Interviewing ultra-secretive Steven Moffat about Sherlock is a tricky endeavor, given that the writer-producer would prefer to say nothing at all about what will happen in the show’s hugely anticipated fourth season. But during our wide-ranging recent interview, the Sherlock co-creator gave us a few hints about what to expect when the BBC/PBS Masterpiece fan-favorite series returns. Plus, he addressed the long wait between seasons, took a little dig at that other Holmes show—CBS drama Elementary—and even gave a suprirsingly passionate defense of Fifty Shades of Grey.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, what do you feel comfortable telling us about season 4—or “series” 4, as it’s called in the U.K.?
STEVEN MOFFAT: There are answers coming to questions which nobody has asked. There’s one thing that no one has really brought up…
Can you say what the question is?
No. We’ve actually set up something, I think—[co-creator Mark Gatiss] and me, we’re very exultant about a little thing we’ve set up that no one is talking about.
The episodes get so heavily analyzed it’s surprising that fans have overlooked something.
It’s not that we’re being clever. We never know. Sometimes people go mad for one thing we think is quiet trivial and completely ignore something we think is standing right in front of you.
What distinguishes season 4 from previous years?
We haven’t started writing it yet, so it’s early. The first series was all about the beginning of their friendship. Second about the formative stages, the love and fear and loss and all that. The third was good days, me and my pal and my pal’s wife. Those are golden days. The missing element in a lot of Sherlock Holmes adaptations is allowing it to be funny. There’s a lot of humor in Sherlock Holmes, and it’s ignored in a lot of adaptations. [Season 4] is going to be… I suppose you’d say… consequences. It’s consequences. Chickens come to roost. It’s dark in some ways—obviously it’s great fun and a Sherlock Holmes romp and all that—but there’s a sense of… things… coming back to bite you. It’s not a safe, sensible way to live. It’s hilarious and exhilarating some days, but some days it’s going to be bloody frightening.
Is it more serialized than previous seasons?
Probably. A lot of serialization is latent, isn’t it? It’s hidden. Series 3 doesn’t look very serialized, but you look back at how much we’re setting up Mary [Amanda Abbington] to be who she turns out to be. It will be three stand-alone films, 90 minutes each, and an ongoing mystery, as there sort of always is.
How will fans feel after watching it?
Hmmm… desperate for series 5. We’re certainly going to put them through the mill. It’s going to be more of an emotional upheaval. Hopefully enjoyable and fun, all the things Sherlock must always be. It will be tough at times. Maybe that’s the word? A tougher series.
Intense is probably right. You can sort of see that in the way series 3 went. It’s great that he’s back and John’s [Martin Freeman] got a wife and Sherlock [Benedict Cumberbatch] likes her and isn’t it adorable, and then it all goes to hell. Remember where we left them.
Season three was known for having some bold tonal shifts. There was the meta-fun of “The Empty Herse,” the rom-com of “The Sign of Three,” the thriller of “His Last Vow.” In season 2, “The Hounds of Baskerville” was a bit of a horror story. I’m wondering if you’re doing the Sherlock version of other genres in series 4?
To a degree, you always do, yes. We’re trying to [be] as varied in tone as the stories are. Everybody tends to think of the Hollywood version of Sherlock Holmes. The films tend to be like Hound of the Baskervilles, with horror and crime. You go to the stories and Moriarty is only in one of them. Quite often, Sherlock is investigating small domestic crimes, and quite often there’s no crime at all, and there’s a lot of humor. So “The Sign of Three” you might think is a huge departure for Sherlock Holmes if you don’t know Sherlock Holmes very well. But it’s not. The mysteries he solves, and the level of humor and the interaction with Sherlock and Watson is sort of right.
Last season in particular, I felt like you were almost trying to break Benedict Cumberbatch by giving him tougher and tougher challenges, acting-wise, and then watching him pull it off. Have you found new ways to stretch and challenge Holmes for series 4, and is that something you consciously think about?
The reason we still have Benedict and Martin is we still give them acting challenges. Otherwise they wouldn’t come and play with us. They don’t need the money. What we give them in terms of money isn’t something they’d regard as a significant fee anymore. We’re making this in a shed in Wales. We think really carefully about giving them something to play because they’re both amazing actors. Normally if you watch a show, [the characters] tend to narrow as the people who make the show tend to know what works. When I was doing series 3, I went and looked at Martin and Benedict’s other performances to remind myself of what else they do. I watched the British The Office again.
So unbelievably good. I hadn’t quite realized the extent he plays the lead in that. It reminds you that he’s got all that too. I can bring in other colors to it.
This might be a trickier question than I’m intending it to be: Given the popularity of Andrew Scott’s character, have you ever regretted “killing” off Moriarty?
We knew we had to be bold about that. We knew what we wanted to do. Moriarty is only in one story, “The Final Problem,” and has a flashback appearance in another. The story of Sherlock Holmes isn’t Sherlock vs. a criminal mastermind. It just isn’t. So we wanted to have a huge story for “The Final Problem,” but kill him… we knew what we wanted the consequences of that moment to be. Andrew became a star overnight. He became a star based on the smallest amount of screen time ever—he’s not actually in it that much. He’s hardly in the first series at all. Even “The Reichenbach Fall,” when I was doing a pass on [the script], I added a couple scenes because he’s got to show up more. He’s always asking, “Do I get a flashback? Am I going to show up again?”
Last year the distribution window between Britain and U.S. premiere of Sherlock was shortened, but there was still a bit of a gap. Recently HBO announced that Game of Thrones will premiere simultaneously in 130 countries. You would think Sherlock could premiere simultaneously in two countries, right?
I really, really do think it should. I think it’s absolute bloody nonsense. The audience is not prepared to wait. [Somebody] recently said, “If I want something and it’s not available, I think it’s the vendor’s fault.” With Doctor Who we pretty much have that—certainly with Britain and America, it comes out the same day. Doing that ended an awful lot of the piracy. Yes, it should be. But that’s a question for PBS and Masterpiece.
You mentioned your budget. I wondered whether, given how the show is this international sensation, the new season has a bigger budget.
The reality is no. I’m fighting tooth and nail on both shows to get enough money to make them. It’s hugely frustrating and annoying at times because they couldn’t be more successful.
Last I checked, you were swayed that a Sherlock and Doctor Who crossover is not a good idea and won’t happen. Any movement on that?
My instinct—and this is probably from years of doing Doctor Who—is I’m just such a tart. If people want to, we should give it to them. But I got persuaded by Mark, Benedict, [executive producer Sue Vertue] and Martin saying, “Look, it will never be as good as they think it’s going to be,” and then I say, “Yes, but we’ll just bang it out and make it as good.” “Yeah, but you can’t give everybody everything they want all the time.” I’m in the camp of giving them everything they want. But I think they’re sane and right and I’m just a tart.
What’s the best or funniest piece of Sherlock fan fiction or fan art you’ve seen?
I don’t know the funniest. There’s been some eye-watering stuff of Benedict and Martin together. A load of it has been superb. There’s a tendency to disparage it. I don’t agree. Even the slash fiction, that’s a great way to learn to work. No one really does three-act structure, but just trying to put words that make somebody else turned on, that’s going to teach you more about writing than any writing college you can go to. It’s creative and exciting. I refuse to mock it—because I’m a man who writes Sherlock Holmes fan fiction for a living!
It’s how we ended up with Fifty Shades of Grey, after all.
People want to be mocking of that. But bloody hell, that’s amazing—that [EL James] turned her fandom of something into something that’s an industry in itself. Why are we not applauding until our hands bleed? No, we mock her. We say, “Oh, it’s not very good.” Except she managed to write something that everybody wants to read. It’s “not very good”? By what standard is it not good if loads and loads of people love it? “Why don’t you f–k off!” It’s not for me, but I think she’s awfully clever.
Sherlock had record ratings in the US last season ,opening to 4 million viewers. The passion for this show is very strong among U.S. fans. Yet I’m surprised the ratings are not higher, even with piracy, given that so many of our hit shows are crime dramas that people don’t talk about nearly as much. That more people watch Elementary is kind of annoying.
Well, you bring us back to piracy don’t you? I don’t know what the real ratings for Sherlock in America are—or Doctor Who. There are an awful lot of people watching it by means they’re not happy to put their hands up about. Which, again, is the vendor’s fault. It’s our fault. We don’t want to arrest them, we want to charge them money. I think an awful lot more people in this country have seen Sherlock than is ever admitted, as with Doctor Who. A long time ago—and Netflix muddied the water even further—we lost the ability to know how many people watch a TV show. We don’t really know. Benedict is one of the most famous people in the world, and he’s largely famous wearing the coat and the scarf. [Sherlock is] what he’s famous for. I’m not having a pop at Elementary, but Benedict is a lot more famous than anybody on their show. He can walk down fewer streets [without being mobbed] in America than the other guy.
Any guest stars lined up for series 4?
Not yet. But as Mark always says, it’s better to be a star-maker. We found all these people, Benedict, Scott, Lara Pulver. These people launched careers on the basis of doing the show. It’s tough because we got Benedict and Martin—they’re probably the two biggest British film stars. If you pay extra money to cast somebody famous, are they actually going to provide you with one single extra viewer?
It will have been a bit of wait, though.
[Fans] get very cross that we don’t make more. Had we made this as a conventional series it would be over. Because Benedict and Martin are never going to agree for the rest of their lives to do any series for runs of six or 12. They don’t need the money and they want a bigger variety of jobs. The only version of Sherlock you’re gonna get is this one. I think that’s a pretty good deal. Compare us to Guy Richie’s Sherlock Holmes: We’ve made 10, he’s made two. Or how often you get a James Bond film. You’ll get a longer-lasting, richer experience the way we’re making it.