Since we’ve come to the end and beginning of a decade... The venerable, esteemed series that found a fresh, heightened manifestation on film and wide screen seems a perfect example of not only honoring and respecting the old, but also enhancing it while stepping towards the new...
We talked with Director Michael Engler, who had directed several episodes of the series, including the finale as well as the current film, about the enhancements as enrichments of the core, not embellishments tacked on, but adding depth and offering an even more immersive experience. Fans were thrilled to step deeper within, and newcomers were able to immediately grasp the widely encompassing story and settings, and were quickly welcomed into the fold.
Once again, our expert in British history, design and customs, SDSA Executive Director Gene Cane, joined in the delightful conversation, which we have excerpted for you below... Enjoy! Karen Burg Editor
In response to congratulations for the sweeping story and cinematic film...
Thank you. When they first asked me to get involved, I thought, “There are so many ways this could go wrong.” And it’s hard to get it just right.
But, happily, it started with Julian, who created a script that was so well-suited to becoming a feature...to taking it into a feature.
What I’m really happy with is that I feel like we brought what everybody loved back alive again, without a feeling like it was just taking something out of mothballs and delivering it exactly the same way.
...In every aspect, but particularly in the design, we really wanted it to all feel recognizable, and then elevated some...
And to take that central storyline and all of the little offshoot stories...just the way they did it in the series, all tying into that same thing.
But in the series, you would never have all of those stories in one episode. You’d would go through a few episodes, you know. So, the idea of creating one big story that pulled everybody in, raised the stakes for everyone, and then allowed you to go off on all these little paths...I can’t think of many writers that could do that the way Julian wove it.
Right. Absolutely. And also, the opening sequence was so cinematic...
Was that written in that much detail? Or just a script note, “There’s a letter...”
It was conceived over time that way into the script. It was, in some ways, a sort of playful homage back to the original pilot, where the telegram is arriving at Downton around the same time that Bates is arriving on the train. And then he comes to Downton, and he’s the stranger and all of that...
We thought, why not in a fun, similar way, for the audience who’s so excited about getting back into this world, the idea of kind of taking a journey back inside the world...but creating the scale of the world larger than the TV show had been. The wide train shots, for instance...
That’s exactly what happened...it just pulls...the adaptation with the music...The train in motion...everything’s moving forward...and, it does feel like you’re being taken on that journey...
Gene had said that it seemed like a heightened journey to Downton...
And it was. The movement and flow...we were almost soaring along with them...
Well, I wanted to make sure...
I wanted every single shot to be moving until he [Robert, Lord Grantham] reads the letter and says, “The King and Queen are coming to Downton.” And then it cuts to a static shot of Mary. Before that, every single shot is moving. And I wanted it to feel like Boom! Everything stops on a dime when you get to that moment.
I’ve been a very big fan of the show from the beginning. So that opening was phenomenal. I was just swept up in it. I’m sure every fan of the show is going to have that same emotion...
We all had it. Every time. Everybody said the same.
After three years, you know, when you drive up to that estate...and then you walk up that long driveway, that iconic path that leads right to the house...everybody was saying, “Oh my god, I got so emotional when I saw it!”
That was right at the beginning of our filming, and I remember thinking, “Oh that’s so important, because the audience is going to have that experience the first time they see the house. So, let’s really set it up and save that moment, so that by the time you get to it, you feel like, ‘Oh! We’re back!’”
Again, that is exactly what happens.
At the same time, while you did these sweeping, cinematic shots that you could do with a drone and the wide shots in the train station, you also had...for our part...the set details: the letter being written in Buckingham Palace, the mail train with the mail sorting going on within the mailcar as it’s moving...then the little tiny post office shop in Downton village fully dressed...so it has both the sweeping and the tight detail...
Michael: The detail, yeah. That is so important.
Gene: And the letter is being delivered by a motorcycle now...
Michael: Exactly, the original was a bicycle...
re: The expansion into film...
I think all the things you really touch...the props and the sets and all of that...and all of the learned period information that the people dealing with it have gathered for so many years...you wouldn’t want to give that up. It’s too specific, and you wouldn’t want to miss something in the continuity of it. You want to enhance, not make obvious changes.
Donal and Gina and Anna were all brilliant at that.
[Downton Abbey veterans Production Designer Donal Woods, Set Decorator Gina Cromwell SDSA, Costume Designer Anna Mary Scott Robbins]
But for those cinematic elements, we wanted both the cinematographer and the editor to look at the DNA of the show, the series, but not be bound by it....to think in film terms.
For instance, with Ben [DP Ben Smithard], not just in the scope, which he added to greatly, but also sort of in the playfulness of it... We weren’t quite as overtly playful in the show. It has slightly more understated style, and we said, “Let’s not throw it out, but let’s expand it and grow from it.”
And I think, with Mark Day, our editor, even more so. The rhythm of a film is so different than the rhythm of an episode, or episodic series...
I learned so much from him about how to kind of shape it, so that when you go away, you enjoy and when you come back to the main story, you don’t feel like you’re being jerked around, it flows.
In watching the series, I never felt sort of left out of it, I never felt I wasn’t part of that, but the way the film is shot, the depth of it and the widened shots showing more of the rooms, showing more of the space, it really makes you feel like you’re in there. It just made you feel more a part of it...
For instance, the Great Hall with the embossed leather...in the series, you saw it, but this time, you see the seams, the intricacy of pattern...
Karen: All the detail that comes to fore on that big screen...
That’s right. The detail and then the scale.
...One of the concerns was, in the really intimate scenes, “Is it going to seem overblown?”
What I found fascinating was that those scenes still had the same intimacy they always had....But somehow, you felt like you were in the room...And the scale of the room could create more of a contrast...this very intimate scene in the very lush grand room, in some ways actually brought the intimacy out a little more.
And there were wonderful things in terms of scale, like I don’t think we ever saw the vaulted ceiling before...
There’s an upshot that starts at that incredible ceiling and comes down to the gallery, and I’m like, that’s exactly what you’d do. You would come into the house and go, “Oh my god!” as you looked up and then your gaze would come down to the gallery and then on down to the vast hall.
And we saw so much more of the dining room...the wall with the fireplace, there’s action happening there...and the details of service...
The other thing was just having more time on the film than television, where you have to be more economical.
We were able to play more with shifting perspective and more high angle shots that you don’t necessarily need to tell the story....if you’re shooting an episode in a short number of days, you think, “Well, let’s just make it rich and beautiful for what it is, and not overly complicate it.” But it was nice to have those extra things for the filming.
Another amazing thing Donal was very smart about, was just in the concept of what we did with the downstairs set, which was basically the same set built on a larger stage.
Because we actually had a bigger stage, he said, “Well, let’s not change the basic set, obviously, but let’s add all the hallways and bits you haven’t seen before.”
So there’s a silver servery, and a servery “adjacent” to the dining room, there’s a wine cellar...all these sort of areas that have kind of been implied, like they would have one, of course, but you never saw in the series...
And I think that was brilliant of Donal & Julian to find a way of dealing with “How do we make it the same, but bigger?”
What was brilliant, too, was when they reconstructed the bedrooms, such as Mary’s bedroom, her green bedroom. It was the same, except, instead of it being painted, it was now green cut velvet wallpaper! And so, now, I think what happens (when you see the film), you go like, “Oh, I never noticed how rich that wallpaper was.”
And the same thing with Edith’s, you have this beautiful golden look...so much more depth, without being obvious.
...So, I thought that was a smart choice, because it’s not a change, it’s more like an enhancement, an intensification, that you feel like now that the scale is bigger, you’re seeing things that you didn’t see before. And I thought that was brilliant.
Re: The Royal Ball given at Princess Mary’s home, Harewood House...
[Editor's note: Parts of the story were actually shot at Harewood, such as the tea Princess Mary gives, however, the Royal Ball she holds at Harewood for her parents was shot at Wentworth Woodhouse, which is considered the largest private residence in the UK.]
We wanted Wentworth for the ballroom, but it has a huge marble floor, and Julian felt very strongly that the ballroom wouldn’t have all been marble, that they would have had a sprung wood floor for dancing. Aside from that, it was very old, not in the greatest condition. We thought, “All these women in heels dancing on this uneven marble floor, what are we going to do? “
Of course, Donal solved it. He took the pattern from the marble, copied it, transformed it into a wood grain inlay as a design, matched the tones of the warm colors in the wall pilasters, and then created this linoleum "wood" dance floor. Everything around it is this original marble. The pattern is identical, but the center part, the dance floor, is “wood”. [Editor's note: See photos above]
Again, that’s one of those things that there is no way we would have had the resources or the time, to do that for one episode.
And by the way, they’ve left it there.
They love it so much, because they think it makes it feel more like it would have felt at the time. It’s so warm, it makes this very rundown room suddenly feel as if it would have been the center of big events.
Re: Working with Gina...
I think she’s a genius. She’s just so amazing.
There were so many...I can’t tell you how many rooms I walked into [when scouting] and I just thought, “Okay, it’s fine.”
But with a lot of these places, part of what’s beautiful is when you light them right and when you get all the right things in them...the fact that they’re rundown, actually, is perfect on film, because it gives it all the texture, all the depth, all the variability. It’s kind of amazing.
But still, there are a bunch places I walked in, and that was one of them, and I thought..."Well..."
I told Gina, “This is our big thing. It’s got to be pretty spectacular.”
And she said, “It will be.”
And then I said, “Okay, I’m not worried.”
And I came in, and it was 10 times more beautiful than I could have imagined.
*[For more in-depth details, see also our charming & fun conversation with Set Decorator Gina Cromwell SDSA in the Film Decor section!]