Downton Abbey A New Era Interview

Downton Abbey: A New Era is the second film spun off from the successful television series.  I recently had the chance to speak to director Simon Curtis, writer Julian Fellows, and producers Gareth Neame and Liz Trubridge about the project…

Matt:  I’d like to ask for your reflections from when the first episode of the TV series aired back in 2010.  What were your expectations for it back then?

Julian:  I think we were optimistic.  There was at that time a thought that period drama was dead.  Gareth Neame and I didn’t believe it.  We felt we made a good show and it would find a good audience but of course, we didn’t know we were on the edge of a storm cloud that was going to whirl all over the world.  We were proud of the show.

Gareth:  It became clear very quickly this was a kind of phenomenon.  This was back in the days when people cared about viewer figures and our ratings went up about 30% between the first and second episode.  That was unheard of.  It meant everyone who watched it came back the following week which was quite an achievement, and they’d all told their friends to come as well.  Within a week, we were part of the social conversation.  People were referencing Downton Abbey as a “thing” and not just a television show.  There was something special happening.

Matt:  The first film from 2019 made did well and took in close to $200 million USD at the global box-office.  Did that make this sequel a certainty or were there other factors involved?

Gareth:  We quickly started having conversations about the next one.  I was determined to take the Crawley family overseas because we’d never done that before and I persuaded Julian to have a script where they go to the south of France which I thought was a terribly good idea before we’d ever heard of something called COVID.  We had a window in 2020 to work on the script and I thought it was great timing because this whole thing would be finished by the time we started shooting in 2021.  Then came the second wave and with borders closed…

Julian:  We nearly shot it on the Costa del Anglesey in Wales.  There was no guarantee we could get to France at all.

Liz:  We didn’t know until the very last minute we would get to France.  We had to have two schedules running with two budgets.  We didn’t know for sure until about three weeks before we left.

Matt:  It is one of the biggest casts we’ll see in a mainstream movie.  How easy it is bringing everyone back together at the same time?  I’m sure some of the cast members have busy schedules.

Simon:  In this case, COVID helped in that there were a lot of things not being made.  It’s one of the greatest ensembles as you say and they’re all very committed to Julian, Gareth and Liz and so they all turned up.

Gareth:  It’s not without its challenges though.  As you rightly say, they’re all juggling projects and as Simon alluded to, a lot of projects were slipping due to COVID and starting later than expected.  This really did cause of issues but it’s not a day for dwelling on that.  We’re celebrating the fact we got it done and we’re very happy with it.  We hope audiences are going to love it.

Matt:  Julian, I mentioned the big cast and of course an inevitable challenge is trying to give them all their fair share of time and narrative within a tight 2 hours.  How does that play out when writing the initial script?

Julian:  You’re quite right that it’s the big challenge.  When you’re doing a TV series, actors understand they will have a decent story once every 2 or 3 episodes and in between, they’ll join in other people’s stories.  They don’t all have to fully served but in the case of a film, they do.  You can’t say “wait for the next film” and so you have to plat them all together so they all have something worth doing.

Matt:  Do the actors come to you with ideas about where they might want to take their characters?

Julian:  They often come with idea but where those ideas go is a slightly different matter.  I think we’re reasonably open to suggestions but you don’t want to be blown in too many different directions.  With the TV series, Gareth, Liz and I always knew from an early stage where it was going and what the stopping point would be.  Film is slightly different but we still get together and decide what the plot will be and then I get on with it.

Matt:  I really did like the idea of the film within the film.  How did that idea come about?

Julian:  It came from Gareth because he was talking about his grandfather who was in the film industry.  At that time, he was just a young runner on a film being directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1928.  They had the same predicament that happened to the characters in the film.  As Gareth was telling the story, I was like “oooo, there’s something in here for me.”  I knew I wanted something that would bring the 20th Century into the Downton setup.  It wasn’t just men and women getting on with their lives.

Matt:  Simon, does much change in the editing process?  Do you have to tweak the way it’s all interwoven to create a fast-paced yet understandable narrative?

Simon:  I’ve always admired Julian but it was amplified on this film because he really does give everyone a journey through the two hours of the movie.  When you get into the cutting room, maybe a few beats would be changed but for the most part, it’s the movie on the page.

Matt:  Maggie Smith always seems to get the most memorable of the barbs and the one-liners.  Is that because she gets the better end of the script?  Or is it because she’s just so damn good at what she does?

Julian:  Maggie and I started together in Gosford Park 22 years ago and we then did another movie together.  I suppose we have each other’s rhythm.  She knows how to play what I write and I hope I know how to write to take advantage of her.  One of her great skills is that she can make you laugh and cry very closely to each other.  She can be very moving and then two minutes later, you’re laughing away.  That’s a real talent and a real gift which I try to give her an opportunity to display.

Matt:  Laura Haddock gets to have a lot of fun too with her role by being the “fish out of water” in terms of her voice and personality and mannerisms.  What can you tell me about her casting and extracting such a memorable performance?

Julian:  The voice thing came from the same story Gareth was telling.  She was foreign and could hardly speak English.  All the way through Downton Abbey, we found opportunities to bring in characters who haven’t had the same conditioning as the Crawley family and the servants.  They’ve come from outside that set up.  We’ve used that to demonstrate aspects of the life the Crawley household was living.

Matt:  The costumes are always great – from the formal attire to the swimwear.  How much work goes into those to make them as authentic as possible?

Liz:  A huge amount.  One of the big challenges we had this year was that our costume designer, Anna Robbins, caught COVID right in the middle of the prep and couldn’t be near her team when she was designing.  That caused quite a few missing heartbeats because there are so many costumes.  She makes full wardrobes for these characters and this time, as you know, we had the characters in the film within the film, the upstairs/downstairs nature of things, and the different look for the south of France.  It was really challenging for her and we brought on a talented co-costume designer, Maja Meschede, to help out because it’s a huge cast.

Matt:  So where too from here with this series?  Is the plan to make more movies?

Gareth:  The first big hurdle was taking a much loved television project onto the big screen.  That’s been a stony path which has not always worked for other shows.  It was a great thrill to see people missed these characters and wanted to be reunited with them.  Viewing habits change.  People who watched Downton Abbey at home went to movie theatres and bought tickets.  We successfully migrated and now we have to keep that interest.  Of course, cinema attendance has fallen due to the pandemic.  We really hope after these ghastly past two years and with other depressing, monstrous things going on in the world at the moment, people will cherish this opportunity and go back to cinema for this feel-good movie which takes you to a place you love being in.
Matt:  Do you deliberately leave things open for future movies?  You don’t have to share but do you have an idea where some of these characters might go if another sequel is greenlit?  Or do you tie up as much as you can in case that doesn’t happen?

Julian:  I’ve said good-bye to these characters so many times and back they come.  When you talk about new directions, they may be fictional but they’re still living their lives just like we do.  Things keep happening.  It’s the same for characters.  As long as there is demand and they’re audience who want to see these actors, I’m sure we’ll find things for them to do.

Michael Bay Interview

Ambulance is an intense, entertaining action film from director Michael Bay (Bad Boys, The Rock, Transformers).  I recently had the chance to speak with Michael about the project…

Matt:  I’d love to start by talking about editing and your working relationship with Pietro Scalia.  It seems like every big action scene has been shot from a multitude of camera angles.  How do you take all that footage and weave it together into something which feels hectic but also easy to follow?

Michael:  When Steven Spielberg was lecturing to University of Southern California film students, he said “of all the directors I’ve produced, I can always tell through their dailies how it’s going to be cut. The only director I can’t… is Michael Bay.”  I have a weird style that breaks rules and I live by the theory that rules are made to be broken.

I have to be very involved with the editing.  I love Pietro.  He worked with me on 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi and he’s Ridley Scott’s editor.  He’s like a gruff Italian going “no Michael, you don’t need it, no Michael, it’s not going to be funny” and I go “Pietro, we’re going to have funny.”  He’s a fantastic cutter.

Matt:  Is there a lot of experimentation that goes on then in the editing process?

Michael:  Yes.  I could have a messy closet and lose by car keys but I know every single shot I shot in a movie.  I know it better than the editors.  When they lose it, I can find it out of a million feet of film.  I just have this bizarre memory.  I kind of know how I want it woven together but I’ll always let the editor experiment with the footage on their own.  I like to see what they do.  Then I’ll maybe pass it to another editor… and then I’ll have a cut at it… it’s like a merry-go-round.  We’ll then start watching the movie many times on a big screen and keep refining it.  Editing is always about levels – even for the directors I produce.  They think the first cut is the one but you can always go another level and it can always get better. 

Matt:  An important element to the chase sequences is that we get the high shots from above which help show us where they are and where everyone is positioned.  You using helicopters?  Drones?  A mix of both?

Michael:  We invented some new drone technology on this one.  I used these 19-year-old kids with drones and I challenged them to do something different that’s not really been done in movies.  As Spielberg said to me once – “when you show the location and the geography, it sets the action free.”   People need to understand where they are.  It’s always about the motions of the actors in the scene there because otherwise, it’d just be action for action’s sake.

Matt:  It’s a tense film but you can also see it’s very self-aware of the fact it is a movie.  One of my favourite lines with the psychologist and the question is asked “people still rob banks?” – I’ll admit it’s a question I’d thought myself.

Michael:  Believe it or not, Los Angeles is the bank robbery capital of the world.  The rob banks in different ways these days.  They don’t necessarily go to the plexiglass booths, they’ll go in back doors or use computers or blow through a wall into the vault.  They still have some spectacular robberies.

Matt:  We’ve got the big shoot out at the start and the intense car chase which follows.  How easy was it getting permission to shut down major parts of downtown Los Angeles and shooting all this in tight time frames?

Michael:  We shot this in 38 days but the gift I have as a director is that police love my movies.  On the first day, we were doing some inserts of the ambulance driving on a freeway at normal speed.  All of a sudden, 5 real highway patrol cars and 3 motorcycle cops come up.  I walk up to them and say hello and they go “can we take a picture, we love your movies.”  I then said “I would love to put you in the movie.”

To explain to your audience, to shut down a freeway in a movie costs about $300,000 USD and it takes a couple of months to arrange.  I’m like “would you guys let me include you in the movie?” and they’re like “sure” and so I ask them what they’d do on a real police chase.  They then told me how they’d play with the vehicle, go up down, we’d dog it, throw our lights on, provide blockage.  We then shut down a real freeway and they were nice enough to do it for me going 90 miles an hour

Matt:  There’s a reference to a past movie of yours – The Rock.  Is that something you got to throw in or did writer Chris Fedak put that himself into the script?

Michael:  No, that was me.  I throw in a lot of comedy here and there.  Sean Connery had passed away and he had always taken me under his wing.  I learned a lot from him on The Rock.  It’s also a commentary on these kids.  The younger generation can quote my movies better than I can.

Aaron Blabey Interview

The Bad Guys is an animated feature with a timely release in Australia to align with the Easter school holidays.  I recently had the chance to speak with Australian author Aaron Blabey about his much-loved books being adapted for the big screen…

Matt:  I’m sure it’s something a lot of authors think about when writing books.  Was there a point where you thought The Bad Guys could make a good movie or TV show?

Aaron:  The DNA was always in there but when I wrote the first book, I hadn’t had any real commercial success.  It was beyond a flight of fantasy at the time but then, a part of me went “you know what… I love movies so much and I’m going to deliberately write something that is my version of movie except in book form.”  Everyone picked up on that instantly, including movie studios, which is why there was so much interest so suddenly. 

Matt:  So how does it work?  How do they contact you and say “we want to buy the rights to your books”?

Aaron:  We had heard whisperings that a couple of studios were interested.  The book had done well very quickly in American schools so word had got around that way.  I flew across and had the strangest week of my life and the end of 2016 and met the heads of all the studios.  A number of them were aggressively pursuing it.  Dreamworks kept rising to the top of being the obvious choice.

When my eldest was little, Kung Fu Panda had just been released and I always felt the tone of that was perfect.  It was what I was hoping to achieve with this.

Matt:  Do you give up full creative control once you sign the rights over or are there things you still get a say over when the script is being written and the film being made?

Aaron:  That can certainly happen but I had a deal as an executive producer so I’ve been across each draft of the screenplay, each cut of the movie, and each major discussion about the film.  If the studio decides to go rogue there’s not much you can do about it but Dreamworks have been sensational from the start and incredibly inclusive and respective to the point of almost being reverent about the source material. 

Two of the major gags from the trailer are directly from the book.  It blows my mind that gags I came up with 8 years ago are now suddenly everywhere.  It’s the most wonderful thing.

Matt:  With an animated film I guess you see parts of it being put together but when did you finally get to see the finished product? 

Aaron:  I’ve seen the whole thing in various forms many, many times but because of COVID-19, I haven’t been able to travel back and forth to the United States and so I’ve been watching it all on my laptop with “property of Dreamworks – do not copy – do not copy” written all over it.

It was a couple of weeks ago when I got to sit in a cinema with a small audience and see it on the big screen.  It was pretty sensational.  It’s only just been finished with the final sound mix and that added a whole other layer to it given movies in many ways are 50-50 between sound and visuals.  I’m not very good at pretending to like things if I don’t… but I think they’ve hit this out of the park.

Matt:  Did you get to take family and friends along to that screening?

Aaron:  No, that’s happening this coming weekend.  I went down to Melbourne to do some media but the actual Australian premiere will be in Sydney.  That’s where my family will see it for the first time.  My two boys made a conscious choice to not see it until it was fully done which is impressive for a couple of kids.  I kept telling them how it was changing and evolving and shifting and they said “we just want to see the movie” so were happy to wait.

Matt:  The animation is top-notch and the voice cast have been well chosen.  Do you have a favourite character from the movie?  One that translates best from your books?

Aaron:  It’s really hard to choose which is a great situation to be in.  I feel like they’ve nailed all of them.  My personal favourite, because it’s always been my favourite character, is Mr Snake.  He’s the most troubled by the situation they’re in and, in many ways, he’s the centre of the book series.  If my book series was Star Wars, he’d be Anakin Skywalker on his Darth Vader journey.   He’s that guy.  I love what they’ve done with him but the whole cast is extraordinary.

Matt:  The same question I have about the movie also applies to the books – how do you get in the head of 6-year- old or 9-year-old and know the best way to target a story towards them?

Aaron:  I have to time travel now because my kids have grown up but at the time, it was about what would make my two kids laugh and what would hold their attention and make them want to know what comes next.  That was it really.  That then opened a whole bunch of doors about what would have worked for me at that age and that’s what led me to muck around with the iconography of stuff from older age groups.   That’s how I end up doing a mash-up which I’ve described as Tarantino for kids from the start of the book series. 

Matt:  Your books are already very popular.  Do you hope this will spur even further interest in them?

Aaron:  That’s the big question.  I dread to think.  All on our own, we’ve sold 30 million books across 8 years.  It’s significant this giant movie is about to drop but who knows?  It’s a win either way.

Matt:  If this movie is a big success as we hope, is there a chance we’ll see further movies?  Do Dreamworks have the rights to that as well?

Aaron:  Yeah, they’re in the whole way.  Yes, it will entirely depend on the response to the first one but if it is popular, I’m sure you’ll see a bunch of them.

Cyrano, a new musical from director Joe Wright, is released this week in Australian cinemas.  I recently spoke to one of the film’s stars, Kelvin Harrison Jr, about the project…

Matt:  What interested you most about the role of Christian when you first heard about it?

Kelvin:  I got an email saying Joe Wright wanted to meet me and I was like “huh, that’s an email I don’t get every day. I’m interested. What’s he want to talk about?”  I finally had a Zoom call with him and he said they were going to do an adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac.  I told him I’d never heard of it.  He then sent me the screenplay, I read it and I fell it love with those three characters, especially Christian.  I gave him my interpretation, did a self-tape, and then next thing you know, I was in Scilly.

Matt:  Christian is an interesting character.  He’s a nice person and a well-intentioned person but that’s not to say he’s not a deceitful person.  How did you approach that with Joe Wright in working out how to portray the character?

Kelvin:  One of the things I loved about Christian is that he came into this with so much innocence and sincerity.  He’s a very trusting young man.  What he gets mixed up in is not necessarily having the confidence or the understanding of how this particular community works and entrusts his relationship with Roxanne in Cyrano.  I think Joe wanted to keep him kind of naïve and innocent.  That’s why he almost falls into this trap of deceit and it’s not that he was out to fool the girl he loved.

Matt:  We saw you work with a vocal coach and sing on screen last year with The High Note. Did it feel more comfortable this time around or was it a different beast as a full-blown musical?

Kelvin:  It was different.  The High Note was cool because you feel like a real pop star.  You go into the studio and you work with big producers like Darkchild who’s worked with Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson and you go do a music video recording on set.  With Cyrano, we’re singing live, and we’re dancing, and the music is so much more intimate in so many different ways, and the lyrics are so profound.  It feels like you’re doing a proper musical but you’re doing it all day with many different takes.

Matt:  Singing on set, as opposed to in a recording studio, seems to becoming more common and that’s the approach director Joe Wright used here. Was it easy to embrace?

Kelvin:  I think it’s more natural.  With pre-recording, it’s like a safety blanket for actors so they don’t have to worry about how they sound on set because they’re not proper Broadway singers… but I also think it’s unnatural to lip-sync to your voice that you recorded three months ago.  You may not be feeling the same way and you don’t even know if it’s going to sound right in that location. 

Matt:  There are some beautiful locations used as part of the production. What can you tell us about the Sicilian town of Noto?

Kelvin:  It’s beautiful.  They invited us into their home in the middle of the pandemic.  They were so hospitable.  They fed us, the gave us a good time, they had street musicians playing, we had dinners and stuff like that.  It was just nice to be in this world that felt kind of fantastical and supported this Cyrano space we existed in.  You could walk down the street and see Ragueneau’s Bakery, Roxanne’s apartment, and De Guiche’s house.  It help us immerse ourselves in this fantastical space that Joe Wright created.

Matt:  This film was shot last year during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Did it have a big impact on the shoot and perhaps what you could and couldn’t do off-screen?

Kelvin:  It was a proper lockdown where we had to quarantine and everyone was wearing masks.  I think the biggest difference for performers is that so much of our job is about connection and relating to the crew and talking to the other cast members.  When you had red zones, yellow zones and green zones, it was a little more isolating but at the same time, any obstacle can be a gift because it forces you to make the most out of the moments you have.  When those masks come off, you’re really hungry for meaningful connections with your cast and crew.

Matt:  I read an interview with Joe Wright where he spoke about shooting war scenes near at active volcano, Mount Etna, which did erupt during the shoot. Were you there for that?

Kelvin:  Oh yeah.  Mount Etna gave us trouble from day one.  As soon as we decided to shoot up there, Mount Etna was like “ah, I don’t know about that, fellas.”  We were in a hotel a little bit away from the volcano but on the third day, I remember looking outside the window and seeing it spout out lava.  We were like “are we working today?” 

Matt:  This is a love story but of the cast, you seem to spend the most time alongside Cyrano, played by the Peter Dinklage. You’re both terrific and so how did you bring the best out in each other?

Kelvin:  Pete is just a great dude.  He’s a professional and he’s one of the most brilliant actors of our generation.  It’s such a gift to work with him.  We just kept the banter going.  Early on I said “Pete, how do I stay in your good graces?” and he said “just keep laughing at my jokes.”  Easy enough!

Matt:  With any period-piece movie, one of the fun parts are the costumes and we see you here wearing baggy clothes with big puffy sleeves. Are the clothes actually comfortable?

Kelvin:  It’s cool at the fitting.  I had a sword and cool boots and beautiful shirts.  And then on day 15, you kind of go “my back hurts” from how heavy it all is.  You’ve also got 5 people dressing you every day because it’s so detailed.  I respect the craft.

Matt:  You were in my neck of the woods recently shooting Elvis under the guidance of director Baz Luhrmann. What can you tell us about it?

Kelvin:  I love Australia.  It was beautiful.  I finished this movie, did my quarantine, and dropped in there.  I got out the day after New Years’ and I cried because I was so glad you guys followed the COVID rules and I could go outside to restaurants and eat like a normal person.  Elvis is going to be sick.  Baz is Baz.  Baz is an event in one person.  You know his films are going to be a spectacle and exciting.  The cast is incredible and I had such a great time making that movie.  I know everyone is going to love it.