Screenwriter Julian Fellowes Talks ROMEO & JULIET, Adapting Shakespeare, DOWNTON ABBEY Season Four (and Five), GILDED AGE, and More

     October 14, 2013


Romeo & Juliet is the timeless story of star-crossed lovers from warring families.  The families of Montague and Capulet will use any excuse to publicly fight in the streets of Verona, so when Romeo (Douglas Booth) falls for Juliet (Hailee Steinfeld), it quickly receives the wrath of both of their families, when all they want to do is be together forever.  Written by Julian Fellowes and directed by Carlo Carlei, the film also stars Paul Giamatti, Damian Lewis, Natascha McElhone, Ed Westwick, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Lesley Manville.

At the film’s press day, screenwriter Julian Fellowes (who is also the creator/writer of the hit drama series Downton Abbey) spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about why he was excited to tackle Romeo & Juliet for the big screen, how he worked exclusively from the play itself, and watching actors Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld bring it to life.  He also talked about how viewers seem to hold him personally responsible, anytime an actor leaves Downton Abbey, how Paul Giamatti came to be doing the Christmas episode for this season, that he doesn’t know exactly how long the show will continue to run for, even though there will definitely be a fifth season, and how he’s writing a series for American television, called The Guilded Age, that he will do after Downton Abbey is finished.  Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.

romeo-juliet-julian-fellowes-ed-westwickCollider:  When you were presented with the idea of taking on Romeo & Juliet and putting your own stamp on it, was your initial reaction excitement or wanting to run for the hills?

JULIAN FELLOWES:  I was excited.  The idea that I would be part of the next generation’s Romeo & Juliet, particularly to bring back the traditional romance, the beautiful costumes, the wonderful Italian castles and to make a very beautiful film, which I think it did become, all sounded exciting.  To a certain extent, you’re bound to get it in the neck, if you do anything to do with Shakespeare, or any other very highly regarded author, but you have to turn a play into a film.  A play that was written for an audience experience in the late 1580s or 1590s is a completely different animal to a modern movie narrative.  You just have to be prepared to turn one into the other and take the flack that comes.  But, a certain amount of flack is part of being in this industry because everything we do is so public.  If you’re a terrible dentist, the only people who know that are your patients.  But, if you’re in the movie or in television, your failures are very public, and so are your successes.  You weigh them up against each other, really. 

When you sat down to start writing Romeo & Juliet, where did you begin?

FELLOWES:  To be honest, I worked exclusively from the play.  I had seen the [Franco] Zeffirelli version, and I’d seen other ones over the years, but I hadn’t seen that for 30 years.  I didn’t want to revisit them because I felt it was better that, when I addressed the problems of translating the play to a movie screen, I wanted my solutions to be my solutions, and organic solutions, rather than automatically taking the same way out that Zeffirelli had taken.  If I now watch the Zeffirelli film, which I haven’t yet, I’m sure there are certain similarities that one would probably find, but I didn’t want to risk having them lodge in my brain and seeing that as the automatic way out.  We had this double, almost contradictory agenda of keeping Shakespeare’s words, keeping his language, and keeping the beauty of the play, as well as his dramatic intentions, but at the same time, contracting it quite considerably and also making it clear for people who are not Shakespearian scholars.  In a way, those two could be said to be pulling in slightly opposite directions, but that was the job and that was the challenge. 

romeo-juliet-douglas-booth-hailee-steinfeldWhat was it like to see these young actors bring your version of this story to life?

FELLOWES:  They were very enthusiastic.  They wanted to get it, we weren’t trying to pull them over a line they didn’t want to cross.  I knew Douglas [Booth] liked the idea of playing Romeo.  I’d used him myself in a film called From Time to Time, that was a family movie, and I think that was his first real role.  He had quite a good part in it, so I saw his screen potential.  I think he is quite extraordinary to look at, on the screen, and very convincing, so I never really thought of anyone else for Romeo, to be honest.  And with Hailee [Steinfeld], we all felt the importance of getting a genuinely young Juliet, as opposed to a fake young Juliet, which is what’s normally done.  She had just gotten an Oscar nomination for True Grit, and she was in the forefront for all of that.  If she had said no, we might have all had to think of someone else, but she didn’t say no.  She said yes, and she was very enthusiastic.  She’s already handled a different kind of period drama, but a period drama, nevertheless, with True Grit, and she made it her own.  She seemed like someone who has capable of entering into the spirit of doing it.  In fact, they were both very keen.  They worked together and they had this curious period, initially, where they were just sitting together all day and talking, to get to know each other.  I think that was (director) Carlo [Carlei], and it paid off.  You did feel that they were in love with each other, in the movie. 

You seem to be the go-to guy for telling stories with this kind of traditional and classic language in a way that’s easy for audiences to understand.  Does that just come naturally for you?

FELLOWES:  I think that a lot of people out there, not so much with Shakespeare, but with Downton, think that language changed much more in the war years and up to the war than it, in fact, did.  The other day, there was half a page on how ridiculous it was that Edith had used the phrase “learning curve” because it was unknown before the ‘60s.  In fact, “learning curve” was first used in a scientific paper in 1873, and it had become slang by the 1880s, meaning “accelerated learning.”  It was something you could have said in 1890, and it would have already been slang.  But, that was a classic case of the writer assuming the phrase was modern, when it wasn’t, at all.  I quite deliberately use phrases that sound modern, but if you check them on the internet, you’ll find that they were in common parlance, at that time. 

romeo-juliet-ed-westwickAre you surprised that people seem to hold you personally responsible, anytime an actor leaves Downton Abbey?

FELLOWES:  That was so funny.  I mean, some of the letters!  What I couldn’t get over was the idea that we are 100% responsible for these decisions.  It may be that you kill off a character.  In the second series, we killed off the footman, William, because we felt we had to kill off a popular character, otherwise no one was going to die in the war, which wasn’t really believable.  But with the others, they came to the end of their contract.  What’s difficult for American audiences is that they’re used to a system here where you can get an actor for five years or even seven, and that is signed for at the audition, so there’s no question of it, at all.  Whereas in England, no agent will give you an actor for more than three years.  That’s just it.  

Jessica [Brown Findlay] had said, right from the start, “I’m doing three years, then I’m leaving,” and anyone can work from that.  But, Dan [Stevens] didn’t decide to leave until just before we started filming the third series, so we already had the first five scripts written and cast, and everything else.  That was difficult, but we got around it.  That’s why I was rather pleased that we got our own personal best with the Series 4 premiere.  That means that, at least in England, we’ve been forgiven for knocking him off. 

The show has had tremendous success, but you never know if the viewers will actually stuck with it.  Is it nice to know that the audience is still with the show?

FELLOWES:  Absolutely!  You never really know.  People always know, after the event, but they don’t know before the event, so there is a measure of reassurance.  You think, “Whew!”

Was it difficult to land Paul Giamatti for Downtown Abbey, or did it help that you had already worked with him on Romeo & Juliet?

romeo-juliet-hailee-steinfeld-douglas-boothFELLOWES:  It was completely coincidental.  We only just finished the Christmas episode a few weeks ago, so it was miles after Romeo & Juliet.  But when his name came up on a list of actors to play Shirley MacLaine’s son, which is what he does in Downton, he was at the top of the list.  I was happy because I was able to say, “I just worked with him on Romeo, and I thought he was absolutely fantastic.”  That was nice because I could get behind that, but I don’t think there was any opposition.  He was at the top of the list, and he took it.  With Downton, we’ve been lucky that it’s acquired this status here, as being a very special show, and so you get absolutely top-of-the-rank players who want to be in it and they will accept a part in it.  And he was one of them, so that was great.  

He’s a very interesting, very subtle actor, and he just makes the part his own, but in a very un-shouty, theatrical way.  He’s quite the opposite.  I think he does have this extraordinary warmth on screen, almost harking back to people like James Stewart, who just made you feel safe when you were in their charge.  The movies are funny, in one way, because you think of everyone being as beautiful as the dawn, but that isn’t true.  There are other qualities you have on screen that make the audience trust you as their tour guide, and I think Paul has got that.  When he’s in a movie, you feel safe. 

It’s rather like Dustin Hoffman, in a totally different way.  When Dustin Hoffman was in a movie, in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, I always used to think, “I don’t know anything about this film, but the fact that Dustin Hoffman is in it means that it’s probably quite an interesting film.”  You feel as though he wouldn’t have accepted a film that wasn’t interesting.  Now that’s a lovely thing to make the audience feel, and I think Paul has got that.  You think, “I think I’m gonna watch the Paul Giamatti film.  I haven’t heard of it, but I bet it’s good because he’s in it.

romeo-juliet-2013-posterIs he just doing one episode of the show?

FELLOWES:  Well, he did one episode, but it’s the movie episode.  It’s a two-hour episode that’s shown in England at Christmas.  Here, it’s just the end of the series.  It’s always quite difficult to write the special because it’s gotta be the end of the American series and a one-off special in Britain.  At the moment, his story is completed, but he’s not dead.  He’s alive and well.  And Shirley came back.  I always like to have these characters that just turn up, every now and then, because I think that’s what life is like.  In some series, you see them all the time, and then they vanish forever.  There’s no necessity to do that.  The only people we have to do that with is the innermost family.  If we’re not going to ever see them again, then they must die.  If they would do two episodes, then they don’t have to die.  They can go off somewhere and do some job, and then come back.  But if you’re never going to see them again, then I’m afraid it’s curtains.  Not for the servants.  They just leave and get another job.

How long do you realistically see the show continuing for? 

FELLOWES:  I don’t know the answer to that question.  It hasn’t been settled, and I really don’t know.  But, it’s not going to be like an American show that goes on for 12 years.  That’s not going to happen.  But there will be a Series 5, and I don’t know what there will be after that. 

Would you like to do other TV projects, in the future?                                           

FELLOWES:  Oh, yes.  I’m writing a series called The Guilded Age, for NBC Universal, which is really about that time on the east coast, in Newport, New York, when the new rich families started to arrive in the city and challenge the dominance of the old American families.  They’re all fictional, in my show, but that tussle is going to be the background of the series. 

Is that something you’ll do once you’re done with Downton Abbey?

FELLOWES:  It will wait until I’m down with Downton, yeah.  I couldn’t do both. 

Romeo & Juliet is now playing in theaters.

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