Interview: Steven Moffat (“Sherlock,” “Doctor Who”)

Steven Moffat may get a perverse pleasure out of playing the secrets of his shows as close to the vest as humanly possible, but when you’re the man behind Sherlock and Doctor Who, you can afford to be a little cheeky. Right before the first series of Sherlock premiered in the States, I was fortunate enough to chat with Moffat and his cohort behind the scenes, Mark Gatiss, when they were at the TCA press tour, and it was a highly enjoyable experience. As such, when I was pitched the opportunity to write a cover story for Vancouver’s TV Week on the return of the show, I’d knew Moffat would make for a good interview…and I was not wrong. Alas, TV Week does not put its pieces online, but for your reading enjoyment, here’s the full transcript of the conversation…

News Reviews Interviews: Well, I’m thrilled, as is my wife and most everyone I know, that Sherlock is finally coming back.

Steven Moffat: [Laughs.] Well, good!

NRI: How pleasantly surprised were you when the first series became such a hit?

SM: Oh, well, “shocked” is probably the word, really. I mean, you certainly couldn’t anticipate this level of thing, because it’s enormous. Mark (Gatiss) and I and…I think Sue (Vertue) as well, but certainly Mark and I talked about it. We reckoned an audience of maybe four million, lots of very good reviews, and maybe an award from an obscure festival would about cover it. And we would’ve regarded that as a hit. And it would’ve been a hit, but we thought it would be a snob hit. We thought it would be relatively small-scale. But the fact that it became an instant phenomenon in the UK, and then just about everywhere, has been…a proper shock, yeah.

NRI: Given that you and Mark are walking Sherlock Holmes encyclopedias…

SM: Well, we’re pretty good, yeah. [Laughs.]

NRI: …how far in advance, if only in your heads, plan out the series? Did you already have an idea for what Series Two would be?

SM: Um…we had one pretty quickly. I mean, not immediately. But the broad building blocks of “Scandal (in Belgravia),” “The Hounds (of Baskerville),” and “The (Reichenbach) Fall,” we had to do those, because they’re the three huge stories. Particularly “The Hounds.” That’s about as huge as it gets. So it’s a case of…well, we know we progress slowly in this show. It’s always gonna be long gaps between show runs, so there’s not a lot of point in just doing it for our pleasure. Might as well get the biggies up front. I was excited about doing the Irene Adler non-love story, and Mark was excited about doing “Hounds,” so, yeah, we had a plan pretty quickly.

NRI: You’d said before the series premiered in the States that the Sherlock Holmes Society had been thrilled with the results of the modernization of the Holmes mythos. Did you give them an advance screening of the second series?

SM: Uh, no. [Laughs.] We didn’t. Some years before, though, we were invited…or, rather, Mark was invited…to address the Sherlock Holmes Society, just in his role as a very prominent writer and actor and a Sherlock Holmes fan. So he addressed the Society as a guest, and at that time – because we’d already been talking about it – he said, “We have this idea to do a modernized Sherlock Holmes,” and, you know, they were all really, really keen on the idea and very crazy about it. We thought they’d be more sort of fuddy-duddy about it, but they really weren’t. They were really quite excited about it. And a few years later, just during the transmission of the second series (in the UK), I addressed the Sherlock Holmes Society with Mark as my date. [Laughs.] And they were all just thrilled with it. They were delighted with it. They’re not at all conservative in their appreciation of Sherlock Holmes. They like it if you change things up a bit.

NRI: When you and Mark devised Sherlock, one of the touchstones that you used from previous interpretations was Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

SM: Oh, yes, very much so. That’s a film that Mark and I loved. It’s probably our joint favorite film, really. Have you seen it?

NRI: I have, yes.

SM: Yeah, it’s a gorgeous film. It’s probably the most beautifully made Sherlock Holmes film, and although it’s actively and quite obviously a comedy, I think – and Mark agrees – that it captures more of the original stories by being funny. Also, it’s tremendously melancholy and sad as well. But it’s just a beautiful film. We sort of…I thought what Billy Wilder did with his design of Mycroft was so clever. He often comes off as a bit boring because he’s…he’s just fat! [Laughs.] But they got rid of the fat and made him into this really quite terrifying government spook, and, of course, we just lifted that idea and did it again in our version.

NRI: As far as putting together the second series, how difficult was scheduling, given that both of your leads – Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman – have found themselves much more in demand than when you made the first series?

SM: It was tough enough. Also, I’m running Doctor Who as well, so it was quite difficult. But everyone was keen to do it, and if everyone’s keen, you can always find a way.

NRI: Is it odd having it air so far in advance in the UK than the States, given the spoiler-rific nature of the internet?

SM: Uh, yeah. [Laughs.] I mean, I don’t know what to say except “yeah.” I would hope in the future that we wouldn’t do that. I know with Doctor Who, when Matt (Smith) took over, we just did a decision that BBC America would show it the same day, to resist the piracy. Because if people want to see a show now, they don’t want to wait.

NRI: When Sherlock became a success, you no doubt anticipated that it would result in a plethora of previous Holmes adventures being reissued, but what was your reaction when you learned that CBS was moving forward with their own equivalent of the series?

SM: Well, what do you think? [Laughs.] It’s pretty bad, I suppose, in that they approached us about doing a changed-format version of ours, and they were quite insistent that they wanted to do that. In fact, everybody approached us in America, I think, about doing a changed-format version of ours. We said “no” to everybody, that we wanted to carry on doing it rather than having that happen. So with us having said “no,” and them saying, “Well, we’ll wait for you, we’ll still be interested,” we then discovered that they’d just gone off and done it anyway. [Laughs.] Another L.A. story for me…

NRI: As a tremendous Anglophile, I have to ask: don’t you find it rather baffling that America is so insistent on remaking things that are already quite good to begin with?

SM: Well, I suppose we do it as well, to a certain degree. But I think the point to make here quite firmly is that theirs is not a remake. I did the very disastrous… We had a very good sitcom over here called Coupling which they remade very badly in America. But that was a proper remake. They paid us for it. It’s not like what’s happening here, which is…something slightly dodgier, frankly. But I don’t know how close they are to ours, so we should probably just shut up about it, really. [Laughs.]

NRI: Can you speak a bit toward the second series, as far as what fans can except to see from Holmes and Watson?

SM: Sure. Is this going out before…?

NRI: Just before it airs, yes, so feel free to speak in generalities. I’m not looking for major spoilers.

SM: No, well, you won’t get any. [Laughs.]

NRI: I don’t want any, anyway. So there.

SM: [Laughs.] Okay, good. What can you expect…? It’s sort of…it’s almost like Sherlock Holmes grows up. One of the really critical things for us about this series of Sherlock is not so much that it’s updated, but it’s that we’re seeing him at the beginning of his career. He’s younger. He’s a good 20 years younger than Basil Rathbone. And we keep saying, “He’s not that man yet. He’s 20 years ‘til Rathbone.” [Laughs.] So we’re going to see him encounter the big enemies, in a way. He’s going to encounter…sort of love. Or as near as he can get to it. He’s going to encounter fear. He’s going to encounter loss. So it’s…you know, it’s the fires that forge him. It’s the making of the mighty hero by facing all of the big adversities. And he may be discovering that he’s not quite as clinically remote as he likes to think he is. Sherlock Holmes has sort of grasped the idea that he’s a thinking machine, but, of course, he never has been. He’s not in the original stories, and he’s not here. But we’re sort of going to see him learn that. He has all the human frailties to deal with, too, and perhaps some of the strengths that come with them.

NRI: When you did the modernization of the characters, were you and Mark pretty much able to get things the way that you wanted, or were there any questions from the BBC about, like, “How are we supposed to market this?”

SM: There wasn’t much, no. It was a very, very easy ride. Sherlock has been a very, very easy ride from the very beginning. We never even managed to get our entire pitch out before they said “yes.” [Laughs.] We did an hour-long pilot, which they loved, but they said, “We’d rather it was done in batches of three 90-minuters,” a format that they’d had a lot of success with with Wallander. And we leapt at that, ‘cause we thought that those would suit us really well. And that’s it, really. It’s been about as smooth sailing as you get with television.

NRI: How quickly did Benedict and Martin find their chemistry?

SM: Oh, pretty much instantly, really. That’s why we got them. We cast Benedict first of all – he was the first and only one we ever saw for the part – and then we brought a whole bunch of Watsons in, of which Martin was one. And then we brought them in to see how they fitted with Benedict, and Benedict and Martin just fit instantly. It was instantly like that. I remember saying to Mark, “That’s the show right there. That’s what it is.” So they had that right straight away.

NRI: Presumably it was still there when they walked back on for Series Two.

SM: Well, it was from our point of view. I think they weren’t quite as sure, and I think Matt said this about being Doctor Who as well, because it’s quite odd when you come back after the break, and it’s been on the telly. You start to feel like you’re impersonating that you’ve seen on television. But from our point of view, it just looked as though they fell right back into it, yeah.

NRI: Were you surprised about the brief controversy over the shots of Lara Pulver that appeared in the British press, or did you just shrug and chalk it off as typical tabloid goings-on?

SM: Oh, to be honest, I don’t think The Daily Mail were doing anything other than cheekily promoting our show. They knew perfectly well. They’re not stupid. They were actually being cheekier than we were. They were printing full-sized pictures of Lara in her disrobed state and putting them into every living room in the country! We at least put it on relatively late in the evening. People saw it over breakfast in The Daily Mail! [Laughs.] So I don’t think for a second… The Daily Mail loves the show. I think they were just saying, “Why not watch the show and see her again?” I Tweeted about it at the time. I said, “For those of you worried about the nudity in Sherlock, let me assure you that it will be available via your iPlayer.” [Laughs.]

NRI: So do you have a game plan for Series Three yet, as far as the timing of when to produce it, or is it still in the talking stages?

SM: We’re, of course, presuming that he survives. [Laughs.] He’s facing Moriarty, after all. We may have to tell the series in flashback from now on!

NRI: And now for the token Doctor Who questions. Are you continuing to feel comfortable as show runner on the series?

SM: Yeah, well, Russell (T. Davies) leaving feels like a million years ago now. [Laughs.] It was great fun working with Russell, but it feels like I’ve been doing it since the dawn of time So, yeah, I’m very much comfortable. I’m having a great time.

NRI: So have you finished filming in the States, then?

SM: Yeah, we just did a bit in New York, and we finished that up. But, God, we drew huge crowds. It was amazing.

NRI: Are you surprised that Doctor Who has finally, at long last, been embraced by the US?

SM: Well, we can always do better, you know? [Laughs.] It’s interesting why it’s suddenly doing so much better. It’s always very difficult to know how well it’s doing, because we can’t always tell, but it must be doing a lot better, because we’d never have gotten that level of fuss before. But there’s no straightforward way of measuring the ratings. It’s aired so many times on BBC America, people watch it via many means… But I’m proud to say that, for last year, Doctor Who was the most downloaded show on American iTunes.

NRI: That’s remarkable.

SM: It is remarkable, I have to say. It’s very exciting. So, yes, it seems to be really gathering steam at long last, so let’s hope we can keep doing that.

NRI: So the whole thing with rumors of a Doctor Who movie, was that ultimately just a tempest in a tea cup?

SM: Pretty much, yeah. [Laughs.] They keep popping up sporadically, but there really isn’t a lot to say. I mean, yes, we might do a movie someday. I’d like to do a movie. That would be lovely. But “no current plans” is the absolute answer. But, you know, I could be lying in order to conceal an exciting plan I’ve got hidden away somewhere.

NRI: Oh, you always say that.

SM: [Laughs.] But, you know, the thing is, I don’t think the fans would like it very much if we stopped doing 14 of them a year and started doing one every two years. I mean, the big requirement for me is that I need to know that if we were to do a movie, it would not adversely affect the television series, because that’s the mother ship. That’s the most important thing.

NRI: Lastly, mostly just for my own curiosity, do you think you’ll ever pick back up with Jekyll again, or is that just closed and done with?

SM: [Laughs.] Well, no, we’d’ve gone for a second series if we’d gotten one. And it was sort of set up for one. But we didn’t. And I think the ship has rather sailed, to be honest. Having said that, I’m always wrong about the future. But I think it probably won’t happen.

NRI: That’s a shame. The DVD sits proudly on my shelf even now. I loved it.

SM: Oh, that’s good to hear. You know, that’s the first time Mark and I worked together. He was in that as Robert Louis Stevenson.

NRI: Indeed he was. Well, I know you’ve got another interview right on the heels of this one, so let just wrap by saying thanks for finding a few minutes for me. I really appreciate it.

SM: No problem at all.

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