In 2010, Masterpiece Theater struck gold with a British television series about life at a historic estate near York. At the heart of “Downton Abbey” was the Crawley family upstairs, and their large staff down below. For six seasons, Crawleys and everyone under their roof lived through happy and devastating years, experiencing love and loss in ways that anyone could connect with.
With dozens of Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, “Downton Abbey” was the crown jewel of the Public Broadcasting System in the US before ending its run in 2015. But even as the finale aired, creator and showrunner Julian Fellowes began talking about the possibility of a feature film.
That film hits theaters this weekend and fans around the world are ready for another visit to Downton.
Last week, I had the opportunity to talk with director Michael Engler about his experiences getting “Downton Abbey” ready for the big screen. Please enjoy our conversation.
Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: Going from the TV series to the film, what were some of the things you and Julian Fellowes thought about and discussed in bringing the Crawleys to the big screen?
Michael Engler: We felt that it was really important, on the one hand, to preserve the DNA of Downton. To bring people back to the thing they loved, that they were missing, which was that group of characters. Stories that would tell you about lots of different people. Things that would bring you to everybody and give everybody a chance to shine. But also, we wanted it to feel like there was a new level of stakes that was heightened in the situation so that both visually and for the story, it would feel, not like a piece of an episodic series, but a standalone story. A standalone film, and an event that felt different than “Downton” in its scale and ambitions, which always, frankly, was pretty cinematic.
It felt like it was going to be more of a challenge, but I think once we settled on the royal visit as the story, it did both because that’s the kind of story that pulls everybody into one [event]. They all have to deal with it in some demanding way. And then in the midst of that we can learn about the separate things going on in each of their lives. But then it would also allow the visuals to naturally expand and to become more cinematic. But we also wanted to even make the things that were familiar feel a little newer and more grand. So we tried to find ways to make all the detail a little richer and more complex and have more depth.
KP: What are some of the things that always made “Downton Abbey” so special for you?
ME: I think it was the fact that it takes every character as seriously as every other. It gives each of them the same dignity, the same humanity, the same kind of intelligence. They’re all educated and intelligent in different ways, but it doesn’t make Daisy falling in love any less important than Lady Edith falling in love, or Carson succeeding at his job in the world on the estate any more seriously or less seriously than Robert. They were always seen as aspects of one bigger, unified thing. Wherever you were, any kind of person could come to it and find some characters they related to and some characters that they kind of wanted to know more about.
And I think another aspect was that everybody was involved in doing their part for the greater good. In some ways, that could be seen as sentimental, but I think nowadays a lot of people feel that society is so fractured that we don’t really feel much of a connection to people that aren’t like us, whatever that means. I think there’s something kind of inspiring and reassuring about a world where even people who are very different from each other feel invested in each other and feel connected to each other.
KP: Which character do you feel you have the most in common with?
ME: I can’t believe no one’s ever asked me that. (laughs) It makes me laugh but the first person that comes to mind is Molesley. I think, in a funny way, I feel to “Downton” the way Molesley feels to the King and Queen visit in that I just can’t believe sometimes that I get to participate in this extraordinary, iconic, historic show and bring my skills, my talent, my passion, my joy to it. It feels like a complete gift to have that and hopefully I do it sometimes in a less bumbling way than he does and I’m sure at times I don’t.
KP: There’s something so charming about his bumbling, isn’t there?
ME: Exactly, because you know that it’s coming from such an honest place, and such a humble place and the thing about him is that he’s educated, and yet he still has this fairy tale relationship to the King and Queen and it’s one that he feels doesn’t diminish him, but actually enobles him. That’s such a charming quality.
KP: With a cast like this, with 17 or 18 principle characters, plus a lot of new characters, how do you balance that many people and make sure everyone gets their moment without the benefit of seven or eight episodes to do it?
ME: More than anything that’s Julian’s achievement, which was to find a way to have this one big story and then weave everybody through it so that they’re connecting to it and going off from it. But always the vortex of that visit is constantly pulling everybody in and either they love it and they’re excited about it or even Daisy, who is kind of against it, it still pulls a lot out of her. It still creates a big reaction in her. So automatically that helped out a lot.
The rest was there in the script, but I think when we got in the editing room, then we had to be more selective about when we were driving the overall story forward and when we were enjoying going on these little side trips to other little character stories. I think one of the reasons it worked so well is because you’re not just going to different stories with different characters. Some are more comic, some are more emotional and dramatic, some are romantic, some are mysterious, some are very ceremonial and grand. It allows you to experience a lot of different colors and emotions within that one event, so you don’t feel distracted by it. You actually feel like you’re getting a richer sense of the detail of what it’s like at an event like that.
KP: There is such a good balance of emotion and tone. What are some of the things you are looking for as you are in that editing process, to make sure that you’re getting the right balance?
ME: The actors are so incredible and all of them are so good with those very comic moments and very dramatic moments, so it really comes down to making sure that we give everybody their moment when they have it and that it has some breath around it. As we were getting in there we would see we need more of this or less of this. It’s really making sure that what matters to the character lands on the audience in a way that they can relate to. That what’s important to each of them is established and given time to express itself in a way that the audience can say, “Oh, right.” Even if they’ve never been in this situation they’re like, “Oh, I bet that is how you would react,” or “I bet that is how it would be.”
KP: What scene was particularly challenging to put together?
ME: The big royal parade…We won’t talk about spoilers. Let’s just say the parade and the king reviewing the troops. We had literally the actual Queen’s Royal Troops with a hundred horses and 80 soldiers and canons and we were only going to have them for those days. And it was two days when we had every single cast member and hundreds of extras. The coordination of an event that big, even if you weren’t shooting it, just to stage it was a big, complex event. So then to stage it in a way that we knew we could get as much out of [everyone] by shooting it as few times as possible. We knew we wouldn’t have any more than those days if we had any trouble, if we lost the light or anything like that.
So that was definitely the trickiest in terms of unit mobilization issue. And then the fact that within it you want to, at some point, check in with all the characters we know and get some sense of what it means to them because that’s the apex of the whole experience.
KP: What was the best day of filming?
ME: I had a lot of good days, I have to say. But I came to the set one day to work with Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilson and Imelda Staunton. Three of the greatest living actresses today and just to be able to sit and work with them and direct them, and giggle with them between takes and solve problems together and discuss the situation. It was incredibly moving to be in a place to have that opportunity. I certainly pinched myself a few times that day.
KP: That sounds like such a dream. I can’t even imagine.
ME: It is! It’s absolutely a dream come true.
KP: I would definitely be Molesley in that moment!
ME: Every now and then I would just sort of step out of myself and think, “Wow, just look at that. Look at that incredible moment you’re lucky to have.”
KP: What is your style as a director, when it comes to working with your team and your actors?
ME: It’s more of a conversation for me. If I could sum it up in a nutshell, I don’t see my job as if I have the best ideas and everybody should follow them as much as my job is to figure out what’s the best idea no matter who it came from. In every department, they know more things about that department than I do, so I’m always looking to be surprised and educated and challenged. And if I’m going to say no to somebody’s idea, at least I know why I like mine better, because I’ve had a chance to examine it against something else. I do feel like the really talented people around, all the actors, all the technical people, crafts people, they’re constantly making me better at what I do because they’re so good at what they do.
KP: And when it all comes together it makes for such a beautiful production.
ME: Thank you very much. I’m really happy with it. I feel like we somehow managed to capture the spirit of the show that everybody loved and still make it feel like it was worth going to the cinema and paying your money and watching it on the big screen and having an experience you couldn’t get just watching it at home or waiting until it’s out on streaming. Certainly there would be a lot you would enjoy that way, but it certainly was a bigger, richer experience to see and hear on the big screen.
KP: The whole time I watched it I had this big grin because I was so happy to be back in this world. I love these characters so much and it was great to get to revisit.
ME: So was I. I have to say, both the making of it and the watching it felt like some kind of reunion of old friends and family in the best sense.
KP: What was it like at the premiere when you were watching it with an audience and people were reacting to “Downton Abbey” on the big screen?
ME: It was very surreal because also I was watching it with a lot of the people who made it and we were watching together for the first time. I think for all of us together to hear the reactions, the laughs, when it would go totally silent for a very dramatic moment, or people would do a sudden intake of breath and we’d think, “Oh, good, we did surprise everyone with that.” It was very surreal, exciting, and very gratifying.
KP: You worked on the series and you’ve been planning the film since that ended. How do you process your emotions now that the film is out in the world and this years long journey is done?
ME: It’s exciting, but it’s a strange thing. You go through so many stages of working on it and you’re in the thick of it for so long where you’re just not thinking about anything else for months and months, and now that it’s starting to come up, it’s a little bit of postpartum. You start to miss being enveloped in that world and those problems and those beautiful elements. That gorgeous music and all that lush scenery and costumes and those wonderful actors. It can be kind of difficult. You feel like you’re leaving a very cherished, meaningful world and going out into a much more unknowable one. But I think that’s just the nature of what I do. I’m getting used to that. It’s part of the rhythm of my life as a creative person.
Some people have a situation where most of what they do is pretty consistent day to day and year to year. It’s always changing, but some jobs are more that way. What we do is so unique. You’re with a group of a hundred people, living together and working together day after day and long hours in close quarters. And then suddenly you go off. Some of them you’ll never see again, some of them you’ll stay close with, and some of them you might see every now and then on another project. It’s a very strange situation that way. In some ways you’ll never not feel connected to those people when you see them again. Doesn’t matter who it is, when I run into people sometimes months or years later when we worked on something together and they could have been involved in any aspect of it, and we all feel a connection for having been in the trenches together.