The clues to ‘Mr. Holmes’ director Bill Condon’s varied career

Director Bill Condon, left, on the set of "Mr. Holms" with Ian McKellen.
(Giles Keyte, Miramax and Roadside Attractions)

Many directors tackle different kinds of movies over the course of their careers, but few have jumped around quite as wildly as Bill Condon in the last decade.

He won an Oscar in 1999 for his incisive screenplay of “Gods and Monsters” and then was nominated again for his 2002 adaptation of the stage musical “Chicago.” Since then, he has had hits and misses, but in the last few years he has been remarkably prolific and dizzyingly eclectic in his choice of projects.

His new movie, “Mr. Holmes,” which opens July 17, reunites Condon with the star of “Gods and Monsters,” Ian McKellen, along with a costar of his 2004 movie, “Kinsey,” Laura Linney. Based on a novel by Mitch Cullin, it’s a Sherlock Holmes story with a twist — Holmes is now an elderly man who has retired to a quiet English village after the end of World War II, long after solving his famous cases.

INDIE FOCUS: Sign up for our weekly movies newsletter


Naturally, there is a new mystery to unravel, which requires Holmes to revisit the past and come to terms with personal regrets.

While preparing for the film’s release, Condon is also involved in pre-production on a lavish Disney musical, the long-gestating live-action film version of the stage show “Beauty and the Beast,” which in turn is based on the Oscar-winning animated film from 1991.

Earlier in the year at a press conference at the Berlin Film Festival, where “Mr. Holmes” premiered, Condon acknowledged the similarities between “Holmes” and “Gods and Monsters” beyond the casting of McKellan in the lead role.

“Both movies are about aging and mortality,” he said. “You have a celebrated man facing the decline of his public image.”

“Gods and Monsters” is about a real person, film director James Whale, who had made “Frankenstein,” “The Invisible Man” and “Bride of Frankenstein” in the 1930s but was living in obscurity in the 1950s, when most of the story takes place. “Mr. Holmes” is about a fictional character who has been portrayed so many times that some think of him as a real person, and this story takes place several decades after the adventures recounted by his partner, Dr. Watson, who died years earlier.

In an interview in Berlin, Condon noted that McKellen “was a little wary of the comparisons that would inevitably be made with ‘Gods and Monsters.’”

“There are even similar scenes in the two movies,” Condon said. “In one scene, he’s helped into the bathroom by the housekeeper played by Laura Linney, and there’s a similar scene with Lynn Redgrave in ‘Gods and Monsters.’”

In the end, however, the opportunity to play an iconic character and re-team with Condon enticed McKellen. Condon added, “I have to admit that for me, working on this project 18 years later, the issues about aging come into focus a little more intensely.”

‘Twilight’ and more

Over the last few years, Condon has been a busy man, with a series of projects both big and small, successful and not. In 2011, he was hired to direct the final two installments of the popular “Twilight” film franchise — the “Breaking Dawn” films. Although those movies made a fortune, they weren’t well received critically, which marked a change from the pictures he had done a decade earlier.

But instead of licking his wounds — or counting his fortune — Condon plunged into a more modest film, “The Fifth Estate,” about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, portrayed by Brit heartthrob Benedict Cumberbatch. That didn’t turn out well — the movie was a disaster both critically and commercially. Condon said the negative reviews for “Fifth Estate” disappointed him more than the brickbats for the “Twilight” movies.

“I learned that reviews do matter for grown-up movies,” he said. “No one came to see the film.”

During this period, he was also able to fulfill a long-term dream and direct a stage revival of the Broadway musical “Side Show,” which had bombed on Broadway in the late 1990s but retained a cult following. After successful productions in La Jolla and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the retooled musical opened on Broadway last fall.

The production earned rave reviews, but the subject matter of conjoined Siamese twins, which had discomfited audiences 15 years earlier, still proved off-putting, and the show closed after just a few months.

Condon said the “Twilight” films accomplished what he had in mind when he signed on for the projects: They helped to revitalize a somewhat sputtering film career.

“‘Twilight’ made a lot of things easier,” he acknowledged. “It showed that my movies could have international box office potential, which my earlier films really did not have.”

Now he’s hoping “Mr. Holmes” will recapture the favor of film critics who embraced “Gods and Monsters” and “Kinsey.” Condon admits being a Sherlock Holmes fan, although he adds, “I am not a fanatic, and I’ve met some of them since starting to work on this movie.”

He’s not enamored of the Basil Rathbone series of Holmes movies, though he’s admired some of the more offbeat entries, like Billy Wilder’s “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.” “There’s a sense of melancholy in Wilder’s movie that I responded to.”

That bittersweet mood suffuses “Mr. Holmes” as well. “If you live long enough, you lose your entire circle of friends and family, and that’s what happens to Holmes in this story,” Condon says. “Everyone he knew has died. Maybe at the end he finds a new partner in Roger.”

Roger is the young son of the housekeeper played by Linney, a brainy 11-year-old boy who wants to delve into Holmes’ history. Since their friendship is the emotional heart of the movie, it was crucial to find the right young actor. Condon eventually cast newcomer Milo Parker in the role. As the director says, “It was daunting to find a boy who could go toe-to-toe with Ian and Laura. Milo was the only one who had a facility with words beyond his years. And then he had the extra quality of charisma.”

Condon did not imagine he would end up spending so much time in England in the last few years. At first glance, it’s surprising that a big Disney production like “Beauty and the Beast” is being shot entirely at Shepperton Studios outside London. “It’s because of the amazing subsidies you get when you work in England,” Condon says, taking note of the economic imperatives driving so many expensive pictures out of Hollywood.

The positive spin is that Condon has had a chance to work with some of the best British actors of every generation. The cast of “Beauty and the Beast” includes Emma Watson from the Harry Potter movies and Dan Stevens from “Downton Abbey.” He’s found it to be a welcome change from Hollywood.

“British actors generally don’t get involved in all the trappings that some American stars rely on,” Condon observes dryly.