Fox’s Houdini & Doyle explores the friendship between legendary magician Harry Houdini and the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle. In the dramatic series premiering on May 2, 2016, Houdini and Doyle reluctantly team up to assist New Scotland Yard with investigations into crimes that might have something to do with the supernatural. The series stars Michael Weston (House) as Houdini, Stephen Mangan (Episodes) as Doyle, and Rebecca Liddiard as the first female Constable, Adelaide Stratton.
During the 2016 WonderCon in Los Angeles, Houdini & Doyle‘s executive producers David Hoselton, David Titcher, and David Shore joined forces to discuss the series, the cast, and the challenges of bringing the time period to life in the new dramatic series.
Why is now the perfect time to delve back into the world of Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle?
David Hoselton: “The fundamental concept of the show is about belief, what we believe and why. That’s never been more relevant than now. You have 50% of Americans believing in aliens, UFO abductions, devils, angels… 50% believe that there are actual angels, physical beings.”
David Titcher: “70% believe in ghosts.”
David Hoselton: “This is a procedural; it’s a crime procedural where they’re solving these mysteries but really the heart of it is kind of to explore why we believe in things and why we need to believe in them. I think that with the diversity of beliefs out there, I think it’s never been more relevant than now.”
I’m sure you get pitched a lot of projects. Why was this one so attractive?
David Shore: “This one, well actually because it’s a good idea. I didn’t go, ‘Is society ready for this?’ I just went, ‘This is a good idea.’ This is a fun idea; this is a clever idea. And usually an idea comes in and you go, ‘Oh, that could work. I’m not sure about that.’ This one came in and Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle were friends and they had very, very different beliefs. What if they were solving paranormal crimes? And I just went, ‘Yeah, why hasn’t that been done before?’ It just seemed like disparate ideas between the two seemed like a really good idea. We’re constantly asking ourselves what’s the limit of what’s possible? And we all have friends with different views on that and we just are always surprised at what’s possible. I submit that that is always a question that we’re going to be asking and so maybe the perfect time for the show is any time.”
David Hostelton: “It’s timeless.”
How much of Sherlock Holmes is in the Doyle character?
David Hostelton: “Not very much, really, and the reason is because this is one thing that you discover that’s sort of interesting is that Doyle wasn’t really that much like this character that he created. The ultimate rationalist? He probably was as a younger man but as he got older he became more and more interested in spiritualism and what’s on the other side, and so he really opened his mind to all these kinds of things. We’re sort of doing a combination of those characters. We’re still playing him like a man who has a mind like a steel trap.”
David Shore: “There’s still rooms he walks into and notices things and figures things out.”
David Titcher: “What excited me about both characters is that each character has an irony about them. Like, Doyle who created the ultimate rationalist is a believer in all things paranormal. Houdini, who as a magician you’d just think would be open to all that, was a fervent skeptic. Each character has that aspect to them.”
Can you talk about the challenges of casting two characters who are so iconic?
David Shore: “They are tricky characters because of those dichotomies built into the character you need an actor who can somehow embody both ends of it. For Doyle to be rational and smart and yet at the same time believing in stuff which is going to be for the most part wrong […]and still go back to it and still believe in it. There were two halves to each of these characters. Houdini had to be this guy who could command this stage and at the same time most of the show is going to take place in this intimate discussion between people and be this character who’s a bit bombastic and full of himself, but at the same time we want to show that there’s a little doubt in there too. He’s also searching for something. He’s hoping for something, and his love of life has to be there.
Ironically, one of the things that usually attracts me to a show are the same things that make them very difficult to cast, because these are such interesting, complicated characters. And then Stephen [Mangan] came in and we loved him for Doyle. He was one of the first people cast in the show. Then he started reading with other people and every time he did… Same thing happened with Rebecca [Liddiard]. Every time they’d read with other people we’d go, ‘Oh god, yes, we made a good choice.’ Michael [Weston] was actually one of the last actors we cast but it’s a tricky role. I’ve worked with him before. I worked with him at length and I just find him so charming and so delightful.”
David Hoselton: “Practically speaking, there’s also the contrast between the button-down Brit and the over-the-top American, the bombastic American who’s full of himself. And yet they both have to be charming and very funny, too, so it was finding all those qualities.”
David Titcher: “Michael had to be really likeable because Houdini was written as a bit of an asshole.”
David Shore: “Which is, again, you want to have those things. I’ve written another character who was a bit of an asshole.” [referencing House] His casting was absolutely crucial. It could have been destroyed by the wrong casting. And we’ve done it again!”
What is the biggest challenge of pulling off the time period, characters based on real people, and adding in solving crimes to the mix?
David Hoselton: “We look at the history. We study the history and then we try to adhere to it as closely as we can until it stops telling a good story, and then we just ignore it. And we’re constantly finding little facts about Houdini and Doyle and we go, ‘Oh, that’s cool. We can use that.’ And then there’s other facts we’re like, ‘Oh, that’s cool. We don’t want to use that.'”
David Titcher: “Houdini was married in real life and not on our show. Little facts like that.”
David Hoselton: “And so it’s also sort of fun trying to…because it’s a co-production of Canada and the U.K. we have a lot of Brits on the show, and it’s produced by a Brit. His eagle eye is constantly picking out things. David [Shore] picked one out the other day which was a license plate on a 1901 automobile. You said, ‘Did they have license plates in 1901?’ No, they started in 1902.”
David Shore: “We got in touch with our production people and they said, ‘Yeah. Unfortunately, we can’t even put it on the road to film without a plate on it.’ And so we were off by a year.”
David Hoselton: “I think the number on the plate was like 822 or something, but it would have been like number four or something like that.”
David Shore: “This has many unique difficulties. All shows do, but this one because it’s a period piece, because we’re filming eight in England and two in Canada, because of the time period in terms of making it look like that, sound like that, there’s unique problems. But all of those are very manageable. We had a crew that did a great job. The biggest difficulty of any show, I would submit, is coming up with great stories that are compelling. I think these guys did a wonderful job.”