January 18, 2020

Royal Parades and Romance Rule in ‘Downton Abbey’ Movie

Jim Carter in “Downton Abbey.” Photo by Jaap Buitendijk/Focus Features

For six seasons, “Downton Abbey” enthralled audiences with its captivating saga of aristocrats and their servants at a British country estate, amassing 15 Emmys before PBS aired the final episode in December 2015. Since then, fans have clamored for a feature film continuing the saga, and four years later, that has come to pass with a grand-scale story centering around a 1927 royal visit to the Abbey.

The occasion comes with all the pomp and pageantry you’d expect, including a parade and a formal ball and dinner. There are new romances, a pregnancy, an inheritance issue and a below-stairs war of wills between the Downton staff and the supercilious royal entourage. With more than 20 principal characters, there’s a lot of plot to service — but everyone gets a moment, however brief.

Stage and TV director Michael Engler, who directed four episodes of “Downton Abbey,” was tasked with the assignment to bring creator Julian Fellowes’ script to the big screen, with a considerably bigger budget and more time than television production usually allows. “We had time to work out things and definitely had more resources to go all out with costumes and cars and more complicated shooting,” Engler told the Journal. “We didn’t have to work as quickly, which allowed us to do things on a grander scale; scenes with a lot of people in them to account for multiple stories going on simultaneously.”

Familiarity was another advantage. “Usually when you do a film, there are so many unknowns. You have to figure it out as you’re going. ‘How does this character come off? How should this be played? Is this relationship going to work?’ Here, so many of those questions were already answered,” Engler said. A few new exceptions aside, “The actors already know so much about their characters. And we had so many of the locations and sets already determined and understood. It was exciting and daunting. We knew we had to bring it to a new level, but we had such a foundation that we knew we could.”

Nevertheless, the enormity of the undertaking “kind of snuck up on me,” Engler admitted. “I knew there were big pieces in it that were going to be tricky, like the parade. You think, ‘How do we get this done?’ ‘Where will the sun be?’ ‘What angle should we use?’ ‘Where should we put the cameras?’ You’re doing so much logistical planning that it’s easy to lose track of what the real power of the spectacle is,” he said. “But every day, the royal troupe would show up, ready to go — horses and cannons and soldiers. Everything went pretty smoothly.”

Elizabeth McGovern stars as Lady Grantham, Harry Hadden-Paton as Lord Hexham, Laura Carmichael as Lady Hexham, Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham and Michael Fox as Andy in DOWNTON ABBEY. Photo by Jaap Buitendijk / Focus Features

Although the weather can be rainy in autumn in Yorkshire, the director said they “got incredibly lucky. We kept joking that God must be a ‘Downton’ fan because every time we needed sun, we got it.”

As in the series, scenes in the kitchen, servants’ quarters and some of the bedrooms were filmed on studio soundstages. But more than two-thirds of the film was shot on location at Highclere Castle and at other locations all over Great Britain, including Wentworth Woodhouse and Harewood House castles, and the train station at Pickering in Yorkshire. Returning to Highclere was like a homecoming for everyone involved.

“I think we all felt the same kind of sentimental rush when we arrived there,” Engler said. “When you walk up that walkway toward the castle, it’s so iconic, but we’re so used to it. It’s so grand and glamorous but when you spend time in the rooms, they’re really quite warm and cozy and not particularly overwhelming. The austerity of them doesn’t feel alienating. We know the people who live there and work there, and they’re part of the ‘Downton’ family. They’re there to help us get it done.”

“The popularity of ‘Downton Abbey’ has a lot do with the wish-fulfillment aspect of a world that’s lush and beautiful and well ordered. But I think it mostly has to do with 

the fact that it feels like a unified world.” 

— Michael Engler


With high expectations for the movie from “Downton Abbey” fans, Engler acknowledged the pressure. “But only in the sense that we knew we needed to give them something special. It had to be as recognizable and familiar as the show so it would feel like a homecoming, but it also had to feel like it had moved on and grown to earn its position on the screen,” he said. The response from devotees “has been my biggest concern. I wanted it to appeal to everybody, but it was so important to me that the fans felt like they got what they were coming back for, and more.”

Audiences can expect a love story for Tom Branson (Allen Leech); scathing zingers from Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith); and a plotline involving butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier), who is gay and closeted in an era when homosexuality is a crime.

“I was so proud that we were able to show it with such subtlety and how it would have been at the time,” Engler, who also is gay, said. “It showed the difficulties and complications of how it would have been at the time, but not that people like him couldn’t find meaningful relationships and ways to connect. I was happy with the way it was done. It wasn’t done with rose-colored glasses.”

Michelle Dockery stars as Lady Mary Talbot and Matthew Goode as Henry Talbot in DOWNTON ABBEY, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Jaap Buitendijk / Focus Features

Engler thinks the popularity of “Downton Abbey” has a lot do with its glamour, “the wish-fulfillment aspect of a world that’s lush and beautiful and well ordered. But I think it mostly has to do with the fact that it feels like a unified world,” he said. “The servants seem as much like family as the family does. And the family members are servants to the estate, too. Everybody is invested and is working together in something that’s larger than themselves. Wherever they stand in the social order, they appreciate each other’s necessary contribution to it.”

If there were to be a second movie, “I would be honored and delighted to be a part of it. I think it’s possible,” Engler said. “It’s just a question of whether Julian has more stories he wants to tell in that world.” Meanwhile, he’s collaborating with Fellowes on another project, producing and directing the HBO series “The Gilded Age,” which begins shooting in March for a late-2020 debut. “It’s set in New York in the robber-baron era, the beginning of the great industrial wealth, and the explosion and intersection of new big money and old New York society,” he said.

Engler, a Yale drama school graduate whose directing credits include “Deadwood,” “The Big C” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” was nominated for an Emmy three times — for “30 Rock,” “Sex and the City” and “Downton Abbey.” In 2018, he made his feature debut with “The Chaperone,” written by Julian Fellowes. But his career began in the theater. He tried acting in high school, liked it and went to NYU to study it. “But people always said, ‘You should be a director.’ My feelings were very hurt. I took it as ‘You’re not good enough to be an actor,’ ” he said. “Then a fellow student brought me a play and asked me to direct it, and I understood what everybody meant. It combined all my interests in theater and psychology and sociology, architecture, art history and fashion. I thought, ‘This is a much more interesting use of all parts of myself.’ ”

Descended from Russian-Jewish pogrom refugees on his mother’s side and German-Jewish immigrants on his father’s, Engler grew up in Evanston, Ill., in a Reform home. “I went to Hebrew school, Saturday school and was bar mitzvahed,” Engler said. “We attended Friday-night services sometimes, but we were much more Jewish culturally than religiously.” That’s still the case. “If I go to a wedding, bar or bat mitzvah, a funeral or any kind of service, I’m always happy to be part of it and participate in that way, but I don’t feel connected in a religious sense,” he said.

In the future, Engler hopes to teach at the college and graduate level, working with young directors and actors. “I feel like I’ve learned a lot about not just what we do but how to get good at it,” he said. “Mostly, I want to continue to do things that have an interesting intersection of entertainment and social relevance.”

He has optioned and adapted “Remembering Babylon” by David Malouf and plans to direct it. It’s about white settlers and Aborigines in Australia, “and has a lot to say [about] how we treat strangers, the less fortunate and what our responsibility is to each other, and how tribal we all can be,” he said.

Meanwhile, Engler is looking forward to seeing how his current film will be received. “Imagine if you went back to your favorite vacation spot and stayed in the nicest hotel and best restaurants,” he said. “That’s what this is like: the updated experience of ‘Downton Abbey.’ ”

“Downton Abbey” opens in theaters Sept. 20.