Julian Fellowes is one of Britain’s most successful screenwriters.
In addition to creating the recently departed series “Downton Abbey,” Fellowes won an Oscar for writing the Robert Altman film “Gosford Park.” But did you know he also wrote the book for the new Broadway musical “School of Rock,” which is based on the Jack Black movie of the same name?
In fact, he just got a Tony nomination for it. And now Fellowes, who started his show business career as an actor, is in the midst of a new endeavor. He’s publishing a serialized historical novel called “Belgravia,” that’s being released one digital chapter at a time.
When we spoke to Fellowes recently, we asked him if there was a common theme that drew him to his two most recent projects.
For me and Andrew Lloyd Webber — two porky Englishmen beyond our sell-by date in many ways — to do a rock musical on Broadway just seemed sort of hilarious. Belgravia was this idea of publishing the book in a 19th Century way of releasing one chapter a week like they used to for Dickens and Thackeray, but in a 21st Century way because it's all connected to an app on the internet and you go on it and you learn about the houses they live in and the people they are and the different events of that period and so on. It's got a whole kind of computer element to it. Again that seemed like a million miles away from the more stately narrative of Downton. I suppose I was kind of stretching myself a bit.
Well, the one thing that Dickens did not have was hyperlinks that were embedded in the stories. As you say, you can click on a character's name and you get a sketch of what they look like. There might be a reference to a manor and you can see what the guest list for a party would look like. What does that do for a storyteller to be able to give the reader so much more texture and dimension to the actual story that's on the page?
On one level of course it's just fun that you can learn about this and this and this. One of the burdens of my song has always been to present people in different periods of history as real. To try and eliminate that sense one sometimes got at school that people living in the past were somehow different from us, living on a different planet and having different feelings and thoughts. Once you get into the 19th century, they are in essence us but with worse technology. Obviously there are cultural shifts, but their hearts and how they courted their wives and husbands, and what they felt about death -- this is still pretty constant. I like anything that makes history come alive just to make it clear these were real people.
The other thing you do in Downtown and Belgravia is you're taking fictional stories and setting them against real historical events. There might be the sinking of the Titanic in Downton or Napoleon's Battle of Waterloo in Belgravia. Why is it important to blend the two together, taking a historical event and blending it into the physical world? What does that do for character and setting and the audience's relationship and understanding of these people?
When you say the world Titanic or you say the word Waterloo, it has a way of pegging the story and telling them in an economic way when it's happening. That in a way is a sort of short hand. The other thing I like to do is to just make references. In Downton, you've got the Teapot Dome scandal or the Marconi scandal and what I hope they do is stimulate a kind of interest in the period so that people, if they haven't got anything to do and are idling away half an hour, just write these words into their search engine. They'll think, oh my god this really happened? There really was a Teapot Dome scandal? It really did involve the American government? My lifelong quest is to make history come alive.
How does it feel to have created "Downton Abbey" but also now to have birthed it and to have let it go?
Of course in a way you're sad when you make these decisions, but we all felt that we wanted to leave while people were still reasonably sorry to see us go and not thrilled, you know? But also the young actors wanted to fly and set off in new directions and they'd given us six stroke seven years. I think it was reasonable enough, never in my sorrow have I ever thought we made the wrong decision. I'm very glad the numbers stayed up, the numbers at the very end were as high as any figures we ever got in the whole of the show. At the risk of starting a rabbit out of its hole, I think it's quite likely that there will be a film, and so we'll revisit them all at least one more time, but there won't be any more television, that's done.
What period would a film be set in?
I think it would be a continuation of the same story. So that you have a kind of payoff for having watched all those series...I want to keep it within the age range, we cast the girls several years older than their parts, in case the show ran, and it did. So now they're almost the same age, at the very end I think Michelle [Dockery] was something like 31 and Mary was 33, so they're almost the same and I wouldn't want to make too great a divergence of that, I think it adds to the believability that the characters have, in a sense, grown old in pace with the show.
One of the things that must have been both challenging and also satisfying is the multiple storylines that you're writing on any given season of Downton Abbey. I wonder, as a writer and creator of the series, how challenging was that to make sure that you had all of these different storylines going at once. How did you actually track to make sure you weren't forgetting a character for weeks on end?
When I was originally asked if I would write character sketches for Robert Altman for Gosford park, I ran out and I took every video there was out of the video library of his films. I gave myself a sort of Altman festival. I discovered that he loved this multi-story arch with short stories and long stories all woven up together. Because I wanted quite deliberately to write a script that when he read it, he would think, oh my god this is an Altman movie! This is a film I know how to make. I found, in the process, that I, like him, was very drawn to this form of multi-narrative. This new form was much more interesting, you had to concentrate, you couldn't leave the room. People say, don't call me now I'm watching West Wing. I wanted that. I wanted that feeling for Downton. Don't call me now! And so I went on with that structure for Downton and found it very rewarding.
I have two failsafes for what you're talking about. The first is that the first person to read it is my wife, Emma. She is very good at spotting when the story becomes boring. We haven't heard anything from Mrs. Patmore for too long. I would get those notes. Also, with 'find' on the computer, I would put in the character's name. Everyone. And I would go through the script and look at the page numbers. If you get one when it said 5, 18, 52 you realize they've been off screen for much too long. Then you go back and restructure it and put them back into that gap.
I want to ask you about character deaths and how you decide to kill of a character. Maybe sometimes it's the actor who wants to go, but when you decided to kill off a character, how do you make that decision and at what point does the feedback of that death become a story unto itself in terms of the reaction that you're getting.
I think we only decided that two characters would die. One was the footman William and the other one was Lavinia who was going to be the fiancee of Matthew. The others were only people who wanted to leave. But particularly with Matthew, when he just inherited the estate, had the baby and was happily married and we're never going to see him again? That sounds like the Grim Reaper to me. So there's no way around that and I said to him will you come back next year and die in episode one? But he didn't want to do that for the show on Broadway.
It meant that the only way I could lose him without doing more funerals and memorials and sobbing was to kill him in the last shot of the season. The problem in Britain was that the last episode was on Christmas night. So there was everyone eating that one mince pie too many and sucking down a glass of port and suddenly - biff! Matthew's dead! I tell you, the letters I got after that -- I will never watch anything with your name on it again! But it wasn't my fault! Dan wanted to go.
Blame the actor! People who love your television work should not be completely despondent because you've been working on an NBC series called The Gilded Age. Does that have the possibility of happening sometimes soon?
I don't know about sometimes soon. As you know there's quite a long gestation and birthing process, but it is happening. I hope in 2017 they will have the chance to see what I made of New York in the 1880s which is a very interesting period of your history. There was this extraordinary collision of cultures where these vast fortunes that had come about during and after the Civil War in shipping, gas, mining, copper and railways above all.
They descended on New York where there was already an indigenous aristocracy mainly descended from the Dutch and British settlers. These two groups really fought it out for the domination of New York society and that seems to me rather a good background for another family saga. which is what it will be. It's a new experience for me because I'm writing about Americans for Americans. I love America actually and I'm very interested in American history, but it's testing. I try to keep busy as we all do.