Hollywood hires and fires screenwriters in a manner which no other profession would endure, with the media complicit in their total reverence for the director and actors. Yet in television, things are often very different, and surely there is no better example of this than Downton Abbey, where Julian Fellowes is both screenwriter, showrunner, and creative controller.
But Fellowes has many more strings to his bow than just an Emmy-award winning TV show. He won an Oscar with his screenwriting debut Gosford Park, has a 30-year acting career, is a peer of the House of Lords, and his recent novel Belgravia made the New York Times bestseller list.
In the first of a two-part interview, Creative Screenwriting spoke to Julian Fellowes about multiple narratives, balancing light and shade, and writing period dialogue.
You thread different narratives and character arcs through a single episode; what techniques do you use to balance them out?
Well, funnily enough that style came about originally when I was asked to write a film for Robert Altman. It seemed unlikely that I’d be given the job, but I decided to do everything I could to make it happen, and so gave myself a kind of festival of Robert Altman over about four or five days.
He went in for this multi-narrative, multi-arc kind of crowded film. Some of the stories were big and went right through the movie. Some were little and two or three scenes would resolve them. Some were funny and some weren’t, and so on.I quite deliberately wrote the first draft of what would become Gosford Park, so that when he started to read it, thinking this is a very alien subject for him, and written by an Englishman, he would find to his surprise that it was actually exactly the kind of film that he knew how to make.What I wasn’t really consciously expecting was that this style of narrative and that interweaving different plot strands would actually suit me very well.
Later, when I was doing Downton, that was the style to which I reverted because it seemed so suitable for a television narrative not to become too bogged down in one particular story. You don’t allow even the major stories to become too central or too continuous because you interlace them with other stories and other scenes. That keeps everyone on their toes, and so that was how I did it.
To answer the practical side of the question, I write the episode on a computer and I will search for Mrs Patmore, look at the page tabs, and it will go 7, 9, 10, 13, 15, 16, 17, 43. And then think “Hmm, we’ve got too long a gap without Mrs Patmore.” So I will either move a scene which is in close proximity to another and put it into a different part of the script, write a new scene, or simply put her into a scene that is roughly half way down that gap.I do that for all the characters to check that there is enough of them in each episode. You don’t expect them to always have major stories – they will have a major formed story about every three or four episodes, but they would be part of other people’s stories so that they are kept in play.
How do you decide upon the style of a show?
I think any series, show, movie, or play sets its own style. You have a kind of behavioural pattern, a kind of morality, a kind of mixture of comedy and drama, whatever it is. They are all perfectly valid, but you have to be careful that having established your style, you then are true to it, and you don’t suddenly go wandering off in another direction. Of course, when one type of series turns into another one it is very distracting and doesn’t really work.
For instance, in Downton, we never really showed the violence, the rape, the death, the accident, the murder, or whatever high drama we were investigating for narrative purposes. We never showed the actual moment of horror, we always dealt with the emotional result, the emotional effect, of whatever this terrible event was. This would be played out in a series of scenes, and the different people who would be affected by whatever had happened, and so on.
But I felt for the style of the show to suddenly have an incredibly violent rape scene was just wrong. We could go into comedy, we could go into tragedy, but it was a style that prevented anything too stark, visually.
That seemed to work for us. It doesn’t mean that I am against violent drama or visual horror. Quite the contrary, I love horror, I love terrific thrillers and all that kind of stuff, but that wasn’t the show we were making.
I think you do have to understand that no show can be everything. It’s got to decide what it is. You need to build up a kind of trust with the audience, and they need to be confident of what you are giving them.
Talking about light and shade in an episode, the comedy and the tragedy. How do you balance that?
On the whole you balance it by instinct. I never had guffaw comedy, because you can’t do that if you also want drama. You have to keep the comedy within a kind of believable real-life comedy, so a lot of it is ‘smile’ comedy rather than ‘laugh’ comedy.
Nevertheless, it allows you to vary the mood tremendously. In the episode I mentioned earlier, you’ve got the comedy of Mrs Patmore’s house being exposed as a house of ill repute, going on alongside Edith losing her love, and after six years we think “Oh my God, she’s going to end this series unhappy.” All of that is being played out simultaneously, but I think it’s because the level of comedy is within the bounds of reality. It hasn’t actually turned into a comedy show.
Whereas if you’ve gone somewhere else, somewhere else perfectly valid, I hasten to add, and if you are doing a comedy show you have different freedoms, and you are allowed different things. But that wasn’t the show that Downton was.
Sometimes you create tension by giving the audience information that a protagonist doesn’t have, and at other times you’ll surprise with a plot twist. How do you decide which of these is the right way to go?
I think you’re really after a double and in fact completely contradictory response from the audience. In one way you want them to feel secure with the show, they like these people, they want to know what happens to them, they enjoy the fact that it is a warm show about people who are mainly nice people, whether they are family or servants or anything else. You are engendering a kind of warmth, where people think “It’s Sunday, I’m going to open a bottle of red wine, and I’m going to make sure we’ve had dinner by the time Downton starts, and then stoke up the fire and let’s have a really nice hour.”
But at the same time, you want them never to be completely secure about what happens next, so they think they know the resolution of the story but actually they don’t, because they don’t know this bit. So in one sense you’re stroking them, and in another you’re poking them.
As to quite how the timing works, that I think has to be a gut response, either it feels right or it doesn’t.
It is something that you knew during the scriptwriting of an episode, or is it something that comes through during editing?
Both. One of the good things about the notes system – and of course we all know the bad things about it – is that you send your script off, and then there’s probably about a week or ten days before you get back the notes. That drives you mad, but it also allows you to re-read the episode afresh. I think it is important not to work on it in the interim – you work on something else, the next episode, or whatever – so you re-read it when you’ve had time away from it.
Because then you see certain things, you think “This moment needs more,” “This moment is crowding that moment,” or whatever it is. When you’re in the thick of writing it you can miss that kind of stuff. If you can force yourself to leave it alone when you’re waiting for the producers to come back with their say, then you will benefit from that.
At the end of Downton there was something of a finale followed by a finale.
Well, that was the structure of Downton, which was quite taxing in a way. You had to produce a last episode of the series, that was satisfying as a last episode. Not necessarily completely happy and fulfilling, but nevertheless it felt rounded, so when you turned it off you felt the series was over, because in England they ran that at the end of November, and they then had nothing for two months until they showed the final Christmas special.
Of course in America and other parts of the world the English season finale was just the second-to-last episode, but that was the structure we had fallen into by the second year – not the first, but the second year they wanted a Christmas special and from then on there was a Christmas special every year.
They both had to be the finish, but the difference being that the Christmas special had to be a kind of movie, because it was standing on its own. The audience hadn’t watched any Downton for almost two months, and it was two hours long. So the series finale had to be a resolution that didn’t resolve everything, and the Christmas special had to be a movie but which was also a resolution for the series. It was quite difficult, but that was the job!
The whole of the last season, season six, was about resolution. We had been originally going to end it after five series, but as we were getting near, we just felt that there was too much to tie up, and we needed a whole series that was specifically about resolution. That’s how season six came into being.
But nevertheless, we couldn’t resolve everything in it before the Christmas special. Edith is the most obvious example, as she was left hanging yet again – and then we saved that for the big happy ending, which I think the audience had earned.
There is something worth saying about writing the final episode of a long-running series, because right up until then, you’re always hoping that new audience will come on board, so you try to shape the episodes to a certain extent so that someone new coming in will still find something to watch that’s enjoyable, whether or not they know all the backstory. To some extent, it must stand alone.
But for the very last episode I didn’t feel that. I feel that if people have stayed faithful and watched a show for six years, then they are the people you must think about, and you must write a final episode that is thoroughly satisfying for the people who have stuck with it all that time.
The last two episodes were definitely directed towards the audience who had been loyal and stayed with the show.
You tread a fine line between authentic period dialogue which can sound mannered to a modern ear, and modern speech patterns which would obviously be out of place in the period. Do you have any advice about how you achieve this?
Given the gift of an online etymology dictionary, we’re very lucky in that we can immediately find out what words were used and when they came in. I never use a phrase that isn’t authentic in terms of etymology.
But one of the things I know, and a lot of people don’t know, is how many modern-sounding phrases are in fact quite old. I first came across this when I was reading a Trollope novel. One of the characters is being told something she doesn’t believe, and she says “tell that to the marines.”
Now when I read that, I thought “My God, I would have thought that was a Second World War piece of slang.” In fact, it was from the 1860s.
There are many phrases like this. I remember that Clive James wrote half a page on how ridiculous it was that I’d used the phrase “A learning curve” which he claimed had come out of the 1960s.
In fact, a learning curve was a phrase invented in 1879, meaning accelerated learning in a scientific way, and by ten years later had taken the same meaning, but in a slang way – “Boy was I on a learning curve last weekend.” That was already going in the 1880s, but people hear it as a modern phrase.
This means you can put a certain amount of modern-sounding phrases in, where you are not in fact breaking the rules. You are sticking to authentic dialogue and authentic slang of the period. I like to do that, because I feel it loosens things up and it makes the characters easier to identify with. You don’t feel they are living in some strange world under a glass case, they are thinking much as we think.
It was all much more recent than people think. My aunt died when I was 21, and was ten years older than Lady Crawley, and my father, who was born in 1912, was only a little bit older than George Crawley. People think that because the Crawleys had footmen that they were living on the other side of the moon, but they are living really the day before yesterday. Much of their social habits, dialogue, conversation and slang were very like our own.
But I do feel that it is a danger to slide into that kind of period speech, where everyone always says “will not” instead of “won’t.” It is something that I don’t think is helpful, because the one thing that drama depends on is empathy. You must have the characters identifiable. People must feel involved in the characters.
I know there are people who write drama where everyone is horrible, and you don’t identify with anyone, and also I know that it sometimes works. I’m not anti this at all – if you can make anything work, then good luck to you. But I don’t know how to make that work. I have to write about people some at least of whom I like, and whom I think the audience will like, identify with, and worry about.
If that is your goal, and it is mine, then you need to bridge the gap between maybe a very elevated social position or some extremely distant period.
Morality and social values have obviously changed over time, so that some things which once seemed normal might jar for a modern audience. Sometimes I’m sure you play on that, and sometimes presumably you want to stay away from it?
I think it’s a mistake to make characters too modern in their sensibilities, because the audience can pick up on that. So for instance, when Thomas was identified as being homosexual, Carson thought that was terrible, others like Mrs Hughes didn’t think it was their business, and then a fairly liberal attitude among the Crawleys themselves. I don’t think that was unusual.
My parents – and they are basically children of that generation – were certainly liberal about homosexuality, and thought it was wrong that it was illegal. One of my brother’s godfathers was homosexual. I’m not inventing the idea that people had more liberal attitudes than they are sometimes credited with, but I just don’t think you can take it too far.
Also, I think that it is always helpful to have one or two characters who are reasonably sympathetic, and who hold the now unfashionable view, because then it feels balanced, it plays as a balanced position. It’s not enough to make the villain have the unsympathetic views, and all the good guys all the modern views, because that feels contrived. You’re looking for a sort of mean.
There is a similar thing with women. One of the faults that period drama can fall into is when women are given all the choices that a modern woman would have. Because if she’s arguing away, and if she’s standing up for this thing and the other, and if she’s jumping in and out of bed, and going and getting a job, or whatever, the problem is that then the audience doesn’t understand that she is confined, that her actions and choices are restricted by the customs and habits of the day in which she lives, and so you’re throwing away the tension between her ambitions and the actuality of what is possible, which is in fact very useful to a dramatist.
All the time you’re trying to find tension in every situation you write about. The worst thing you can do is to say “everything is fine, everything is possible.”
For instance, when Mary is widowed she decides she wants to sleep with Lord Gillingham because she’s not completely sure whether she’s in love with him or not.
Now, there were women in the 1920s who slept with the odd man, certainly widows, who didn’t have to go virginally into their marriage bed, but they didn’t want it to be found out, they wanted it to be secret because they didn’t want to pay the price. They didn’t want to become – as Edith described – “a funny woman that no one talks about who lives in St John’s Wood”.
So Mary meets her lover secretly in a hotel. She doesn’t want anyone to find out, then of course she is blackmailed. Now there you’ve got someone who’s quite liberal in her own values and morality, but who also wants to stay within society.
Mary doesn’t want to be an outcast who isn’t receivable and can’t be presented at court. So she is juggling everything, and of course for me, what that gives me is all that tension, that fear of discovery, all that stuff, that puts an added bite into the whole storyline. I feel that if you present it clearly enough, the audience very quickly grasp what was possible then and what wasn’t possible, even if it is possible now.
Featured image: Julian Fellowes. Photo credit: Nick Briggs.
Read the second part of our interview with Julian Fellowes: Looking Forward to The Gilded Age!