Tuesday, 29 July 2014

2009: Zorro vs Sherlock Holmes

While filming the last William Boquet, two major things happened: I moved in with the woman whom I would eventually marry, and I decided to write a new ambitious script about two iconic characters. Sherlock Holmes vs Frankenstein? Nope, I wasn't there yet. The initial project was Zorro vs Sherlock Holmes.

I've always been fond of time-defying characters: Robin Hood, Dracula, the Three Musketeers... And Zorro of course. Before I even thought of being a writer-director, I wanted to be an actor. To play Zorro. And before that, I wanted to be Zorro himself. So the concept of having him and Holmes meet and fight seemed exciting. Both swordsmen, one of them cultivating mysteries, the other solving them. Of course the timeframe wouldn't allow Sherlock Holmes to meet Don Diego de la Vega in his prime, but he could easily meet his grandson – which was the setup for this script.
Holmes and Watson, in their early years (not long after A Study a Scarlet), travel to California in order to unmask a dangerous criminal who calls himself Zorro. Of course, they eventually find out that he's fighting the good fight, against a corrupt local government. Together, they retrieve a treasure that had been unfairly confiscated from the Indian people, and they bring down the evil military in an epic final swordfight. Or something like that. I was really excited about this project. I had re-read the whole Sherlock Holmes Canon, as well as Johnston McCulley's original Zorro novel. I had spent hours watching films about both characters, in order to sort out what made them interesting.

But despite having a beginning and an end, the story was hard to put together. Why would the evil military call Sherlock Holmes to help them? Why would Zorro need him to overpower the bad guys? How could the viewer be excited by Holmes unmasking Zorro, when his identity would already be known to him? And if we hide it from him, by having several “potential Zorros”, then how will the viewer care for this character? And most of all: how is there going to be a foe charismatic enough to stand in front of two legends? 
John Neville as Holmes
A lot of those questions derived from the fact that Holmes and Zorro are both positive characters, who can't really be opposed unless one of them loses the audience's sympathy. It's like having a movie called Batman vs Superman (oh wait!), you know that they will eventually join forces. So unless you have a great villain, someone that the viewer already knows, it kind of falls flat because your heroes won't be fighting a big threat. I didn't want to bring Moriarty into the plot, it was against my rules – which rules, you might ask? Watching and reading non-canonical Holmes stories, I have observed that most of them (if not all!) featured one or more of the following characters: Irene Adler, Mycroft Holmes and/or Professor Moriarty. I ended up finding it very annoying, since these characters are only featured once or twice over the course of 60 stories written by Conan Doyle. Hell, Moriarty is often believed to be Sherlock's recurring nemesis, when he's only the main antagonist in one short story (and one that seems to have been hastily written by Conan Doyle in order to kill off his detective). Watson doesn't even get to meet him in person! As for Irene Adler, a lot of versions want us to believe that Holmes and her have been romantically involved, to the point where they're sometimes supposed to have a child together. But in A Scandal in Bohemia, Watson clearly states: “It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise, but admirably balanced mind.” In fact, several stories have Holmes fall in love, with Adler or someone else, when that goes against all 60 canonical adventures! Bottom line is: I decided that if I was to write a Sherlock Holmes story, I wouldn't use Irene Adler, Mycroft or Moriarty.

While I was struggling with the plot, looking for a way to make it worthwhile (without letting Holmes or Zorro become the other's supporting character), I stumbled upon the information that Zorro wasn't public domain property. It belonged to the Zorro Estate, who probably wouldn't allow the character to be used in a crossover with another hero. In the 60s, Zorro had been confronted to Maciste, the Three Musketeers, and even naked women in a few soft-porn movies, but the copyright-holders had straightened the line in the 90s with “mainstream” productions such as the Antonio Banderas movies, the book by Isabel Allende or the recent musical show. So here I was, stuck with a story that didn't quite work and a character that possibly could be an obstacle to making the film even if I sorted out the plot. So I started toying around with the idea of replacing him with another mysterious avenger, probably the Scarlet Pimpernel – which would have moved the plot to France.

But one day, lightning struck. It was the end of February, 2010. I was sitting in a movie theater, in front of a French comedy that didn't have my full attention. Suddenly, I thought of Sherlock Holmes vs Frankenstein. It didn't have anything to do with what I was watching. It was just a title that popped up. During the last 30 minutes of the screening, the main elements of the script came together in my head. When the credits hit the screen, I left the theater (which I usually don't do, I like to stay until the very end – even for movies I don't like!) and rushed home, where my 6-month pregnant wife saw me go straight to my desk, take a pen and paper, and write down the outline for this new script. It all felt so obvious, that I couldn't understand why it hadn't occurred to me earlier: Sherlock Holmes and Watson would travel to Germany, not California or France. And they would have to unmask a mad scientist, one who would have created a giant monster. It made perfect sense: Holmes was the hero, the monster was a menace and the identity of the mad scientist was the mystery to solve. Now I knew the direction I was headed. I just didn't realize how long the journey would be.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

2003-2009: William Boquet (2)

Four years later, I graduated from a French/American school with
a BA in management and finance. And William Boquet came back. Instead of looking for a regular job, I went on to work on a new episode for my detective, entitled William Boquet dans la quatrième dimension (William Boquet in the Fourth Dimension). This one would be a silent movie, shot in black & white (or rather in an intense sepia monochrome), and would focus on everyone BUT William Boquet. He would only show up in the last scene and kick the shit out of the bad guys. This last idea came from the fact that I initially thought I would play the character myself... which I ultimately didn't. The part went to a friend called Pierre, who would later return for two installments of the franchise. In a small but very funny part, Matthieu Huvelin was being beaten up by two thugs; he would eventually become a composer on a lot of my movies, including the upcoming Sherlock Holmes vs Frankenstein!

The first three films were shot on Hi-8 and VHS-C, this one was the first for which we used DV. It was also the first episode to be edited on a computer, and not with a VCR connected to the camcorder or to a Hi-Fi (no kidding, this is how the others were edited and mixed). Apparently, it was entertaining enough to be selected in a short film festival in Grenoble. Only two amateur movies had made it into the selection, and we were running against 18
sketches for Avant-Garde
films made with professional means. William Boquet 4 was very fun to to make, and a lot of people seemed to like it. To this day, it's still the best of the bunch, because things went a bit downhill afterwards. This is one time in my life where I probably should have stopped amateur filmmaking and started doing things properly. But I went the lazy and cowardly route for a few years, paying my bills with jobs I didn't care for, and sticking to making films with no crew, no budget and zero technical equipment.

That same summer, I made a short film called Avant-Garde, about.... Frankenstein. So you might say 2003 was the first time I pitted “Sherlock Holmes” (a version of him, at least) against Frankenstein, in a way. Avant-Garde told the story of Victor Frankenstein creating his monster, then dreaming that it survived through the 1930s, 60s, 90s and beyond. The film was 12 minutes long, which is about half of an average William Boquet, but there was an effort on costumes and lighting. It was also the first time I used the name Marteau Films, as a mere joke: Marteau is French for Hammer, and my favorite Frankenstein movies are the Hammer productions with Peter Cushing.


One year later, I made a fifth William Boquet, the only episode that would be shot outside of Paris and its surroundings. L'Amour aux trousses (a pun spoofing the french title for North by Northwest, where I replaced Death with Love). We spent four days in Normandy, filming scenes on the beach and in town, where the detective was being chased mostly by women who wanted to rape him – and a few individuals who wanted to kill him or mutilate him. We had a blast, but the film was another of these no-budget, private-joke efforts that couldn't appeal to a lot of people outside a small circle of friends.
After I spent almost two years on a more ambitious film called Freudy (but again, without professional means or a real crew), William Boquet returned for his weirdest adventure in 2006: Fax Bulle-d'O². Pierre was playing the character for the third time, and I was directing, but for the first time it wasn't from a script that I had written: it was one of three episodes penned by Jean-Noël Georgel (the other two were never filmed). It was a very strange story, where the world was losing its colors around the FBI agent, who had made an enemy out of his own subconscious double. It could have been exciting, but I underestimated the complexity of making the final product intelligible, and it ended up being quite a mess – my favorite parts are the opening and closing credits! It was the second time Matthieu was scoring one of my films (the first having been Freudy). 

After that, another episode called Repas Eternel (which had Boquet track down a cannibal) was planned, with a friend directing and me playing the lead again – eight years after Seven-Up. We started shooting a few scenes, but the whole thing rapidly fell apart. Which is when I started concentrating on writing something that could be made into a REAL film. Not a 20-minute selfish surreal trip, but a feature film that a normal movie-goer would be interested in! Sherlock Holmes vs Frankenstein? Not yet, folks! I know, this is beginning to sound like How I met your mother, but remember we're barely in 2008 at this point...


I called Jean-Noël and asked him if he would write something really ambitious with me. He said yes, and we got down to work. So here was the plan: to write a 100-page script loosely based on a french comic book character, then send it to the author and hope that he likes it. It was a very silly plan, for two reasons: first, having the author approve your script would not be a guarantee that it will make it to the screen; second, you could have the problem we ended up having: when Jean-Noël and I contacted the author's agent, we learned that the rights had already been optioned, and there was no way our script would be read. They didn't even want to know the pitch or anything, we just had to put our work in a drawer and move on to the next project. It was the second feature-long script I'd worked on, the first was called Old-Up and had gone through several versions from 2000 to 2003, and had ultimately been shelved (too expensive, too many characters, too hard to keep the three writers focused on a same project). Jean-Noël had already written and directed a no-budget 80-minute film a few years before. But this particular script could have been our key to “real” filmmaking, if only we had chosen our subject more wisely. There we were, having worked for almost a year on a script (we had also made a short test-film which wasn't too bad – but had very poor special effects!), and having no real plan for the foreseeable future – apart from sticking to our day jobs.
The frustration that arose from this situation drove me to my usual fix: William Boquet. I took the unused footage for Repas Eternel and used it to spawn a seventh episode, Flou (Blur). I played the detective once again, and put the character in an uncomfortable situation: he wakes up one day almost blind, his entire environment reduced to a blur. He starts picturing everyone with his own face, and wonders how he's gonna solve the case of missing person he's dealing with. Matthieu Huvelin scored this one as well, and Jean-Noël plays a new FBI agent (one who had been introduced in the previous installment), but the film is unlike any of the previous entries. William Boquet has always been my double in a way, and each film had mirrored something of my life at the point it was made: Teddy was about leaving childhood, WB4 was filled with the feeling of liberty I had when exiting business school... but it was never deliberate. This seventh episode ended up being too personal, and while it reflects one of the dearest periods in my life (basically, how I realized that I had met my soulmate), it doesn't make for a very good movie – except for my wife and I! 

Flou was filmed in 2009, completed in 2010, and remains to this day William Boquet's last episode. I don't see the character returning any time soon, but if he does, he won't be sporting a deerstalker hat. Days of dealing with a Sherlock Holmes wannabe are long gone now.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

1997-1999: William Boquet (1)

In 1997, I was floating through high school with no real assiduity, except in theater class. I was 15 and in the equivalent of Junior Year. The year before, I had made a short film with a classmate named Jean-Noël Georgel. We first intended it to be a “Tale from the Crypt”, but then it became an odd story of nightmares and surreal humor, shot with a camcorder and left unfinished after one of the actresses went missing (this was before cell phones and e-mails, it was hard to find someone when he wasn't in the phone book).

Jean-Noël had then moved to Lyons with his family, so I found a new bunch of people to make movies with. One of them started writing a script about a private detective and the murder of a teddy bear. It wasn't going anywhere, so he dropped it. I asked Emmanuel if I could take the premice and write my own script from it, and he had no problem with that – he even went on to play the detective. It was the start of a saga that would last 13 years.

I had to come up with a name and personality for the hero: my love for puns drove me to chose William Boquet ('bilboquet' is the french word for cup-and-ball game), and he took elements from various iconic sleuths: he was an untidy bachelor, acted cynical, wore a trenchcoat and yes, a deerstalker hat. Which pretty much established him as a modern-day Sherlock Holmes wannabe. The movie was logically titled Teddy, and had William Boquet inteviewing the inhabitants of the building where the teddy bear was murdered. Again, it was a surreal murder comedy, probably influenced by the TV series The Avengers (John Steed and his women, not Iron Man and his pals). We shot it in three afternoons with two camcorders, and it looks pretty awful. There was only one copy of the script, which was hand-written on a notebook, and we managed to misplace it halfway through the shoot. I had to tell the actors what their lines were before each scene (the script was recovered a few days later under my bed, and I realized then that I had forgotten a few lines and jokes in the process). Beside William Boquet, the film introduced a character called Fax Bulle-d'Air, a paranoid FBI agent inspired by Fox Mulder; I realized a few years later, when I discovered
16-year-old me as William Boquet
the series Get Smart, that Fax Bulle-d'Air was actually very similar to Maxwell Smart!


A year later, a friend of mine called Bastien encouraged me to write a sequel. He knew I had a few ideas for a 'William Boquet universe', with a gallery of supporting characters that had yet to be developed. I wrote this sequel under the title Viande Froide (Cold Meat), and introduced police commissioner Lacroûte, who behaved a bit like the commissioner Gordon from the 60s Batman series: each time a case was brought to his attention, he instantly called William Boquet to solve it for him. The guy only spent his day reading books and drinking beers. FBI agent Fax Bulle-d'Air was also returning, and was revealed to have a caring wife, who hired Boquet to protect her husband. Viande Froide was directed by Bastien, who had me play William Boquet in place of Emmanuel, who wasn't interested in returning. Again, three days of shooting, horrible camcorder image and cheesy lines delivered by teenage amateur actors. Hey, what did you expect?


Another year later, I was finally finishing high school, and decided to shoot a final William Boquet episode (or so I thought) called Seven-up. I was playing the detective again, and directing myself (which I found very uncomfortable, even on such a light, no-budget production). The story was a spoof of David Fincher's Seven, with a mysterious killer making up his own list of deadly sins: Ugliness, Bad Taste, etc. In the last scene, we understood he had been killing people who had annoyed William Boquet at some point, and then he shot
himself for being the embodiment of the seventh “sin”: intolerance. Seven-up was shot in July 1999, and probably required 9 or 10 days of filming. It was a bit better than the two previous ones, I think, and was a lot more graphic: there were several violent murder scenes, one rape, and Boquet ended with the blood of the murderer all over his face and clothes.

During high school, I also spent some time writing and drawing a comic book called Schtounks. It was about a war between two people called the Schtounks and the Schtonks (confusing, I know). One of the characters was a detective called Scherloc Tounk, inspired by... you know who. There was also a scientist called Professor Von Chlok, who used body parts to create a monster called Alioun. For his lab, I drew inspiration from the promotional stills for Hammer's Curse of Frankenstein.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The early years

Sherlock Holmes. Frankenstein. Sherlock Holmes VERSUS Frankenstein. The film project has been floating around for some time now, and there have been questions lately about whether it's still alive. The answer is: it's been around for much longer than one might think, and yes, it's ALIVE... ALIIIIVE. But assembling a budget for a film is very comparable to piecing together a body from the right elements: you need to dig up coffins at night, with the risks that go with it. Risk of not having the strength or the tools to dig. Risk of being stopped in your endeavour. Risk of not finding the right body parts in the coffin you spent hours unearthing. Risk of having one part rot while you unearth the next. Finally, risk of not succeeding in breathing life in the body you manage to assemble in your secret lab.

But before you even start digging, you need a plan. And even before that, you need to be seized by the urge to devise this plan. Let me tell you the whole story, the path that led from watching films as a kid to trying to make them as an adult. It's a long and bumpy road, and it's still under construction.


It all begun in kindergarten. I had been watching Miyazake's cartoon Sherlock Hound on TV for some time, and I enjoyed it more than most other cartoons of that time (except Thundercats!), but nothing had prepared me for The Great Mouse Detective. I saw it in a theater when it first came out, which might have been for my 5th birthday – since the film was released in France in late November 1986, and my birthday is in early December. The setting (Victorian England!), the exciting music and the unforgettable characters (the evil Ratigan had an amazing song that ended with one of his henchmen being fed to a huge cat) stuck with me, to the point where I wanted to set up a show at school, where we would have recreated the streets of London in the hall, and disguised the children as mice and rats. It didn't go farther than a few talks with my parents because, let's face it, I didn't have the chops to stage a theater play at the age of 5.

Fast forward: this time I know it was a birthday, my 8th. I must have been a Sherlock Holmes geek by then, because my presents were a deerstalker hat and a VHS tape of The Sign of Four (the one with Ian Richardson). I was able to compare it to Granada's version of the story, which I had already watched countless times. I loved the Holmes series with Jeremy Brett,
8-year-old me
even though I found it extremely scary and disturbing at time (I remember The Greek Interpreter as being a source of nightmares). I probably didn't understand everything, but the character of Sherlock Holmes as played by Brett was one I could relate to – distant and centered on his own vision, yet keen on doing the right thing and on helping his fellow men, even when it meant ignoring the law. He also went into disguise on numerous occasions, which was one of my favourite hobbies at that time.

Less than three weeks after that birthday, Christmas came along. I must have had a number of presents, but there's only one I can remember to this day: a pocket edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (a French translation of course, and one that might have been simplified a bit). The story was compelling, and much more complex than I thought it would be: the name Frankenstein was known to me from its presence in everyday's culture, as a generic speechless monster with a flat head, and I was surprised to learn that Frankenstein was actually the creator's name – and the creature was more of a man than a monster. The questions of identity and loneliness resonated in me at that time, and I remember being partial to the Creature, who had a revenge to take on a world who didn't understand him. Victor Frankenstein, in my eyes, was an irresponsible asshole who should have thought twice before giving life to a being he wasn't ready to care for. Growing up, I became more interested in Victor's character, who goes through a tough journey: driven by passion, he makes a mistake as a young man, practically a teenager, and then realizes that he will never be free from his mistake. Not until he dies. There are so many ways to interpret Frankenstein, as a story of fatherhood, creation, life, love and death, that you could read it every year and see a new side to it each time.


It was not until I was 10 that I saw my first Frankenstein film. It was of course the 1931 classic with Boris Karloff, and I finally met the flat-headed monster that I had been aware of before even reading the novel. I enjoyed the movie for what it was – a dry, expressionist version of the story that focused on a few aspects while discarding a lot of the book's elements for entertainment's sake. At that time, I felt it was oversimplifying the monster's story by making him speechless. Then a week later, I saw Bride of Frankenstein and although I loved that they introduced the blind violin player, I revised my idea that the Monster had to speak – Karloff chatting with Ernest Thesiger in a vault was too comedic for my serious 10-year-old self. Now I enjoy all of Universal's Frankenstein movies, and I get the humor and greatness in Bride – but the first entry still holds a special place in my heart.

In November 1994, my father took me to a theater play called La Nuit du Crime, where the audience had to sort out who the murderer was. It was sponsored by the newly created 'Société Sherlock Holmes de France', and my solving the case earned me a diploma that made me a “honorary member”. Maybe this is when it all started!..