Downton Abbey is back! This weekend the Crawleys return, but this time to the big screen. Julian Fellowes pens the screenplay and Michael Engler helms the film. Our favourite familiar faces are back to grace the story with Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Talbot, Matthew Goode as Henry Talbot, and Dame Maggie Smith as The Dowager Countess of Grantham gather to entertain the King and Queen on a royal visit.
Lavish costumes and grand banquets feature as the royals descend on Downton Abbey. The staff are mortified to learn that the Royals will be using their own staff to cook, and Lady Mary turns to retired Butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carson) for help. The Downton staff will serve the Royal feast and that’s the end of that.
How did Engler handle the transition of the beloved series from TV to big screen? With a bit of nerves at first, he says, but then it was as if they’d never left. With a story that served as a celebration, every character gets their own little arc. I caught up with Engler to talk about how he brought Downton Abbey to theaters worldwide.
What was it like revisiting Highclere for you again and getting together with the cast?
At first, it was funny because everyone thought, “Do we know how to still do this, it’s been three years?” And then, we fell into it quickly. Almost everyone on their first day had that nervous feeling.
Firstly, you want to do justice to what people expected and what we used to be able to do, and what we expected of ourselves. We all wanted to challenge ourselves to bring it to the next level and not make it feel like it was something being dragged out of mothballs, but something that had life in it and felt like it was worth looking at again and bringing a new story to.
What was that process of bringing the perfect story together so you could appeal to both fans of the show and new visitors?
The real challenge was, and it was more Julian’s challenge than anybody, and all of us had to deliver it, it was to create one story from beginning to end that would be a big enough event that would pull everybody into it. He’d been thinking about it for a while and then he came up with the idea of a royal visit. It had the right spirit. You could also have a malaria outbreak or a fire, and that would bring everyone together too, but he wanted something that felt like a celebration. He wanted something that would pull them into one story that would allow them to have other stories that we could check in on their lives and find out where they are now, just like the series. But also something that was a big enough event that would create lots more opportunities for big cinematic events.
How was that transition for shooting this for film versus shooting on TV and being able to go bigger and grander with it?
The show always had this cinematic feel to it; people would always use that to describe the show. We all said, “The expectations are high, how do we make it feel even more so? And how do we make the smaller and intimate scenes feel different and worthy of the big screen so it doesn’t feel like you’re watching the TV show during those moments?”
Naturally, things like the parade and the banquet and the ball and some other things scaled up naturally. We could have David Lean type scenes of the troops and hundreds in the background for the parade. We opened up the way we shot it, so we played with more visual variety than we had in the show. We gave ourselves more freedom to look at it and explore it in more heightened, dramatic and cinematic ways.
Within the smaller scenes, we looked at those in how we could we shoot them in ways that we would see more depth and detail in the room? Part of it happens naturally, if you show those things on the big screen, you see those rooms for the size they are. You can see the depth, detail and perspective. Even in some of the intimate scenes, I felt you got a sense of what it’s like, this idea that a very intimate scene can happen in a grand room and you felt more like you were inside it.
We also worked with the art department. Edith’s bedroom was the same bedroom she had in the series when we did it, we had the same furniture, but instead of it being a green painted wall, it was now a beautiful green silk wallpaper. Or instead of it being a yellow goldenrod wall, it was gold velvet cut wallpaper. So, you felt like you were in the same place, but it got richer and you saw more into the detail. The costumes had more detail in the making, but also in the fabric and the variety within each costume that could show up more on the big screen. We wanted it to feel that if you were going to see more, there was more to see rather than it being just bigger.
Talking about bigger, the ball scene was just grand. I spoke to Ben about how much I loved the camera movement in that scene.
The actors spent days together and separately working on it and working with professional dancers who were dancing around them so we could try to create some big sweeps of movement. As we were in the middle of that, Diana Scrivener (choreographer), Ben and some of the technical people went to those rehearsals to see what opportunities we would have and where we could move the cameras. We had a chance in the room to layout where things would fit and what equipment we could get in. Once we had seen the dance, we talked about ways we could take it apart and make the various shots that would come together with that fluid movement. By the end of the film, we wanted to feel that all the issues that had seemed complicated and problematic, they had somehow gone away, and there was just joy, fluidity and we could relish in being together.
The two of them dancing together at the end was something that Liz Trubridge came up with at the end as we were talking about it. She asked, “If they could dance, where would that be?” Then as we explored it and shot it and the shots with Tom – the thing with a story like this is that there are so many different stories, how do you make it one story? But, how to make it one ending? It’s very easy to have different endings, but we wanted it to feel that with the end of this, the whole world of Downton has come to a new place of family, Thomas, Mary and her sense of bringing down to the future and Edith. We wanted it to feel like we’ve been on a ride with them, and now we know what their next chapter is going to be.
I simply have to ask, what was it like working with Maggie Smith on the show and the movie?
Oh, I love working with her. She’s very smart and very funny. She’s so mischievous. She’s also tough and the consummate professional. She’s tougher on herself than she is anybody.
With Maggie, she’s so aware of that character and what she wants to do with it, so for me, it’s letting her know what the plan is for how to shoot something so she can find the best way to modulate her performance from take to take and angle to angle. It gives her the opportunity to experiment and play in different directions and know what the overall structure is going to be. It’s such a pleasure and honor to work with her.
What do you think is the appeal of Downton? I love the class of it. It’s just such a classy show. I love the two worlds.
Oh, it’s a beautiful world to watch. It’s a rich detailed and lush world. It’s a juicy and guilty pleasure. I think fundamentally, it’s the decency of the world. There’s a sense that these people, who are every level of the scale of class and money and power and laborers, they are all invested in each other. They’re all invested in a world that’s bigger than them and doing their part that adds value and in a way that is meaningful to them and allows their voice and skills to contribute. We’re better as a whole than apart, and I think that’s why it hits that nerve.
I loved escaping into that world. It was just everything you say. It was also so beautifully shot that every frame could be a coffee table book.
It’s so funny you say that because we will look at a series of still to look at things. I had that feeling. It was just like a beautiful storybook. Ben is such a great cinematographer. He understands period film. He understands how to create that authentic look and yet be a rich sense of modern photography.
Downton Abbey is released on Sept. 20