By Iain Blair
If, like millions of other fans around the world, you still miss watching the Downton Abbey series, don’t despair. The acclaimed show is back as a new feature film, still showcasing plenty of drama, nostalgia, glamour and good British values with every frame.
So sit back in a comfy armchair, grab a cup of tea (assuming you don’t have servants to fetch it for you) and forget about the stresses of modern life. Just let Downton Abbey take you back to a simpler time of relative innocence and understated elegance.
Director Michael Engler
The film reunites the series’ cast (including Hugh Bonneville, Jim Carter, Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith) and also adds some new members. The film starts with a simple but effective plot device, a visit to the Great House from the most illustrious guests the Crawley family could ever hope to entertain — their Majesties King George V and Queen Mary. With a dazzling parade and lavish dinner to orchestrate, Mary (Dockery), now firmly at the reins of the estate, faces the greatest challenge to her tenure as head of Downton.
At the film’s helm was TV and theater director Michael Engler, whose diverse credits include 30 Rock, Empire, Deadwood, Nashville, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and several episodes of the series Downton Abbey.
I recently talked to him about making the film, its durable appeal and the workflow.
You directed one episode in the fifth season of the TV show and then a few in the final season. How daunting was it making a film of such a beloved show?
It was very daunting, especially as people have such high expectations. They love it so much, so you feel you really have to deliver. You can’t disappoint them. But basically, you’re pretty lucky in life and in your career when those are your big problems. Then you also have the advantage of this amazing cast, who know their characters so well, and Julian (Fellowes, the series creator), who loves writing these characters. We’ve all developed such a good working rhythm together, and all that really helped so much. Because of the huge fan base, it’s not like so many projects where you’re trying to get audiences to pay attention. They’re already very invested in it, and I’d far rather have that than the worry of directing an unknown project.
What were the big differences between shooting the series and the movie?
The big one was the need to ramp it up, even though the TV series was always ambitious cinematically, and we knew that the template would be a good one to build on. The DNA of the show was a good foundation. For instance, one of the things we discovered very quickly, even shooting intimate scenes of a few people in a bedroom or a drawing room, it would be full-scale. We could hold the shots longer and see everyone’s reactions in a big wide shot. We didn’t have to emphasize plot points with a lot of cutting as you’d do in TV. We could let the rooms play in full size for a while, and that automatically made it all feel bigger and richer. It almost feels like you’re in those rooms, and you get the whole visual sweep of their grandeur.
Then the royal visit gave us some tremendous opportunities with all the lavish set pieces — the arrival, the banquet, the parade, the ball — to really show them fully and showcase the huge scale of them. In the series, more often than not, you’d imply the sheer scale of such events and focus more on details and pieces of them. I think the series was more realistic and objective in many ways, more “on the ground” and real and undecorated. It is more understated. The film is far more sweeping, with more camera movement. It’s elevated for the big screen.
Was it a plus being an American? Did it give you a fresh perspective?
I was already such a big fan when I began working on the series, and I’d seen many of the episodes several times, so I did feel I knew it and understood it well. But then there was a lot of the protocol and etiquette that I didn’t know, so I studied and learned as much as I could and consulted with a historical advisor. After that, I quickly felt very much at home in this world.
How tough was it juggling so many familiar characters — along with some new ones?
That was difficult, but mainly because of all the filming logistics and schedules. We had people flying in from all over — India, New York, California — maybe just for a day or two, so it was a big logistical puzzle to make it work out.
The film looks gorgeous. You used DP Ben Smithard, who shot Blinded by the Light and Goodbye Christopher Robin. Can you talk about how you collaborated with him on the look?
We wanted it to have a big, rich film feel and look, so we shot it in 6K. And Ben does such beautiful work with the lighting, which really helped take the edge off the digital look. He’s just so good at capturing the romance of all those great sweeping period films and the very different look between upstairs — which is all elegant, sparkly and light-filled — and downstairs, which is rougher, less refined and darker. There are a lot of tonal shifts, so we worked on all those visual contrasts, both in camera and in post and the DI.
L-R: Cinematographer Ben Smithard, director Michael Engler and producer Gareth Neame.
Where did you post?
We did all the editing at Hireworks in London with editor Mark Day and his team, and sound at Hackenbacker Studios and Abbey Road Studios, where we recorded with an orchestra twice as big as any we had on the series, which also elevated all the sound and music. Framestore did all the VFX.
Do you like the post process?
I absolutely love it. I like shooting, but it’s so stressful because of the ticking clock and a huge crew waiting while we fix something and the light is going down. Then you get into post, and it’s stress-free in that sense, and you can look at what you have and start playing with it and really be creative. You can leave for a few days and have a fresh perspective on it. You can’t do that on the set.
Talk about editing with Mark Day. How did that work?
We didn’t start cutting until after we wrapped, and we experimented quite a lot, trying to find the best way to tell all the stories. For instance, we took one scene that was originally early on, and moved it five scenes later, and it changed the entire meaning of it. So we tried a lot of that sort of thing. Then there are all the other post elements that work on a subconscious level, especially once you cut in all the tiny background sounds — voices in the distance, footsteps and so on, that help create and add to the reality of the visuals.
What were the big editing challenges?
The big one was taking the rhythms of the series and adjusting them for the film. In the series, it was far more broken up because all the different stories didn’t have to be finished by the end of an episode. There would be some cliffhangers while some would be resolved, so we could hop around a lot and break up scenes. But on this we found it was far more effective to stay with a storyline and let longer arcs play out and finish. That way the audiences would know exactly where they were if we left one story, went to another and then came back. Mark was very clear about that, keeping the main story moving forward all the time, while juggling all the side stories.
What was involved in all the visual effects?
More than you’d think. We had a big set piece at King’s Cross train station, which we actually shot at a tiny two-track station in the north of England. Framestore then created everything around it and built the whole world, and they did an amazing job. Then we had the big military parade, and they did a lot of work on the surroundings and the pub overlooking it. And, of course, we had a ton of cleanup and replacement background work, as it’s a period piece.
Talk about the importance of sound in this film.
As they say, it’s half the movie, and our supervising sound editor Nigel Heath was so thorough and detailed in his work. He also really understands how sound can help storytelling. In the scene where Molesley embarrasses himself, we played around with it a lot, thinking maybe it needed some music and so on. But when Nigel started on it, he kept it totally silent except for the sound of a ticking clock — and it was so perfect. It made the moment and silence that much more vivid, along with underscoring how time was dragging on. It heightened the whole thing. Sound is also so important downstairs in the house, where you feel this constant activity and work going on in every room, and all the small sounds and noises add so much weight and reality.
Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?
We did the digital intermediate at Molinare with Gareth Spensley, and it’s hugely important to me, though the DP’s more involved. I let them do their work and then went through it with them and gave my notes, and we got quite detailed.
Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
Much better! I was worried it might feel too disjointed and not unified enough since there were so many plotlines and characters and tones to deal with. But in the end it all flowed together so well.
How do you explain the huge global appeal of Downton Abbey?
I think that, apart from the great acting and fascinating characters, the themes are so universal. It’s like a workplace drama and a family drama with all the complex relationships, and you get romance, emotion, suspense, comedy and then all the great costumes and beautiful locations. The nostalgia appeals to so many people, and the Brits do these period dramas just better than anyone else.
What’s next? Would you do another Downton movie?
I’d love to, if it happens. They’re all such lovely people to work with. Making movies is hard, but this was just such a wonderful experience.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.