Robert Downey Jr. in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
WADDESTON, BUCKINGHAMSHIRE, ENGLAND - On a cold winter's evening in the English countryside, Sherlock Holmes and his loyal companion Dr. John Watson stroll along a carriage-crowded road. The evening will bear witness to multiple explosions, complex costume changes, a new compatriot and plenty of clues uncovered. But first, someone needs to tend to the green screen.
"Ever since Mr. Law and I met, the chuckles and the fun and the happiness come, but we're really very much about the business," Robert Downey Jr. says, grinning, between takes of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
, the sequel to the 2009 blockbuster that cast himself and Jude Law as history's most iconic sleuths. "If work is 99 percent perspiration - oh, you're gonna love this - we like getting sweaty together."
On this night, some 10 months ago, Downey and Law got sweaty together--while the rest of the cast and crew were freezing on the massive front lawn of Waddeston Manor, a 130-year-old Neo-Renaissance castle previously glimpsed in everything from The Queen to The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. During our set visit, dozens of extras walked in front of the Manor alongside horse-drawn carriages -- and under a pair of movie-screen-sized green screens that would later allow director Guy Ritchie's visual artists to turn the facade into a French location called Hotel du Triomphe. As with everything in this rebooted Sherlock franchise, it's old-timey charm meets modern-day action expectations.
"Sometimes, the right character comes along at the right time," said Law, clad in a scarf and gloves and sitting down alongside Downey inside a Waddeston banquet room. "And I think we both felt that wasn't just happening individually, but we're also each watching someone else have that experience. Like Robert said, we're working hard but enjoying it tremendously. It's a perfect balance."
In Shadows, that balance is tipped by two characters -- one new to the franchise and sympathetic to Sherlock and Watson, the other alluded to as "The Third Man" throughout the first film but barely glimpsed.
"The first Sherlock Holmes did such a bloody good job of creating an impression of Moriarty and how he was, the threat he posed. You don't want to [mess] that up when you actually meet the character," said Jared Harris, who plays Holmes’s nemesis. "There is some pressure, given how little he appears in the books but he's such a famous villain. He really was the first literary super-villain, maybe the first super-villain of all time. And from there, super-villains have become such a pastiche. You want to do something that honors that title without having him stroking a cat or something. It's easy to fall into the traps."
On the other end of the spectrum is Noomi Rapace, who landed the role of mysterious gypsy girl Sim while hot on the heels of her acclaimed performances in the Swedish "Millenium series" films. "This is like being the new girl in class. But it's really nice, because the whole team is onto something good," explains the 31-year-old actress. "It's been a great, fantastic journey."
Over the course of the evening, much of the time is spent watching one's own breath while Ritchie lines up a signature shot that has Sherlock and Watson running with Sim from an explosion at the Triomphe (you can see it in the film's latest trailer). Also witnessed was a scene that had Sherlock in disguise, spying on Moriarty in a restaurant - but like Shadows itself, even a set visit is little more than a series of clues hiding far bigger secrets.
"This time around we're able to honor Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even more by making this a very thrilling story, not unlike one of the Doyle stories that Watson is re-telling," Downey said broadly of the sequel's plot. "So you get back to the subjectivity of here's an ordinary person in these extraordinary circumstances, with his friend."
"To me, Sherlock being as successful as it was and as well received as it was, that was the single greatest feeling I've ever had about something," Downey said. "Half my problem is that every time I swing, I think it's going out of the park, but this time I knew something clicked. Our chemistry made the first movie work. And everything else was ancillary to that."
"It's a tough thing," he added as he headed back out into the English cold to film his next scene. "How do you re-create lightning in a bottle?"
Clearly, such issues are not as elementary as one might think. Can Sherlock Holmes solve the mystery of the re-captured chemistry? Audiences will find out at theaters everywhere, when Game of Shadows opens December 16th.
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