work on different films. I've watched London change. All these new buildings in the city. I've watched the Tate Modern appear. All the old buildings being cleaned up and turned into public spaces. I've watched first the Iranians arrive, then the Poles arrive, then the Russians arrive. And this wonderful mix of people talking different languages in the street. I walk everywhere. I was living there for a year last year working on the film. I'd walk to work every day. Through Soho, through Marylebone. And it's so alive and thriving. There are so many interesting pockets of London. If you go to Brick Lane or Brixton or the East End. Look how the East End has changed since Sherlock's day. I think they'd thoroughly approve. There are certainly plenty of mysteries and murders still going on for Sherlock to solve. He'd certainly be very busy.

This interview was conducted by Matt Brown on behalf of Soundmap, Ltd. during research for a downloadable audiowalk of Holmes' London. The walk is available from the Guardian's microsite. To find out more about Holmes' London, see our map of locations mentioned in the books.

Last Updated 23 December 2009