Interview: Julian Fellowes: Actor, writer

Julian Fellowes on the set of Downton Abbey. Photo Courtesy: Andrew Crowley/Telegraph

By Ashley Coates. Published: 08/10/2013

When Julian Fellowes started work on Gosford Park he had hardly expected it to be made into a film, let alone win the Best Original Screenplay category at the 2002 Oscars. On the face of it, that was an extremely improbable outcome, Gosford was Julian’s first screenplay that had been made into a film and it was competing against both Amélie and Memento. As he said in his acceptance speech: “I feel as if I am in A Star is Born and any moment now Norman Maine is going to come out and whack me in the mouth.”

The Oscar win was the reward for a lifetime of hard work and the pursuit of success in the entertainment industry that had started when Julian was a student. The theatre scene at Cambridge allowed him to explore both his interest in acting and his interest in the British class system. Away from the idyllic life he had enjoyed as a child, university introduced Julian to the full spectrum of human society, stimulating a fascination with class that has inspired many of his scripts.

He had a successful acting career, appearing in The Monarch of the Glen, Tomorrow Never Dies and The Aristocrats and he maintained an active interest in writing throughout, producing scripts for children’s TV in the UK. But it was Robert Altman and Gosford that gave Julian his big break in both writing and the film industry and over the next few years he penned a number of successful scripts including The Young Victoria.

In 2010, the first series of Downton Abbey aired on ITV and soon became one of the most popular series on television. In 2012, Downton won the “Best Mini-Series made for Television” category at the Golden Globes. Julian Fellowes became the Lord Fellowes of West Stafford in 2010 and he sits on the Conservative benches.

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When you sit down to write a new piece of work, and you have a blank screen or piece of paper staring at you, how do you approach the task of creating new characters and plots, can you just sit there and write or do you need to wonder around to get inspiration?

I am a big believer that you must not wait until you are in the mood. You must have a discipline, you sit down and you write. Sometimes what you write is not very good and later you will correct it or rewrite it but you must write and start to fill that blank screen. I’m a believer in the principle of a day at a time. It’s no good thinking “oh my God, what am I going to do with this whole series?”. You’ve got to sit down and think, “today I am going do the beginning of Mrs Patmore’s plot” or something like that. I also try to finish writing for the day when I know what comes next.

I don’t think there is much value in going back and back and back because if you do that you will never get beyond page 30. You have to keep moving forward until you write “the end”. That business of constantly correcting what you have already written, I think slows people down to a standstill if they are not too careful.

It must help to finish at least some part of it so as to get a perspective on what to do next?

Yes, and when you get to the end of a particular episode you can look back and see what is wrong with it much more clearly. You are not “in it” in the same way. When I have finished a first draft I get my wife to read it, I read her notes, then I’ll get my agent to look at it, and I’ll read her notes and then it goes on to a producer. When they come the production notes can be absolutely infuriating but if you just give it some time and you reread them you can see what they are getting at.

Sometimes I disagree with them and sometimes they’re wrong but there is far more in the notes that is good if you just give yourself some time to distance yourself from the material so you get more of a sensation of reading it for the first time. That’s what I find anyway.

Does the pressure of working to a deadline help as well?

The pressure of episodic television is the greatest. With something like Downton, because I am the only writer, you start filming the series with something like four scripts in pretty good shape and maybe a fifth that needs another draft.  But that leaves you with five or six hours of television still to write.

Once the filming has begun then it becomes inexorable, because by the 18th they have to have the draft, by the 20th they have got to have the location and the wardrobe needs to know who is going to be in the next episode.

As the series goes on, you are writing against time until finally, by the time you get to the Christmas Special, you are absolutely writing into the night and chewing your fingernails.  That’s real pressure, whereas with a film, although there is a lot of pressure, you don’t start the film until everyone is content with the script. Then the whole shoot will last about 10 weeks and that’s it, it goes into the edit, and you as a writer can essentially piss off.

Downton has many different facets to it that make it appealing, the intrigue within the household, the house itself and the historical themes in the background, are you consciously following a formula with Downton, or is it more a case of following your instincts?

I don’t think I had a formula in mind except that the whole Altman experience had taught me that I, like him, enjoy the multi-strand narrative. I don’t always have to write like that and there are films I have done that are not multi-strand. But I thought that was a very appropriate setup for Downton, having all these stories jiggling along,each of them driven by just a line here and a line there.

I felt it was a way of reinventing the period drama by taking a structure that had been developed in American television shows, such as ER, and using it for a British period drama. Beyond that I think it was instinctive.

It’s a generous show, most of the people in it are nice people and even the ones that aren’t nice like Thomas is not all bad. In that sense, it is about niceness in a way that had gone very much out of fashion in British television in particular. That was just me, I think most people, regardless of their background or economic circumstances are trying to do their best given the tools they have. So that is my philosophy translated into the show really.

Looking back to Oscar night in 2002, you seemed genuinely amazed to have won for Gosford.

I didn’t really think that I had a chance.  It seemed like the last act of a Julie Garland musical to write the first film that you have ever written that actually gets made and then to get the Oscar for it was just such an unlikely thing. Gosford was very, very successful but it was an art house picture in American terms, it wasn’t a big franchise film, it wasn’t Titanic.

I just couldn’t believe that it had been seen by enough people and made sufficient inroads to get that level of award but I was frightfully pleased that it did. It was the only Oscar for the film but I think in fact Robert Altman should have won. A Beautiful Mind is a very, very good film but I don’t think it was as good as Gosford and I think over the years Gosford has stood up more than A Beautiful Mind in terms of lingering memory.

You also used your speech to apologise for being “mean and moody”, is this really the case?

I am much more difficult in private life than I give the impression of on television. Like anyone who has featured on television quite a lot as themselves, you do develop a persona that works with that medium. It needs to be pretty much like the person you really are otherwise you couldn’t keep it up but by the same token it isn’t the whole person you really are.

On television I think I come across as someone who is pretty good natured and well-tempered and so on whereas I am much more ill- tempered in real life. All the men in my family have filthy tempers, we’re not sulkers, we just blow up.  Also in the mix is the tension of having an enormous amount of stuff you are meant to be doing and everyone thinking that what you are doing for them is your primary commitment.

Of course everyone is more complicated than their screen persona, but I hope I am reasonably truthful about my beliefs.  I think the philosophies that I express, whether it is on Question Time or being interviewed here, are authentic. My reasonably benevolent liberal conservatism is probably the correct representation of what I believe.

Could you outline how you came to write the script for Gosford?

My script writing career had begun earlier when I drifted into it at the BBC in children’s drama, which in those days was a separate department to the main drama department. I had targeted it originally to produce as I thought it would be easier to get into children’s as a producer, which I think I was right about actually. I had written and co-produced a couple of shows and series there and then a different head came in and Anna Home, who had been my patroness, left.

I started writing scripts for the first time in my life and I was doing them while I was still acting. One of them had been a version of Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds, which I wrote for a producer in America called Bob Balaban and in another part of his portfolio, Balaban was trying to set up a film with Robert Altman. Altman liked to take a fairly defined genre and make it Altman-esque, so he’d take a thriller, or a western and turn it into an Altman film.

He wanted to do this with the country house murder mystery and originally they were looking at Tom Stoppard and Christopher Hampton and if any of those people had said yes you would probably be talking to Tom Stoppard now.  But luckily for me none of them could do it.  You also have to remember that at that time the received wisdom was that any kind of period show was dead, the public had lost interest and any examination of class belonged to the 1950s.

So there was nothing very enticing about me for them except that I was working with Bob on what was probably going to be his only English film. Anyway, in the middle of trying to get the film moving and with all these refusals, Robert Altman was about to give up when Balaban suddenly remembered that I had written the Eustace script for him, and he just took a punt really. He said to Altman: “there’s this guy, you won’t have heard of him, he’s never written a film that’s got made but this is his sort of territory”. I had one of those terrible transatlantic conference calls where you can’t really hear anything anyone is saying and I was commissioned.

Originally this was only to write some character sketches, I think that was just so that Altman could see I was on the right track. As you can imagine, I put down the telephone and I rushed off to the video store and got out absolutely every Altman movie I could find and gave myself a sort of private Altman festival.  From this, I learned that he specialised in a very specific multi-strand kind of movie. It would not be a single narrative at all.

So I started to write on that basis and did some character sketches, quite a few of which ended up in the movie and then fairly seamlessly I was asked to write a first draft. I have to say at no point did I think it would get made at that stage because Altman hadn’t had a success for quite a long time and this wasn’t his stamping ground. If someone had wanted to put some money into a classic Altman movie, this wouldn’t have been it.

By the same token, I realised if it did get made, it would be my lucky break to end all so I had to give it everything I’d got in case it was made.  It sounds rather odd to say it like that but that was my thinking. It wasn’t really until I had sent it and then Bob Altman read it and I was flown out to California to work with him for two or three days that I began to think: “oh I wonder if it really might happen,” because it seemed like they were putting their money where their mouth was.

After that it all moved incredibly fast. I think I was asked to do it in January 2000, in September Bob came to London and in November he moved to London and we started shooting the following March. In film terms, that was quick. I got so caught up in it that the extraordinary nature of what was taking place in my life receded.  When you are on set all you can think of is “this luggage is wrong, we need to find new suitcases”.

You don’t really look at the broader picture. For me it came much later because at the time I was appearing in a BBC show called The Monarch of the Glen and I was supposed to be taking part in a new series. By this time Altman had asked me to be with him on the set of Gosford every day, which is very unusual for a writer but he wanted to protect himself and prevent any silly mistakes from happening.

I said to the Monarch people that I could not miss out on this experience so I could not do this year in Monarch and they said they would put all my scenes together and move them back, to make it possible. Bob Altman used to say: “we’ve got lightning in a bottle” and in a way I thought we did have lightning in a bottle. From then on, it all happened pretty quickly because the day after New York opening, we flew out to los Angeles to open it there, and all before December 31st, which is the cut-off for Awards nominations.

I went off to see Memento which was the nomination for Christopher Nolan and of course it’s an absolutely brilliant film and a brilliant script and to be quite honest if it had won the Oscar I don’t think it would have been at all unjust. So I just assumed that Memento would be the winner and I got my face all set because the film crews like to run up to you and get a picture of you looking disappointed so you fix a Cheshire Cat grin on your face so you don’t look furious. But I did win and it was a big surprise.

You’ve talked before about the incredible impact of winning the Oscar in 2002. In what ways was winning the Oscar at that particular stage in your career particularly impactful?

Period drama was always going to be my calling card and the received wisdom was that it was finished as a genre and so it was also extraordinary that somehow this part of the market that everyone thought was over came back in spades in order for me to continue living this sort of dream. That has been quite amazing.

When a big star wins an Oscar, like when Julia Roberts won for Erin Brockovich, it was completely deserved but she was already a big star so I don’t think her career altered.  Whereas with me, the door of the wardrobe opened and out of the darkest recesses stepped this fat little balding Englishman that nobody had ever heard of, who walks up to the podium and takes the Oscar.

In that sense, there was a fairytale element to it.  I became the “President of the Last Chance Saloon”, but I was proud to be and I did have a very strong sense that it was the awareness that it was probably my last chance to have a big career that made me robust on the set.

Sometimes people say to me “would you rather have made it when you were 30 rather than 50?” and of course the short answer is yes but the long answer is I am not sure I would have done because on the set I used to argue with Altman, I didn’t always win but I did stick up for the script and I did stick up for the fact that I knew a lot more about this period and these people than he did, by his own admission.

I don’t think at 30 I would have had the nerve to do that, I would have just stood there, biting my tongue and feeling depressed. I did have a very strong feeling, that if I couldn’t make this work and make this film as good as it could be then it wasn’t going to change my life. I had that hovering over my head throughout the whole thing. In that sense being 50 was helpful to me.

Do you have any life philosophies you have followed and how do you account for your own success?

That’s a hard question to answer really because I don’t think anybody can account for their own success. Obviously in some way you have filled a need, just like the person who invents some new gadget that suddenly everyone has to own. Suddenly he or she has identified a gap in the market and I think I filled a gap in the market for a certain kind of decent television.

That sounds rather pretentious but I don’t think many other people were doing what I was doing at that time. When Peter Fincham first got behind Downton everybody thought he was mad. He was told there was no audience for this stuff by some very senior figures in the industry. He didn’t agree with them, thank God, and he was right.  I don’t want to be too modest.

What I am doing in this area I must be doing reasonably well because other people are now producing similar stuff in pursuit of our audiences but they are not all producing shows that are as successful as Downton.

There must be some quality in the way I am writing these stories that works.  The only thing I would say, and it sounds immodest but I hope it’s helpful, is that I was a very, very hard worker, right from the start. To get an acting career going I wouldn’t let a 24-hour period go by without doing something, whether that be writing a letter, or arranging an interview, or making a telephone call, and I kept that up for 10 years.

When I write, I write a lot. Some people have great difficulty putting pen to paper, some far more talented people than I am, have trouble getting on with it, but I have always been a very hard worker.

In fact, I am now more or less a workaholic and my wife’s great difficulty is to stop me working. If we go on holiday and I stop working I am like a drunk in need of a bar. And in truth I think that for most people, when they are successful, a lot of work is a big part of it.

There may be models spotted just standing waiting for a bus but in my experience even with something like modeling the ones that last are the ones that take the trouble to understand their own industry and how to develop what they’ve got and create new opportunities. I think that is true of artists and bankers, of Prime Ministers and Page 3 girls.

One of the things that slightly irritates me about reality television is it promotes this notion that you can just be in the right place at the right time and you can become a star. It’s not that I begrudge them, I just think it sends the wrong message out to young people, when what they have really got to do is work like stink.

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