"The film is set when the British Empire is at its height. There was a sense of being on the cusp of the modern age... a growing engagement in technologies of the near future, and this sense of wonderment. They're verging on all these incredible things."
—Robert Downey Jr. /Sherlock Holmes
Director Guy Ritchie brought a new, energetic perspective to the enduring adventures of Sherlock Holmes, “While our story is rooted in London of the 1890s, we have tried to make it as contemporary as we possibly can."
To do so visually, Ritchie collaborated with Production Designer Sarah Greenwood and Set Decorator Katie Spencer SDSA. The directive was to be at once authentic and grounded in the reality of the times, while also creating a fresh look for Holmes's world.
Their success garnered Greenwood and Spencer both an Academy Award nomination for Outstanding Art Direction, their third Oscar nod—and for Greenwood an Art Directors Guild nomination, her second for this award.
Spencer acknowledges, “It was an incredible opportunity to show London in this state of flux and chaos when old traditions ran headlong into the new, the belching new industrialization literally towering over a street where people had lived unchanged for centuries.”
“There was also a great contrast to be had between the engineered look of the giant steel structure and the almost 18th century methods that were used to create it: the blocks and tackle, hemp ropes and anvils,” Greenwood notes. “It is that element that struck us most forcibly, that it grew out of the mud with horse and human power.”
Downey adds, "You have this incredibly fascinating yet dangerous city, and Holmes knows every inch of it. He feels that this is his city in which to engage the enemy. And he knows what he's up against."
Spencer agrees, “Sarah and I are lucky enough to live in this layered ever-changing city of London, which never ceases to surprise with the juxtapositions of architecture, business, class and society. To re-create 1891, it was a case of peeling back the last 100 or so years and applying the same principle. This fin de siècle moment at the dawn of the 20th century must have been a very exciting time, but also dark and dangerous for all but the very privileged few.”
Jude Law, who plays Holmes’s trusted ally Dr Watson, remarks on the variety of settings. "The locations on this film are a bit amazing. I was born and raised here and we went to places I've never been or even seen—really beautiful Victorian and Edwardian cobbled corners of London, Manchester and Liverpool. I learned so much about my home country over the course of this shoot."
Some of the logistics for these locations were nightmarish. Imagine trucking in the set dressing on narrow cobbled lanes and add in the compressed time schedule: a 12-week prep and a 12-week shoot.
The overriding challenge was the tremendous scope of the film. "We go from the gutter to the grandeur of the Houses of Parliament, to the shipyard in Chatham Docks, to the creepiness of the crypts, to the intimacy of Holmes's rooms," Greenwood relates. "This movie is funny, it's visceral, it's fast-paced and it's energetic. Our mandate from the beginning was to always keep those elements in mind."
221B Baker Street:
The iconic set for the film was one of the most famous addresses in the world: 221B Baker Street, the flat Sherlock Holmes shares with his close friend Dr. John Watson. In its clutter and chaos, the apartment reveals both Holmes's disorganized personal habits and the detective's brilliant, complex mind.
Layered detailing is essential to the set. Ritchie notes, "Everything is supposed to represent his journeys, his travels, his inquisitive nature into the human condition and the human anatomy, chemistry, photography...frankly, anything that's worthy of Holmes's interest."
Dog-eared books, newspapers, paintings from the Near East, unpaid bills, maps of Britain, anatomical drawings, Oriental carpets, a tiger-skin rug, half-eaten food from forgotten meals, not to mention Watson's exceedingly tolerant dog, Gladstone, can all be found in Holmes's Rooms. In keeping with his profession, there are wigs, mustaches and false noses for disguises, and a padded post for Holmes's martial arts practice.
“There were also many references to previous cases,” Spencer indicates, “Including lemon juice that Holmes uses for secret writing, a glass-covered diorama of bee hives, and a corner for Holmes's phrenology studies, another popular area of interest among the educated classes during this period.”
“We were very lucky that we had Robert Downey Jr’s attention and opinion. His help here was invaluable. It was great fun to go deeper and deeper into the madness of Robert’s interpretation of Holmes’s mind.”
"It's just minutiae, but to him it's really engaging," Downey explains. "It's those touches that really help you feel comfortable on this set. The reality of his job is that it entails long amounts of time spent in isolation, but when he's not stimulated, it's a fate worse than death. So, hopefully Baker Street embodies everything it takes for him not to be bored to death."
"It was fantastic to have an actor who cares about his environment, who will use the props in a way we didn't imagine," says Spencer. “Robert was incredibly informed and organic. He would inhabit the set—he loved small details and would find a way to use them within the scene. A mahogany walnut-cracker, for example, was placed as backstory—Holmes has been locked away in his room for 2+ weeks, but he has to survive on something, so we gave him a mania for nuts, which seemed to suit. Robert used it. Then Rachel McAdams, as Holmes's great love and Achilles' heel Irene Adler, used it. The nutcracker became a sort of metaphor…"
Also housed on Baker Street, Watson's Office was far more ordered, with the doctor's diplomas and patrician paintings lining the wall, and medical accoutrements neatly displayed. Spencer points out, “It was absolutely necessary to show immediately the contrast between the two characters.”
Irene Adler’s room
“This was one of the few opportunities to do something more feminine and grand—an oasis amidst the boy stuff,” reveals Spencer. “We shot this in an empty room at Cliveden Hotel, Lady Astor’s house just outside London.”
“We very much wanted to get a French feel for Irene, to underline her cosmopolitan and traveled persona. Lady Astor had shipped the room’s beautiful walls from France panel by panel. The furniture and bed were created to match the paneling. There was a whole wall of flowers assembled to cover a mirrored wall. It was lovely to do, but like most sets you would like to linger in, you couldn’t, as this was another quick overnight dress—although, as it was an overnight, we did have the luxury of momentarily staying at this rather fine hotel!”
In the film, Sherlock Holmes exclaims, “Are you aware that is the first combination of bascule and suspension bridge? What an industrious empire!" A multi-story set was built on stage in New York, representing the half-constructed Tower Bridge of 1891 London. “In New York, we had fantastic help from Set Decorator Susan Bode Tyson SDSA and her assistant Jenny Nickason,” Spencer credits.
“The top of Tower Bridge was created here and all the dressing was sourced locally…the dressing and props for Baker Street and the Punchbowl Attic predominantly came from the UK, as Victorian design and detail re-invented itself as it crossed the Atlantic. British Victorian has a certain style and is very hard to get.”
This major set was constructed at Chatham Historical Docks, outside London. The left half of the full-scale ship spanned 230-feet-long by 15-to-30-feet-high. It was not all special effects! “We shot this about halfway through the shoot and were getting used to the scale and size of Victorian industry,” Spencer recalls. "Around the colossal boat we created vignettes of shipbuilding trades—a little like Gulliver’s people busying away around this sleeping beast. For the aftermath, the boat had to be struck overnight and redressed into the chaos. My overriding memory was that it was very cold!”
In the course of their investigation, Holmes and Watson discover the makeshift laboratory where Blackwood's operative, Luke Reordan [Oran Gurel], conducts ingenious but mystifying experiments. A building in London's Spitalfields district was transformed into a physical representation of Reordan's tortured mind: scrawled notes and biblical Latin and Hebrew notations pinned to the wall, crucifixes and pagan charms hanging from the ceiling, and dissected frogs and rats littering the surfaces.
“This offered another great opportunity to do something unusual,” Spencer says. “In the UK, action props come through the Set Decorator. So it was fun, if tricky, creating the experiments and Reorden’s methodology. His paranoia, religious mania and flawed brilliance can be found here. I work with a fabulous buyer, Alison Harvey—she and I would go out and find intriguing objects, and somehow try to work them into the story.”
“We also worked closely with Sean Daly, who created the madman scribbles that are all over Reordan's Lab, the carved ones in Blackwood's Cell, and the delirium scene in the Punch Bowl Attic,” Greenwood adds. “It was his hand as Sherlock’s, painting and scrawling over the floor.”
The Punch Bowl
The Punch Bowl depicts a working class pub, which incorporates two significant sets:
Fight Arena: Holmes participates in bare-knuckle boxing matches here
Attic Room: A small, dingy space where Holmes meditates as he works to decipher the mystery surrounding Lord Blackwood. Spencer relates, “I loved this set for its simplicity—a complete opposite to Holmes’s rooms in Baker Street. The inspiration for this was the ‘Death of Chatterton’ by the pre-Raphaelite artist Henry Wallis, which shows a dying poet. We thought it quite apt for the self-induced stupor that Holmes would get himself into.”
Temple of the Four Orders
“This was a great set to do and was shot on Day One at the Freemasons Hall in central London,” says Greenwood. “They were so helpful to us with the research and then allowing us to film there, which was great given that we were in the heart of this previously very secret society.”
“We created our own version of the sect, using mystical imagery that had to appear to say a lot but in reality say nothing at all! We had to produce a full language of imagery, as it appears in many facets throughout the film.”
Home Secretary’s Office
“The important thing here was to portray the apparent strength and solidity of the British government—the Victorians at their most arrogant,” Spencer imparts, “Imposing furniture, lighting and sculpture implying a self-satisfied dominance.”
“This was actually in the main entrance hallway of the Manchester town hall,” explains Greenwood. “The building was a great stand-in for Parliament. We shot the House of Lords in the great hall, re-creating all the famous red benches and the copious traditions that go on there. One of the most fun aspects of doing this set was being allowed into the real House of Lords to do the photographic research.”
Distinguished British structures used by the production included:
The depths of the 12th-century church of St. Bartholomew the Great, where Holmes and Watson close in on Blackwood to stop him from a brutal ritual sacrifice of a young woman
St. Paul's Cathedral as itself, but required an involved dress
The Church of St Bart's stood in as the Crypt at St Paul’s Cathedral
The Reform Club, one of the city's oldest and most famous private clubs (Conan Doyle was even a member) became The Royale Restaurant, where Holmes behaves caddishly
The Old Naval College in Greenwich was transformed into: Railway Station, a street circus fair, Covent Garden market, and the exterior of the Grand Hotel at Piccadilly Circus
Somerset House overlooking the Thames: A "complete build & dress" transformed this into Blackwood’s Cell and its environs
Brompton Cemetery in Kensington, where a sole witness to Blackwood's resurrection makes his startling claim. Greenwood & Spencer observe, “The Brompton Cemetery was a great urban Victorian cemetery. We have a lot of those in London, but this was particularly good as it had the stepped-down crypts that we could build on to, that in reality led to the real thing…coffins and all!"
Re: collaborating with an action-oriented director, Spencer shares, “Guy was very appreciative of the sets and the dressing. He appeared to have faith in what we would do and trusted Sarah implicitly. Therefore there was a certain freedom that you maybe don’t get with all directors. And with Robert’s dedicated interest in the sets and our great crews, making the film was an incredible experience.”