Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly – the legendary duo from Step Brothers and Talladega Nights – reunite in Holmes & Watson, a unique and comic take on the world’s greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes, and his faithful companion, Dr. John Watson.
The Ferrell-Reilly reunion reaches new heights of mayhem, madness and mirth in Holmes & Watson, written and directed by Etan Cohen
The game is afoot, or “a going,” as Holmes proclaims, when a dead body is discovered in Holmes’ birthday cake at Buckingham Palace. It seems the perpetrator is their longtime nemesis, criminal mastermind Professor James Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes), but the famed sleuth has doubts. As their investigation uncovers one twist after another, Holmes and Watson face the greatest threat of their partnership. The master sleuth and his dependable partner must remain united to find the killer, save the Queen, and restore the reputation of the world’s greatest crime-solving duo – if the case doesn’t tear them apart first.
Over 125 years after his creation by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes remains the most popular fictional detective in history and continues to intrigue and delight fans around the world. Conan Doyle wrote 60 stories featuring Holmes and his friend and biographer John Watson, which in turn inspired countless films, television series, and Holmes stories penned by others.
Conan Doyle was first and foremost a storyteller and while his Holmes tales were not overt comedies, they were always entertaining and fun. So, it’s not too much of a stretch to see the characters and their world reimagined, through the reteaming of Ferrell and Reilly, and the unique voice of writer-director Etan Cohen (Tropic Thunder, Get Hard), as a raucous comedy rife with physical and verbal humor and comic twists and turns, along with murder, mystery, absurdity, pageantry, and a storied partnership that may be on the rocks.
Says the film’s writer-director Etan Cohen: “Will and John’s superpower is that they can play these man-children who, played by anyone else, might appear to be jerks, but they make them lovable.”
According to Ferrell, who also serves as a producer, Holmes’ position in our zeitgeist gave the filmmakers license “to go where no Sherlock has ever gone before.”
Ferrell’s choice of words, which recalls the opening narration for the original Star Trek television series, isn’t accidental because, as he explains, “We wanted Sherlock to be a comedic version of a supremely logical character, like Mr. Spock. Holmes is all about logic. He’s so incredibly smart but at the same time he lacks the interactions and feelings that most normal humans possess.”
Ferrell also pays tribute to – or, as he jokes, “steals a page from” – the quintessential Victorian-era Holmes, played by Jeremy Brett in a series of British television films produced in the 1980s and ‘90s. Brett’s portrayal of the detective was acclaimed around the globe but wasn’t widely recognized as being humorous. Ferrell says otherwise: “Jeremy’s brilliant work sometimes made us laugh so hard,” he recalls. “If you watch his performances through a comedic lens, Jeremy’s Holmes would be dissecting a piece of information and then would suddenly start yelling at the top of his lungs.”
Facilitating the Holmes-Watson friendship was the comfort level between Ferrell and Reilly born from their previous on-screen pairings. Says Ferrell: “John and I just hit the ground running in terms of sharing the same comic sensibility. Oddly enough, we never tried to be overtly funny; we would stay true to Holmes and Watson within the context of the scene and trust that it would turn out comical. Knowing each other so well and sharing the same ‘brain,’ in terms of playing off each other, helped everything fall into place.”
Reilly notes that his on-screen chemistry with Ferrell was apparent from their first meeting. “Will and I looked at each other and had this moment,” he remembers. “I understand the way his mind works. There was an immediate, strange and off-kilter familiarity.” That familiarity facilitates a Holmes-Watson interaction that’s both familiar and unexpected. Watson wants to be thought of as Sherlock’s best friend, sidekick and even … wait for it… “co-detective.” “These aspirations are based on his love of Sherlock,” says Reilly, “but it’s a struggle for Sherlock to allow anyone, even Watson, into his life. Sherlock is a little – okay, very – conceited and it takes a while before he understands Watson’s value. In fact, sometimes they resemble a screaming married couple during a bitter divorce.”
Etan Cohen, who shares Ferrell’s love of the source material and characters, also notes that the Ferrell-Reilly interplay was always in view, even when the cameras weren’t rolling. “The amazing thing about Will and John is that they’re the same on and off the set. Audiences are lucky enough to experience that for a few hours on-screen but it happens all the time in real life.”
Cohen adds that Reilly’s Watson is true to the spirit of the character in the Conan Doyle stories, but with an intriguing divergence. “Watson has so much faith in Sherlock, and there’s so much affection between them, as there is in the stories,” he explains. “A big part of our movie, though, is exploring something that never happened in the stories: what if Watson wants more? What if he wants to be part of the team, and not just a second banana? That was exciting and a lot of fun to dive into.”
Aspiring to be Sherlock’s equal is going to be anything but … elementary … for Watson because, says Ferrell, “Sherlock appreciates Watson’s allegiance on some level, but at the same time he believes that Watson should be that way.” Adds Reilly: “Holmes’ attitude toward Watson is, “Look, I’m smarter than you, that’s the way it is. Just accept it.”
Holmes & Watson & The Ultimate Mysteries Of Romance
Throughout his illustrious career, Sherlock Holmes, aided by Dr. Watson, has solved mysteries of unimaginable complexities and intricacies. No subject is beyond his understanding; no conundrum transcends a solution. With one exception: they’re clueless about love and romance, both of which turn Holmes’ razor-sharp intellect into a shapeless pile of goo.
Enter Dr. Grace Hart (Rebecca Hall), an accomplished physician, and her mute companion, known only as Millicent (Lauren Lapkus). The good doctor draws the attention of fellow physician Watson, and Holmes finds himself falling for the silent looker, Millicent. Cohen reveals the burgeoning romances lead to unexpected character nuances and humor. “We wondered how those relationships could impact the Holmes-Watson friendship,” says Cohen. “In the original stories, there are few mentions of Sherlock being interested in romance. It could even be argued that he doesn’t trust women. So we thought it would be fun to watch them begin to see what it’s like to fall in love.”
For Watson and Grace, it’s love at first … autopsy … as the two characters find themselves growing increasingly hot for one another as they dissect a corpse in a morgue. “Grace is an especially strange character,” says Hall. “She doesn’t see blood and gore as anything but wonderful. She revels in the glory of the human body, which is romantic fodder for her and Watson.
“And it was a little surreal because John and I spent the entire day mopping down a really dedicated extra who was pretending to be a cadaver,” she adds. Not to mention that the actress, who is half-British, was playing an American, opposite two Americans playing Brits.
Grace is an independent woman and an accomplished doctor, two descriptions that don’t compute for Holmes and Watson. “Allow me to introduce you to a real doctor,” says Holmes, gesturing to Watson, after Grace identifies herself as a physician. “Much of the humor is mined from those stereotypes in Victorian England, and the fact that everyone around Grace won’t accept that’s she’s a legitimate doctor,” notes Cohen.
While Watson is pitching woo with Grace, Holmes is falling under the spell of her travel companion and “research project,” Millicent. “She’s a little bit weird,” understates Lauren Lapkus of her character, who was raised by feral cats, eats paper, and follows absolutely no rules. “It was really easy to become Millicent – I just tapped into my inner-self and was as absurd as possible,” she adds with a laugh.
And of course, Holmes, a master of language and intellect, falls for someone who doesn’t speak. But there is an odd kind of logic to it: Holmes is enamored of Millicent because she’s like a blank canvas for him to work on. “Sherlock is so egotistical that he can put all of his thoughts and desires onto her and then imagine all the wonderful things she must be thinking about him,” Lapkus explains.
Sherlock’s Irregular Regulars
Welsh actor Rob Brydon portrays much put-upon Scotland Yard Inspector Lestrade, who often finds himself the target of Sherlock’s disdain. In this depiction of the Holmes-Lestrade dynamic, the peerless detective’s contempt for Lestrade’s crime-solving skills is on full display. “Lestrade is constantly turning up at crime scenes trying to exert some authority. But everyone treats him as a bumbling idiot who can’t get anything right and treat Sherlock as a genius folk hero who’s never wrong and never fails,” says Brydon. “As an actor, that’s incredibly fun to play. Will and John play idiots with total confidence, so I can then be exasperated and at my wits’ end, convinced in my head that I’m right and Sherlock is wrong – and alone in that conviction.”
Another character known from Holmes lore is the consulting detective’s landlady and housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson, at the flat he shares with Watson at 221b Baker Street. In the Conan Doyle stories and many of the subsequent adaptations, Mrs. Hudson is a staid, maternal figure, but Cohen again shakes things up here, giving us a Mrs. Hudson who is young, saucy and hot-to-trot. “She’s also a terrible housekeeper,” says Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald, who takes on the role, which is a 180-degree turn from the quiet, introspective characterizations for which she’s been acclaimed – some of which have been housekeepers. “I come from a long line of cleaners,” she says with a laugh. Moreover, Mrs. Hudson’s taste in men is … well, “Let’s just say she keeps interesting company,” Macdonald teases.
The World Of Holmes & Watson
A key element of Cohen’s vision for Holmes & Watson was creating a lush and colorful period piece that was true to the characters’ Victorian roots. “I wanted to avoid filming this like a traditional comedy,” he explains. “The Victorian era was our center of gravity. It provides a reality and counterpoint to the comedy that Will and John could really bounce off of.”
To that end, Holmes & Watson was filmed entirely in the United Kingdom. The production captured some of the country’s most spectacular and historical locations, including: The Historic Dockyard in Chatham; the Tower of London; Hampton Court Palace; Kempton Steam Museum, on London’s outskirts; and Laredo Ranch, a replica western town set in the heart of the Kent countryside. “You can’t fake the richness of these locations,” says Ferrell.
Shepperton Studios in West London was the film’s production base and home to many of the interior sets, including Holmes and Watson’s flat at 221b Baker Street – an address as renowned as any in the real and reel world. The look of the set was a highlight for Cohen, director of photography Oliver Wood (The Bourne Ultimatum) and production designer James Hambidge (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them). “We put a huge amount of effort into that set because it is so iconic,” says Hambidge, “and we wanted everyone – cast, crew, and audiences – to get something out of it, both visually and narratively.”
“The set is so incredible you feel like you’re stepping into the [popular London tourist attraction] Sherlock Holmes Museum, which is actually at the real 221b Baker Street,” adds Cohen.
In addition to Shepperton, the production utilized another storied facility, Pinewood Studios, on which it built an opulent ballroom on the Titanic, which in the film is setting sail on its maiden – and final – voyage.
With these lavish locations and sets, and a beloved comedy duo having crazy fun with characters they love, it’s no mystery what Holmes & Watson will bring to audiences this holiday season. “Along with the jokes and the insanity, there’s a sincerity to the film that’s even, at times, a little emotional,” says Ferrell. “I hope audiences will appreciate the story, laugh with and at the characters, and enjoy the spectacle of Victorian London.”