Julian Fellowes: true to the Period

Screenwriter Julian Fellowes is the singular voice behind the lush PBS series Downton Abbey. His philosophy is grounded in something less extravagant: believing in yourself as a writer.
By Kinney Littlefield | Published: January 5, 2013


Julian-Fellowes-Trenches- credit- Nick Briggs and Courtesy of Carnival Films-

Julian Fellowes. Photo by Nick Briggs, courtesy of Carnival Films.

A class act to the core – that’s Lord Fellowes of West Stafford, better known to the world as celebrated English scribe Julian Fellowes. A smooth-penned seducer, Fellowes is the creator, sole writer and executive producer of the monster-hit miniseries Downton Abbey, the sleek saga of upper-class Anglo-angst that’s renewed a cultural addiction to smart British period drama.

Now in its third season as a Masterpiece Classic presentation on PBS, Downton enters post-World War I England, where the upper-crust Crawley household – from lords to ladies’ maids – braves a ceaseless tide of personal traumas. Downton’s legions of fans are dauntlessly diehard, a credit to Fellowes’ roiling plots, clever characters and smoothly sly dialogue – plus the show’s lush sets and costumes.

But the Emmy Award-winning Downton is hardly Fellowes’ only creative coup. In 2002, he won an Oscar for best original screenplay for the manor-house mystery movie Gosford Park. His credits include two best-selling novels, Snobs (2005) and Past Imperfect (2008-09), and the script for the Johnny Depp-Angelina Jolie screen caper The Tourist (2010), the book for the hit stage musical Mary Poppins and numerous other notable film and TV projects.

Granted a peerage in 2011, Fellowes began his career more humbly, as a character actor, doing three decades’ time in movies and TV as he honed his writing skills. I recently chatted with Downton’s loquacious lord and master, who shared his creative philosophy, industry experience and personal writing tips.

When writing Downton, do you try to write against the conventions of the classic British period drama, to surprise audiences in ways they might not expect?

In the very first episode of the very first season, we have the homosexual footman having his romance with the gay duke, and it all goes wrong on him. You wouldn’t have found that in the Upstairs, Downstairs of the 1970s. We’re able to bring in issues of, you know, a certain amount of poverty and prostitution and this, that and the other, which those period dramas in the old days wouldn’t have touched. I think we live in a rather more realistic world now so we don’t have to stay inside some kind of halcyon idyll where everyone is happy. And, indeed, within the Crawley house there’s a certain amount of discontent, upstairs and down.

But I think you must strive to remain true to the period in which you’re writing. Now that doesn’t mean that you pretend certain things weren’t going on, as a contemporary writer would have done in 1910. You are allowed to point out some of the things that were going on that weren’t acknowledged. But you must have your characters respond in an essentially contemporarily believable way.

So I quite enjoy putting in prejudices that would have been completely ordinary at the time, but seem ridiculous to us. Some character may be anti-Catholic or whatever it is, which is completely truthful for the British upper-classes then, most of whom were curiously anti-Catholic. It seems fun to remind people that even quite sympathetic people had prejudices that are ridiculous to our eyes and ears.

This season you’ve created a new character – Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine), the American mother of Cora, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern). Why add Martha to the mix when you already have one incredibly strong older-generation character in the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith)?

Yes, we do have two of these “dowagers.” They’re very equally weighted, so that Shirley versus Maggie, really, you know, is anyone’s guess. But these two characters have completely different responses and attitudes to more or less any event or conversation that you can give them. Maggie Smith’s character is essentially nostalgic for the past. She thinks the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

Mrs. Levinson thinks that to limit yourself by having all these immense responsibilities in these great houses, these hundreds of servants, is ridiculous. And the advantage of this is that you haven’t got two characters who are jostling for the same position in the show. And that was all done quite deliberately.

Why is Cora, the wife of Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), an American?

We wanted to create a sense that Cora, unlike her husband Robert, had grown up in the real world. Her father was self-made and was a tradesman or a dry goods millionaire, but however much they were rich, they had the values of working people who’d earned their own living. That was all used through seasons one and two to give Cora a slightly different position on a lot of things than Robert. They’re not unhappy, but nevertheless, Cora has a kind of reference to normal values, such as a belief in work and not much interest in social differences.

How do you make Downton’s dialogue cohere with the show’s period setting in terms of mood, tone, texture?

Downton Abbey series 3.

The third season of Downton Abbey premiered last year on PBS with a guest appearance by Academy Award-winner Shirley MacLaine. The veteran actor played Martha Levinson, mother to Cora, Countess of Grantham. Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE

There is surely always a desire, in every writer, to make script, design, music, above all performance and every other element synthesize into a coherent whole. How could there not be?

I would like to feel Downton is a warm show to watch. I suppose the mood we are striving for is a believable place where there is humor, but never situation comedy, and also emotion and even pathos. But hopefully we manage to avoid, for the most part, the excesses of melodrama.

How difficult is it to write a scene such as Matthew Crawley’s suddenly regaining the ability to walk, which might seem a bit miraculous?

I always feel rather defensive about Matthew’s recovering the use of his legs, because it is invariably misunderstood by those who criticize it.

Having constructed a story, I always check the details, medical, topical or musical, with the relevant expert and then I begin to write. There were several cases during the First World War where hurried diagnoses by doctors in the trenches mistook severe spinal bruising for transection, and so there was consequent astonishment when the patients recovered. If you listen to the dialogue of Dr. Clarkson after Matthew’s trauma, you will hear the diagnosis had already been challenged by a London physician.

There must be some drama. Naturally there are scenes or events which are more dramatic than having characters worry about whether Daisy is going to make another visit to Mr. Mason’s farm, but that is the way of a drama series. You, the writer, have to decide when there has been too long a stretch of plain sailing, and you also have to deal with the demands of actors or locations and so on, as that is part of the job. Inevitably these will at times cause a rather event-filled world, but that is the nature of the beast.

Describe your personal writing process.

I’m not sure really that I have a process. I never wait until I’m in the mood, or I’d never do anything. I just sit down in front of my machine and start banging away really.

I look at writers in TV and films, and they have all these blackboards and arrows going in this direction and the other, and I don’t have any of that. I suppose at the beginning of a series I would spend a few days deciding where the overall journeys are going of the different characters, and where we’re going to be at the end, as opposed to where we are at the beginning. You know, is she going to do this, and is he going to do that? But it’s all pretty simple and general. And then I break up that journey into the episodes.

So if you watch Downton at all, you know that there are lots of different storylines going on. And some of them are very minor, and it’s just two or three scenes, and others are very much part of the whole series structure, and others are resolved within one episode. It’s a structure that American television audiences are quite familiar with because it’s taken from American television, really. In ER or The West Wing, you have differently weighted stories. So I work those out for each episode.

And then the minor stories that are usually to simply illustrate a character rather than to carry the narrative of the whole show forward – the minor stories will be invented and injected as the episode is being written.

I don’t re-read too much until I’ve got to the end of an episode. I like to keep moving forward until I’ve written the end. And then I go back and rewrite everything.

The other thing is, I always try and insure that when I stop writing for the day I have a completely clear idea of what the next scene is, because I find that that enables me to get started again straight away. When I come in from breakfast and sit down, I don’t have to think, “Now what, now who does what?” And once you begin, and that will take however long it takes, then you’re sort of in the rhythm and moving forward. And that makes it much easier to keep going and not run up against a brick wall.

Do you have any writing rituals?

I don’t really have any of those. When I was first writing, I was a working actor, and as a working actor, I had to go where I was told. You know, on location, so I might be in this hotel, that hotel and in Scotland, France, wherever. And I had to get down in my hotel room and find a flat space and put my computer on it and start to write. So the luxury of always having to have my little rabbit here and my little mouse there, and this particular cup for my tea – I had to forego all that.

As a result, when I sort of stopped acting and was writing full time, I didn’t really reacquire any of that. I mean I don’t think I’m anti all this, because I’m not at all. I think you should do what you think helps. But I wasn’t able to have a routine that attached any importance to all of that stuff. After breakfast, I write until lunch, and then I write until dinner, except when I have appointments and meetings that I have to go to. I just lead a kind of normal life in that way.

How do you keep all your characters straight and your plot lines from getting tangled up?

I have lots of go-throughs where I just do this story or that story. I have my “find” mechanism on my computer and I just type in “Mrs. Patmore.” I go through the whole episode with an absolutely clear idea of Mrs. Patmore’s story in that episode, and then, of course, I find very easily that too much of her story happens in the first third, or there’s a big gap in the middle, or whatever, and then I restructure it slightly so that it’s told more evenly.

When I’ve done that for every character, I give the episode to my wife Emma to read. One of the main notes that she is asked for always is, “Are any of these stories not clear?” And sometimes my wife will say, “I don’t understand why she’s so angry” or whatever it is. And then I’ll address the actual bits that were not clear to Emma before anyone else sees it. So by the time my agent or executive producer Gareth Neame gets it, there has already been a combing out of anything that was muddled or unclear.

How long does it take you to complete an episode to your satisfaction?

Downton Abbey. Series Two.

Matthew Crawley and Lady Mary Crawley, played by Dan Stevens and Michelle Dockery, are part of an intricate framework of characters. Courtesy of Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE

That’s hard to answer. You know, the first episode is an hour and a half long and the eighth episode is an hour and a half and the ninth episode is two hours and all the other episodes are one hour. It’s quite complicated really. But I suppose for the one-hour episode, it probably takes me three or four weeks to write. But then you get into the business, well known to many of your readers, of notes. And the notes come back, first of all initially from Gareth and [producer] Liz Trubridge, and then the episode probably goes to ITV [Downton’stelevision network in Britain] and there’s another lot of notes, and then probably to the director. That goes on while I’m writing the next episode.

So I’ve only ever got one first draft of an episode going at once, but I have got other episodes that I’m fixing, or addressing notes for, or whatever, all going at the same time. By the middle of the series, it does get quite complicated, and then it gradually begins to sort itself out as we get toward the end.

Why do you write all of Downton’s episodes yourself?

I did toy with the idea in the first season of possibly trying to build up a sort of writing room but – it’s very difficult to explain why – but it just didn’t seem to work. There was something about the rhythm of the show and the style of the show. I can’t explain it myself, so I don’t really know what I’m talking about. But it seemed very difficult for anyone else to emulate.

There is a tradition in the writing of television here [in the U.S.] of the writing room. With these series that have been commissioned with enormous numbers of episodes at once, say 23 or 26, it would not be feasible for one person to write. Well, maybe David E. Kelley [Harry’s Law, Boston Legal, Ally McBeal, The Practice, Picket Fences], but nobody else.

And so the writing room is part of the way television made in Los Angeles operates. Writers in the business understand that one skill that they must acquire, if they are to make a living, is the ability to fit into the style of a series. They read some scripts, they watch some episodes, they talk it through with the show runner, and they find their way into the style of that show and they produce it.

And then you get someone like Matthew Weiner who is able to insure that the style of Mad Men is very faithfully reproduced by a wide variety of extremely talented writers. But we don’t really have that tradition in England. There are soap operas that have different writers and a kind of writing room run by a kind of show runner, although that’s not a British term.

So because the commissions for Downton were for initially seven and then nine episodes, in the end, I just plumped for doing it myself. Nine episodes is doable by one person. It’s when you get to 26 that it really isn’t.

Does being an actor help you write dialogue?

Being an actor is terribly helpful for writing dialogue. You do develop a sense of what’s sayable, and what is not sayable. I like to think that I don’t often write dialogue that is not sayable. I do write for the actors, and I consider it a real privilege. As to writing for particular actors, they do develop their characters in performance. So you give them material to see what they can do.

Has writing novels informed your writing for film or television?

I would say it’s the other way round, really. The dialogue in my novels has been influenced by writing screenplays. The dialogue is lighter and moves along more quickly because you become more accustomed to writing lines that people say out loud when you write a screenplay.

In a way, a novel is a rest because when you write a screenplay, this group of people has the right to their notes on it – and this director and that star and this studio and these distributors. Everyone’s got the right to stick in their 10 cents’ worth. Whereas when you’re writing a novel, it’s really you and your editor.

I have a wonderful editor I published Snobs and Past Imperfect with at Weidenfeld & Nicolson named Ion Trewin. He and I were very sympathetic to each other, and you know he was the only person who really would read the text at all until it was just about to be published. I found that to be a simple and rather refreshing process after the kind of political negotiation that goes along with writing any script.

So writing novels is a very pleasurable experience for me.

What about writing a Downton novel?

I am about to write a Downton novel, and I’m rather looking forward to it. It would be a prequel, about Robert and Cora in the early years, because I’ve left lots of backstory there without clarifying it, and I think it would be fun to actually tell the real story. There’s no target date for this. I just have to kind of fit it in.

Downton is such a huge hit here in the U.S. Do you write at all with a non-British audience in mind?

I don’t think I do, really. I think we should make television shows we want to see, and you should write novels you want to read. That’s really my reference point.

I mean, when you start thinking, “Oh, what is in this for the teenage audience?” and “What will they make of this in Milwaukee?” you can get terribly distracted from your original vision. I think if you write – and this may sound a little sentimental or vain – sort of believing in it, then others will believe in it. And if you’re caught up in that world, then others will be caught up in it. I suppose that’s my philosophy, and it’s proved incredibly, gratifyingly true inDownton’s instance. But I believe that what you have to worry about is just the material, really – what you’re writing, and “Is it working?”

Do you feel at all typecast as a writer of period drama, of the aristocracy and class conflicts, after Gosford Park and Downton Abbey?

4. Courtesy of (C) Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE

Dame Maggie Smith has won two consecutive Emmy Awards for her portrayal of Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham. Courtesy of Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE.

In a way, inevitably, when you get known for one thing because of Gosford Park, because ofMary Poppins and now Downton, I think you could say I’m one of the go-to guys when you’re putting together a period drama. So inevitably I do get offered quite a lot of this. But I also like to do other things. I mean, both of my novels, Snobs and Past Imperfect, do deal with class to a degree, but they’re both contemporary.

One of my own favorite pieces of my work – if I’m allowed to say that – was in fact a film called Separate Lies, which is contemporary and concerns a prosperous couple – I mean middle-class prosperous – in modern day. I directed it and wrote the screenplay, so it was pretty close to my heart. It’s about a marriage, about how two people can be in the same marriage but have a totally different view of it, and neither understands the position of the other. And that was contemporary.

I’ve also been working on a new version of Gypsy [the Tony Award-winning musical] with producers Joel Silver and Barbra Streisand. That’s a period piece set largely in the ’20s and ’30s, but nevertheless, it’s not a period set in manners and mores and footmen and ladies’ maids. There’s none of all that.

And so I don’t feel I’m completely stuck in one genre. But you know, by the same token, if you’re allowed a genre in which you enjoy some success and it makes projects easier to set up, I don’t think one should be ungrateful. I’m very lucky, and there are plenty of very talented writers out there, more talented than me, I’ve no doubt, who have never had the same lucky break – and I don’t ever want to lose touch with that.

When did you first feel you were truly a writer?

I suppose my first identifiable efforts came when I went to drama school in 1971, and I wrote three historical novels, but they were bodice-ripper, train-reading stuff, and I only did them out of a rather feeble desire to see something I had written in print. I then put my pen down for many years while I worked as an actor, and it wasn’t until I went into television production in the late 1980s that I started to work on scripts.

My first proper commission was a mini-series of Little Lord Fauntleroy for the BBC in 1995, which went on to win an International Emmy in New York. This resulted both in another BBC commission, for a new version of The Prince and the Pauper, as well as a sense that maybe writing, and not production, would be my second career.

When you first started writing, did you have any mentors?

I didn’t have any mentors. I was traveling around. I was an actor. I suppose I was conscious of screenwriting at the time. There were writers I admired. I admired Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who wrote All About Eve and A Letter to Three Wives. There’s a level of humor in his work that also allows you to be serious. If that humor is the wrong kind or there’s too much of it, then you can’t get serious. Mankiewicz’s work is tremendously funny, but it never loses the reality of his characters’ central predicament.

What qualities do successful writers for film or TV need?

I’m always a bit nervous about speaking as someone who is successful, but I suppose I’m allowed to. Actually, tenacity is the quality that you cannot do without. I’ve known very talented people who do well and I’ve known very talented people who do badly, and I’ve known not very talented people who do well or badly. The one quality that all the ones who do well have is tenacity. They just don’t give in, and they keep plugging away.

There are moments when you do feel very desperate. You just think nobody is ever going to respond to your work, that it’s never going to happen. And somehow you just have to push through that whether you do it with a big whiskey, or taking a day off, or whatever. You have to push through that sense of not being valued.

What advice can you give new writers?

There are lots of courses and books and everything else about teaching screenwriting that have come about in recent years – and I’ve never done any of them. I think if they help you, if they help loosen your gift, all of that is great. But inevitably, you’re sort of always being taught how other people have done it, whereas if you are going to have a success, it’s almost always going to be because you do something that other people are not doing.

I think the danger for the young is that they lose faith in the quality that their work has. And yet, that nugget – whatever it is – that is the nugget that will make it happen if they are to be successful. I mean, it’s easy to say, and it’s hard to follow through, but again it comes back to having belief in yourself.

Kinney Littlefield is a New York-based entertainment journalist who has covered TV for The Associated Press. She is a former staff TV critic for The Orange County Register in Southern California.