Downton Abbey: A New Era has already topped the box office charts in its native UK, grossing $30 million even before international. Now it’s time for the second feature film to expand the world created in the hit TV show to go global.
A record-breaking success for Focus Features in 2019, the first film grossed $194 million worldwide, and anticipation has been high for the follow-up, with audience scores for the sequel remaining solid.
Downton Abbey: A New Era offers up familiar faces and a few new ones, a potential family scandal, and a touch of showbiz when a film crew uses the stately home to make a movie.
I spoke to the show’s creator, Julian Fellowes, to examine the evolution of the wildly popular world he created and what makes it unique and universal.
Simon Thompson: Downton Abbey: A New Era opened in the UK before the US and topped the box office. There is no significant slowdown in the hunger for this world. How reassuring was that for you?
Julian Fellowes: Everything comes upon me as a surprise each time but a very nice surprise nonetheless. I’m glad they want to see these characters again, and a feel-good movie, which is certainly what we unashamedly are, is what’s needed just now.
Thompson: We’re entering the second decade of Downton; we’re two years into that. Do you find new audiences are discovering it who weren’t open to it before?
Fellowes: I love the idea of the audience changing. I think it shows that we’re doing something right. Remember, our players are changing. Mary’s fans from 13 years ago, when they were biking to school, are all grown up now, and they’re all men and women living their lives, and there’s something quite nice about that evolution. I’ve always followed Coronation Street, and I used to watch it with my grandmother when it began in 1960. I was 11 years old then, and here I am, nearly dead (laughs).
Thompson: Is Downton’s evolution something you expected?
Fellowes: I felt the fashionable opinion that period drama was dead and there was no audience for it anymore was something I disagreed with. I thought it was wrong, and happily, the people at ITV and our producer Gareth Neame also thought it was wrong. My goal was to prove that there still was an audience for period drama if you could do it right. We did prove that in the UK, but then as it came out in America a year later and then went all over the world, suddenly, we were on this extraordinary magic carpet ride, and it hasn’t stopped. None of us expected that. We believed in the show; I think we had faith in it and thought we would maybe have two or three years on TV in Britain, and that would be the end. In the US, we thought perhaps we would get picked up by PBS
Thompson: I didn’t realize that.
Fellowes: They wouldn’t show it in Scotland because they thought there was no audience for it. In the end, for the second year of the show, I think what they did was show the first series back to back with the second so that people could catch up. That’s the extent to which perfectly normal and sane people did not think that the market still existed.
Thompson: So what keeps bringing you back to Downtown? It’s not as if you’re short of things to do. You constantly have projects on the go and are in demand.
Fellowes: I pledge my troth to whatever it is, whether it’s a series or movie or novel or whatever I’m doing, and then I belong to it for as long as it has life. I have that simple principle, really. I would never have given up Downton Abbey as long as people wanted it and the players wanted to go along with it. I enjoyed it. There’s something about creating an original series where you can make anything happen and take them wherever you want. That is very satisfying if you get it right. When you’re adapting a novel that already exists, it’s an entirely different challenge, but creating something new I did find rather exciting. I wouldn’t ever have abandoned Downton; I’m still attached as long as there’s life in it.
Thompson: When the first Downton Abbey movie came out, it was seen as almost a bookend, getting the gang back together one last time. It was a big success. When did that end become a new beginning?
Fellowes: These things are gradual, as I’m sure you know. What can start as a joke suddenly becomes a reality, and then you’re talking dates in no time at all, and the whole thing has happened. I don’t think it’s vain to say that it did do pretty well, and there was this market out there, and it would be foolish to turn our backs on it. I’m not the one who makes those sorts of decisions. I’m the one who’s just scribbling away in some room and doing what he’s told to.
Thompson: Simon Curtis directed Downton Abbey: A New Era and has been orbiting the show for several years. He’s traveled with the crew, and his wife plays a key role in the cast. Had the conversation ever come up of him helming even an episode?
Fellowes: I don’t remember that ever happening. I remember Simon being very much part of the larger Downton gang because he was Elizabeth McGovern’s husband. He was around on the set, and he was at every social function, and Simon was always there. When the decision was made to see if he would direct the second film, I think we all felt there was a kind of relief in that he knew the shorthand; he didn’t have to learn the concept or understand what the show was trying to do. Simon had it; he spoke Downton. He’d been reading the scripts and talking the storylines through with his wife for years. I think that was very much an advantage in that we didn’t have to break him in in any way at all. I hope he enjoyed it. I think he did a very good job for us.
Thompson: What key elements make a good Downton Abbey story?
Fellowes: It’s when you can see both sides. I’ll give you an example. When Edith had not told her husband about the fact she had a baby before they were married and he left her, he said it wasn’t the baby; it was the fact she didn’t tell him. What I hope in those moments is that the public, who up to that time had been on Edith’s side, suddenly see his point of view and that he’s not being snobbish or irrational or whatever. He’s being asked to marry a woman who doesn’t trust him with the most fundamental secrets in her life. At that moment, I wanted Downton viewers worldwide to disagree about which one of them was in the right. Again, when Lady Sybil died, Cora wanted to listen to the local doctor who knew Sybil well, but Robert wanted to listen to the expert who had come from London at vast expense; they were both tenable positions. In the end, in that instance, Robert was wrong, and Cora was right. I try to have as little as possible of people being completely unreasonable or completely evil. Some characters are more likable than others, but I believe very touchingly that very few people wake up and say, ‘How can I make them unhappy today?’ Usually, people do what they think is the sensible or right thing to do. They may be tougher than others about people getting hurt along the way, but that isn’t usually the sole purpose. When the show finishes or people meet around the water cooler, there should be a genuine argument, and it should be possible to defend both sides of the difference. That’s a Downton story.
Thompson: What was the hardest thing to write in this one? There is a scene where we say goodbye to a significant character. Is that kind of thing more challenging to write?
Fellowes: I knew where I was going with that scene. I also knew that all of the functioning characters within that story within a story were old friends, and I knew that they were all equal to the demands that I might lay on them. I wasn’t concerned about that story being effective as I knew it would be. I sometimes think, when you’re writing, particularly as the Downton style is always to have three or four new people in all the time, you want them to pick up the very clear narrative responsibility that the players have. At the beginning of every film or series, I always say that you must take responsibility for your own story. There are so many stories going on simultaneously, and often one scene will serve five or six stories, that it’s not fair to expect the script supervisor or the director to be absolutely on top of it in every moment. The one person who can be on top of every story is the actor. That is a discipline that all the running cast have without thinking about it, but sometimes with newcomers, you hope they’re happy to take that responsibility. I loved our newcomers in the film. I thought they were all absolutely terrific.
Thompson: You talk about taking responsibility, but you haven’t directed one of these Downton movies yet, and it’s been a while since you took the helm on a movie. If this goes for a third movie, are you going to take responsibility and direct it yourself?
Fellowes: It wouldn’t be my decision. I can say that safely and hide behind it. I would be pretty interested in directing a Downton film, although maybe that wouldn’t be a wonderful moment to let the whole show down, so perhaps I shouldn’t attempt that (laughs). I enjoy directing. Separate Lies was a film I directed, and it’s one of my favorite things in my own canon. You have favorites among the stuff you’ve done, and I really felt it worked. I wouldn’t mind having another go, but the problem is that there is always quite a lot going on.
Downton Abbey: A New Era is in theaters now.