Encore: Blackmail, Hunting, and Sex: Directing Downton Abbey

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We’re looking back at how the final season of Downton Abbey began—from fox hunting to Mrs. Patmore’s awkward mission—with the woman who directed the first two episodes, Minkie Spiro.

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Jace Lacob: MASTERPIECE Studio wants you to know that Downton Abbey: The Exhibition is currently making its US debut in New York City. You’ll see Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen, 50 extraordinary costumes, and so much more.

Tickets are available for purchase at www.downtonexhibition.com. The exhibition runs through September 3, 2018.

I’m Jace Lacob and you’re listening to Directing Downton, a bonus episode of MASTERPIECE Studio.

As the end of Downton draws near, we’re revisiting the beginning of the final season—from the glorious fox hunt…

CLIP:
Robert: Right. We’re off. See you later.

Jace: …to the first of many scandals…

CLIP:
Rita: Can I have the money?
Mary: No. You’d only come back for more.
Rita: Suppose I gave you my word?
Mary: If I wasn’t so disgusted, that would actually make me laugh.

Jace: …and going behind-the-scenes with the director who helped to bring these moments to the screen, Minkie Spiro.

CLIP:
Minkie Spiro: For me, having the opportunity to work with such a high-caliber of artists on these powerful sequences is a gift really.

Jace: In addition to directing the first two episodes of Season 6, Minkie is also credited on several episodes in Season 5. Beyond Downton, Minke’s directed for a range of other television series, including Call the Midwife, Skins and Doc Martin.

Jace: Welcome.

Minkie: Thank you.

Jace: Now you’re one of only two female directors on Downton, the other being Catherine Morshead. Do you feel like you episodes bring a different directorial perspective to the show?

Minkie: The artists, like Michelle Dockery, Jo Froggatt, they all said, “What a breath of fresh air,” and how useful it was to have a female voice for them to work with, especially on the more intimate scenes.

So for example, a lot of sequences with Lady Mary and Anna are in the bedroom, and you…until I believe my episode, never saw her in underwear. It never gets looser or barer than the negligee, but the fact that Michelle felt so comfortable with me, and we were able to talk so frankly about their characters from a female perspective, I think helped her.

Jace: There is a strain of very specific, period antisemitism on display on Downton Abbey at times.

CLIP:
Larry Grey: I know the choice of in-laws is eccentric. In this family, you already boast a chauffeur and soon you can claim a Jew-
Tom: Why don’t you just get out, you b*st*rd?!
Violet: And suddenly we’ve slipped into a foreign tongue.

Jace: Were you able to bring a sense of historic awareness to the actors such as Matt Barber who played Atticus Aldridge or the Sinderby’s?

Minkie: Very much so, actually. I cast Matt. And I was slightly spoiled by the fact that my father’s a historian of Jewish history, so I could speak very eloquently and knowledgeably about that period of history, which actually was very helpful to able to slightly get a better sense of what that time of history meant. So it was great. Finally my Jewish upbringing had some use.

Jace: Is there a specific example of anything that you said to Matt Barber early on in his portrayal of Atticus that stuck with you?

Minkie: Yes. I mean I talked about, in a way, the irony of a lot of Jewish people of his generation that he was playing. They almost tried to be more English than the English so they covered up being Jewish in order to fit in. I was trying to tell him to underplay the Jewishness at this point.

Jace: You directed the 2014 Christmas special and the first two episodes of season six of Downton. Was there any trepidation at all about helming the goodbye season, as it were?

Minkie: Yes. I mean, I wanted to hit the ground running, but with a bang, if that makes sense. It was an honor, but a real– You know for me it was– I carried that weight of making sure we got it right. I wanted the episode to open with spectacle, to just allow you to just sit back and take a deep breath and think, “Okay, we’re back. We’re back to this wonderful show that is just so, so loved and cherished,” and let them enjoy.

Jace: You mentioned spectacle, and Season 6 opens with that fox hunt. What can you share about the pre-production and actual shooting of this fox hunt sequence?

Minkie: Well it was probably, apart from dining room scenes, probably the hardest thing.

What can I tell you about it? Lovely Hugh is not a horse rider, but I felt, when I got the script, that he should be in this hunt. We’ve had a hunt before. I wanted to make it different. I, of course, had to approach Hugh once it was cleared by production and see if he was game, which he was. So he had a few riding lessons, but because both Hugh and Michelle are such integral parts of the show, we had to insure them, but also ensure that there would be no accidents.

And of course, Hugh then got very confident and quite rightly so; he became very good at riding. He kept saying, “But Minkie I can do this. I don’t need a double.” I’m like, “I know you can do this, but I have my hands tied.” You know, he was wonderfully game, but I had to actually hold him back some of the time.

Jace: There seems to be a deliberate juxtaposition between the hunt, which represents a very specific time and class structure, and the auction at Mallerton Hall.

CLIP:
Robert: You might have stored some of it, in case one of the children starts up another house one day.
Darnley: That’s a dream. Face it. In 20 years’ time, there won’t be a house of this size still standing that isn’t an institution.
Auctioneer: One pound, seventeen and six. And sold!

Jace: What can you share about the filming of the Darnley’s auction scene?

Minkie: Episode one is about change. It’s about changing times. I know in the past Downton talks about at that a lot, but actually episode one of Season 6 is the first time we actually physically and visually see those changes affecting our family.

It was a really interesting conversation Hugh and I had before we started shooting the final season. I spoke to him about what I felt we needed to get out of him, specifically Lord Grantham, in this story because it is the beginning of the end. We talked about, if not but for the grace of god it could have been the Crawley’s that this was happening to. Although I didn’t want it to be too heavy-handed, I did try and allow Hugh to have these small private moments. There is a moment where he starts to realize that his days are numbered if he doesn’t start to reconsider.

It was funny though, on that particular day we had a visit from the First Lady of Mexico. It was a massive scene. It was quite surreal trying to get the job done, but also entertaining royalty.

Jace: Before this next question, a brief word from our sponsors.

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Jace: How does directing Downton differ from directing an episode of Call the Midwife or Skins, which are two of my all-time favorite shows. What were the challenges that were unique to this show?

Minkie: Probably the most challenging thing for any director on at Downton is the dining room meals. Doing a dining room scene with that number of cast in a room where you can’t use regular lighting because of Van Dyke, which is worth over 30 million, it means that we can’t have lights on stands so we have to have helium balloons.

Then you’ve got the seating. I’m jumping around because it’ll take me an hour to describe how we do dining room scenes. I don’t think you’re going to want to hear it all.

So you’ve got a seating plan. If he’s got Isobel speaking to Violet it is a problem because Violet would always sit next to Lord Grantham, and two ladies would rarely ever sit next to each other. Here’s my first problem: Where can I put Isobel that’s close enough to Violet, but not next to her that she can say that line and still keep the drama of what the sentiment of that scene is, but not ruin the protocol of what it would have been like in those days? There’s that going on.

Okay, now we’ve got our seating plan, and we move on to, “What are they going to be eating?” I’m a sucker for giving myself a challenge, and I like the more visual spectacle so I want either a beautiful dessert with about four different additions to it or a main meal. But of course, they’re complicated, and they take nearly 25 minutes to reset. Now, I realize, “That’s why no director chooses those kind of meals.” Because every time we call cut, they have to reset everything, and all the food has to be edible and hot.

So it’s actually really complicated. I learned a lot on the dining room scenes.

Jace: Given the fact that you directed five episodes over two seasons, do you have a favorite scene or shot from those episodes that you directed?

Minkie: Probably my favorite shots are the hunt. Only because they were the most challenging, but I feel like we got there.

But scene-wise, I would say probably one of my most satisfying sequences, such an enjoyable one to rehearse and work with the artist on was the commission that went on between Mrs. Patmore, Mrs. Hughes, and Carson in season 6, ep 1.

CLIP:
Mrs. Hughes: I’m not sure I can let him see me as I am now.
Mrs. Patmore: Perhaps you can keep the lights off.
Mrs. Hughes: That is not helpful, Mrs. Patmore.
Mrs. Patmore: Well, won’t he feel the same? I mean, no-one’s clapped eyes on him without his togs for years. Except the doctor.
Mrs. Hughes: Good point. Very good point.

Minkie: It’s a bit like when you focus on a manual camera; you almost have to go to both extremes until you find just how far we could push the humor at times, and how far the awkwardness could go without it going into slapstick. For me, that’s vintage Downton, and it was just a joy to be able to have done that.

Jace: What is it like directing Dame Maggie Smith?

Minkie: She’s just a remarkable force of nature. I learned so much from her, and yet she claimed that she learned so much and was grateful that she was being directed. I think what she feels is that many people think that at her age and with the kind of caliber of work under her belt, she just can be left to her own devices, but she hates that.

She would look at me and say, “That wasn’t so great, was it?” I’ll be like, “You know, you could do better.” She would be up for going again.

Going back to the dining room scenes. Maggie’s never called in at 8 o’clock like all the artists. So I’ll rehearse with all the others, plus the downstairs, and then I will make sure that the first AD will slot in a window for me to have time with Maggie in her trailer to talk through the scene and to talk through any concerns she has.

But our little windows would end up just overrunning, and we’d be in there for half-an-hour before we knew it, having a cup of coffee, talking about life, and love, and everything else. And then there’d be the knock on the door saying, “Minkie, they need you both on set.” We would just get so carried away with just our morning catch ups.

Jace: Is it true your daughters refer to Dame Maggie as Granny Smith?

Minkie: Yes. They always refer to her as Granny Smith.

They in fact go to play, not in the scene with her, but my daughters did end up playing supporting artists in one of the scenes.

Jace: Oh really? What scene?

Minkie: You know when Lord Grantham and Lady Mary are returning from the hunt, and they come through the village, and he doffs his hat to a village lady and her two daughters that are walking along. Those two daughters are mine.

Jace: Aw. That’s adorable.

Minkie: For all of one second. Bless.

Jace: In preparation for the 2014 Christmas special, which revolved around the Crawley clan’s trip to Brancaster Castle, you dined with the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland. Is that just sort of typical for a director on Downton Abbey to do?

Minkie: We’ll as you know, you know…We’ll get to meet Kate Middleton, have lunch with the Duke and Duchess, hangout with the Duke on the moors. I tell you, it’s insane. I mean, honestly, you have to pinch yourself sometimes on Downton. It’s just unreal.

Jace: Thank you so much.

Minkie: It’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you.

Jace: To purchase Downton Abbey DVDs and Blu-rays, or Downton Abbey merchandise, visit shopPBS.org or other retailers.

For more Downton Abbey behind-the-scenes content — and to follow other MASTERPIECE shows — check out the MASTERPIECE Studio podcast at pbs.org/masterpiece, on Stitcher, and on iTunes.

 

MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. Susanne Simpson is our executive producer. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Rebecca Eaton.

Sponsors for MASTERPIECE on PBS are Viking and The MASTERPIECE Trust.

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