Susan Downey is one of the most recognizable female producers in Hollywood, and not just because she shares a last name with her husband, Robert Downey Jr. The Illinois valedictorian moved to Los Angeles to be a producer and had her first big theatrical credit on the maritime horror Ghost Ship before she was 29. Working for Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis' Dark Castle Entertainment, Downey was quickly promoted through the hierarchy and on her third film with the company—Gothika, starring recent Oscar-winner Halle Berry—she was romanced by co-star Robert Downey Jr., who quickly proposed and then publicly credited her for turning his life—and his career—around. While working on Guy Ritchie's RocknRolla, she heard the director was shopping around a Sherlock Holmes reboot and got her husband a meeting to discuss the lead role. The rest was elementary. Or was it? Susan Downey gives us the scoop.
Did anything surprise you about the reaction to the first film?
It wasn't as much surprising as it was a nice relief. I know a lot of people were wondering how we were going to make this and be true to the source material—to not piss anyone off—but at the same time justify making a big holiday movie.
Sherlock Holmes has been widely popular ever since Arthur Conan Doyle started the series, but in every incarnation, he's different—like he's adapting to the different audiences of the time.
The thing with Sherlock is since its incarnation, it's always been serialized. There were multiple stories, multiple movies, the TV show. And each audience was expecting something different based on what they were able to achieve at the time. What we decided to do was go back to the original stories and take the essence of the character, the dynamic between Holmes and Watson, and then also take the things that Conan Doyle didn't necessarily put on the page, but were things he imagined these men to be. With today and our incredible use of special effects and stunts, we were able to bring it to another level while still staying true to Conan Doyle's vision of these guys. We felt it had to be smart and have a great mystery at its core, but at the same time we wanted to make sure it wasn't stuffy and in one room and all just talk. I don't think the wide audience we were looking for would have embraced it that way.
Is that how you came up with Sherlock Vision?
Originally, Lionel Wigram, who was one of the original producers, brought the project to Warner Bros. when he was an executive and they didn't quite see it—they still had the old-fashioned vision in their heads. But when he became a producer, he brought it to a different exec, Dan Lin, and he'd spent a bit of money and done a graphic novel as a mock-up. It showed a bit more of the action-adventure hero that Lionel always imagined him to be when he was reading the stories as a kid. From that, it evolved. And when Guy came onboard, we really wanted to find the marriage between Holmes the intellectual hero and Holmes the action guy. And this Holmes-a-vision, or Holmes-pre-viz—we called it a couple different things—that we felt was the perfect marriage to show how he's always one step ahead, yet can be a man of action and was a highly skilled martial artist. Which was something Conan Doyle created, it wasn't something we made up.
With these stories being serialized, how did that shape the way you approached your films, like say holding back Moriarty in the first film and now having him in the sequel?
It's interesting, because you don't want to get too ahead of yourself. We didn't have a bigger plan from the get-go of how we were going to lay out the stories, but we did, I have to admit, have it in the back of our mind that if people embraced the first film, we knew some of the things we then wanted to do. In the first one, for example, we wanted to stay in London and we wanted to just hint at Moriarty. And we felt if we had the opportunity to do another one, we wanted to get Holmes on the continent and get him to explore a bit more of Europe and Moriarty. And if this one works, we have ideas—not to get too far ahead of ourselves—on what we could do to keep the characters and the story fresh, but still deliver on the things people have been responding to.
Tell me about casting Jared Harris as the evil Moriarty—is it because he's a redhead?
It has nothing to do with that, I can assure you. [Laughs] Moriarty is this seminal character in literature—he's kind of the first super villain—and it was important to get someone who you could completely believe in the role. When you go through the casting process, especially for a big studio movie, you throw around well known names as well as just great actors. The concern we had with someone who was maybe a bit more well known to the audience is that they wouldn't lose themselves to the character—that the audience would be more aware they were watching an actor portray Moriarty. With Jared, he's able to completely become Moriarty, and he possesses two qualities that were essential to whoever was going to play the role. On the one hand, you believe him as a professor—he's intellectual, he seems harmless, he can hide in plain sight—and then when he needs to turn on a dime and become evil, you believe that just as much.
It's bold that the book you chose for your sequel is the book Arthur Conan Doyle thought would be his last book.
So he thought, but that didn't work so well with the fans. They demanded more and he figured out how to bring Sherlock back. People have been surprised, they've been like, "Why jump to it right away?" But I think part of it is us not being too presumptuous about how many of these we get to do, and also just not being able to resist the incredible standoff between Sherlock and Moriarty.
What would Conan Doyle think if he could fast-forward to the future just to see the movie?
There's a group of people called the Baker Street Irregulars—they're a group of Sherlock fans who meet up—and what we've discovered is so many of the Sherlock fans just enjoy any interpretation. Especially if you're not completely changing things. And we felt like we were just bringing things out that hadn't been obvious before. So I think he'd appreciate our interpretation.
And I think he'd enjoy going to the movies.
You'd think so, but he was a quirky guy, so who knows?
Do you feel Sherlock had to have a British director?
Did it have to? I don't know, but it was something that we kept in mind. I think the fact that we have a British director is a good thing, and once Guy came onboard, there seemed no other way to do it. Guy would tell us that when he was in boarding school, when the kids were good they would be read Sherlock over the speakers. Having heard them, he had a vision of what they would look like. But when he saw the various versions over the years, they never quite captured that energy that he imagined. He was the guy for it.
When you're working on a film together, do you and Robert always agree?
He kind of leads the charge when he's developing his characters, and then it ends up being a conversation between him and Guy and Jude a lot. And then I'm around and the other producers are around to support their creative vision of it. He's got a very specific point of view, and the nice thing is that it clicks with the way we all see it. It's all evolved—for the second one, we all started with a blank page and developed it together. We talked about what we wanted the character arcs to be and how to make it different than the first movie. It's a conversation more than an agreement or disagreement or debate.
It takes so much work to create a film—it's such a long process—and then when you finally get to sit down and watch it, not only are you watching your own work, but there's your husband's face on the screen.
What's interesting is that I've always been able to separate the two. I don't feel like I'm watching Robert up there—he's so good, I feel like I'm watching whatever character he's portraying. It's not that different from watching Jude or Jared or Noomi—it's just, "Do I believe in them in the role?" and the answer is usually yes. But making a movie takes a lot of effort and energy—it's exhausting and frustrating and exhilarating. And as you're doing it, you don't even know what you have. You feel like you have a lot of great days coming together, but until you cut it all together and see how it flows, you're just hoping that it works as well as you think it might.
Everybody talks about the lack of female directors in Hollywood, or for good female roles after a certain age. How do you feel the landscape is for female producers?
There certainly seems to be more male producers than female producers out there, especially doing these bigger movies. But until I'm asked the question, I honestly don't think about it. To be a producer on a movie, you have to have a lot of passion and put in a lot of hours of hard work. And you have to be able to bring people together and get them to drive forward. I will be in a room with a dozen people working on a project, and it won't be until I've left the room that I'll realize I was the only woman. I never feel that there's something that I can't do—or that another woman can't do. I don't know why there's seemingly more men doing it than women, but I don't know the numbers. I went to film school at USC, and when I entered in our production program, they allowed 50 students in. There were four women. And then in my third year, they doubled the amount of students they let in, so there were 100 students in my year and at that point eight women. But I never felt as a woman that there was some inequality or something different going on. Going back, I don't know if it was just more men were trying to get in? I've never felt held back being a woman and I've never seen another woman get pushed out of the way for a guy? I encourage other women—I think we make great producers. I think we have a caring quality, a nurturing quality—not that men don't have it or can't—but there's something natural in wanting to bring something to life and make sure everybody is getting what they need, which is a big part of the job. I had great mentors who were men and did it equally as well. To me, anyone can do it if they have the right mindset and tools.
At the Golden Globes when Robert won for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical for Sherlock Holmes, he started his speech by saying he hadn't written one because you told him Matt Damon was going to win for The Informant! Did you really tell him that?
Okay, just to clarify. The thing I love about Robert is he has this philosophy: if I'm not rooting for myself, why should anybody else? So he was going in thinking, "I have as good of a shot as anyone else." Which is great! But me as his partner who wanted to protect him, I'd been looking online and lots of people were saying that they thought Matt would get it. So that morning it came up in conversation and I said, "Well, everybody's saying it's going to be Matt." Which wasn't my opinion, I was just trying to manage the expectations so we could have a fun evening regardless of how it went down. Of course, he seized that opportunity to make it sound like I didn't believe he would win. As you can probably understand, there's a slight variation on that.