Downton Abbey: A New Era is the second film spun off from the successful television series. I recently had the chance to speak to director Simon Curtis, writer Julian Fellows, and producers Gareth Neame and Liz Trubridge about the project…
Matt: I’d like to ask for your reflections from when the first episode of the TV series aired back in 2010. What were your expectations for it back then?
Julian: I think we were optimistic. There was at that time a thought that period drama was dead. Gareth Neame and I didn’t believe it. We felt we made a good show and it would find a good audience but of course, we didn’t know we were on the edge of a storm cloud that was going to whirl all over the world. We were proud of the show.
Gareth: It became clear very quickly this was a kind of phenomenon. This was back in the days when people cared about viewer figures and our ratings went up about 30% between the first and second episode. That was unheard of. It meant everyone who watched it came back the following week which was quite an achievement, and they’d all told their friends to come as well. Within a week, we were part of the social conversation. People were referencing Downton Abbey as a “thing” and not just a television show. There was something special happening.
Matt: The first film from 2019 made did well and took in close to $200 million USD at the global box-office. Did that make this sequel a certainty or were there other factors involved?
Gareth: We quickly started having conversations about the next one. I was determined to take the Crawley family overseas because we’d never done that before and I persuaded Julian to have a script where they go to the south of France which I thought was a terribly good idea before we’d ever heard of something called COVID. We had a window in 2020 to work on the script and I thought it was great timing because this whole thing would be finished by the time we started shooting in 2021. Then came the second wave and with borders closed…
Julian: We nearly shot it on the Costa del Anglesey in Wales. There was no guarantee we could get to France at all.
Liz: We didn’t know until the very last minute we would get to France. We had to have two schedules running with two budgets. We didn’t know for sure until about three weeks before we left.
Matt: It is one of the biggest casts we’ll see in a mainstream movie. How easy it is bringing everyone back together at the same time? I’m sure some of the cast members have busy schedules.
Simon: In this case, COVID helped in that there were a lot of things not being made. It’s one of the greatest ensembles as you say and they’re all very committed to Julian, Gareth and Liz and so they all turned up.
Gareth: It’s not without its challenges though. As you rightly say, they’re all juggling projects and as Simon alluded to, a lot of projects were slipping due to COVID and starting later than expected. This really did cause of issues but it’s not a day for dwelling on that. We’re celebrating the fact we got it done and we’re very happy with it. We hope audiences are going to love it.
Matt: Julian, I mentioned the big cast and of course an inevitable challenge is trying to give them all their fair share of time and narrative within a tight 2 hours. How does that play out when writing the initial script?
Julian: You’re quite right that it’s the big challenge. When you’re doing a TV series, actors understand they will have a decent story once every 2 or 3 episodes and in between, they’ll join in other people’s stories. They don’t all have to fully served but in the case of a film, they do. You can’t say “wait for the next film” and so you have to plat them all together so they all have something worth doing.
Matt: Do the actors come to you with ideas about where they might want to take their characters?
Julian: They often come with idea but where those ideas go is a slightly different matter. I think we’re reasonably open to suggestions but you don’t want to be blown in too many different directions. With the TV series, Gareth, Liz and I always knew from an early stage where it was going and what the stopping point would be. Film is slightly different but we still get together and decide what the plot will be and then I get on with it.
Matt: I really did like the idea of the film within the film. How did that idea come about?
Julian: It came from Gareth because he was talking about his grandfather who was in the film industry. At that time, he was just a young runner on a film being directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1928. They had the same predicament that happened to the characters in the film. As Gareth was telling the story, I was like “oooo, there’s something in here for me.” I knew I wanted something that would bring the 20th Century into the Downton setup. It wasn’t just men and women getting on with their lives.
Matt: Simon, does much change in the editing process? Do you have to tweak the way it’s all interwoven to create a fast-paced yet understandable narrative?
Simon: I’ve always admired Julian but it was amplified on this film because he really does give everyone a journey through the two hours of the movie. When you get into the cutting room, maybe a few beats would be changed but for the most part, it’s the movie on the page.
Matt: Maggie Smith always seems to get the most memorable of the barbs and the one-liners. Is that because she gets the better end of the script? Or is it because she’s just so damn good at what she does?
Julian: Maggie and I started together in Gosford Park 22 years ago and we then did another movie together. I suppose we have each other’s rhythm. She knows how to play what I write and I hope I know how to write to take advantage of her. One of her great skills is that she can make you laugh and cry very closely to each other. She can be very moving and then two minutes later, you’re laughing away. That’s a real talent and a real gift which I try to give her an opportunity to display.
Matt: Laura Haddock gets to have a lot of fun too with her role by being the “fish out of water” in terms of her voice and personality and mannerisms. What can you tell me about her casting and extracting such a memorable performance?
Julian: The voice thing came from the same story Gareth was telling. She was foreign and could hardly speak English. All the way through Downton Abbey, we found opportunities to bring in characters who haven’t had the same conditioning as the Crawley family and the servants. They’ve come from outside that set up. We’ve used that to demonstrate aspects of the life the Crawley household was living.
Matt: The costumes are always great – from the formal attire to the swimwear. How much work goes into those to make them as authentic as possible?
Liz: A huge amount. One of the big challenges we had this year was that our costume designer, Anna Robbins, caught COVID right in the middle of the prep and couldn’t be near her team when she was designing. That caused quite a few missing heartbeats because there are so many costumes. She makes full wardrobes for these characters and this time, as you know, we had the characters in the film within the film, the upstairs/downstairs nature of things, and the different look for the south of France. It was really challenging for her and we brought on a talented co-costume designer, Maja Meschede, to help out because it’s a huge cast.
Matt: So where too from here with this series? Is the plan to make more movies?
Gareth: The first big hurdle was taking a much loved television project onto the big screen. That’s been a stony path which has not always worked for other shows. It was a great thrill to see people missed these characters and wanted to be reunited with them. Viewing habits change. People who watched Downton Abbey at home went to movie theatres and bought tickets. We successfully migrated and now we have to keep that interest. Of course, cinema attendance has fallen due to the pandemic. We really hope after these ghastly past two years and with other depressing, monstrous things going on in the world at the moment, people will cherish this opportunity and go back to cinema for this feel-good movie which takes you to a place you love being in.
Matt: Do you deliberately leave things open for future movies? You don’t have to share but do you have an idea where some of these characters might go if another sequel is greenlit? Or do you tie up as much as you can in case that doesn’t happen?
Julian: I’ve said good-bye to these characters so many times and back they come. When you talk about new directions, they may be fictional but they’re still living their lives just like we do. Things keep happening. It’s the same for characters. As long as there is demand and they’re audience who want to see these actors, I’m sure we’ll find things for them to do.