“I hope Downton Abbey: A New Era will be a gift to the world of an enjoyable emotional, entertaining roller coaster, just when it’s needed,” says director Simon Curtis of the much-anticipated cinematic return of the global phenomenon that reunites the beloved cast as they go on a grand journey to the South of France to uncover the mystery of the Dowager Countess’ newly inherited villa.
Q & A with Director Simon Curtis
How did you come to be involved as a director on the film?
I have had the privilege of working with so many of the cast and crew on both sides of the camera in the past. Gareth Neame and I had worked together on Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky and Liz Trubridge and I worked together on A Short Stay in Switzerland that I’d made with Julie Walters. I think the fact I knew the show and all of the characters so well plus the fact I had followed it very closely from the very first episode all landed in my favour.
What do you love about the show and first film?
I had read the script of the first episode very early on and I absolutely loved it. Then when I saw it, I really thought it was extraordinary, watched every episode of the television series and loved it. My greatest admiration is reserved for the actors and Julian Fellowes. Julian is such a genius at giving everybody a story full of these telling moments of humour and emotion that characterise the show, much like Chekhov did with his stories. That was very rewarding to work out each time we set up a scene; to find the emotional beat of each scene. I think why Downton Abbey resonates with its audience is because it’s a specific moment in time that is universal because it treats everyone with respect. No matter their age or their class or their role, Julian gives everybody humanity and a certain dignity.
Knowing the series as well as you do, did this film script surprise you?
I thought it was a very satisfying script that brought resolution to so many of the stories in a really satisfying way, even more than the first film did. It gave the key characters really great storylines to work with. Tapping into the history of filmmaking in the UK with the film within a film storyline and a trip to the South of France. I basically said ‘I’m in’ at that point because they are two passions of mine. I’d made a film about the making of a film before and it’s very close to my heart, as is the South of France.
Where did the last film leave the characters and where do we find them again at the start of this film?
At the end of the last film, there was a sense that Tom and Lucy were going to get married and nine months later here we are at Tom and Lucy’s wedding. Violet, who we knew was ill, has now moved back into Downton Abbey to be closer to the family. When everyone gets back to Downton from the wedding, they’re greeted with a bombshell. Violet has received a letter and reveals that out of the blue, she’s been left a gorgeous villa in the south of France and so that kicks off a mystery that involves a trip to France to uncover the real story behind that.
What is the background to the film within the film storyline?
A director, Jack Barber, played by Hugh Dancy, makes a call to Downton Abbey to request the use of the house as a location for his next film, The Gambler. Interestingly, just like the famous story, of Hitchcock’s Blackmail, which was a silent film made in the 20s, just when sound in films came along. Hitchcock had to scramble around and turn it into a talkie and that’s what happens to Barber’s film, The Gambler at Downton. Inevitably, our characters get involved in the making of that film and its transformation from a silent film to a talkie with much hilarity and consequences for all.
How do the family and staff react to these movie stars descending on Downton Abbey?
As you might expect they react with a mixture of horror from the traditionalists like Robert and Carson and excitement from some of the younger members of the household for example, Daisy is beside herself at the prospect of meeting movie stars.
Having worked with a lot of the actors previously what was it like directing such a large ensemble?
I’ve been very lucky in that some of the things I’d made in television, like David Copperfield and Cranford, meant I’d had experience working with a big ensemble cast. What’s intimidating about directing Downton, (which I’m sure all the previous directors have also felt), is that there’s no such thing as an easy scene in Downton. There might be as many as four mini-scenes within one bigger scene and four different clusters of conversations that all require coverage from various different angles and that all take time. In this film we had the usual ensemble of actors, then add in the crew and actors for the film within the film, plus our own crew and that amounted to over 50 setups for one particular dinner scene across three days. It was a relief to get to the end of that scene.
What advice did the historical film consultant Laraine Porter add to the mix?
Laraine was very helpful even just in learning about that very specific moment in time where talking was first possible in film. She also informed us about important details like the camera having to be in a soundproof box because it was so noisy. Elements that I hadn’t known, and other details like having a pianist play to the silent movie actors to help them get into the mood of the moment and so on.
Were you able to help Hugh Dancy with his role as Director, Jack Barber?
I could totally empathise with the agony of Hugh Dancy’s Jack Barber, the director who was struggling with his schedule and actors and so on and I channelled a lot of my energy into helping him find that character. Then we had Alex McQueen, whom I’m a big fan of, come and join us as the self-important Soundman who wants to run the set in his own way.
What were you looking for in the guest actors playing Jack Barber, Myrna Dalgelish and Guy Dexter in the UK, and Nathalie Baye and Jonathan Zaccaï in France?
I’d really admired both Hugh Dancy and Dominic West for a long time and so I was thrilled they could join us. Laura Haddock was a great addition to the cast and very good as the actress who’s panicked at the prospect of sound arriving. Then in France, the brilliant Belgian actor Jonathan Zaccaï joined us along with Nathalie Baye, who’s one of the great French actresses. I’ve always loved her work so it was thrilling to work with her. During the first week of quarantine in France we organised for the crew to watch her film Day for Night, which is a love letter to making a film in the South of France and that was very meaningful.
How best would you describe this group of actors and what they’ve become over the years?
This is a family of actors playing a family of characters, and a lot of the shots in this film were
12 years in the making, especially around all the births, marriages and deaths that have occurred in real life and on-screen. The actors are all totally aware of what’s going on in each other’s personal lives, the ups and downs, and new family members and losing family members and that emotional insight and knowledge was incredibly potent and valuable for many of the scenes in this film
How significant was taking Downton out of England for the first time?
It was tricky to navigate both in story terms and production terms because due to COVID, we didn’t know whether or not we would be able to travel to France until a few weeks before we actually went. The studio, rightly, had asked us to have a backup plan and prepare UK locations to double for France should we not be able to go. I’d never even been to the location until we went there to film. I’d obviously seen video footage of this gorgeous house, and so I fought to go there and it was a very special experience for us all to be there, particularly after the lockdown at the end of the film.
What was your vision for the film?
The easy answer to that is, that the interweaving yet separate storylines gave us the opportunity to deliver every scene with some sort of twist which has been quite liberating.
When the film company turn up at Downton, all the usual rules and conventions are thrown off-kilter and that in turn helped me push everything slightly off-kilter. Directing any film is a huge responsibility and this is a big film with a huge audience waiting for it.
As a director, how do you and the producers, Liz and Gareth together with Julian, strive to make Downton a big-screen experience in terms of production values and scale?
The production values were always really high for the show but, obviously, on a film, you have more time. The trip to France in itself gives the film scale and makes it feel different which means we could be ambitious with the scenes and the sequences, and it does feel like a very cinematic experience. As with all our collaborators, I was thrilled to have Andrew Dunn as the Director of Photography. I’ve admired his work hugely for a long time and, of course, he shot Gosford Park, which is the godfather of Downton Abbey. It was a real honour that he came on board, and he delivered a fantastic job. Then of course I have worked with production designer Donal Woods and his team five or six times and it was a joy to be reunited with him. With Costume Design and Hair and Make-Up Design, I was so confident Anna (Robbins) and Nosh (Anne Oldham) knew what they were doing that I left them to their own devices the costumes are phenomenal and I love the Hair and Make-up looks. They delivered the key components of the look of the film
What do you think is the enduring appeal of Downton Abbey to audiences around the world?
What Julian does so well is give everybody dignity and humanity, whether they’re young or old or whatever their job or class is, and I think people the world over-respond to that. The kitchen maid and the Lady of the house are equally as important in the mix of the story and it’s an example of society working together. Not that everything in 1929 was great for the people who lived at that time, but there were things and elements of that life that seem enviable now, where people did all work together. The first film came out at a time in the midst of Brexit and Trump, when people were nostalgic for years when they used to sit on their sofas watching the series and be happy on a Sunday night with their family. I hope this film will come at a time where, particularly, coming out of the pandemic, and a few years that have been so difficult for so many people all over the world, it will provide some much-needed familiarity and entertainment. I hope this will be a gift to the world of an enjoyable emotional, entertaining roller coaster, just when it’s needed.