EXCLUSIVE: Nancy Springer’s book series, The Enola Holmes Mysteries, posits a simple idea: rather than re-tread the ground of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories for the thousandth time, what if Sherlock had a little sister whose adventures captured the spirit of the classic detective’s investigations from the perspective of a character beaten down by her young age and the gender norms of the Victorian era? It is the surprisingly rich recipe for a series of six books and, now, a motion picture adaptation by director Harry Bradbeer (Fleabag, Killing Eve), starring Millie Bobby Brown (Stranger Things) in the title role.
The 16-year-old Brown also happens to be the film’s originating producer. As she explained, over a Zoom conversation with Deadline and her director, it was a project born when she first read the book series with her older sister Paige and fell in love with the notion of playing Enola Holmes. That it crossed the finish line is a remarkable feat, considering at that point Brown had only completed her first steps on Stranger Things and she was still too young to play the character. But the film, produced by Legendary, is primed for global release tomorrow on Netflix, and in Bradbeer’s hands it becomes a rare Young Adult blockbuster that seems certain to attract an audience.
DEADLINE: How did the Enola Holmes stories enter your lives?
MILLIE BOBBY BROWN: I read the books with my sister about five years ago, and we kind of looked at each other and I was like, “I want to play this.” But I was 11, 12 years old, and the character was 16, so I always knew it would be more of a future ambition for me. I had only really been doing Stranger Things at that point, and I was about to do my first movie, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, but I was taken aback by the books. I just wasn’t really focussed on making it just yet.
One day, I said to my dad, “I really think we have to make this film.” He said okay, and he went and found a studio. We partnered with Legendary, because I’d been working with them on Godzilla. They always appreciated my voice, they valued it, which I always loved. I knew this was something I could really talk about with them, and feel comfortable with working with them, because of my past relationship.
So, after that, we found a writer, [Jack Thorne], and I remember we had this full-on phonecall about it while I was in my pool, talking about breaking the fourth wall, and all that. And then, obviously, we found our amazing director, Harry Bradbeer, and from there it really became Harry’s story to bring to life. As soon as Harry got involved, he brought all his ideas to the table and I was probably ten times more excited just because he had so many cool ideas, and it was a real collaboration.
HARRY BRADBEER: Collaboration is the thing; collaboration is everything. With anything you do, you want to feel that you’re going to have something to really dive into. And there was something about this script when it first arrived, this idea of a girl on a bicycle who turns to the camera and says, “Now, where do I begin?” There was something about the bravura of the person who says, “Right, you’re coming with me. I’m going to take you by the scruff of the neck, and I’m in charge.”
What I really love about a script, or about a story, is when I feel like we can be the storytellers in charge of this. We can take you somewhere different, unexpected. There was a tone inherent to this, and it was also very eccentric and particular and English, which obviously I recognized, being very English myself [laughs].
BROWN: As he says sitting in front of a full library. “I’m very English,” as he sips his tea [laughs].
BRADBEER: Well, these aren’t my books, they’re my wife’s, but there you are [laughs]. They make a good background.
I thought there was a way of making a film that was going to be energetic, eccentric, particular, but also very emotional. And I think that’s one of the things I really leaned into with the script, because it was a fun romp when I first looked at it, but I thought there was more emotion to mine from it.
After reading the script, I then watched Millie in Stranger Things. I thought, Oh, if you can do that, you can do the lot. We could go down these directions together. We can really make it difficult for Enola. We can really make it painful.
The moment the two of us started talking about it, I remember sensing this could be terrific team-up. I’ve worked with a number of younger actors, and Millie, you didn’t go to drama school, you just had an inherent instinct and a talent that I knew we could work with. Jack’s writing was very helpful here, but just keeping it alive on set and sparkling, and a little improvisation. I remember we talked about that on that first call. Do you remember?
BROWN: Yes, we talked about improv a lot, and that’s something I’ve never really been very comfortable with. Stranger Things is very scripted, and I usually stick to it because I never really feel I have anything to add. Eleven is Eleven. But when I did my first day of shooting on Enola, immediately I felt it was something I could really explore with.
I have to be really comfortable with a crew to be able to improvise, I think. I don’t want to feel embarrassed. It’s like a thing in my head. The first day on set, I did immediately feel so comfortable, and I felt like I could really explore those boundaries without judgement. It felt like a great creative space for us. I did a lot of improv in the end. I sometimes look at stuff and think, I did that in one take, so they must have used that exact take.
BRADBEER: The dialogue was written, but there are little lines. Like when you go into the boarding house and say, “It’s lovely,” in that tone. You just let the camera go. The only person it really killed was the focus puller, who was on the verge of a nervous breakdown the whole time [laughs]. He said, “She’s like a gazelle, Harry. I can’t keep up with her.” I said, “I know, but look, I’ve got to make this straight right at the beginning. We’re going to have to work it. And sometimes you won’t pull focus on her, but I’ll still love you. It’s going to be all right.” You had to find that energy.
The other thing that really appealed to me, and it was there in the original script but we brought it much further forward, was the debate about human rights, and about democracy. That debate was really going on, with the People’s Representation Act, but the vote wasn’t there for women yet. The politics of that time, I thought, well, let’s bring that forward, so that even though it’s an adventure film, it could be so much more.
DEADLINE: The way you’re describing it — how everything came together such that you were just the right age to play the role at just the right time — that’s such a rare thing to pull off.
BROWN: I know. It doesn’t happen this way, because Hollywood is filled with empty promises. Everybody’s like, “Yeah, we’ll make it,” and then it never happens. I think you could probably agree with me on that, Harry…
My dad, to be honest with you, was the one who said, “We’re doing this,” and he made it happen. One day he said, “Millie, we’ve got a writer.” It was like, what? We’re actually writing a script? And then I was in Australia, Zooming with Harry, and it was like, OK, this is happening. I was involved along the way, but I didn’t think it would come together as soon and as easily. Everyone was on board from the off. Nobody was saying, “This shouldn’t happen. We shouldn’t do this.” It was like, “We’re doing this. It’s happening.”
It made it even more exciting for me, that when everybody heard about it they wanted to make it as much as I did. Our heads were all on the same page. Nobody was slowing down, nobody didn’t know when they wanted to do it. Before we knew it we were building shooting schedules.
DEADLINE: This is also no small film. It crosses a huge landscape, a period landscape, and is full of action sequences and suspense. What did you do to make the world come alive?
BROWN: It was all Harry Bradbeer. I’m telling you now, on the set he knew every little prop. He’d be like, “Oh yeah, I put that in this morning, because I thought that that would be a nice little detail.” It was a world that he created, with an amazing group behind him of course, but I would walk into these sets and I would feel like Enola. I never had to wonder or worry about the world around me, because it had already been so perfectly created.
BRADBEER: That’s very sweet of you to say. Details are so important. Details are everything. I mean, I did a history degree, which I think helps. So, I knew that period well; I knew that behavior. I’d studied that period of democratic change quite closely.
The Victorian period was full of things. It was the first time when they had lots of little things. It was the first great consumer culture, and so there was a lot to play with. A film professor once said to me, “Harry, everything is a choice. Every single thing you see on that screen is a choice, every color, every book.” And so, it stays with you. In the process of developing the script, you’re researching it, and you do have to know it backwards and forwards and all the way around.
But Millie’s saying really lovely things about me. What I thought was extraordinary about Millie… I soon forgot, or didn’t really consider, how old she was, or how much experience that she had then. She had a lot of experience. Because I was just struck by a kind of conviction and bravery. I think bravery is the thing I said to you, Millie, in my card to you, was the thing I most remember. Because you just go for it. And I think that is one of the most important things in life, and it was very important in that character. And so, it gave me confidence. I thought that we could go anywhere, and she would grab each scene and have her own take on it.
DEADLINE: You’re describing a headstrong person who knows what she wants and knows how to get it. Millie, that’s true of Enola too. Did you see that point of connection?
BROWN: Well, I will say anyone that watches the film that knows me, so my friends and family, they say, “Oh my gosh, she’s so much like you. Sometimes I’m looking at her and I feel like I’m watching you talking.”
So, first of all, that is one of the things that I loved about Enola, is when I was reading the script, it felt like I was reading myself. She’s got a very witty sense of humor, very British. And I’ve definitely got her sense of humor.
Her bravery in everything she does, I probably admired that, but for me, I don’t think I’m as brave as her. I definitely throw myself into everything I do. Whether the outcome is good or bad, I do it, because I feel like I might as well, and that’s kind of the way she does it. She takes risks. Everything has to be thought out, though. She’s not as thought out as maybe her brother Sherlock, but everything has to be planned.
I also loved her heart. She’s very vulnerable at times, and she does let herself be vulnerable, because in the back of her head, she’s like, “No, I have to be strong. I have to be strong.” But then it takes over and she really does let go. And that’s the same as me. I love to be strong, but then I actually do, deep down, cry a lot. Harry knows. I’m an emotional girl. What can I say? And that is what I share with her.
We differ in many, many ways, but I will say that that is something that I loved about the book, is that I felt like I was reading about myself. I felt like it’s a coming of age story, she’s growing up in a crazy world around her, and I’m growing up in a crazy world around me, and it’s about how we’re finding ourselves. It felt like the same story that I was going on.
DEADLINE: The film definitely leans into Enola’s vulnerability, and how that can be as much a source of strength as resolve or fight, or whatever you want to call it. I don’t want to put anyone off by likening this film to Fleabag, which was obviously made for a much different audience, but I did feel some common ground there, Harry. The notion that embracing what on the surface might seem like flaws can actually be sources of strength.
BRADBEER: Yes, and that’s been there in all of my work, really. It’s all about being prepared to be vulnerable, and to open your heart. I’m fascinated by those characters, and as you say, I worked with another character [on Fleabag] who also addressed the camera, also had a very sharp shell which needed to be breached.
One of my favourite films is As Good As It Gets, with Jack Nicholson. Have you seen it Millie?
BROWN: No. I’ll write it down.
BRADBEER: I love Jack Nicholson’s character in that film. He starts off as such a hard-hearted man, and gradually he’s broken down in his communication and dealing with others. And by being broken down, he finds his redemption, really.
DEADLINE: There’s also something to be said here for how modern this film, set in the Victorian era, feels. As you mentioned, Harry, it was a time of political upheaval, which I think is what we’re going through now. Do you think the people of Millie’s generation are showing the kind of resolve that Enola does in this film?
BRADBEER: Absolutely, and it fills one with great hope. The future is up to us—that’s one of the last lines in the film, and it’s still one of the key messages. It wasn’t there in the original script, but we found it in the process, and when we found it, I realized we’d found the hope of the movie. I don’t need convincing of the fact that there are extraordinary young people out there who are giving me great hope in the future. But what we need is also some clear and decent sort of morals of good behavior. As well as that energy, we’ve got to embrace simple ideas of love and acceptance, which is hard to come by sometimes, particularly with things like gender issues.
So, when I wrote, “The future is up to us,” I wanted to leave it open-ended. We’re not saying everything’s going to be fine. We’re not saying Enola’s going to be fine. In fact, she bicycles into a London that’s going to damage her, and beat her up, and things are still going to be difficult for her. But what we’re saying is, it’s your responsibility. Don’t rely on others. Think for yourself and do the right thing.
BROWN: To kind of touch on that idea, “The future is up to us,” I do feel ours is an amazing generation, and I know that many of my friends—and especially the kids on Stranger Things—we’re all very strong people and we haven’t necessarily had the most amazing role models in the generation above us, but we have had to find our own role models. And for me, I think Audrey Hepburn, and everything she ever did, really, I’m kind of obsessed with. So, we’ve all found people from previous generations to look up to and admire.
I feel like our generation is specifically formed of very open-minded people, and we’re classed as new thinkers. We’re trying to be accepting of new things. For me, I love meeting new people, learning more about the world, and I’ve never been someone that’s incredibly into the idea of children sitting there and being quiet. All of my friends, we’re vocal about the things we feel passionate about, and that’s ultimately what’s going to change the world, I think.
Look at the amazing people we have around us. Greta Thunberg. She’s not sitting there listening. She’s doing something about it. For me, in the areas where I feel like I want to show my voice, I will do it. I don’t want to sit here and listen. I don’t want to watch it on the news. I want to go out there and help change it.
That’s what our generation is about, and that’s what our film is about. She’s not going to sit there and listen to people trying to find her mother. She’s going to do it herself. “Our future is up to us,” is something we’re all living by right now. It’s a message I’ll live by for the rest of my life, because if we don’t do anything about our world now, we’re going to have bigger complications in the future. Take Malala Yousafzai, for instance. She’s an amazing activist and I believe she’s living by that phrase, because she’s speaking up for something she feels passionate about. The things that you want to see change in, go and do it. This is what this film stands by. And it has a really, really big message.
DEADLINE: To wrap up then, there are future Enola Holmes books that have yet to be explored. Do you think you might reunite for a sequel?
BRADBEER: Well, I mean… Given half a chance, yeah [laughs]. That decision has got to be made, but I think it would be really exciting.
BROWN: Yeah, there’s more of the story to be told. The story isn’t over yet. She isn’t grown up, there’s no conclusion. I think she’ll forever be someone who is always evolving, but there’s definitely more to be shown on screen. Harry and I loved working together, so this has to happen. Harry, we’ve got to send an email…
BRADBEER: Yeah, absolutely.