Film & TV

Interview: Colm McCarthy, Sherlock

Sherlock is back after an agonisingly long wait. In anticipation for the series’ return Film & TV Editor Charlie Andrews sat down with Colm McCarthy, director of the second episode ‘”The Sign of Three”, to talk about the show

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You have worked with the BBC before on programmes such as Spooks and Doctor Who, what was it like to work on a show such as Sherlock?

Sherlock is amazing to work on. First of all the writing is tremendous, secondly the actors are these hugely exciting movie stars and thirdly there is a massive, dedicated following for the show, so you know you have an audience before you even start. The fun you get to have as a director, designing cool shots, telling these mad stories and playing with different tones from funny through to touchingly sad is a constant buzz.

How did you get into this job?

I wanted to be a director as a child, though I then forgot about it till I was in my late twenties. Then I went after it doggedly. I pursued getting a start as an assistant director, got some time on the floor and observed how other people did it and applied that to an understanding of all the movies and tv shows that I watched. Then I blagged gear and worked with mates to make short films until I made something good enough to get me an actual paying job. Since then I have just continued to try and learn and develop. Luckily directing is something you can continue to develop in as long as you have enthusiasm for it.

As I mentioned before you have worked on Doctor Who, what is it like to work with Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat?

Mark and Steven are both very different. Steven is unique and original in his thinking, incredibly brilliant on story and is quite intense. I have learned so much about story from talking to him and working on his material. Mark is incredibly erudite and witty. His knowledge of the source material and ability to turn a gag are phenomenal. He is also an extremely charming person.

The basic tool you have when directing is a script – everything starts from there. And since Mark and Steven are an incredible writing team, it is amazing working with them.

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How did you find handling the big personalities of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman? What are they like outside of their characters?

I collaborated with two amazing actors. They are very different from each other, both as actors and people, but are bound together by a mutual respect and a love for the show. Rather than trying to proscribe a very specific way of doing it, I endeavoured to be open to all their ideas and we sought to try things lots of different ways. The hardest job I had was picking which of the varied takes to use as it was often possible to slant a scene three or four distinct ways depending on which performance I went with.

A lot of less experienced and successful actors can be more guarded of their pre-conceived way of doing something that is awfully limiting when the story is being put together in the cutting room.

What did you think to the cliffhanger at the end of series 2? Do you think this has changed the nature of the show?

Obviously the cliffhanger at the end of series 2 was amazing telly. Circumstances dragging its resolution out for so long obviously raised appetites to a near hysterical thing. Isn’t that fun? I guess that the death of Moriarty changes lots as in the original books he was the only really consistent nemesis, but having seen what Moffat has achieved on Dr Who you can’t doubt his ability to develop villainy and monsters. 

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What do you think is the secret of the show’s popularity? Do you think it will continue after the forthcoming series?

Thrilling stories where humour, plot and emotional highs and lows all have their place make Sherlock the popular success it is. Sherlock has this weird thing of being removed from most of the human race due to his incredible genius. This isolation makes him a semi tragic figure, saved only by the warmth of his relationship with Watson. This enduring friendship is the heart of the show.

I can’t say for sure whether the show will continue, but everyone working one it seems to still love doing it. As a fan I can say I certainly hope so.

What would be your dream project as a director?

If you had asked me when I was ten years old I probably would have said: Sherlock Holmes, Dr Who and Star Wars, so I suppose that I am only lacking one of the childhhood fantasy projects now. Truth be told, I have been very lucky to direct a wide variety of types of material from very dark to frivolous fun. I’d be very happy to just keep getting to work with top class writers and actors on varied material. Next up for me is Peaky Blinders, written by Steven Knight and starring Cillian Murphy, Sam Neil and Helen McCrory amongst others.

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Who is your favourite character in Sherlock and why?

Its very hard to choose, and I am sure that I should say one of the two leads, but I can’t watch Una Stubbs as Mrs Hudson without being filled with a joyful happiness.

Are you a fan of the Sherlock Holmes novels? If so, are there any characters, villains or storylines you would like to see being implemented into the show?

I loved the Rathbone era Holmes films and as a young boy devoured all of the novels. What I love about Sherlock the TV show, however, is how it manages to change nearly everything in the original material and yet somehow staying incredibly true to Conan Doyle’s vision. Steven and Mark have such a love for the characters take such joy in the deductions and convoluted plots that they carry the spirit of the originals in everything they do.

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