Nurbek Egen, director of Sherlock: The Russian Chronicles, introduces DQ to this Russian take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective, pitting him against Jack the Ripper and recreating 1880s St Petersburg.
More than 130 years after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first created Sherlock Holmes in the pages of his detective novels, the iconic character continues to fascinate fans.
In the past decade alone, Robert Downey Jr has played the sleuth in a pair of big-screen blockbusters, while Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller have portrayed him in TV series Sherlock and Elementary, respectively. Japanese drama Miss Sherlock saw Yūko Takeuchi play a female version of the character in 2018.
Now, a Russian series adds a fantasy element to proceedings in Sherlock: The Russian Chronicles. The eight-part series transplants the detective, played by Maxim Matveyev, from London to St Petersburg, where he is on the hunt for a serial killer – Jack the Ripper. The story imagines how the Ripper left a bloody trail in London and fled to the Russian Empire, with Sherlock hot on his trail. New characters Dr Kartsev and Sophia support his efforts, while he also comes up against new nemesis Znamensky.
Written by Oleg Malovichko, the show’s cast also includes Irina Starshenbaum and Vladimir Mishukov. It is a coproduction between Russian independent producer Sreda, Yellow, Black & White (YBW)-owned Start Studios and YBW’s streamer Start. YBW is the international distributor.
Here, series director Nurbek Egen takes DQ into the making of the series, while YBW’s Daria Bondarenko talks up its international appeal.
How would you describe the story of Sherlock: The Russian Chronicles?
Egen: We shot eight episodes about Sherlock Holmes solving mysteries in Russia. It’s kind of a fantasy based on the classic novels of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which are loved by so many. Of course, in the original tale, Sherlock only ventures outside of the UK once, when he goes to the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland in The Final Problem. As devoted fans of this character, we tried to imagine what would his gift look like in a Russian context.
By placing Sherlock in a foreign culture and having him meet people whose mentality he had never studied, the series casts light on a new side of his character and he opens up even more. We use Sherlock’s notes and thoughts about Russia as a creative tool in the show, not only illustrating his own curiosity but also allowing Russian viewers to discover unknown facts about their own country.
Why did you decide to make a new series about the popular detective?
Egen: Personally, I love the tales of Sherlock Holmes and really try not to miss any adaptations. I love the detective genre as well. To me, shooting the series based on the stories about the legendary character is like musicians paying respect to the greatness of their favourite music pieces.
Essentially, the idea was Alexander Tsekalo’s – he is the concept creator and initially brought the idea to Start. He engaged the following fantastic writers and developers for the script, who are also huge Doyle fans: Oleg Malovichko, Ivan Samokhvalov and creative producer Alexandra Remizova.
What is the ‘Russian spin’ you have put on the character and his adventures?
Egen: In our story, as in the original, Holmes is a skilled chemist. Solving mysteries given to him by his clients, he follows not only the letter of the law but also his own morality and sense of honour, which in some cases replace the norms of bureaucracy.
Holmes often lets people who he thinks are justified in committing a crime avoid punishment. In our show, the character displays more variety than in Doyle’s books. Like Doyle’s character, he has a brilliant mind, sharp observation skills and impressive deductive powers, but our Holmes also thinks outside the box. He’s more physical and he speaks many foreign languages, including Russian. He also has a good grasp of Russian literature, art and music. Our Holmes is a fan of Dostoyevsky’s Crime & Punishment.
How does Jack the Ripper play a part in the story?
Egen: The beginning of our show is linked to the story of Jack the Ripper, which happens in London. There’s a little artistic licence in combining Jack the Ripper and Sherlock, but they did operate around the same time, albeit one solely on paper. In our version, after a decisive fight with Sherlock, the Ripper manages to get away, wounding Dr Watson. The trail leads Sherlock to Russia.
Holmes writes letters every day, telling Dr Watson about his progress and sharing his impression of Russia. Frankly speaking, the progress is slow. As he starts working, he cannot get himself together and nothing goes to plan. He is convinced his methods do not work in this mysterious country and questions whether he should leave.
How was the series developed?
Egen: It was quite challenging. Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series is believed to be the some of the most popular literature for film or TV adaptation, and there are a lot of Sherlocks out there. My main challenge was making the audience believe our story. In the midst of all these adaptations, I have never seen Sherlock solving mysteries in other countries. Then I understood that placing him abroad would give us a chance of noticing new details in Sherlock’s personality and his abilities, making him more interesting and giving more depth and insight to him as an individual and as a character. During the preparations, the more we got involved with this world and its people, the more we fell in love with them.
Does it have a particular visual style?
Egen: Our series is made in several genres: detective, drama, thriller and action, and some parts are even animated. The most important aspect for me was to capture the character of an unusual man and to show his unique world. Our version of Sherlock walks on knife blades and risks his life on a daily basis. There are enough skeletons in his closet to keep him on edge, so we decided to make this an action series, visually bold and exciting.
For example, St Petersburg is usually a gloomy city but, in our show, it has beautiful sunsets and sunrises, in all shades of red. If it rains, it rains like in jungles. In a nutshell, it’s quite a rollercoaster series. We wanted to show Sherlock not only as a marvellous detective but also as a human who is looking for his own answers.
What does Maxim Matveyev bring to the role of Sherlock Holmes?
Egen: Casting took us six months and all the actors who auditioned loved the script. We were extremely fortunate to get really talented actors who were available. The shoot had its challenges but it was fun. The show is full of twists, turns and surprises. I loved working with Maxim Matveyev – a very talented and hardworking actor. I also loved working with Vladimir Mishukov, a very empathetic, gifted actor who plays Doctor Kartsev.
The actor who plays the chief inspector in our show (our very own Lestrade), Pavel Maikov, stands out for me and I only have praise for him. We also have Constantin Yushkevich, Yevgeniy Dyatlov and Constantin Bogomolov. Last but not least is Irina Starshenbaum, who plays gorgeous, smart and bold instigator Sofya Kasatkina. She is a fantastic actor. The audience will love our cast.
How does the story make use of St Petersburg and its surroundings?
Egen: We did shoot some scenes in St Petersburg. Our show takes place in 1889 when Saint Petersburg was the capital of the Russian Empire. It was a massive production and we were shooting for four months. There are around 150 characters in the show, all of whom are very different. We even have Tsar Alexander III and his entourage in two episodes.
We also built a 3,000-square-metre pavilion to reconstruct the streets and houses of 1889 and we worked hard to match and maintain the colours аnd style. It would have been much more difficult to shoot something like that in the actual city. We didn’t build the key places and country estates – they were the actual locations. Then we combined the set scenes and the authentic buildings in the edit, and the result is pretty impressive.
What are your plans for further seasons of the drama?
Egen: There are plenty of films and TV shows telling the story of Sherlock Holmes produced in Russia and all over the world, but our show is different. It strays from the norm and that’s why it’s interesting. Our show has everything it needs to be successful: a great script written by Oleg Malovichko, an awesome score written by Ryan Otto, a brilliant cast and ground-breaking production design. It has lots of stunts that can grab the audience’s attention and it has very talented producers from Start Studio and Sreda Production Company who understand how to present a high-octane show like this to viewers.
A successful show is not just about great content but about all these people coming together and working together to achieve a great end result. I feel very lucky to have been given the opportunity to make the show and I really hope that our Sherlock will find its audience.
What challenges do you face amid the coronavirus pandemic?
Egen: Thank God we finished the shoot and edit before the pandemic. The Covid situation slowed down the sound editing and the CGI but we are on track. We are all working remotely now and planning ahead. This new Sherlock series will be shown on premium drama VoD service Start this autumn.
Why might international viewers be drawn to the show?
Daria Bondarenko, Yellow, Black & White’s exec VP of international business development: Sherlock is one of the world’s most famous, fascinating and admired literary characters, with on-screen interpretations of him all over the world. We wanted to create a different Sherlock series, one that was both a thrilling contemporary series and a period drama.
By maintaining the historical period, transposing Sherlock to a different city and country, and combining the glamorous St Petersburg setting with brilliantly choreographed action sequences, viewers get to see this familiar character with fresh eyes. We’re confident our Sherlock will appeal to international audiences worldwide.