In the last part of our exclusive interview with Julian Fellowes, we discussed Downton Abbey, the Emmy-award winning show for which he is arguably best known.
But having captured the world of the British upper classes in Downton, he is now looking to America, and to nineteenth century New York, where his upcoming show The Gilded Age is set.
In this, the second of a two-part interview, Creative Screenwriting spoke to Julian Fellowes about his new show The Gilded Age, the truth to rumours of a crossover with Downton, and what he wishes he had done differently.
Will the episodes of The Gilded Age be structurally similar to Downton Abbey? Is it what people will expect from the ‘Downton Experience’?
I like the structure. Gosford Park is similar to Downton Abbey, or the other way round. It’s a structure that suits me more than the more traditional linear narrative, where each week there is one major plot, and although other things are happening, that’s what you’re concentrating on.
I prefer the style – you say Downton, you could also say West Wing or Mad Men or many other American series – where there are lots of different stories going on at the same time. I think it suits a modern consciousness, it makes one very attentive, you don’t assume you know what’s coming next because quite literally you don’t know which story will occupy the next scene. I find I like that style, so in that sense I would hope that The Gilded Age will follow that pattern.
Of course, it is set against a very different kind of background. It is about the 1880s in New York where you had this double-sided society. You had the traditional families, the descendants of the Dutch and British gentry who settled there in the 18th century, and they lived a fairly modest life actually. For the toffs of a great city, they would live in places like Washington Square, where the houses were very comfortable and commodious, but not palaces by any means. They conducted themselves on a reasonably modest scale.
But then in the 1870s and 1880s, after the Civil War and partly because of it, you had these newly-made fortunes arriving, these men who had acquired vast amounts of money from shipping, from sailing, from gas, from bronze, copper, from property development in the city, where values went up at an absolutely record rate after the Civil War was over.
All of these people were enormously rich, much richer than the old gentry, and they started to build these palaces up and down Fifth Avenue. Of course, they wanted to dominate society. You had these two groups fighting it out, and in the middle a rather imaginative woman, called Caroline Astor. The Astors had made their money first trapping and then in property at the very end of the 18th century, beginning of the 19th, and she felt that she was uniquely placed to become the doyenne of the city and decide who was in and who was out, and mix the two groups.
She realised that she couldn’t keep out the new people, as some of the old guard wanted to, because then the old guard society would become irrelevant and fuddy-duddy and just drift off the edge of the planet. So she performed this kind of balancing act, and that will be the background that I will introduce into this saga about fictional families.
But it is quite different to the calm assumptions of the landed aristocrat in Britain in the late 19th century and early 20th, when on the whole everyone knew what was what, and that was the way it was. Whereas there was a game being played in New York with great prizes that nobody knew about.
Caroline Astor kept out Jay Gould, one of the richest men who ever lived, and she never let him in. He built palaces on the Hudson and palaces in New York and did everything he could, but she never let him in. You can’t imagine a parallel situation in London or Paris.
Will there be any connection between The Gilded Age and Downton Abbey?
I can’t see it really. Someone asked if you would you see any of the Downton characters, but most of them would be children. They said that Violet wouldn’t be a child, and I replied that “Yes, I suppose you could see a younger Violet,” and this became a newspaper story. “Violet comes from Downton to appear in The Gilded Age!”
It might be fun, but I doubt at the beginning, because I want it to be a new show with new people.
Do you write with actors in mind, and when you have had casting, do you re-write for the actors?
With Downton and Gosford I did write with actors in mind, and I was surprised that several of them actually ended up playing the parts, which was very gratifying.
With Gosford, I had never had a film made before, so you can imagine I was astonished that any of them joined the cast!
Of course, the great advantage I had, and I was very lucky, was that Altman was a very distinguished director who had never made a British film before, but he was getting on, and so for a whole group of British actors, if they ever wanted to be in an Altman picture, that was it! It was very unlikely that there would be another one made in Britain.
So the vast majority of people he offered it to jumped at it. And that was a tremendous plus for me, but it wasn’t because of me. I was the invisible factor.
I was a bit less invisible at the beginning of Downton. I wrote the part for Maggie Smith, I wrote for Brendan Coyle, I wrote for Hugh Bonneville. But also I would be shown the film of, say, Jim Carter reading Carson, and think “God, I can’t imagine Carson being anyone else now.” He was so precisely what I had hoped he would be.
I remember Lesley Nicol being cast as Mrs Patmore, and my gradual realisation of how funny she was. The more she would extract the comedy from a line, the more I would write for that.
What’s unique with a series is that once you get into filming, you are seeing the performances that you are still writing for. Of course, you start to write for the performance the actor is giving, and in that sense the characters are a kind of combination of the actor and the writer.
I enjoyed that. I thought it was an interesting process, seeing what they do very well, and deliberately feeding that to create situations and scenes that you know they will play very, very well.
Is there a time when you made a choice in screenwriting which, looking back on, you think was a mistake, and wish you’d done differently?
I can only think of one really. I wrote a film called The Young Victoria, which actually turned out very well. But there was one scene when the Queen and Prince Albert went out for a drive, on Constitution Hill near the Palace, and Albert saw a man called Edward Oxford take a gun out and point it at the Queen. Albert pushed her into the well of the carriage and placed his body over hers with his back to the gunman.
Now the gunman wasn’t very far away, and it should have been a dead cert that he’d hit Albert in the back and probably kill him. He did fire, but in real life the bullet went over Albert’s shoulder and missed him.
I was worried that if I made the bullet miss him completely the audience wouldn’t understand how incredibly brave he had been in doing this. So I made the bullet graze his arm, and you then saw his arm in a sling.
But afterwards, this was catnip for the critics, who said that he was never hit, this was nonsense. Of course, most of the critics thought the incident was fictional.
But the incident wasn’t fictional at all, the incident was fact, and I feel that I should have somehow made the bullet miss him, but in a way, by slowing it down, by going in close, or something, that made it significant and visually satisfactory. Then the whole incident would have been completely truthful.
It was an important incident, because I believe that it was only just after it that the Queen, having excluded Albert from the day-to-day business of being the monarch, had her desk moved next to his, and from then on worked with him, so that they really ruled jointly for the rest of his life, until he died.
I believe that what changed her mind was her realisation that he was actually prepared to die for her, that if the situation required that one of them died, he would choose it be him.
That impressed her, because although she was in love with him and he was very handsome, and she’d chosen him and everything else, nevertheless it was an arranged marriage to a degree. I think that realisation that he had loved her, or invested in her to such a degree that he would give his life for her, changed their relationship.
It was a very difficult part of the film. But I believe now, I could have made it perform the same function without changing that detail.
Do you have an equivalent that is positive, where you think you really nailed the screencraft?
I’ve been very lucky. I think you always need good actors, because if you get good actors they always make it sound as if you are a better writer than you really are. But I’m pleased with quite a lot of things, really.
For instance, years and years ago, Emma and I were staying in a great house, and the owner was telling us that he had discovered a diary of his great aunt. Now lots of houses had bachelor corridors, but in this house was a passage that was only for women, for unmarried girls, for widows, for spinsters – a woman on her own would have stayed in this part. And one night – it was in the diary which he had found – one of the women had smuggled a man into her bedroom and he had died of a heart attack in her bed.
Faced with this, in the 1890s, you can imagine the horror, the scandal. So she woke the woman next door up, who was of course very shocked and horrified, but also didn’t want to figure in a scandal. So they woke all the other women along this passage, and they got together a gaggle of dowagers and debutantes, and carried this dead body the length of one of England’s great houses and got it into his own bed.
Then our pal looked up his grandfather’s diary for the same period, and on this date he said, rather with sadness, my friend was found dead by his valets in his bed on Sunday morning, he was such a nice fellow. So clearly he was not in the know. Of course, that generation, unlike our own, kept their secrets. We sell ours to the Sunday papers.
But anyway as I was hearing this I thought “I bet that’ll come in handy one day.” Sure enough it did, when I was looking for a sort of adventure to mark Mary apart, to show that although she was conventional, she was snobbish, she was quite stiff in her way, nevertheless she did not feel herself bound by all the normal rules. I think it worked very well within the context.
So it always made me laugh when people said “Do you think that really could have happened?” I used to say “Not only do I think it, but I know it!”
It was only in the third episode of the first series, and I felt it gave the series a kind of lift, so that people thought “Oh, we’re going to get the unexpected in this”, and not just be told when to serve the savoury. So it served the show well.
Finally, are there any films or TV shows that you would recommend to other people for the quality of the screenwriting?
Mankiewicz is always worth watching, either All About Eve, or the lesser known but excellent A Letter to Three Wives. He has that ability to inject dialogue with wit that is genuinely funny, but at the same time never breaks the reality. You laugh and laugh, but you’re never outside the dramatic reality of the moment.
Also The Third Man by Orson Welles. I think that’s another wonderful piece of writing.
Featured image: Julian Fellowes. Photo credit: Nick Briggs.
If you missed the first part of this interview, “Looking Back on Downton Abbey” don’t forget to check it out!