On the Set of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Guy Ritchie shoots like he’s running a triathlon.

He and his crew jump from set-up to set-up with a fierce determinacy that has them in small made-up hotel restaurant one minute and, just hours later, directing a hundred outdoor extras (all in period costumes and some riding in horsedrawn carriages) on how to react to a tremendous explosion that will be added in post-production.

Welcome to the UK set of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (which, when we visited the this past January, was still without an announced title), Ritchie’s follow-up to his 2009 hit, reuniting Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes and the famous detective’s faithful assistant, Dr. Watson. This time around, they’re joined by Noomi Rapace as a gypsy, Simza, and Jared Harris as literature’s definitive criminal genius, Dr. Moriarty.

Again pulling in elements of various classic Doyle stories (including significant elements of one of the most popular, “The Final Problem”), “Game of Shadows” sets out to prove that you really can go “Holmes” again.

“We enjoyed the last one so much it would seem churlish not to return and do another one,” Ritchie says as the set is prepared for a chilly outdoor shot, “…[We're] trying to make a better film than we did last time. I’d like to be more eloquent than that, but that’s essentially our goal. We found the identity of the relationship in the last one and we’d like to big that up, so to speak. We’d like to try to improve the action a bit, and their relationship a bit, and the significance of the plot.”

A two-hour drive from London, the expansive Waddeson Manor country house is serving as seven different locations for the film. Built in 1874 and currently owned by England’s National Trust, the Manor offers a neo-Renaissance style that lends itself to the day’s location: the Parisian Hotel de Triomphe where Holmes and Watson find themselves on the trail of the villainous Moriarty.

Because of the antiquity of the building (which is also home to a vast collection of art and centuries-old bottles of wine), visitors are forbidden from even bringing pens inside certain rooms and the film crew has gone through the laborious process of setting up special lighting designed so as not to damage the location’s priceless hanging tapestries.

Set up as a hotel breakfast, the scene’s center stage feature Harris, as his meal is interrupted by another man, delivering to Moriarty news that appears to be of some urgency. The men leave together and we learn that their conversation was being overheard by a seemingly older man with round glasses and an enormous grey beard who, up until they leave the room, pretends to simply be enjoying his tea and morning paper. When Moriarty is out of range, however, he leaps into action and out the front door, tugging at his facial hair, he reveals himself as Holmes in disguise. He tosses the beard to a passing waiter and is out the door, following his nemesis to thwart whatever evil he has planned.

Holmes’ interest in Moriarty spins directly from the end of the first film, which (though Moriarty remained unseen) revealed that mastermind had been pulling the strings the entire time. “Game of Shadows” picks up shortly after that.

“Not a lot of time has elapsed,” explains Law. “I am nearly married. I’m a couple of days away from getting married. I’ve moved out and I’m getting very comfortable with Mary.”

Not surprisingly, that relationship doesn’t exactly move forward smoothly, though this time it’s not going to be Watson’s gambling that has Mary upset.

“That’s the least of her problems,” Downey coyly smiles.

Susan Downey, producer and wife of the star, points out that Holmes himself will take a fair share of the blame regarding his friends’ weddings troubles.

“[Holmes] has been obsessed since the first movie with the scent of Moriarty and believing that he’s on to something much bigger,” she continues, “This movie is essentially following him, figuring that out. But there are smaller mysteries along the way that are adding up to a bigger thing that’s happening.”

Introduced in voice only at the end of the first film, Moriarty’s casting was for some time the subject of much speculation. Online rumors had, even before the release of the 2009 film, suggested various talents that had secretly done the voice.

“It was one of the crew guys,” Mrs. Downey explains, “That was it. There’s no great mystery to that. We decided that we wanted more a texture of voice than to worry about it being a person and having to worry about whether or not we were even going to be able to do a second movie… but we loved watching the rumors fly… Robert was even trying to start one that he was going to be Moriarty, also. But that never caught on.”

Harris, best known for his work on “Mad Men,” was a surprise choice for the role, but both Susan Downey and producer Lionel Wigram felt that a bigger name might ruin the part’s mystique.

“Given how little he appears in the books, he’s such a famous character,” says Harris of the role. “He’s such a famous villain and he really was the very first literary super-villain. From there, super-villains have become this thing where they are so pastiched that you want to do something that honors that title without it being you stroking a cat.”

First appearing in the 1893 story “The Final Problem,” Moriarty also plays a significant role in “The Valley of Fear,” published two decades later, but taking place prior to that adventure. From those two main stories, Moriarty’s back history had to be reverse-engineered.

“We batted around a lot of different ideas about who this guy was and where he came from,” says Harris, “One of the things that we found is [not to] make very obvious choices, like he being Irish. ‘Moriarty is an Irish name, so he’s Irish. So he’s secretly motivated by a desire to destroy the British empire because he’s –’ All of those things end up becoming boring because you’ve seen them all before and because as soon as you know what someone wants or what someone is trying to do, they lose their power.”

“[Jared] asked all of the right questions that really put us to task, too,” says Robert Downey Jr. “He’s built a sort of reputation for himself and it would be a shame to expose him to a vast audience in not the best possible light. So he really put it to us about how ‘Hey, let’s not make this mistake. I think we can be better than this.’ We were like, ‘Absolutely. That is how we feel.’ He basically lead the charge in this particular incarnation of Moriarty. It’s even better than what we hoped it would’ve been.”

Though he remains mum on any specific details, Harris says that his Moriarty will drive the plot forward in a manner that should have audiences guessing right up until the end.

“The whole story is a plan or plot that he has set in motion quite a long time before the story starts,” Harris explains, “There’s a tremendous sense of motion to the story and Sherlock Holmes is arriving in the end stages of this plan and he’s catching up to it to thwart it.”

Harris, like the entire cast, embraced the production’s encouragement for improvisation, though had to walk a fine line in making Moriarty neither funny nor over-the-top evil.

“One of the things that I was interested in about Moriarty was how he’s so manipulative that he doesn’t need to commit violence himself or kill people,” Harris continues. “He can get everyone to do what he needs to do and sometimes they don’t even know that they are being manipulated by him. They aren’t even aware that they are caught in a stratagem that he has… That’s quite chilling, to have someone that understands people that well. He can have a letter arrive on the wrong day and it’s going to be enough that it will set somebody off or whatever it is.”

As mysterious as Moriarty is, however, Rapace’s Simza may have him beat. She’s shrouded in secrecy and doesn’t seem to appear in any of Doyle’s original writings. On set, Rapace wasn’t even willing to give up her character’s name, simply saying that she’s a Romani gypsy who first meets Holmes in London and again later in France.

“It’s kind of being the new girl in the class or something,” she says of playing the part, “But you can feel that the whole team has something really good, so it’s like stepping into something where somebody else has done the hard work so you can just fly.”

Joking that Ritchie loves gypsies (he previously featured Brad Pitt as one in 2000′s Snatch), Rapace did her fair share of preparation for the part.

“Her character was not fully fleshed out when we brought her on board,” says Susan Downey, “She was already a gypsy and we knew the way, from a pure plot standpoint, how she was going to weave in and out of their story, but once we got Noomi, we decided to build towards her strengths. She really helped develop the character to the point where, ultimately, you’re going to see her.”

“I’ve done a lot of research on gypsies and their culture,” Rapace adds, “So, for example, I’ve added in that I actually talk some Romani, their language. So we’ve added in some lines based on how they actually talk. They will probably need to do subtitles in some scenes. I’m learning to do some dances and stuff like that.”

However it is that Simza comes to be traveling in the company of Holmes and Watson, she’s featured in the day’s big outdoor shoot. The trio is seen walking through the streets of Paris when an explosion rings out from within the Hotel de Triomphe. While the crowd runs in the opposite direction, the three leads run towards the disaster, shocked at what has just taken place. Simza, it seems, is no stranger to action.

“I think it’s really important to find a way to do things as realistically and credible as possible,” Rapace explains, “She’s not a fighter. She’s a street fighter, so she can use a fork or a knife or she can bite somebody or throw a stone. I think she’s a survivor and she’s used to being one. I think most gypsies all over the world are used to being not very welcome and always on the run, expecting people to not like them and being critical. I think she is used to taking care of herself and fighting back. We have many explosive situations.”

Rapace also adds that the phrase she’s most commonly hearing about Simza is that she fits in as “one of the guys.”

“Is that bad?” she laughs. “I think she’s quite tough. She’s a strong woman.”

Though unfortunately not on set that day, Stephen Fry is also set to make an appearance in “Game of Shadows” and it’s one that should have Doyle fans very pleased. He plays Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s older brother.

“Stephen was the only choice,” says Susan Downey. “It was Mycroft… Stephen Fry. And, fortunately, he wanted to do it. He was just so perfect. The description of Mycroft being his brother who is potentially even smart than he is but far lazier.”

“His character is arguably the most enigmatic of all the characters in the lexicon, and so what better person?” adds Robert Downey Jr. “It’s so funny, too, that he’s literally just hitting this super stride. Just as we are got here, we went to go see him at Albert Hall and then he is at a rehearsal with us just basically thinking and phrasing circles around us. We were just kind of left wondering what happened when he left. He had to go because he has some other hip thing that he has to do.”

Fry lent his talent to a film adaptation of British literature last year with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland as the voice of the Cheshire Cat and is set to do so again next year as the master of Laketown in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit. A Doyle fan for life, Fry was, as a boy, the youngest-ever member of the long-running “Sherlock Holmes Society.”

As for what Doyle’s own thoughts might be on their adaptation, the stars have a few ideas.

“Well, I’m sure he might have had a complaint or two,” Robert Downey Jr. admits. “I can’t speak for the strength of transcripts of stage productions, but we’ve definitely put the most of his words in our mouths. If anything, he might be happy that we brought Watson back to how he was originally described. There is something about it. Last time around, there was, for some reason or other, that wave of bromance in the air. I think this time we are attempting to transcend that a little bit by making these two guys go up against something that is bigger than both of them.”

“I think when you’ve got source material, whether it’s a play or a book, a great writer often appreciates being adapted and developed,” adds Law, “It’s like when you go see a production of a great play and they are always different. There is always room for interpretation, and this is our interpretation. I don’t think we drifted as far away from the source material as people expected, but I equally think that we were original enough to keep it fresh and our own. So I think he would have been very appreciative.”

Fans of the original books should find it somewhat ominous that scheduling included a scene shot in the Swiss Alps, but the hope is not to end the franchise with “Game of Shadows” and, if all goes according to plan, finish out a trilogy of Sherlock Holmes films.

“I always had an idea, when we started this, of more or less where the first three movies should take place and what I wanted to see,” says Wigram, “A general direction for them. We’ve sort of followed that on the second one, though it was just a tiny concept and, collectively, we’ve come up with a much stronger story for it… If we’re lucky enough to make a third, we’ll probably go there. But beyond that, we don’t have very specific plans.”

Robert Downey Jr., meanwhile, admits that the reception from the first film was overwhelming and he can only help that the sequel’s response will follow suite.

“Half of my problem – if I do have a problem that I can speak about half of – I would say is that every time I swing I think it’s going out of the park, he says. “I still try to keep that attitude, but I knew that we had a real winning combination. I knew that something clicked with us… It’s a tough thing – how do you recreate having caught lightning in a bottle? I’m not used to it. Well, maybe I am a little bit more lately than before. But I’m still not used to studios being ecstatic about what we did and saying, ‘Please go do that again!’”

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows opens in theaters on December 16th.