Whether the world needs another reimagining of Sherlock Holmes was answered with an emphatic “Yup!” within moments of our arrival on the set of the Etan Cohen’s new comedy Holmes & Watson. We spent a day at Hampton Court Palace to watch Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly take on two of English literature’s most famous creations, in early 2017.
As soon as Ferrell and Reilly – appearing together as co-leads for the first time since Step Brothers – walked out together in full costume, any apprehensions about revisiting a world we know so well instantly disappeared. This is a take on the famous Arthur Conan Doyle characters unlike any seen before. Though for writer/director Cohen, the timing of the shoot was dictated by other productions.
“We started before the Robert Downey Jr. [2009 Sherlock Holmes] but they beat us to the starting line, and we didn’t want it to look like we were copying them so we held back for a couple of years, and decided now there’s been enough of a gap that it’s time to go,” the filmmaker said.
Wandering the palace grounds, the grandiose setting proves a perfect match to the story unravelling in front of it. For this is a kitsch, lavish production, and while contemporary at times for comedic value (the duo say “hey, girl” when posing for a selfie with the Queen), it’s clear that this was a unique retelling.
“We’re taking every licence we could think of with the characters,” Ferrell, who plays Holmes, told us.
“It’s always been done in a serious way, so to flip it around was essential. We wanted it to have a little bit of the flavour of what Mel Brooks used to do.”
“This Holmes is not very self-aware, he’s self-absorbed. He’s not good on the human side, he’s not very athletic. But he still figures everything out. We wanted him to be as smart as he always has been, but maybe he’s just like Spock, emotionless, and just says what’s on his mind because he has the greatest mind of all time, telling you like it is.”
Rebecca Hall, who plays Grace Hart, echoed these sentiments, as she spoke to us in Anne Boleyn’s quarters at the favourite residence of Henry VIII, unbefitting of the intelligent actress, who has her head firmly on her shoulders.
“You can’t spoof something unless you have a deep-rooted affection and admiration for the thing that you’re spoofing,” Iron Man 3 star Hall shared. “It feels like we’ve been re-digesting and reinventing the Sherlock Holmes story a lot lately, and while they are very serious and very brilliant, it feels like the prime time to now show something completely unexpected and preposterous, in a world we know very well.”
The scene being shot during our visit takes place during an Anglo-American fair celebrating the special relationship between England and the United States, and the meticulous attention to detail from production designer James Hambidge was striking. For Cohen, it was just a joy seeing it all come to life.
“We’ve built this beautiful fair, and it’s an amazing experience when you write three words on a piece of paper and then irresponsibly let people build this gigantic thing… and then we destroy it.”
Cohen was conscious that Holmes & Watson would be the first time Ferrell and Reilly (AKA Huff ‘N Doback) have got back together on screen, and admits that while this is far from a Step Brothers sequel, the buddy relationship at the core is an intriguing aspect to this narrative.
“What’s always funny, and true to Holmes canon, is that if you know the books, the buddy relationship in the books is only one notch less comedic to the one you’re going to see on screen. The books are basically a buddy comedy,” he said.
Naturally, it helps to have a duo so in-tune with one another. After a take culminated in a Ferrell punch-line, he immediately turned to his co-star to ask if it landed, to which his co-star gave him a nod of confidence. Even the very best have to double-check.
“We’re going to make the characters comedic, but at the same time it’s really going to be fun to just see a different aspect to their relationship and what they mean to each other,” Ferrell said.
“We’ve stayed friends and stayed in touch all this time,” Reilly added. “I feel like the work we did was so special, that we didn’t just want to do anything and have something that wouldn’t live up to Step Brothers and Talladega Nights.”
As to why he felt it was these two in particular who landed the roles, he said, “Look, we’re two American, comedic actors taking on two of the most beloved characters in English literature, that’s pretty absurd. There’s no-one even qualified in England to do this.”
When interviewing the duo, sat side by side in full historical attire, it was difficult not to laugh even on the rare occasion they were being completely serious. For actress Lauren Lapkus, who plays Millie, with whom Sherlock is obsessed, she admitted it’s not just the visiting journalists who can’t help themselves from laughing.
“Will is so funny, obviously everyone thinks he’s hilarious, and when I first met him I kept wanting to laugh at everything he said, even when he was being sincere. I had to get used to the fact he’s also a regular person who is not always funny. But he is very funny.”
With worldwide appeal, the titular protagonists also discuss how Sherlock isn’t just big in England, but also in the States, as well as one other rather important territory…
“He’s huge in China,” Reilly said. “He’s one of those characters that has made the leap to all different cultures,” before Ferrell interjected, “I hope it’s huge in China.”
“Well we’re doing every scene in Mandarin, so we have a fully Chinese version,” Reilly finished. A joke, of course – but we’d still watch it.
Holmes & Watson, starring Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, is in cinemas on 26 December.