The Case of the Steampunk Holmes: An Interview With Rachel Goldenberg

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Rachel Goldenberg has directed several films, including the 2008 family/faith-friendly Sunday School Musical (that’s her in the picture above, on the right, with choreographer Cheryl Baxter). But since 2007 or so she has been one of the mainstays of low-budget exploitation studio The Asylum, working as Producer on the likes of Dragonquest, Transmorphers: The Fall of Man and Megafault, and as First Assistant Director on such Asylum “classics” as I Am Omega, AVH: Alien vs Hunter, Monster, The Terminators, Megafault, 2012: Supernova and Princess of Mars. For an early-career director she must have learned  a lot from this first-hand experience (perhaps by seeing what not to do) because her own recent genre film, the steam-punk, monster-filled Sherlock Holmes, stands out as one of The Asylum’s best.

Undead Backbrain caught up with her and asked her about the making of her Sherlock Holmes.

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Robert Hood: Holmes has always had a high profile on film and TV and it looks as though we’re in for another wave of them. How did this particular one come about and how did you get involved with it?

Rachel Goldenberg: The Asylum is known for making “mockbusters”, low-budget movies that piggyback off of big Hollywood movies, with a similar title and themes. When Warner Bros. decided to make a Sherlock, so did The Asylum. I have worked with the Asylum for a couple of years now, and love directing for them. I was really excited about the prospect of doing a period action film with such an iconic character. I made a pitch to direct, and got the gig.

RH: Did you come into the production as a fan of the original Holmes stories? In other words, did you have a pre-conceived idea of what a Sherlock Holmes and a Holmes film should be like?

RG: I like mysteries, and always enjoyed Holmes, but was not particularly well-versed. I read up quite a bit to familiarize myself- raided the local library, purchased a couple of books. As far as what a Holmes film “should be like”, that is up for interpretation (especially at The Asylum). I knew that the script was a steam-punk, creature-filled, action adventure. The tone I was envisioning was a classic-Holmes/sci-fi hybrid.

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RH: Yes, there’s quite a tradition of Holmes vs the supernatural or non-naturalistic that has spawned once the stories hit the public domain. Your story manages to retain Holmes’ traditional “rationalist” approach by “explaining” the weirdnesses via the steam-punk, sci-fi element. But what about the invention of another older brother? In the original stories Holmes has a brother, Mycroft, who was established as a genius. I’ve been asked why your script didn’t just use him. And what did that odd business about the use of the name “Robert” in referring to Holmes mean? These were the only real deviations from the Holmes mythology, I think.

RG: I’m going to pass this one off to the writer, Paul Bales. I had a part in creating the brother, but this is really writer territory.

Paul Bales: In conducting research for Holmes, I came across some non-canonical biographical information that included the possibility of a third Holmes brother as well as a different birth name for Sherlock.

In the original script I did not use the older brother concept because I felt it was a little too obscure, so I made Rainer an uncle. However, when [Rachel] called me from Wales asking what I thought about making him an older brother, I was fine with the idea because I was aware of this other apocryphal biographical information. (Specifically… and this is really boring… a Holmesian scholar theorized that if Sherlock and Mycroft really were the scions of a country squire it would have been expected that the oldest son, the heir to the estate, would live on the family property. Since Mycroft is older than Sherlock, but also lives in London, this scholar postulated that there must also be another still older brother.) [Pictured above: Dominic Keating as Thorpe, the older brother]

I did use a different birth name in the script because I thought it was an interesting way to show a character relationship between Sherlock and Rainer. However, “Robert” is not the same birth name that is found in the non-canonical biographies. I chose a different name because I didn’t want to reference any work that wasn’t in the public domain.

RH: The location shoot in Wales seems an unusual one, though eminently appropriate, giving the film an authentic look. How did that come about? What advantages did it bring to the production and was there a downside?

RG: The producers were hesitant to go abroad, but eventually were convinced that shooting modern day L.A. for 19th century London would be impossible. The line producer and I vetted European options. For a film of our size, London proved too expensive. Another Asylum film, Merlin and the War of the Dragons, had successfully shot in Wales. After researching, we concluded that Wales would be the most authentic location that would fit in our budget.

Wales is incredibly beautiful, and so full of history. We shot in a 19th century factory, a 15th century castle, and outside a 12th century church. We lived on a 400-year-old estate, and shot there as well. The countryside, though beautiful, also proved to be problematic. I was trying to create the illusion of a bustling city, when many times we were surrounded by more sheep than people. It was a little sad, but I often had to frame out the amazing green mountains, the very reason people love Wales so much.

The biggest difficulties of shooting in Wales were due to the lack of film infrastructure in the area. We were in Caernarfon, a small town in northwestern Wales. We had to bring in equipment, crew, wardrobe, everything. If equipment broke, or wardrobe didn’t fit correctly, it would be a day trip to a city to fix the problem. We could not find trained stunt people, so we ended up hiring specialists in different fields (rock climbing, combat) who had no film experience. Everything worked out in the end, but it was very stressful and time consuming to acquire our production needs.

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RH: How did that particular cast come about? Getting Gareth David-Lloyd [pictured above, grappling with the clutching hand of a cyborg] as Watson was, I thought, a particularly inspired choice, especially after his superb run on Torchwood. He was very strong in the film. Some might see Ben Syder as the most problematic as he wasn’t really the archetypal Holmes in appearance. And Dominic Keating was effective as the villain. What were they like to work with?

RG: I came up with a list of top choices for the roles of Watson and Thorpe, and the producers picked their favorites to make offers to. I was really happy that Gareth and Dominic said yes. For the role of Sherlock, as well as the rest of the cast, we organized auditions through a local casting agency. I was really happy with Ben as Sherlock. [Pictured at the top of the interview, at the wheel of a motorized air-balloon.] He is not as tall as the detective is generally portrayed, but I will always cast for performance first. I felt Ben really understood Sherlock, and I loved the introspectiveness he brought to the role. The three of them were great to work with — talented, professional, and fun to have on set.

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RH: One of the biggest problems with monster films, of course (which this one is to some extent) in a low-budget context, is visual effects. The previous Asylum monster bash — Megashark vs Giant Octopus — suffered from the “Not Enough of the Monsters” syndrome, a situation brought about by limited money for SFX, according to director Jack Perez. He wanted to do more and indeed the film needed it. Your Sherlock Holmes, however, definitely seemed less constricted in this respect — not in terms of budget, I’m sure, but in terms of what the film needed in terms of VFX. How did you feel about this aspect? Did you want to do more than you were able to?

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RG: While more VFX would have been nice, I did not want the film to be overly-reliant on them. With a low budget and a hasty post schedule, I knew that I could not count on getting the shots written into the script, and that the VFX team would not have the time to make the shots as strong as would be ideal. Additionally, it is often more suspenseful to see less of the creatures. For example, in the ship attack scene, I withheld the creature as much as possible, focusing on the chaos more than the monster. I also chose to do the robot practically [see image below] — it was originally supposed to be another CG monster. It was nice to have the actors be able to interact with one of their foes.

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RH: Thorpe’s suit was very impressive. How was it made? And did it create any problems?

RG: We were very lucky to find Paul Curtis (of Hightower Crafts) in northwestern Wales. He typically makes costumes for role playing and fan conventions. I showed him some conceptual images, and he developed and crafted the suit out of leather. It was exciting; I was really happy with it. Dominic (and his stunt double) had some trouble moving around, but it wasn’t unmanageable. It was a bit of a nightmare for sound though, squeaking with every step. We had to ADR (re-record) all of Dominic’s lines for that portion.

RH: Were you happy with the way the film turned out in the end? Any regrets?

RG: Every aspect of the process is done incredibly quickly and with so little money, that it feels as though making something coherent and at all entertaining is an achievement. There are many things I’d like to improve on; almost every aspect of production could have benefited from more time. That said, I feel good about what we (the cast and crew) were able to pull off.

RH: Most of your film experience has been in production and assistant direction, I believe. Was this shift to taking full directorial responsibility a happy one? Do you have plans for more of the same?

RG: You are correct that most of my experience is producing and assistant directing, but I have directed a few shorts and one other feature, Sunday School Musical — though that was tonally pretty different from Sherlock, as you might imagine. Directing action was new for me, but I had a great time with it. I love directing; it’s what I’m most passionate about. Currently there are a couple of projects in the pipeline.

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RH: Are these projects for The Asylum? Are more monsters in the offing — a Holmes sequel perhaps? Are you able to tell us anything about the projects at this point?

RG: Everything is still in the preliminary stages, so I’m not sure which projects will ultimately see the light of day. One of them is an Asylum film. No talk yet of a Sherlock sequel, but I would love the chance to do that!

  • Thanks to Rachel Goldenberg for giving generously of her time.
  • Undead Backbrain review of Sherlock Holmes here.
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2 Responses to The Case of the Steampunk Holmes: An Interview With Rachel Goldenberg

  1. inmate977 says:

    great interview! i was wanting to learn more about her, and this was the perfect source! hope you don’t mind i linked to it from my blog! thanks again!

    ____________________________________
    COMMITTED – the asylum blog
    http://observationnotes.blogspot.com

  2. Robert Hood says:

    Certainly no worries there, inmate. Glad you liked it.

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