Fans of Downtown Abbey are in for a regal treat as the feature film hits cinemas this weekend. It’s been almost four years since the Crawleys graced out TV screens, and now we revisit Downton on the silver screen. Michael Engler directs the film and the cast return as Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) receives mail from Buckingham Palace announcing a royal visit with the King and Queen of England.
A royal banquet, a royal ballroom scene and a royal parade all happen in the film. I caught up with cinematographer Ben Smithard who worked with Engler to shoot the movie.
In the film, Smithard captures beautiful shots of Highclere House, bathing the scene in stunning lighting as he gives us the grand scale of the estate. Using drones and long lenses, Smithard dances with the Crawleys and dines with them, immersing us in the scene.
Smithard also talks about shooting the film in England during Fall and the challenges that posed, but also the beauty it allowed him to capture to take us on this royal adventure to Downton Abbey.
I know you love working on period films and shooting them, so what was it like to learn you’d be shooting Downton Abbey the movie?
It was really good because I knew a lot of people on the film. I had worked with Maggie Smith. I worked with Imelda, Michelle and Joanne. I knew the production designer and the producers. I had my own crew on it. My first day was just a location scout at Highclere. You drive out of London for an hour and a half, you go into the countryside and you find this house. I didn’t shoot any of the TV series and had never been to Highclere, but I had watched everything. I watched all six seasons. You turn up at Highclere, and it’s not a disappointment because it’s actually a really beautiful house. There’s something quite special. It’s set in these hundreds and hundreds of acres of beautiful parkland. You don’t get this on every film, but it started off well, and it ended well. Everything in between was great. I hate to be gushing because it’s probably boring for an article. People say this all the time, but it really was a family making that film. When you’ve got that kind of experience, knowledge and enthusiasm – filmmaking throws up problems all the time, basically, you’re a problem solver, especially with period film, you have to be a problem solver. The thing was that it was so much easier to solve those problems when everyone was going in the same direction.
I love period film. There’s nothing more exciting than having 100 soldiers and 100 horses rampaging down a road and you’ve taken over the entire village. I think because the country is quite old, we’re really good at that. It was great to shoot that movie.
The one thing with the movie that stood out was how you captured the scale, grandeur of Highclere for the big screen. You know, you see that in the opening scene, that grand aerial shot.
We shot that twice because it was grey. Bear in mind; we were at Highclere for three weeks, so you can reschedule to get the right light. I love shooting in the Autumn and that time of year. I’ve shot My Week With Marilyn and Goodbye Christopher Robin and they all had this beautiful amazing light that I was just given. I thought, “Oh my God, this is great.” It was better than the Summer, the Spring and the Winter. The way it fell, schedule wise was brilliant. Whatever happens, you can’t leave Highclere without them because we’re there for three weeks and you have to get those shots. The storyline is set over a four or five day period and we wanted it to feel like those days had low sinking sunlight. That’s a metaphor for the lights going out on the aristocracy. You come up with these visual metaphors, and you don’t know whether it’s the right thing to do, but in my head, it worked. Even though the film was shot over two and a half months, you feel as though it takes place over those four days. Maggie walking with Penelope and the house is in the background, that scene, we had shot it previously and it just didn’t work because the weather was terrible. So, if anyone asked me the difference between TV and Film, on a film, you sometimes would get the opportunity to go again. There were a few occasions where we had the opportunity to get it perfect.
I was staying close and sometimes, I’d get up at 4.30 on my own with a camera, and I’d shoot on the grounds of Highclere. I’d meet the estate manager at 5.30, and I’d sit in a corner of the estate with a camera to shoot the edge silhouette of the house. It was worth it because it was peace and quiet, that’s the way you have to make those films. You have to say, “I don’t care if I have an 18-hour day, I want to catch the sunrise and sunset.”
That’s how it rolled on Downton, you didn’t leave until you for what you needed.
The exteriors were stunning, but talk about the use of lighting for the interiors.
It was mostly the ground floor at Highclere. It’s the library and the dining room. The lighting wasn’t so different from that period where you have a lot of windows. We tried to keep it feeling as if it were an Autumnal film. Once we shot the exteriors with the leaves turning, the light needed to be low. It’s not mid-summer. The interior light would be the same. The trickiest part was shooting the dining room sequences because they are difficult to shoot. Sometimes you have twenty people around a huge dining room table, and they’re difficult to light because you can’t fix lights to places that you’d like to because it’s a piece of history. There are expensive paintings everywhere; you have to be careful.
We shot in Harewood House where Princess Mary lives, that’s a different house. It’s even more precious than Highclere because they have priceless wall covers, paintings and furniture. You can’t even breathe on them. We’re used to it because some of these places are 500 years old, but they’re amazing to shoot in.
The ballroom scene was great. I loved that scene, you felt the dance, you felt the camera moving with it. I also loved the juxtaposed dance on the terrace.
I loved shooting that. We had a great choreographer, and we did all the rehearsals with her. She was very giving and she said, “we want to fit in with how you want to shoot it.” I had a great relationship with her. There were crane shots. I also shot with long lenses, and you try to create this moment with the camera that connects with the movement of the cast and the music.
I started doing music videos years ago, so I’ve always had a fascination with people moving to music. It’s a feeling; you either have it or you don’t have it. They’re doing all the hard work, but you feel obliged to be as connected to what they’re doing as you possibly can. You’ve got to bear in mind; a lot of them aren’t professional dancers, they’re actors. They got it and they did really well. Elizabeth McGovern was just brilliant in that dance, and so was Michelle. I noticed that when we were doing the rehearsals and some people were more confident with it. The ones who were less confident, we could help them out with the way we positioned the camera. They’re all good and it was just really special. We shot that dance in another great big house because Harewood didn’t have a great hall that you could shoot a dance sequence it, so that place, where we shot it, was one of the biggest country estates in Europe. We only used the ballroom, and that was just amazing. It was a beautiful house. We shot it near the end of the film so there was that feeling that we were nearing the end.
For the terrace scene, Liz Trubridge the producer really wanted that. It was never in the script. I said, “We have to shoot this.” I’ve worked with her before and between the two of us, we really cooked it up. The light was amazing and the moon was out. We shot it in a similar way to what you see going on in the ballroom and it all just fits in. It’s supposed to be seamless, and ultimately, I think it was. The music swells and it’s just this beautiful ending.
I loved the way that was shot with that lighting. There was such a romanticism to that.
Yeah. That’s Harewood House. There’s trickery to the locations, but no one would ever know because it’s all just beautiful rooms.
The scene where Maggie has that scene beforehand, that room is right next to where the terrace scene is happening. It’s such a thrill to work on a film like this with such an amazing cast and crew.
I’m gushing. I wish I could go back and shoot it again.
Downton Abbey is released this Friday