Kieran and Michele Mulroney are the husband and wife writing team behind Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Tackling the task of writing a sequel and making it more compelling than the original was a challenge, but one that they had a lot of fun with.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, Kieran and Michele Mulroney talked about the challenges that come with writing a sequel when you didn’t write the first film, the changes that were made throughout the process of developing the story, how they came up with the backstory for Moriarty, even though they decided to cut it out of the script, and getting to use efficient warfare and more modern weapons. They also talked about currently working on adapting the Victor Hugo classic, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with Josh Brolin attached to star and produce, wanting to remain faithful to the story while doing some new things with the character of Quasimodo, and also adapting the young adult novel Matched, which is set in the future. Check out what they had to say after the jump:
Here’s the film synopsis:
Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) has always been the smartest man in the room – until now. Criminal mastermind Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) is not only Holmes’ intellectual equal, but his capacity for evil, coupled with a complete lack of conscience, may actually give him an advantage over the renowned detective. As Holmes’ investigation into Moriarty’s plot becomes ever more dangerous, it leads him and Dr. Watson (Jude Law) out of London and across Europe, to France, Germany and finally Switzerland. But, the cunning Moriarty is always one step ahead, as he spins a web of death and destruction, all of which are part of a greater plan that, if he succeeds, will change the course of history.
MICHELE MULRONEY: We were a little nervous because there’s pressure for it to be as good or better.
KIERAN MULRONEY: Which is one of the hardest things to do. To make a sequel better than the first – and I hope people think this is – is a really difficult thing.
MICHELE: That’s the challenge, but the good thing is that you’ve got a foundation to build on, so you’re not starting from scratch. You’ve got a great relationship at the center of the movie, with Holmes and Watson. It was already put in place in the first movie, but it needed to be developed more in the second movie, and we think everybody pulled it off great. And then, we got the juicy fun of introducing a great villain and introducing a new woman into the movie, and also getting out of London. Not to be too cheesy, but in Sherlock Holmes, London itself is a big character, so it was really fun for us. They did London so well in the first movie that it was a big relief to us when they said, “We’d like to take it out of London.” We said, “Yes!”
KIERAN: The canvas gets broader.
MICHELE: You take them out of their comfort zone, as characters, so they’re not just operating in the streets that they know in London. They’re suddenly thrown into all this unfamiliar territory, and they have to be even more quick-witted and rely on their instincts more. For us, there was a lovely foundation to build on, from the first movie, but then there was the pressure of, “It better be better!”
KIERAN: You’re under a magnifying glass, and everybody is – actors, directors, producers, writers. For us, that’s always the thing that you want. It gives you enough of a panic to get you up in the morning to write.
MICHELE: It starts with the script. It’s gotta be good, or we’re all doomed. It was really fun.
KIERAN: Yes. We actually had a version that was close to this movie, which was our first pitch. That one developed into the movie that is the movie now. In the process of getting from our first draft to the final shooting script, there were a lot of things that changed. Action beats that started out in a factory, we moved to a mountain. There were things like that, that were process rather than story or plot. The story of the movie – the fundamental mystery and the pursuit and the Moriarty plots – stayed shockingly consistent, from beginning to end.
MICHELE: We were very pleased to see that. We spent a lot of time, up front, with the producers and Robert [Downey] and Guy [Ritchie], just making sure that we were cracking a story that we all wanted to tell, and it stuck. That was nice because then it became about working on details. The big building blocks were in place really early, and then it was about little character details and moments of humor. Of course, on set, these guys have fun, and they improvise and do things that make your scene even better. We’re very lucky that they’re so talented.
KIERAN: I remember when we pitched the story to the studio, before they greenlit the script, coming out of that meeting with the heads of the studio and all the executives, and they loved it and said, “Start writing it tomorrow. Let’s get to work.” We walked out and Joel Silver came up to us and said, “Brilliant job, guys. Love the story. It’s two movies. It’s way too big. We can’t do this. It’s two movies. Maybe we can break it in half.” I said, “Joel, can you trust us? We can get all this in one.” He was like, “I don’t know.” And, all of that stuff is in this movie. I hope it feels like there’s a lot of stuff going on. We jammed as much as we could think of, in one little package.
MICHELE: Yes! The date of the story, 1891, is just so juicy. We did a lot of research – not just reading the Conan Doyle stuff, but general research of the period – and found that legitimately it was a period where there was so much invention going on. The motor car was this brand new toy that was coming up, and the weaponry was right on the cutting edge of being developed. It was dangerous and new, and no one knew what was going to happen with it. That was all really happening, at the time.
KIERAN: Those big guns were literally brand new. Nobody had ever seen them before, with the size of those shells. No one even knew what that was. It was that brand new. And tanks were invented that year.
MICHELE: It was lucky that it was a great year ‘cause a lot of good stuff happened to be happening. One of the things about Sherlock Holmes, as a character, is that he’s such an intellectual and he’s so curious. He’s always going to be leaning forward about what’s next and seeing things that other people weren’t quite able to process yet. He could already start imagining how those things could be used. He has that kind of intellect and mind. There was the actual true history of the time, plus a character with that incredible brain, and then somebody like Moriarty, who’s his own evil genius.
KIERAN: Moriarty could take that technology and see the other side of it. That was part of the reason why we went down that road. We needed a real-world guy like Moriarty to have a plot afoot that was as big as the character of Moriarty. In the books and the movies, the way that Holmes talks about Moriarty is that this is the singular criminal mind, so he’s gotta be doing something pretty dastardly.
MICHELE: The crimes had to fit the punisher. Whatever Moriarty was up to had to feel relevant to the time we were writing in, and also overwhelming and big, and the stakes had to be more. Those were good places to start.
Was it intentional to keep Moriarty’s motives a bit mysterious?
MICHELE: Yes. Like a lot of good villains, he doesn’t get his hands dirty too much. He lets other people do a lot of his stuff. That’s why it’s called A Game of Shadows. He’s really working in the shadows. There’s a lot of mystery about what he’s doing, why he’s doing it, and how he could possibly do it. That makes him a very frustrating nemesis for Holmes because he’s one step ahead of him.
KIERAN: There’s a thing in the movie world now, just in terms of the way that stories are getting told by the studios, but we didn’t want to have a superhero villain that was a black and white, good and evil, take over the universe thing. A lot of great superhero villains have been done. The Dark Knight did a terrific job with The Joker. It’s a much more grey area. But, humans’ motives are elusive sometimes. As much as this is an action film and it’s a fun ride, we wanted somebody grounded and closer to the reality that we recognize.
MICHELE: The way we see Moriarty, and the way that Jared [Harris] plays it so brilliantly, is that the sport for him was how much he could get away with, and how big and elaborate his plan could be. That’s part of the fun. What he gets off on is actually building the tanks and the weapons. The pieces of the plot are what excite him, as a bad guy, and not necessarily the end result.
What do you think it is about the relationship between Holmes and Moriarty that so many people want to see?
KIERAN: It’s because Arthur Conan Doyle never explained it. It’s an incredibly frustrating character to adapt because he’s only actually in one story and he appears briefly in another. He shows up twice. It’s really this enigma. In many of the stories, Holmes talks about this guy, but you never get to meet him, or understand or know what he’s doing. It’s really elusive. The reason why people are interested is because it’s something you can never reach. You’ll never actually get the answer because the guy who invented him didn’t offer one.
MICHELE: We tried to reflect that a little bit in the Watson character being a little skeptical about this guy who, on the outside, is this math professor who’s this dusty, old guy that lectures on the math circuit and works at King’s College. He seems, to the outside world, to be very respectful, but then clearly has this mind that’s just dark and twisted. The surface stuff of Moriarty is every day and unspectacular, but once you can get in his head, there is so much possibility. He’s such a wide open character, and there’s a lot more to come of him, in this series. He was fun to write, and challenging to write.
KIERAN: There are versions of him where we wrote a lot and tried to give him motives and backstory, to explain the whole thing, which ended up becoming invaluable for the filmmakers. If you were to ask Guy [Ritchie] what Moriarty’s backstory was, we wrote it. I don’t know if he and Jared [Harris] talked about the specifics of the version that we all decided on, because it was in the script at times. But, the draft that we wound up with made him much more enigmatic. We know why he’s doing what he’s doing, but we’re not telling.
MICHELE: He’s an intellectual villain, who also isn’t afraid to be physical, which is a great combination, for Holmes to have found somebody who is his intellectual equal.
How did you come to be developing The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and what sort of challenges come with adapting that classic story?
MICHELE: Warner Bros. wanted to do The Hunchback, and Josh Brolin is involved, as playing the role of the Hunchback and as a producer. They just came to us and said, “Do you want to try to tackle The Hunchback?” It was a little scary. At first, we weren’t quite sure because you’re dealing with a very iconic character, and truly one of my most respected and favorite books every written by Victor Hugo. So, you’re starting with this 700-page novel that you think is a work of art, and then you’re thinking, “How the hell are we going to turn this into a movie, and how are we going to do something new?” There’s been, as we all know, lots of various stories about The Hunchback. So, a bit like Sherlock, the only reason we eventually decided to do it was because we felt we had some ideas about where to take this story and be faithful to Hugo, but also blow the dust off it a little bit and do some new things with the character of Quasimodo, particularly. So, we’re excited. It’s been really fun, so far.
KIERAN: We did a Justice League script for Warner Bros., some years ago, and we wrote for Superman and Batman. For some reason, all we’re doing is icons. There’s a real thrill with that. As you get into the script, on the first day, when you get to sit down and type “Quasimodo” for the first time, or you write dialogue for Holmes and Watson, these are characters that everybody knows, and you’re getting to tell your version of them, in adapting these books. That was really appealing to us. The Hunchback has got great music in it, and it’s a great period. It seemed like a good idea, at the time. We’ll see. It’s fun. It’s in process.
Is it strange to also work on adapting a modern novel, with Matched?
MICHELE: Yeah. Every week, we’ve been going crazy. We’re doing it at the same time. We’ve been going back and forth between 1400 and, for the Disney project, 2200. It’s set in the future. So, it’s been hilarious. But, that being said, every story is still about how people connect and love and have ambition.
KIERAN: They’re all love stories.
MICHELE: They all come down to the same fundamentals. It’s just that some have flying cars and some have medieval huts.
KIERAN: We worked with a director on a project for Universal that told us something once, that I think is very smart. He said that every movie and every story is a mystery. They’re all mysteries, which I agree with, but I also think that they’re all love stories. One of the reasons why Sherlock is fun is that it’s literally both. It’s this friendship, which is a version of a love story, with a great mystery. Quasimodo is a great love story, with monster movie stuff thrown in it. Even Matched is like that. You don’t want the audience to know where they’re going to go, but you want them to be happy when they get there and, along the way, you want them to fall in love with your characters.