“I would say that no director has ever taken on a job with their eyes more wide open than I had mine,” explained Simon Curtis, director of the Downton Abbey feature film sequel. “I visited the set many, many times. I already had relationships with most of the cast and crew, I’d watched everything, but still, there were surprises.”
After already pulling in audiences in the UK, Downton Abbey: A New Era grossed $16 million during its opening weekend in the US. The follow-up to the 2019 film sees a film crew bring a touch of showbiz to the stately home, the Crawley family head to France facing a potential family scandal, and features a farewell to a legacy cast member.
I caught up with Curtis to break down the pressure, pleasure, and the dos and don’ts of directing Downton and working with an ensemble cast who are the top of their game.
Simon Thompson: You have a long-running relationship with Downtown Abbey because your wife, Elizabeth McGovern, is a key cast member. How does it feel to now officially be part of the franchise family?
Simon Curtis: It’s not only my relationship with Elizabeth, but I also worked with producers Gareth Neame and Liz Trubridge before, and I’ve worked with Imelda Staunton multiple times. The same goes for Dame Maggie Smith and Hugh Bonneville, and Michelle Dockery, so I had very deep connections with the show. There was some conversation about my being involved at the beginning of Downton Abbey, but it was around the time I was making my first film, so I wasn’t really available.
Thompson: Given your familiarity with the cast and world, how much of a guide did you need to hit the right beats? Was the cast helping you find your place? Or was that something you didn’t want to utilize but tried to find yourself?
Curtis: That’s an excellent question, and there’s no exact answer to it. It’s a blend of both, in a way. I was very mindful of the house style but had my opinion about how I wanted to bring something to it. I had watched every episode, and not many people can probably say that, but I just wanted to bring my sensibility to it as much as possible. I feel like I’m an actor’s director, and I wanted to make the actors feel as happy and confident in their parts as possible while bearing in mind that they had been playing those parts for over a decade, in many cases.
Thompson: As a director and now being a part of the Downton universe, did you look at the episodes you’ve seen previously slightly differently? You’re not only someone watching it and enjoying it, but you’re also a custodian.
Curtis: I would say that no director has ever taken on a job with their eyes more wide open than I had mine. I visited the set many, many times. I already had relationships with most of the cast and crew, I’d watched everything, but still, there were surprises. I used to say to my AD that there is no such thing as an easy scene in Downton Abbey because there’ll be a one-line scene where they cut a cake and half of British Equity turn up to rehearse. You had to really work at accommodating everybody in the scene, and sometimes what would usually be considered extras in most films are the greatest living British actors of all time in this case.
Thompson: People might assume that having a limited number of locations and a solid structure used for filming for many years might make things easier to do as a director because there is some sort of procedural production Bible about how to do things.
Curtis: Many people are telling you things like, ‘Oh, no, a dog wouldn’t bark because they were too well trained in those days,’ and nonsense like that. I just wanted to be a bridge between what I could bring to it and the existing brand. You do want to deliver the fans something they will like, but I always wanted to do something a bit surprising at the same time. For example, a little scene where the cars drive off to France. It’s a kind of shot we’ve seen many times in Downton. In this case, the fake film crew is walking across the frame with cameras and equipment, making the usual shot feel slightly different. I also brought in a DP, Andrew Dunn, who had never worked on Downton Abbey but had done Gosford Park. I wanted to bring a real cinematography partner in who’s always thinking, ‘Oh, we’ve never seen that angle before,’ so that was a happy collaboration.
Thompson: What about the new faces in Downton Abbey: A New Era? How many of them were on board when you signed up?
Curtis: None of them were involved before I came on. One of the things I could do was contribute to that casting. Casting is something I always enjoy and take very seriously.
Thompson: What do you consider are the three things that a Downton story needs to have to work?
Curtis: Warmth, humanity, and emotion. I always look for moments, the beats, and the emotion of this scene. Some are directors thinking, ‘Oh, what is the lens I can use? What’s the shot?’ I’m thinking, ‘What are the human beings in this room doing?’ For that reason, I’m very drawn to Julian Fellowes’ writing. I think this film is a masterclass in writing 20-plus storylines satisfying for the audience and the actors.
Thompson: So, as a director, where are those challenges? What is the difficult part of the job for you?
Curtis: It’s dealing with that number of people in a scene. It’s quite possible that you’d have two of the all-time greatest British actresses in history, Imelda Staunton and Penelope Wilton, sitting silently on a sofa for the whole day, and I wanted the actors to have fun. If actors are comfortable and confident, that’s the way to get their best work.
Thompson: There is a very important moment in the world of Downton Abbey lore in A New Era where we say goodbye to a legacy character. How do you approach a scene like that? I assume you had to do more than one take, so how do you keep it authentic?
Curtis: Again, that’s an excellent question. That was a whole day’s work. It’s not so much about the centerpiece of that scene; it’s about the reactions because all those characters around the bed have a very emotional moment in their own lives and sometimes with no lines to say. The order you shoot all of that is a huge, almost mathematical, strategic decision. Do you start with the reactions at the centre or not? All of that is very complicated. In this case, all of that was added to the fact that these actors had worked together for 12 years and were saying goodbye to someone they personally loved. Their characters were going through a very emotional moment in their lives. These are also a group of actors, cast as a family, who are like a family now. They all knew that someone across the bed from them had recently lost their parents or something similar, so that was also going on. It was an incredibly intense emotional day.
Thompson: I want to talk to you about the popularity of Downton Abbey around the world and your personal experience of it. What has surprised you most about the international appeal of Downton?
Curtis: There were times early on, around the end of series two, where I went with a lot of the cast to see Dan Stevens and Jessica Chastain in a play on Broadway, and it felt a bit like The Beatles doing The Ed Sullivan Show. There was absolute pandemonium. I think it is popular everywhere because it’s a fantastic format. The upstairs and downstairs worlds, men and women, old and young, all living under one roof. That’s the format of both the classic TV show Upstairs, Downstairs, and Downton Abbey, and they were both very successful for a reason.
Thompson: And Downtown Abbey remains popular.
Curtis: I’ve been reading a lot of comments from people who’ve never watched Downton Abbey and enjoyed the film. I think it’s a two-hour holiday from this tricky world we live in, and it landing in US theaters at this moment between Doctor Strange and Top Gun: Maverick is definitely counterprogramming. It’s as essential for that audience to come back to the cinema as it is for anybody.
Thompson: Did the box office success in the UK help bolster your confidence?
Curtis: Absolutely. I’ve never done a film that’s opened in the UK so much earlier than in the US. I’ve literally seen many thousands of lovely comments online, so it makes me proud that the film is resonating in the way we hoped it would.
Thompson: Does that mean you’d want to return if there is a third Downton Abbey movie?
Curtis: I don’t know. I wouldn’t have known if you’d asked me two years ago that I’d be directing Downton Abbey. Of all the reasons to do this, it was reading the script. That’s what made me want to do it. I love the France storyline, the silent movie storyline, and the emotional ending. ‘Do I like the script?’ is always the question. That’s even if there is a script. I don’t even know there’s another script, so I wouldn’t rule it in or rule it out.
Downton Abbey: A New Era is in theaters now.