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The Exquisite Reality of Yesterday: A Chat with Julian Fellowes about 'Downton Abbey: A New Era'

Script contributor Sonya Alexander speaks with 'Downton Abbey: A New Era' screenwriter Julian Fellowes about writing time period centric pieces, his personal connection to history, his writing journey from novelist to now, and how becoming a writer-director has changed his perspective on writing.
Downton Abbey series creator and screenwriter Julian Fellowes on the set of  DOWNTON ABBEY: A New Era, a Focus Features release. Credit: Ben Blackall / © 2022 Focus Features LLC.

Downton Abbey series creator and screenwriter Julian Fellowes on the set of DOWNTON ABBEY: A New Era, a Focus Features release. Credit: Ben Blackall / © 2022 Focus Features LLC.

Some might say that watching Downton Abbey is engaging in escapism, and it very well might be for some. However, it’s also quite notable for its historical offerings. We follow the privileged Crawley family and their servants for a span of roughly sixteen years, a swath of time with vital historic events and inventions. The first episode of the series, which premiered in 2010, starts out in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic, which puts the Crawley household’s future in question. The latest film, Downton Abbey: A New Era, picks up where the last film (2019) left off and celebrates the cinema innovation of talking pictures. The Downton Abbey series and movies provide a Barbizonian lens on British culture in the early 1900s, from the Edwardian era to the new era. The latest visit with the Crawleys and staff will be on May 20, 2022, when Downton Abbey: A New Era is released in theaters. Starring Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Jim Carter and a cast of other familiar faces, this film is a joyful, yet moving continuation of the saga.

Downton’s writer and creator Julian Fellowes has always had a love for history, and it’s been the fulcrum of many of his projects. From Oscar-winning Gosford Park to his latest series The Gilded Age, he frequently paints a very real vision of the time period we’re presented with, couching it in sumptuous beauty and elegance and vibrant historical relevance.

Born in Egypt and with a diplomat father, Julian’s upbringing was nothing less than colorful. He channels his childhood experiences into his writing.

"I got very interested in my family's history and history in general. I did have a very strong sense, from when I was quite a young child, that I had just missed something. There had been quite a distinct period.... I felt I came along a few years too late and missed out. Because I got interested so young, all of my great aunts were all still alive and I would talk to them. I had great aunts that would go to India on what they called the 'fishing fleet.' If you couldn't find a husband, you went to India to try to find a husband there. Two of them went. One of them came back with a husband...! They got married around 1898. They could talk about that life before the war and did. I would question them. It gave me very much a sense that history is a real place where real men and women lived. The things that happened to them were real things. I think that enriched my life more than almost anything. When children are taught history badly, they have a sense of alienation. That these people two hundred years ago...how can they as children relate? I never had that. My upbringing opened my eyes in a way that was later quite helpful to me."

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The Downton Abbey movies maintain the charm of the series. However, writing a series is much different than writing a screenplay, each presenting distinctive hurdles to overcome.

"The real challenge is in structure. When you have a series, you don't have to give every character a story every week. You can have different emphases. Whereas in a film, everyone has to have their crack at the whip. Everyone has to have an active part in the story. Where I think I was helped is that the television series was quite cinematic in its conception. The way it was filmed, the way it was photographed. The scale of the house itself, which became so emblematic, with its towers and great rooms. Sometimes when you see a television series made into a movie, you can see the challenge to make it look cinematic. They'll immediately take the characters on an ocean voyage or something to try to turn it into cinema. I didn't think that was a problem for us. For the audience to see even more of the scale of the house and the beauty of the rooms was actually kind of rewarding if they'd enjoyed the series. The house had more to show us, more to give us. That was the blessing we had with adapting the series to film."

Downton Abbey has maintained a huge fanbase worldwide since its inception. Does Julian know what makes the characters so beloved?

"I'm asked that and if I knew, I'd do nothing but write incredibly popular shows! I think it's because all of them are decent human beings who are doing their best. They're trying to achieve what they want. They have different goals. They worry about their old age. They worry about the next stage of their lives. Who their children are going to marry. I think we can connect with all of that. The fact that one group's living in a stately home and another group's working in the kitchen...I think that's less important than the fact that most of the predicaments they're in, we understand. Will my money last? Am I going to have to be broke in old age? What does my daughter see in him?! I want them to be in predicaments, I want them to have troubles that people understand and empathize with. Things that are not too esoteric. Then the audience can find their own favorites among them."

[Using Words as a Doorway to Infinite Possibilities: An Interview with David Mitchell]

Julian started his writing career penning novels under pseudonyms in the 70s. One thing he knows for sure is that no matter the format, writing in any form is an ongoing process.

"I suppose it took me about two months to write the first draft of Downton Abbey: A New Era. But the truth is, you never really stop writing until it's done, whether it’s a television series or a movie. Right until the end of post-production, they're still wanting a scene to change its emphasis with a new line coming from off-screen. Writing novels feels luxurious by comparison.

However, any writing project is a work in progress until it's locked, until it’s finalized.

I enjoyed writing novels. Past Imperfect is my most autobiographical piece of work. That sounds rather vain, and I suppose it is, but it allowed me to explore my own experience. Allowed me to review it and put it in context. When you're writing a novel, it's you and your publisher. My publisher never gave me a note that didn't improve the text."

Being a writer and director can change one’s perspective about writing. Like Polish screenwriter/director Krzysztof Kieślowski, Julian Fellowes “links” people through his stories. He also thought of the craft with a fresh perspective after working with actors.

"I think directing helped me to see the script in its proper place and not to think that every comma is of vital importance. I think it made me feel less precious. I'd be directing a scene and I'd be aware that this speech here wasn’t necessary because all the information it contains, we already know from other sources so we should elbow it. That was very helpful to me in things when I was only writing because it made me take the script a little bit less seriously. I'm serious when I'm writing and I'm doing my best, but I learned to not be so hard on myself. The other thing I think it taught me, and I think I already knew this, was to take actors’ comments seriously. They don't usually have a solution, but they're usually right that there's a problem. Your dialogue ought to be easy to play. I've been an actor, writer, director, producer, so I've worn many hats and know that even when it's a big emotional scene, the dialogue should take you there in an organic way."

[L-R] Hugh Dancy stars as Jack Barber, Kevin Doyle as Mr. Molesley, Alex MacQueen as Mr. Stubbins and Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary in DOWNTON ABBEY: A New Era, a  Focus Features release. Credit: Ben Blackall / © 2022 Focus Features LLC.

[L-R] Hugh Dancy stars as Jack Barber, Kevin Doyle as Mr. Molesley, Alex MacQueen as Mr. Stubbins and Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary in DOWNTON ABBEY: A New Era, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Ben Blackall / © 2022 Focus Features LLC.

The Gilded Age premiered on January 24, 2022, on HBO to critical acclaim. Starring Carrie Coon, Morgan Spector, and Cynthia Nixon, it’s set in 1882 New York City, a hectic time of robber barons, parvenus, and old money gentry. He didn’t have any difficulty writing American characters, though, because they’re very familiar to him.

[It’s All About Characters: An Interview with Sonja Warfield]

"America's been a big part of my life for more than half a century. Americans have been very kind to my work, so I don't really feel a gap between me and America. I got interested in American history, and the Gilded Age in particular, many years ago, long before I thought of it as a television show. I'd read a lot 'round it, about the Vanderbilts, the Carnegies, and the Goulds so that when the idea came up for turning it into a television series, I had a pretty sound grounding. But also, for the first time, I have a co-writer, Sonja Warfield, and she has an insight into all of this because she is American and she's African American. She'll say to me, ‘We wouldn't say this like that’ or ‘That's not how this would play out.' I'm very grateful for that.

Here's a difference between America and Britain. When you're doing a show in Britain, it's quite a small group that makes the show. In America, there are about 150 people who are allowed to put in their two cents worth and that can be a lot to handle. Sonja's been very helpful to me in that regard because she's very experienced in series writing."

Downton Abbey: A New Ear is only in theaters on May 20. 


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