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.

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