The last time writer/director Bill Condon (“Kinsey,” “Dreamgirls,” “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn”) premiered a new work at a film festival, things didn’t go so well. In 2013, he opened the Toronto International Film Festival with “The Fifth Estate,” a cyber-thriller that starred Benedict Cumberbatch as Wikileaks hacker Julian Assange. Cumberbatch’s performance was a hit with critics, but the film was not; when it was eventually released into theaters, it bombed at the box office.
Now Condon is back at the Berlin International Film Festival unveiling his latest, “Mr. Holmes,” out of competition. The drama reunites him with his “Gods and Monsters” star Ian McKellen for a story about an old and long-retired Sherlock Holmes who’s coping with the loss of his once-incredible mind. Frequent Condon collaborator Laura Linney co-stars as Holmes’ housekeeper.
Indiewire sat down with Condon in Berlin to discuss the film — based on the novel “A Slight Trick of the Mind” — and the failure of “The Fifth Estate.”
You’re not one to repeat yourself as a filmmaker.
I know, and I think it confuses people [laughs].
Why is that?
You just have to do something that you’re either really connected to or fascinated by. I see connections in all of [my movies]. I think they’re all versions of the same movie, but because the externals are so different…. Obviously, as someone who’s interested in movie history, there are many different schools. One is the school where a style is imposed on everything, but there’s another school: a long tradition of finding the approach that’s right for the story that you’re telling. I ascribe more to that.
To me, they all reach similar emotional moments and have similar kinds of revelations. It sounds reductive to say all this, but I know what it is.
Have you longed to tackle a film about Sherlock?
No, I haven’t always wanted to. I really liked Sherlock Holmes when I was a kid. So as a casual thing, yeah. In the script and novel, Sherlock was conceived as not being fictional, so it’s living in these two worlds of the Holmes we know and the one as he actually existed. The idea was that it was kind of a jumping off point for discussions of other things. That basic notion of what [you become] when you lose some essential part of yourself…. in this case it’s Sherlock Holmes without his mental acuity. What defines him? What opens up when something closes?
I had such a great time with Ian on “Gods and Monsters,” and we’ve always been looking to do something together. This is the first and only thing I read that I thought would work. But then I started to think, my god, there are interesting parallel themes in the movies and to revisit it 17 years later, but we’re both older, it’s a little less speculative now – I thought it would be interesting and it turned out to be.
Age brings humility more than anything. A sense of being less sure about the things that you were sure about before. It’s more a bedrock of feeling you know who you are and what you do, but also more aware of all the possibilities. It was interesting to swim in those waters again.
Following the “Twilight” films and “The Fifth Estate,” were you excited about working on something smaller in scale?
I remember joking being on the set of “Twilight”: “I can’t wait to get three British actors in a room.” You know! And I kind of did it.
Did you have a good experience making the “Twilight” films?
I did enjoy it. There were so many things I enjoyed about it. It was tricky but I liked the contract with the audience that was involved in making those movies. I like the fact that there were these expectations with how things would be done. And then you change them and then they get upset. It’s very satisfying to win them over and convince them that it was worth doing. But, more than anything, I do think we live in this culture that’s so busy, cluttered. It’s such a luxury to know that there are people who are waiting with obsession and love for something. I have to say I sort of feel that about “Mr. Holmes” too. We also live in a movie world or entertainment world for good or for bad — in many ways for bad — where people demand a certain familiarly walking into the theater. They want to feel like they know something [laughs]. And that’s sort of what was so useful about “Holmes,” that there’s a sense of purity, that there’s a shared knowledge you can play off of.
A film like “The Fifth Estate” is bound to have its critics, and critics for the most part weren’t too kind to the film. What was that experience like — seeing the film perform badly both with critics and at the box office?
Obviously, you get critics from making a “Twilight” movie. I got pretty mixed reviews on those films [laughs]. But no, you do have a mark on your back when you’re the opening night film there, first of all. I’m not blaming any of this on that. I think that whatever happened with that movie was going to happen. We rushed, we finished, we did it, and then it’s there — and you could feel it in the room. It wasn’t just critics…. the movie wasn’t connecting in the way that I had hoped. Obviously, in this culture we live in now, before it’s over, it’s piling on. It was brutal. I was ready for it. Kind of weirdly I had gotten this sense of it, that somehow this might be coming.
Why is that?
It’s weird at festivals. You just kind of feel the vibe. I can’t describe it any better than that. So it went the wrong way and you survive that. It was a very, very extreme experience. It’s a movie that really failed at the box office. There is something about seeing something right in the news; we thought Snowden would help us. But it sort of feels like people, in some basic way, don’t trust that something that’s in the news can work in the narrative form. Alex Gibney’s movie, which is wonderful, also really didn’t do well. I think there’s something repellent about [Julian] Assange’s character. But you know, it’s funny ’cause Tony Scott [of the New York Times] made a reference to “The Fifth Estate” in his “CITIZENFOUR” review. It was an interesting idea – he may be right. That there’s something about taking an ideological point of view and telling the story through that prism that creates a sense of narrative momentum. That’s a great story and it’s so beautifully done. But I really was trying to do this other thing, which was make a political movie that presented all sides and kept reminding you about the implications on the other side. I don’t think people like that. I like it. I’m very proud of that movie, but I get why that’s frustrating for people. And you know, basically you step back and realize that these things happen. Probably in its structure, we had this fascinating guy at the center and a less interesting guy whose story we were telling. It probably should be reversed. You didn’t get enough of Assange and you were spending a lot of time with someone who ultimately seemed less interesting.
You’re extremely level-headed and objective when talking about the reception to the film, which is refreshing.
I am. It drives me crazy. Because it is a big part of life. You can’t accept it — you get rejected. The filmmakers I know who pretend that bad reviews never happen… it just completely baffles me! And they’re still doing DVD commentaries ten years later of this famous bomb that they think is great. You know, we all love our movies. As I said, I’m very proud of that movie, but, you know, this happened. I’m endlessly intrigued by it — by the reception to it, just because it was so extreme.
You’re back at another festival, this time not opening. Are you nervous?
Yeah, of course; especially on the heels of that [laughs].