Russia’s Nurbek Egen on Putting a Fresh Spin on Old Tropes in ‘Sherlock: The Russian Chronicles’

Sherlock: The Russian Chronicles
Courtesy Yellow, Black and White

Kyrgyz and Russian director Nurbek Egen is best known for feature films “The Wedding Chest” and “The Empty Home,” and he more recently transitioned to TV with the 2017 series “Two Against Death.” He is now making a play for international audiences with high-end show “Sherlock: The Russian Chronicles,” produced by Russia’s Yellow, Black and White group, and penned by Oleg Malovichko (“Sputnik”). The show is being presented to international buyers at Roskino’s Key Buyers Event this week. Egen took questions from Variety about putting a new spin on the famous detective. Excerpts.

How did you frame the narrative to make it both Russian and fresh?

In our series Sherlock Holmes travels to Russia alone, without his close friend Watson, in order to catch Jack the Ripper, whom Sherlock has been chasing from the U.K. Watson can’t travel with Holmes, since the good doctor was wounded by Jack the Ripper a few days prior to his escape. Sherlock writes to Doctor Watson from Russia every day. In these letters he tells his friend about his experience in Russia and his impressions of the country. Things don’t go according to plan, of course…

Also the character of Sherlock Holmes becomes more skilful than in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books. Our Holmes thinks outside the box; he’s a real expert at tracking down criminals and he speaks many foreign languages, including Russian. And he has a good grasp of Russian literature, art, and music. Our Holmes is a fan of Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.”

When Holmes arrives in Saint Petersburg he meets an upper-class medical officer, Doctor Kartsev – a well-educated and reliable man who is drinking his life away after the loss of his wife and daughter. Doctor Kartsev, just like Watson, becomes Sherlock’s guide and assistant in Russia…

When I was offered to direct this show, I had lots of issues and my main issue was the audience: would they believe the story?…But I realized that putting our protagonist in these different circumstances would give us an opportunity to see new aspects and skills developed by Sherlock, making his character even more appealing and complex.

Can you tell me about the casting? Who are the main actors?

I have to say that I managed to get some really talented Russian actors who all became available at the right moment. Casting took us six months…                                         

The shoot was difficult but fun. I can’t get into details because the show is full of crime stories and I wouldn’t want to give away any spoilers. I can just say I loved working with Maxim Matveyev – a very talented and hardworking actor who plays Sherlock Holmes. I also loved working with Vladimir Mishukov – a very empathetic, gifted actor who plays Doctor Kartsev. I am quite confident that I was able to collaborate with brilliant actors who look great on screen.

Has production been impacted by the pandemic?

Thank God we finished the shoot and edit before the pandemic, although it did slow down the sound editing and CGI. We are all working remotely now.

Did you shoot in Saint Petersburg? How long was the physical production?

We did shoot in Saint Petersburg. Our show takes place in 1889 and Saint Petersburg was the capital of the Russian empire back then. We shot for four months and I must say it’s been a massive production. There are around 150 characters in the show, we even have Tsar Alexander III and his entourage featured in two episodes. We built a 3000 square meter (more than 1.1 square miles) set space where we tried to reconstruct the streets and houses of 1889 and we tried to maintain their colors and style. It would have been much more difficult to shoot something like that in the actual modern-day city. But we didn’t build the key landmarks and country estates. We shot them in-situ; then we combined the set scenes and the authentic buildings in the edit and it all looks pretty great.

Where and when will ‘Sherlock: The Russian Chronicles’ air in Russia?

Our show will be launched on one of the leading Russian OTT subscription services, Start, at the end of 2020.