From Emmys To Oscars? How 'Downton Abbey' Could Become A Successful Film Franchise

Creator Julian Fellowes and actor Allen Leech discuss the television series' movie follow-up, which conquered the weekend box office.

Julian Fellowes writes whenever, wherever. He credits that ability to his days as an actor, when he was on the go far too much to have a set space for concentration.

“I had to write in a trailer. I had to write in a hotel room. I had to write in some portacabin,” he told HuffPost. “I don’t really have a fixed routine, like you might think, and I’m rather pleased about that. It means I could work on an airplane or train or something without making a great difficulty of adjustment.”

That’s worthy of a round of applause, as Fellowes has penned 25 projects, including the Oscar-winning screenplay for 2001′s “Gosford Park” and 52 plot-scrumptious episodes of the Emmy-winning period drama “Downton Abbey,” which follows the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants in early 1900s England.

Fellowes recently wrote the film follow-up to the upstairs-downstairs life of “Downton.” The movie hit theaters nationwide Sept. 20 and earned $31 million at the box office ― beating Brad Pitt’s “Ad Astra” and Sylvester Stallone’s “Rambo: Last Blood.” It has already brought in over $72 million worldwide, a rare, exciting feat for a thought-to-be risky adaptation.

Those numbers come as a welcome surprise to Fellowes, who admitted that a positive reaction from the audience would lead him to consider a sequel.

“That’s just the reality of the situation,” he said. “Not entirely the box office, but also a kind of buzz in the air.”

Producer Gareth Neame, writer and producer Julian Fellowes and actor Michelle Dockery on the set of "Downton Abbey," a Focus Features release.
Producer Gareth Neame, writer and producer Julian Fellowes and actor Michelle Dockery on the set of "Downton Abbey," a Focus Features release.
Jaap Buitendijk

A hum is definitely building, namely around Dame Maggie Smith, whose role as Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, is once again a standout. Fellowes, whose award-worthy work on “Gosford Park” also got Smith a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, said he thoroughly enjoys writing for the esteemed actor as “she hits the bull’s-eye every time.”

“She has a wonderful sense of humor and wonderful timing, and also this kind of layered quality, so that she can slide a one-liner into a drama scene and make it very, very funny without undermining the scene. All of those are skills not given to everyone, and she is really a pleasure to work with in that way,” Fellowes said.

“Her performance in the movie, as with anything she’s in, is incredible. And she is the mainstay and the bastion of the series,” Allen Leech, who plays Tom Branson, told HuffPost. “The notorious M.A.G. takes that title, every single time.”

Smith won three Emmy awards for her role as Violet on the series, and Leech, for one, has a feeling she’ll be celebrated this award season. Still, he told fans Smith won’t attend any ceremonies if that’s the case. (The actor, 84, is known not to travel outside of England much anymore.)

Her emotional storyline caters to a nomination as well, as the beloved dowager admits to her granddaughter Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) that she’s ill at the end of the film. When asked whether this is goodbye or whether Smith would appear in a sequel, should it happen, Fellowes had no choice but to play coy.

“We’ll see,” he chuckled. “I don’t know anything not to tell. Nothing’s been decided.”

Laura Carmichael stars as Lady Edith, Imelda Staunton as Maud Bagshaw and Dame Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley in "Downton Abbey."
Laura Carmichael stars as Lady Edith, Imelda Staunton as Maud Bagshaw and Dame Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley in "Downton Abbey."
Liam Daniel

Smith’s performance aside, Fellowes managed to juggle two dozen fan-favorites for the movie, which can’t be easy when it comes to concocting a focused script. His first goal was to pinpoint an event that would incorporate all the players, which is how he landed on a royal visit to Downton Abbey.

He then considered which characters needed a bit more attention following the end of the sixth and final season in 2016, and decided Leech’s lovable chauffeur-turned-aristocrat was due. Branson, of course, suffered an unimaginable loss when his wife, Lady Sybil Crawley (Jessica Brown Findlay), died in Season 3, leaving the Irish socialist to navigate the world of his wealthy, pompous in-laws alone.

“Of the running characters we know and love, the only one who wasn’t fixed up emotionally was Tom Branson,” Fellowes said. “So the answer was to give Tom Branson a love affair, or at least the beginnings of a love affair.”

“I was delighted,” Leech told HuffPost, “because I felt at the end of Season 6, there were so many threads of Tom’s story that were left open.”

In the film, Tom not only plays an unexpected hero, stopping the assassination of monarch King George V (Simon Jones), but he falls in love with a mysterious member of the royals’ crew, Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton). Lucy happens to be the secret love child of a Crawley relative and the queen’s lady-in-waiting, Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), and is named heir of her family’s fortune. Like Branson, she’s an outsider placed in a world of nobility, a connection Fellowes aimed to weave.

“They would understand each other in a way that none of the other characters would understand either of them,” Fellowes said.

“Tom has always tried to find someone almost on his level, and it’s very difficult in his life. And the idea of what Lucy brings to this character is someone who is a victim of circumstance as much as Tom is,” Leech added. “I think there’s great potential within their relationship and great potential, if there is another movie, to see what it would be like for these young people to suddenly be thrust into a life where they have to run this massive house.”

Allen Leech stars as Tom Branson.
Allen Leech stars as Tom Branson.
Jaap Buitendijk / Focus Features

Leech knows all too well the excitement of awards season, as last year he was able to celebrate alongside his “Bohemian Rhapsody” team after the Queen biopic won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture - Drama and took home four out of the five Oscars it was up for. He was also in the mix for “The Imitation Game” in 2015.

The actor is aware of Fellowes’ Oscar-winning status, of course, and recognized that there’s good juju in “Downton Abbey” with the involvement of past nominees like Staunton and Elizabeth McGovern (Cora Crawley), not to mention the show’s past Emmy nods.

But can “Downton” seriously make the transition from Emmy-winning series to Oscar-nominated movie? “I’m much too superstitious to answer that question,” Fellowes said.

What he’s loved about bringing the show to the big screen is the communal aspect of the experience. Moviegoers ― some dressed in 1920s garb ― took in Fellowes’ story a little differently than they would have if they were, say, lounging on their living room sofas. And he appreciated that.

“I mean, when you’ve written something and a lot of people react to it, it’s a great feeling,” Fellowes expressed. “It was lovely, really.”

“Hearing the crowd, together, laugh and cry in very tender and funny moments made it very special,” Leech said of the New York premiere. “It’s going to something that I hold on to as a memory for a very long time.”

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