I had once talked with someone who avoided watching the ‘making of’ special feature that comes with a DVD. His reason? He did not want to see his favorite movies demythicized. Well, if you’re that sort of a viewer, then this book is not for you.
But, if you’ve enjoyed the phenomenon called Downton Abbey, and are curious to learn about the creative writing process that kicked it off, then I’d say, this is an absolute must-read. And for those who keep going online to find quotable quotes from the series, here you have them all, and some more.
As someone interested in screenwriting, I would look for the scripts of movies I like, usually online. So it’s a wonderful discovery for me to see this book at the bookstore. Julian Fellowes has dispelled the magic and shared with us the scripts of all episodes for Seasons One and Two, most importantly, with his own annotations. Consider this the literary version of the ‘making of’ in your special features, more accurately, the screenwriter’s commentary.
In his Foreword, Fellowes introduces the book as ‘the complete scripts of the first series as they were when they went forward into production.’ So here we have the whole idea before cutting and editing, including deleted scenes and dialogues, plus Fellowes’ own explanations for the deletions. He walks us through the whole series, literally, and offers helpful background on the social history of the time, and many more tidbits.
You can also see why the collection is such a useful tool as an exemplar of a successful writing process, in particular, the editing phase. The main reasons for deletion is redundancy, and with a TV production, time. Another is for keeping the integrity and consistency of the characterization and the story. It’s intriguing to see the final version is the outcome of well-pruned and collaborated efforts.
An example of a deleted scene where Matthew answers Robert’s bewildered query about how he would manage to commute and continue to work as a lawyer while being heir of Downton.
Robert: How will you manage it?
Matthew: Like many others, I shall bicycle to the station, take a train there and back, and bicycle home.
Here’s the screenwriter’s commentary:
Here we have Matthew talking about bicycling to the station which is quite unnecessary as we see him do it. When you’re writing something you often forget that it’s going to be told visually, and so there are things that don’t need to be said.
With eighteen characters in the story, the writer has done a superb job in keeping them well developed, and eliciting our interest in each one of them. First I notice how short each scene is, something that just flashed by when watching, but reading it can even be more obvious. I’ve counted most of the scenes to be less than 60 sec. on screen. Each therefore needs to be succinct to make the most of the time. Makes me think of another way to apply that famous Hemingway quest, always aim for that one true scene.
To manage the long list of characters, here’s the brilliant way, something that’s so obvious when Fellowes explains, but then so subliminal while we’re watching them on screen, foils and parallels:
I love Mrs. Patmore. I think Lesley Nicol’s performance is fantastic. She is the kitchen Violet. Maggie Smith delivers the cryptic comments upstairs, Lesley has the barbed tongue downstairs. In a sense they balance each other, as Robert and Bates, or Anna and Mary, balance each other.
And here I add, other pairs we can see upstairs Violet and Isobel, or down, Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes. Great performance comes when an actor is given the chance to play against an equal, in character and caliber.
Further, Fellowes reminds us that it’s the actors that give life to mere words on the page. As the actors interpret, take off with and develop the characters on their own, the screenwriter continues with that development and write accordingly in the upcoming episodes. Isn’t this a most fascinating creative process? Writer and actors inspiring each other.
It’s always interesting to see what the screenwriter thinks of the final production. And Fellowes is candid in sharing his views, which reminds me of the fact that it’s all a collaboration, team work, and not just one person’s monopolized brainchild. The writer writes, the actors interpret and live out the words, the director sets the tone, the direction, the cuts, plus numerous others who work on the sets to play their roles.
I most appreciate and am somewhat surprised to find Fellowes uses many of his own experiences, stories he has heard, or memories of his own family, to create the scenes. Some interesting tidbits he shares include the scene in the kitchen rescuing the chicken from the cat before taking it upstairs, that comes from an embarrassing real life episode. Or Violet Crawley’s subtle dominance in the annual flower show, which he adapts from memories of his mother. Or his commentary on Sybil’s covering up of her political expeditions to Ripon, a parenting point:
Once children conceal their purposes or their social engagements or their plans for the weekend, that is the beginning of their move away from the parental set of values. Before that, God knows they may be rude or challenging, but they don’t usually have a private life, a secret agenda. And this is where it begins for Sybil.
It’s commentaries like this that you’d feel Fellowes is candid and open, just talking to you in a down-to-earth manner. Like everyone of us, he’d go online to do his research when he writes, such as the history of cataract surgery when writing about Mrs. Patmore’s. Or admitting faults in certain scenes, and sharing about his own childhood experience and family dynamics, enlightening us with the norms and etiquettes of the time and the social history behind the scenes.
Demythicize? Definitely, with the effect that you’ll appreciate the production and the writing even more.
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
Downton Abbey The Complete Scripts Season One by Julian Fellowes, Harper Collins Publishers, 2012, 396 pages.
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