Fans of lush period drama have received no shortage of treats from “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes, who for five seasons now has written every episode of the Emmy-winning ITV/Masterpiece series. (He’s also a member of Parliament!) Indiewire sat down with Fellowes while he was in Los Angeles to lay out the process by which he pulls off that impressive feat, whether he’ll be able to replicate it when he begins work on a new series for NBC and why he decided that “Downton’s” sixth season would be its last.
So, for anything you do, do you focus a lot on rewrites, or do you have a lot of confidence in your first draft?
I always try and turn in a first draft which if there was suddenly a panic, is perfectly filmable. I don’t like to let go of it until I know it’s filmable.
I have a system: my wife reads it first, makes various suggestions and picks up mistakes and all that sort of stuff. And I make those corrections. Then it goes to Gareth Neame and Liz Trubridge — this is all on “Downton,” I’m talking about — and they make usually two rounds of notes: the first one big, headline notes. “This story doesn’t work.” “We don’t think this resolution is enough.” Then, I will rework those ones. Then they’re much smaller: “In scene eleven, does she have to come in through the window? Couldn’t she come in through the door?” And then, after that, there might be one or two more nips and tucks, but that’s basically, by then, what will go before the cameras. ITV then gets to read it, and Masterpiece, and if we agree then it’s incorporated — but they’ve both been very hands-off. So really it’s been Gareth, Liz and I who sort of made the show, which I think is a great luxury actually, because I suspect in America things are quite different, and there’s a great committee making every show.
Well there is and there isn’t. We’ve been shifting and seeing new models and new approaches, and I know of even broadcast networks who are being a little more hands-off, a little more supportive, of an individual creator really owning their show.
I mean it’s difficult for a show to get an individual voice if 60 people have the right to change things.
And I mean you’ve had — to Americans — the extraordinary luxury of writing every episode of “Downton Abbey.”
[laughs] Luxury’s one word for it, but not always the word that occurs to me. I do write every word of it. Every word. And that’s the way it’s been. But it’s not because I don’t approve of writing rooms and things; I admire them. And most of all, I admire it when, in a show like “Mad Men,” you get Matthew Weiner, the lead writer and the showrunner, and he manages to have a writing room of many writers. And yet, to maintain such a distinctive style, that “Mad Men” has a look and a sound that we all could spot at a hundred paces. And I don’t know how you do that. I really admire that. That he somehow manages to maintain such a tight ship, that his style is maintained by all these other men and women.
But again I think it’s in part in the training. In England, this business of learning to write in the style of other showrunners — which is a skill in American television writers — I don’t think that British writers really take very naturally to that. They always want their episodes to be unlike everyone else’s. Whereas of course what you want is for them to be like everyone else’s. And that, I think, sits more easily here.
I’m curious — you’ve got “The Gilded Age” coming up. How much do you know right now about how that process is going to work?
Well, the first [season] will be the same, essentially, as “Downton.” I hope! [laughs] I don’t think we’ve fixed a number of episodes yet, but it will be doable by one person. Clearly, if you have 22 episodes, that’s not possible. But it will be within the figure that one person can manage. And I will write it, and I hope with a very small team of producers, we will finalize and that will be how it goes. The big test will be, a) if it ever gets made, and b) if it ever gets put out; c) if it’s allowed to run until the end of the first series. Because I can tell you over here, in England, you make the series, they show it. It doesn’t matter if nobody’s watching it. [laughs] They still show it.
But here [in the US] they don’t. They pull it after four or five episodes if it’s not going over. So, just for a moment to assume that all those things happen, the second series, there’s always a chance that they would then commission it, but for 22 episodes. In which case, I would have to go into the realm of the writers room. But far from dreading it. I’d be very curious, very interested. So I look forward to the job. I’m quite excited about it.
Do you know when you start?
I still have “Downton” to finish — the last episode. And, other things to tidy up. But I assume, sort of, that in the autumn I will begin it.
So you haven’t finished the last episode of “Downton” yet. When you think about it, are you excited, are you sad, are you scared?
I’m not scared. I mean I think you’re a little bit sad. You’ve known the characters for so long, and the actors have been working together for so long and everything. I’m sure there will be tears on the last day, but that doesn’t mean I think we’re doing the wrong thing. I think that things have a life, and that it’s good to leave the room while everyone’s still sorry. Simple as that, really. And, viewing figures are still very, very high — at least they were when we finished the last series — and I think it’s good to go out when people are like, “Oh, I hope it’s not really the last,” and that would be my plan.
Particularly the young actors, this has been a very strange time for them. I mean, Laura Carmichael, it was her first job. Now, she’s all over the world. There’s hardly anywhere — Timbuktu, she can go, where she isn’t known. So it’s time for them — I mean they’ve also done things in the hiatus — but it’s time for them to go out and test their strength. See if they really can keep flying at this level, or will their careers change, or whatever. And I understand that.
Dan left at the end of the third year because he just felt “now is the moment.” And, to be honest, I mean we were terribly sorry to see him go because he’s a lovely chap, but I think he’s been proven kind of right. He’s now starring in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” and he’s done other movies before that, and he’s sort of getting up there as a serious movie-leading man. And you have to, in this business, you have to follow your gut. Because there isn’t really anything else to follow. There are no rules. Nobody’s career resembles anyone else’s. And I think you do have to feel when it’s time to put yourself out of work. I mean I remember — this is a very much lesser scale — when I left drama school and I was working in rep as an actor, and I just had a feeling it was time to go even though it was the middle of the season.
And to put yourself out of work when you’re young and unknown as an actor is completely mad, but I had a really nice director of the rep and he said exactly what I’m saying: If you feel it’s right, you must do it. And I went out, and three weeks later I was cast in a West End show. They sent me onstage in the West End and everything was changing. And that was only because I had a sort of feeling it was right. So I think you do have to follow that. And I think the young ones particularly feel this. Sorry to see the end of it, they’ve enjoyed it, but they feel it’s time.
I’m wondering, how much did you look at other shows with major series finales as ideas and guides for how to approach it? The answer can be not at all.
I didn’t really…do you think I should have done?
No, I think you probably know what you’re doing.
[laughs] I think “Downton” has its own style. “Breaking Bad,” “The Good Wife,” whatever; the long-runners seem to establish a kind of style. I mean the whole thing with show business, whether it’s a ballet or an opera or a cartoon, is you have to establish a world in which it’s believable that these things happen.
I think we have established the world of “Downton.” And I’m really trying to resolve it in a way that is compatible and suited to that world.
Your publicist told me that you submitted the Rose’s wedding episode — Episode 8 — as the episode for Emmys consideration. I’m wondering, in terms of you making that decision, what goes into it?
Well obviously, partly, it’s just you’re pleased with the way the episode turned out, and you think everyone did it well. And that’s fine. I was pleased with the anti-semitism story because that kind of— I mean, we’ve had Nazi films, we’ve had concentration camp films, plenty of them, but has always interested me is that slight dismissive, almost unconscious racism, anti-semitism, anti-this, anti-that, anti-Catholicism…where people are almost unaware that they have these prejudices, but they do. And it’s in them. And they don’t really address them.
And the English upper classes really, I mean, it was lessened by the war because a lot of them were very shocked by what came out of the end of the war, and they felt ashamed of it, but it still lingered. A slight, rather Jewish-looking sort of anti-semitism. Which I saw. I mean I think it’s — mind you, the other day I was saying to a Jewish friend, by now I think it’s gone now, and she said “don’t you believe it!” [laughs] Maybe I’m wrong in that. But it certainly existed in my youth and maybe now, and it’s something that needs to be addressed. Because racism isn’t just running around in a hood with eyeholes, and you know, setting things on fire. It’s also a slight dismissal of people. A slight assumption of their inferiority. Slight — you don’t even know you’re doing it. And, that was what I wanted to address in that story. And I think they did it well. I think the actors did it well.
And it’s interesting because it’s not just the villain of the piece who expresses those attitudes; it kind of does come out casually. From your main characters.
And the Jewish family, the father particularly, is not an angel on Earth. He has his own snobberies and his own resistance to this girl. His own prejudice against the fact that she’s not Jewish. Which seems to me to be true to life. And very happily, I had a certain amount of feedback from the Jewish community in London, of approval of the story, because it neither demonized them nor was it one long apologia. That, in fact, it was kind of evenly balanced. And it went down very well. I was approached by the sort of leading Jews in the House of Lords where I’m in, to say, “We really approve of that story.” So that was satisfactory too. It’s quite rewarding when you get a bit of feedback like that from the people who know.
But, you know, I was Catholic. And when I was young — I mean this really has almost gone up — but I was young, there was still quite a lot of anti-Catholicism among the upper classes. And I had it, that slight dismissal, that slight resistance to you being their daughter’s boyfriend, and it’s odd. And it’s odd when you’re on the receiving end. Because you want to say to them, “You dislike me but you don’t know me.” You haven’t made any attempt to get to know me at all, and you already know you don’t like me. And that’s the strange thing about prejudice.
When we covered this last season, I deliberately went and found a freelancer who was British because she was able to, through her reviews, reveal a lot of small details about British culture. Because we have different kinds of hatreds and prejudices here — we are not by any stretch of the imagination a good example of a perfectly functioning society—
But you’re more mobile. Even today, you’re more mobile.
A little bit.
We’re more mobile than we were, a lot. Although unfortunately, in the last 20 years that’s slightly slowed down because our education is in… some difficulties. And the tragic outcome of that is a great many children from less privileged backgrounds are not given the equipment to break into the middle class strongholds.
When I was young, in the ’60s, they were. And you had much more mobility than you have now. I think it is a fault in the nation and I hope it’s one we correct, because America, with your — I mean I’m not saying your education system is particularly better, or whatever — but all the classes are to a large extent educated together. And so you can change your circumstance and move up.
I think that’s the biggest thing. I’m curious why you think the show has had such an amazing reception here in America.
I think that we live in a rather turbulent time. When I was young, there was a complete assumption that throwing out all the old rules and getting rid of the whole thing was marvelous. And it was absolutely fabulous that everyone was sleeping with everyone, and that was all great.
I don’t think we’re in that same place anymore, now. We’ve lived through quite a disturbing 15 or 20 year period, with the economics going all over the place in our countries, national debt soaring, none of us know how to make these economies work, our expectations of our involvements in the Middle East, everything blown up in our faces, to quite a big degree, and I think a lot of the certainties of the ’60s and ’70s have been eroded. And when we look at a period that is seemingly more secure, there is a kind of nostalgia.
I actually think it’s a false supposition because, really, the period immediately before and after the first World War was a period of tremendous change. Certainly, for women, for votes, for organized labor. But even in other areas — transport, the movies — tremendous change. But somehow, our society still chose to keep living by certain rules. And they changed their clothes and they went to dinner and they sat around their lunch table as a family and they did all these other things. And I think part of us now wonders whether we were right to get rid of all that. Of course, in a way, the cheat is you watch a period show on television. And it’s “period-lite,” because you don’t have to get up at four in the morning to go and clean the grates, or if you’re part of the family you don’t have to sit there changing your clothes four times a day because it’s right for breakfast but it’s wrong for lunch. It was a much more demanding way to live.
And also, for a great many women, more boring than life would gradually start to become in the ’20s and more particularly in the ’30s as different careers opened up and everything. The beginning, before the war, really, for working class women there was factory and service, for middle-class women, there was being a governess, and for upper-class women there was nothing at all that you could do except marry someone and organize his house and estate. By even the ’20s that had started to loosen up significantly, and by the ’30s very much so. Nevertheless, it’s still— even I can remember where there were closed rules and this rules and that rules and if you could have accepted this you did it. And I think the sort of cultural chaos we live in now is slightly disturbing. I suspect that’s part of it.
Last question: we’re in the thick of Emmy season. I’m curious, what kind of impact does it have back in the UK when you have recognition from a ceremony like this?
Well, I mean, I think it’s a great honor. And it’s perceived as a great honor. If someone had told me 20 years ago that I’d win an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and two Emmys, or three coming up, because I’ve got this special one coming in the autumn, I would have been absolutely gobsmacked. And I still find it quite hard to believe that I have.
I do think Americans are very generous to foreigners…it doesn’t bother them to give away their top prizes to someone outside the shores. And I think that’s an admirable quality. It’s a very kind and open thing. The cast has one best ensemble twice at SAG. Very nice of them, really. So I think we’re thrilled.