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The Downton Effect

Julian Fellows - Writer & Creator of Downtown Abbey

Superheroes of a Different Sort

The CinéArts Interview with Julian Fellowes of The Downton Abbey Movie

by Frank Gonzales/CinéArts (8/22/2019)

For many movie lovers 2019 will go down as having the most anticipated event film hit the screen, filled with a galaxy full of actors, weaving multiple storylines into a buoyant script, drawing to a conclusion an epic adventure many years in the making. Yes, 2019 will be the year of Downton Abbey!

What? You thought I was referring to that other superhero movie?  Sorry to disappoint, but for many one of the real superheroes of 2019 is Julian Fellowes, the writer and creator of the famed television series and the screenwriter of the new Downton Abbey Movie.

The acclaimed 2002 Academy Award winning screenwriter of Gosford Park is, for those who like their heroes and heroines to be more brains than brawn, happy to be presenting to audiences the next chapter of the Crawley family chronicles, but this time on the big screen.

Along with his longtime collaborators, producers Gareth Neame and Liz Trubridge, Fellowes was a driving force behind the movie and in a recent CinéArts interview discussed how taking the beloved show from the small screen to the big one was a logical, if not surprising one, as “we never even thought about a film after it had all ended.”

“I think the players had come to the end of the final season and wanted to go onto other things and see how far up the mountain they could get, so to speak. So we never really thought about continuing Downton Abbey.

“But afterwards there was just this sense that somehow everyone hadn’t gone away; they hadn’t all simply ended it and moved on. They were still ‘Downton-centric,’ and soon after it started to form as an idea that maybe there was a movie in it.

“So then Gareth, Liz and I started kicking around the idea. Fortunately I didn’t have the task of rounding everyone up, that was down to Gareth. But once it became clear that the actors were happy to come back for a movie, then it got more and more solid, quite quickly.”

Downton Abbey

As Fellowes mentioned a significant challenge was the actual round up, as there were no reservations from any of the principal cast members to participate. “They had all left to go to very busy careers; they were on Broadway and doing series in Hollywood and making movies. So the issue was if they could get the three months off simultaneously in the not too distant future so we could shoot the picture. That was the big issue, rather than wanting to do it.”

For those of us who lost sleep when one or more character died, or whether or not someone will marry or find true love, getting the full cast back was the most important factor in making this a movie event. It’s a point not lost on Fellowes. 

 “When you’re doing an ordinary movie, you have your three or four stars, and you get them. But there are other parts and you cast whoever is available. And if you want someone who isn’t available you get someone else.

“But you don’t have that luxury in a show like Downton. We have twenty or so regulars, and you have to get them all. So that was very testing and more power to Gareth since he was able to bring it off.”

The other aspect of the show and movie that fans love is the originality Fellowes brought to the series, mixing meticulous research and historical accuracy into scripts full of drama, action and wit. He credits all of his collaborators, including the actors, into shaping the characters into memorable ones.

“I think we developed the characters together,” he recalls.  “I had written a mini-series, a six-part adaptation and so on, but this was the first time I had written a series. Actually we had no idea this would become a multi-year series. I was still writing the second half of the first year after we had started filming.

“So what I did was write the performances I could see before my eyes. Then you start to mold the scripts to what the actors do well so that you give them certain situations. They could be funnier in comic situations, or do more emotional stuff in the dramatic, moving scenes. And you know that they will deliver since they are at the top of their game. So in that sense the actors and the writer work together to create the characters.”

The writer then placed those characters into a time and place that was as authentic as anything seen on screen before or since. It’s a testament to Fellowes that he created such dense characters in historically relevant situations. He credits his own personal interests as a building block for this process.

“I have always been very interested in the period of the late 19th to early 20th centuries anyway. So what I used to do was to create a series of events of what happened in 1921 or 22 or whatever year we were in. I would have a kind of picture of who were the stars of the day, who the big scandals were, what the political situation was, and I would then make these kind of references to those things.

“We would talk about the Teapot Dome scandal, for instance. And even though we wouldn’t go on and on about it, any viewer who bothered to put the Teapot Dome scandal in to their Wikipedia would find that it was a real scandal that happened in that era. So we tried to do as much as we could in referencing the period.”

But the intricacies of running a country estate at the turn of the century? Again, his own personal interests provided insight. As he remembers, “I actually did know a lot about how those houses worked, because I had been interested in the whole country house existence since I was quite young. And apart from that there is a great deal about human life that doesn’t change much, whether you’re writing about the 16th century or the early 20th century. So there are always those kind of fundamental emotions to fall back on.”

Downton Abbey

For Fellowes, the biggest challenge was how do you pare down a six-season series into a stand-alone movie? “That was what had me slightly running my fingers through my hair, although I haven’t got much, to try to work out how to do it.

“During a season every week you can give a decent story to four or five characters, and the other characters join in on those stories. Then the following week it will be a different group. But in a movie everyone who appears must have their story. And all of those stories must be resolved. So it’s going to be stand alone. You don’t have the benefit of leaving something for the next film because that’s not how it works.”  

Fellowes resolved his challenge by “having a central narrative theme, a kind of central tent pole that affected everyone. In that way, all of the stories came off this central event so they had this kind of artistic unity.”

The writer credits his producers as being the sounding boards and protectors of the spirit of Downton Abbey in all of its transformations from idea to draft to final script. “Gareth, Liz and I would talk about the coming series or movie, as the case may be, and talk about the basic themes. I would talk about my ideas for the major stories and they might add to them or delete them or whatever.

“Then I would start to write. I’d do my first draft and it would go first to my wife, Emma, and then to Gareth and Liz for their notes. Then I’d do another draft and they would send more detailed notes. Then after that re-write, and only after we three were all pretty satisfied with the script for shooting purposes, would it then go to outside, to ITV or PBS  or even to a director.

“So we had to be completely happy with the script. And even then directors would come back with notes to do this or do that. But the bottom line is that Gareth, Liz and I would take the script to a stage of being a shooting script before anyone else could intervene.”

Fellowes completely believes this process is the key to consistency and it keeps the amount of voices in a room down to a minimum. “Sometimes there is a passion for too many notes from too many people and sometimes all of these people contradict each other, or they don’t understand the structure of the piece and it can be debilitating. But that didn’t happen with Downton, so that is why we kept the standard up.

“And even when it went to the outside forces, Gareth always monitored the notes, and removed those that contradicted each other and he would remove the negative notes that had nothing to offer. So I think I ultimately got only a list of notes that were all improvements or possible improvements. That in itself made the whole process easier and pleasant.

“Gareth really protected me and it meant that the script always moved forward. Sometimes it could go backwards because you’re getting such contradictory input, but Gareth simply kept that from happening.  That’s why I’m very happy to work with him now and in the future.”

All of these high quality hallmarks are all on display this fall when Downton Abbey opens in theatres in September. For Julian Fellowes, it was essential to create characters that the public would care for and that he himself would want to see and root for. 

“I think it was Steven Spielberg who said ‘I only like to make movies that I want to see’, and for me, I only like to make shows that I want to see. Downtown Abbey was the kind of show that if someone else had made it I would have watched it. So that was my goal.

“And as far as drawing people in? It seems to me that television is based on getting the public to care about the characters in a particular narrative, whether Mad Men, or The Good Wife, or Grey’s Anatomy. The point is you care about those people and want to know what happens in the end: will they be happy? Will they be okay? And so on. I think what we were always trying to do is make characters that the public cared about.”

Violet, Daisy, Mr. Carson, Mary and Robert may not be the names of comic books and legends, but to fans of Downton Abbey they are just as worthy of being remembered in the pantheons of cinema. And for Julian Fellowes and his team of producers, they are superheroes indeed.

Downton Abbey

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