After reading “Elementary” writer/producer Robert Hewitt Wolfe’s tweets one week during an episode of the show, I was powerfully compelled to reach out to him and get down to the nitty gritty. Obviously, ScarletSherlock and I had a slew of questions that could not be accommodated by Twitter’s draconian 140-character restriction. Well, he didn’t want to just email back and forth – he actually wanted to talk. On the phone! In 2015! It was rather refreshing.
Quick thumbnail background information: The brainchild of Robert Doherty, “Elementary” premiered in the United States on CBS on September 27, 2012. The show stars Jonny Lee Miller (“Hackers,” “Trainspotting”) and Lucy Liu (“Kill Bill,” “Charlie’s Angels”) and locates a contemporary Sherlock Holmes in contemporary New York City. Also features Girl!Watson and a turtle. The season finale airs on Thursday, May 14. At that point, it will have presented 72 episodes, more than any other television or film incarnation of Holmes. I interviewed Wolfe at the end of April, and I’m writing this article in advance of the showing, so there shall be no spoilers.
First out of the gate: Wolfe is very friendly and very generous. He gave me an hour and half of his very busy time to talk about writing, television and Sherlock Holmes. I didn’t know much at all about writing for TV, and I’m pretty certain that Wolfe is the first person I’ve interviewed who is currently writing for a major network show. He was extremely patient with my abject ignorance.
We started off with the usual grounding information, and I was immediately surprised by Wolfe’s answers. I asked how he became involved with “Elementary,” and I foolishly assumed that he submitted a script or something. Nope: The show was actually hiring writers for staff positions. The series Wolfe was working on in 2013 “ended around Thanksgiving, and I interviewed for ‘Elementary,’” he explained. “When a show ends, you immediately start looking for work. I knew Rob [Doherty], so it was a friendly room. I had seen a handful of episodes. In a week, I did my homework.” Writers need to be approved by the studio and the network, and after he met with Doherty and Craig Sweeny (the show runners), he was hired on for the final episodes of that season. He was rehired for the current season.
Wolfe has written four episodes thus far, starting with “Paint it Black,” which aired on May 1, 2014. He has a co-executive producer credit – “It’s essentially a rank,” he said. “My dad is military. It’s the senior-most writer on staff. Contracts run season to season. Others can have a producer credit but not be a writer.”
Wolfe said he grew up reading the Canon – “I think Sherlock Holmes is one of the 10 great evergreen characters in English literature. Basically, a wonderful and enduring character. It’s terrific to be able to write him, and Watson as well.” He asserted that Arthur Conan Doyle had an “indelible effect on the way we tell stories.” What could I do but nod along?
But what about writing Holmes for television? My only experience with this was sending questions to David Shore years ago, to badger him about his Holmesian creation, Gregory House. Shore was certainly creating a wild take on Holmes; Doherty is attempting to play in Arthur Conan Doyle’s sandbox a little more literally. As a writer, Wolfe is working in Doherty’s sandbox in ACD’s sandbox. That’s a hell of a lot of sand.
“The amount of structure of what is required of you varies wildly from show to show,” he said. Bear in mind, Wolfe has experience in this “writing someone else’s world” business – he wrote extensively for Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek” products for years. “Rob is interested in what we come up with on our own, what we find interesting or exciting. That’s really his approach. We generate our own [stories], then pitch to Rob, who picks and chooses stories. You generate the mysteries on your own. The interpersonal story (the B story), those stories are added later. Generally, the story can be anywhere in the chronology. The B story is tied to the order in which it’s viewed. On many shows, the directions are much more specific. The B story is the A story. The writers usually sit as a group and generate the entire season. That’s true of a show like ‘Homeland’ or ‘Game of Thrones’ that are much more serialized.”
So how does ACD figure in? “We look at Doyle as a resource more than a shackle. They’re great stories but they’re not engineered for TV. Writing in someone else’s world is basically what it’s all about in television. It’s Rob’s interpretation of Doyle’s characters, stories and story-telling.” Wolfe sees his job very pragmatically: “[The writers have to] understand the stories that they [the show runner] wants to tell. Make the show runner’s life suck less! The job is to understand what the world is, and deliver stories that interest the head writer. It’s a team sport, writing television. It’s a collaborative process.”
Writing Holmes is still a daunting prospect. Wolfe said he’s written detective stories before, including “Holmesian deduction; that is something that Doyle invented. I’ve written that riff many, many times!” He pointed to series like “The Dresden Files” (which he executive produced and wrote) as having Holmesian overtones. “My job is to interpret and develop. I have a responsibility to honor that character [Holmes] and to do that character justice. It’s very important when writing the two of them [Holmes and Watson] to honor the legacy.” However, Wolfe noted he doesn’t feel “straight-jacketed” by the Canon. “These are new and original stories that work in 2015 in New York City,” he said. On the other hand, “We take it seriously that we are writing Holmes. We aren’t writing a Holmes-like character.”
At the end of the day, there is only one, said Wolfe. “There is a definitive Holmes: Doyle’s. Everybody else is just playing with Holmes. I like to think we have done a very good job, and created a respectable Holmes.”
Jonny Lee Miller is an important part of the process of crafting Holmes in his own right. “As a writer, you write the character and that’s incredibly important,” said Wolfe. “That character is brought to life by the actor. Mannerisms, physicalities… that is just as important. Anytime – especially with a regular and the leads – the performance has to inform your writing. It is also your responsibility to understand what the actor is doing with the character. Jonny chooses a lot of what he wears. That helps him with his performance. [Jonny influences] bigger things like how we treat the character’s addiction and recovery. Jonny is very passionate about that. As writers, we’re trying to write what Doyle created, Rob interpreted and Jonny plays. This is also true of Lucy. Lucy has specific ways of approaching the character. It’s important to do [all of this] with Watson as well. They live and breathe these actors all day long.” And in the end, “Watson has to ground the eccentric character [Holmes]. Rob and Lucy have done great things with her.”
As U.S. television shows go these days, the show runner(s) has (have) a unique role, not only as creators but as stewards of the over-arching vision. I asked Wolfe how much of any given script of his actually makes it to the final cut. “A lot!” he said with enthusiasm. “I sit with Rob and breakdown the episode to determine every scene, who’s in it and what happens. Then I write an 11 to 12 page outline, with details about what is going to happen in the script. This is a blueprint. Once that’s approved, the major questions have been answered and it is working to Rob and Craig’s satisfaction.”
I asked how long a writer is typically given to flesh out the script at this point. “In an ideal world, you get two weeks,” he said. “In the real world, you never get that long. You create the first draft – the writer’s draft – and that goes to Rob and Craig. They are the final voice of the show. And some of my episodes have had a lot of changes by them. The Kitty scenes in ‘Just a Regular Irregular’ were extensively rewritten by Rob because he was still finding the character. She was still being defined. Rob took a big pass at a lot of those scenes. He did some fairly significant work.” However, Wolfe said in many cases, Doherty is happy with the writer’s draft and a “recognizable version of what the writer gives to Rob” ends up on our television screen every week.
Wolfe’s first script for “Elementary” was the aforementioned “Paint It Black,” the 22nd episode of season two. He said it was, in a manner of speaking, handed to him, particularly as it was preceded by an episode in which Watson was kidnapped and that plot bit had not been resolved. In fact, Liu was scheduled to direct the 22nd episode, and thus Wolfe needed to “get her off the screen so she could do that job.” The A story – the mystery – was inspired by real events: “The whole idea for the Swiss bank – that was something that really happened,” he said. “The man turned whistleblower; there were warrants out for his arrest in Switzerland. The Corsican mafia in France is a real thing: They were the French Connection. I wanted to do that and have Mycroft be involved.”
I was glad Wolfe kept shifting the focus to Liu and Watson, so I didn’t have to figure out a natural segue. “I’ve always found that Watson is a dicey character to bring to life,” I started. “For as much as I love the Watson of Canon, I don’t always enjoy the way Watson is rendered in the flesh.” I reoriented the conversation back to the first episode he wrote. “On face value, it seems problematic to kidnap Watson and reduce her to a victim subject to the intervention of the Brothers Holmes in ‘Paint It Black.’ Did you make a conscious choice to imbue Watson with sufficient agency so that she’s not a wilting damsel in distress?”
“I think that it’s a priority and it comes naturally,” Wolfe offered. “That’s not our approach, not our Watson.” When planning out the episode, he said that everyone was concerned with Watson “having as much agency as possible and still be credibly threatened. We wanted to give her a story, to show that she was attempting to manipulate events in her favor, that she was engaged and thinking and connect with and find opportunities for helping her cause.”
All of this was balanced, of course, with the need to free Liu up to direct. I asked Wolfe about the role a director plays with respect to characters, and how the director interacts with the writer. “All directors shape the performance of all the characters,” he said. “Their job is to create the movement and the blocking, but most importantly, to shape the performances. To help the actors give a wonderful performance. On a TV show, there’s a lot of interaction. There are casting calls where you discuss the type of characters, pre-production meetings … you work together. The director and the writer weigh in on all of that. The final decision is Rob’s.”
For this episode, Wolfe did not go to the set for filming. “All my interactions were on the phone. I could tell that Lucy had been thinking about this very seriously and knew what she was doing. You never know when someone tries to direct for the first time if they are going to flourish. I felt very confident. I think it’s a very good episode. The mood is good, the pace is good, the camera movement is interesting. I would definitely put her on my list of people we were trying to get to direct.”
We moved on to Wolfe’s take on the character of Kitty Winter (portrayed by Ophelia Lovibond) and her interaction with Watson. I asked if he felt any impulse to cleave to the character as she was established in “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client.” “I think this is recognizably a version of Kitty,” he said. “The idea was that there were signposts – a woman who has agency of her own, gumption. Someone who had been aggrieved by a really bad man. At the end of the story, she takes her own form of justice.” Using this as a spring board, the “Elementary” creators “had to do much more with her. She is a major part of Holmes’ and Watson’s life for the major part of the season.”
Like everyone else, Kitty needed a bit of a make-over. “The ‘fallen woman’ is such a Victorian concept,” said Wolfe. “That’s where we wanted to depart most from Doyle. In the same way that we want to be very, very true with Holmes’ struggle with addiction, we wanted to be true to Kitty’s sexual trauma. We wanted to bring Watson into that and create a relationship. Despite herself, Watson found herself being brought into the co-parenting with Sherlock. It was very important for us to have a non-rivalry based relationship. To Rob’s credit, that didn’t interest him. Watson’s a capable woman who had her own agenda. Her concern was more … I’d be concerned for anyone hanging out with Sherlock! Especially a very damaged woman. Sherlock is not the most nurturing person on the Earth.”
At this point I laughed and tried to smother that laughter with a soft, academic “hmmm.”
“It was important to have sobriety coach and an M.D. who had perspective that Holmes did not have to be part of Kitty’s recovery,” continued Wolfe. “Kitty needed Watson to be a good detective. She needed those guys, and for both to be at their best.”
The supporting characters (like Captain Thomas Gregson and Detective Marcus Bell) are one of the distinguishing elements of “Elementary.” “These characters are not a bunch of keystone cops,” said Wolfe. “They act like cops who are competent. Our cops are good, but Sherlock is a genius,” he admits, as if to excuse the fact that poor Bell never really gets one over Holmes. “We have one person, a full time employee who is a former NYPD detective, Jim Nuciforo. All of the police stuff is vetted by him. We also have a coroner and a medical consultant that we use frequently. And thank God for the Internet!” Wolfe did confirm that when Holmes is called upon to have his wall covered in equations and mathematical business, it’s authentic and correctly researched.
I happen to enjoy “Elementary,” and I try to watch in real time every week (God bless DVR). The show is not without faults, but overall I think it’s a quality program and there are some bits that are really well done. I have seen precious little written negative criticism of “Elementary” that has struck me as particularly useful or interesting. If you don’t like police procedurals, watch “The Big Bang Theory.” If your beef is that “This isn’t Holmes!” with no support for that ridiculous claim, I roll my eyes and hope you find the entry on “opinion” in the dictionary. So far, there’s only been one assertion that I thought worth my time to lay before Wolfe and get his reaction.
With my “cub reporter” hat firmly in place, I began: “One of the criticisms of the show to which I even considered giving a second thought is that the Holmes and Watson of ‘Elementary’ talk about their ‘feelings’ too much to be Canon-compliant. That is, they shouldn’t be considered authentic representation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters because they do a fair bit of ‘navel gazing.’ How would you respond to that?”
I’m happy to say that both Wolfe and I had a good chuckle before we sobered up and got back to this incredibly serious interview. “They don’t talk about their feelings that much!” he cried. “They’re both, especial Sherlock, reticent to express real feelings. They’re eager to talk about irritations and judgments. But actually discussing deep, emotional, juicy stuff … they don’t spend a lot of time talking. They spend a lot of time not talking.”
Considering Canonical compliance, Wolfe continued, “Doyle was writing newspaper stories. Little puzzles. In Victorian times, people were culturally constrained in terms of talking about feelings. We’re writing for a modern audience. For an American TV show. There are other requirements. The audience would like us to have them talking more about their feelings,” said Wolfe with … feeling.
We both agreed to completely avoid talk of “shipping” and whatnot.
“We’re trying to entertain and engage people in a very specific way,” he offered.
Understandably, Wolfe rejected the idea that the Holmes and Watson of Doherty’s imagination are anti-Canonical. “I feel like I do not believe that is a case. We have not invalidated them as characters. They are recognizable versions of Holmes and Watson. It speaks to strength of the characters that you can do so many variations of them. From lesbians to mice to Chinese versions – you can do a lot with this. They are powerful and archetypical characters. I think ‘Elementary’ is way more faithful to Holmes than ‘Sons of Anarchy’ is to ‘Hamlet.’
“We certainly take some liberties. The truth is, what matters to me is, ‘Does our audience like what we’re doing and is it resonating?’We tell completely different kinds of stories. We’re truer to the types of stories Doyle wrote: The constraints of writing an American television show is similar to newspaper writing. It’s easier to interpret one of our stories into a newspaper story and stick it in The Strand.”
NOTE: Tonight, at 10 EDT, I will live-tweet the season finale of “Elementary.” Please join in!