Encore: Directing Downton’s Last Episode… Ever

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What was it like to direct Downton Abbey‘s finale? No pressure, right?

Michael Engler knows first-hand exactly how much pressure comes with directing a “national treasure.” In this encore “Directing Downton” episode, Engler takes us behind the scenes of the two season six episodes he helmed—the series finale and Lord Grantham’s bloody dinner—and reveals what it took to bring those important chapters to the screen.

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Transcript

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.

What was it like to direct Downton’s last episode ever? No pressure, right?

CLIP:
Michael Engler: I felt an enormous responsibility every moment I was there because it is such a national treasure.

Jace: Today we’re talking with the series’ finale director, Michael Engler, who also brought Robert’s bloody dinner to the screen:

CLIP:
Edith: What a terrifying reminder. In one second your whole life can change.

Jace: We spoke to Michael about shooting that jaw-dropping scene in a previous episode of the podcast, but the rest of this conversation is brand new.

Welcome.

Michael Engler (Michael): Thanks for having me.

Jace: Now you are the sole American director on the show. Do you come to a show like Downton with an innately different perspective?

Michael: I think I do. I would have to say, I think in terms of, in some ways, being an outsider, helped me sometimes — often because I didn’t really understand something exactly clearly — to ask questions about it that I think brought out discussions that might not have otherwise happened.

Jace: Given the fact that you are a fan of the show and that you are an American viewer, what do you make of the fascination that US viewers have for the show?

Michael: Well I think for Americans and certainly for me, a lot of the people I talk to, I think because we’re living in a time that’s actually very much like that: a very rich, rich and everybody else kind of struggling to get along. That seems to be coming back again. I think that’s one thing. I think there’s always been an interest in just seeing inside that world and those homes and that lifestyle in a very aspirational way. You know, that’s why so many people every year — thousands and thousands of people — go and visit those houses as part of their holiday vacations.

Jace: Obviously, you are coming in to a show that preexists. Is there a house style in terms of directing for the show?

Michael: There is. I mean there’s a sense that Downton has a style and a tone and an approach.

Early on, one of the things Brian Percival, who directed the pilot, said about it is that he wanted it to feel like a swan where above stairs everything just glided and was smooth and elegant, but below stairs is where you saw the effort and the struggle on the paddling. But it wasn’t– Nothing like that was ever said in stone.

And I felt very much free to say, “Hey, you know, I know you don’t normally do this kind of thing, but what do you think for this particular scene or this particular event? It seems like a good opportunity to break away in this direction.” I almost always felt their encouragement in those ways. They wanted to keep it unique and distinct in all the ways that it was recognizable but also allow it to continue to grow.

Jace: Any trepidation at all about directing Dame Maggie Smith?

Michael: Yes, much.

Because she’s been an idol of mine since I was aware of what acting and drama is. It’s been– Honestly, I thought, maybe someday in the passings of my career or something, that she and I would cross paths at some event or gala or something, and I would get the opportunity to introduce myself and tell her how much her work has meant to me. To actually meet her in the context of directing her and being a colleague was very intimidating, but I was really excited by it.

The thing about her is– She has a reputation for being pretty tough, but it’s because she is so thorough and so demanding and so critical of herself. Really, of no one more than herself. She and I, I have to say, we got along really great and enjoyed working together quite a bit.

Jace: But did you ever confessed your idolization?

Michael: I did but only much later, only when I knew her at the second time around and we became more friendly.

Jace: Now during your time on the show, you directed four episodes over the course of two seasons including the series finale of Downton Abbey. Do you have a favorite scene or shot from the Downton episodes that you directed?

Michael: No. I mean, there’s this scene in series five, episode eight, that just the sequence of the dedication of the war memorial.

CLIP:
Mrs. Patmore: “Sacrifice” is right.
Daisy: I think that’s lovely, Mrs. Patmore. I’m so pleased for you.
Mr. Mason: It’s just as it should be.
Robert: I believe so.

Michael: It just checks in with every single character that we know. At some point, you focus on them and understand that what this war, what this point in history and in the world sociologically means to each of them. That I find extremely powerful and beautiful because it’s rare that you have a moment like that that affects everybody, and that whatever they’re all dealing with, they’re all in it together.

Jace: Did you feel an immense responsibility to help nail the landing as if were of the series?

Michael: I did. I felt an enormous responsibility every moment I was there because it is such a national treasure and to be invited in from the outside to hopefully make a contribution to, it but at the very least not drop the ball it was definitely a big responsibility.

In terms of– Again, I think just coming to it as such a big fan of the show, I felt like I had my own passion for how I wanted to…how I personally wanted to feel in the final stages of the show, and an understanding of how to bring the show to fans who were committed to it for six years in a way that would feel satisfying.

Jace: In the fifth episode of the season, Robert’s ulcer burst at dinner with Neville Chamberlain and he ends up vomiting blood on Cora, a scene that has been referred to as Downton Abbey’s Red Wedding moment as it was so unexpected. Could you talk a little bit about shooting that scene and what went into preproduction?

Michael: Well, first of all, there was a lot of discussion with a technical advisor — a doctor — who helped us really understand, exactly, what would have been happening with him? And also, given the period, given that it was 1925, how he would have been treated in terms of what the doctor would say, what the doctor would think to do is very different in some ways than what we know now or would do now.

Then, once we’ve got that going and we spent a period of time figuring out, “Okay, the first bit of blood that comes up would be darker, and have a certain consistency. Then, the second bout of it would be much brighter in red because it will be fresher and the stomach would have been emptied,” those kinds of things.

And so I went through with the actors a very specific shot list and shot order of what we would be doing and how we would be doing it so that we would do the least repetitions of the actual spitting of it and having to reset the whole table and all that so that they would have the chance to do it fresh and be surprised by it early on.

We ended up only having to do it twice–

Jace: Wow.

Michael: –that actual part of the blood.

Jace: These dining room scenes are traditionally shot on location at Highclere, but did the blood splatter necessitate shooting it elsewhere or recreating that dining room set?

Michael: No. It necessitated a several layers of a rubber and plastic sheeting wrapped over the top of the table. And we had to change the rug in there, which is a famous and extremely beautiful rug. One we had taken care of all of those things, they were comfortable with it. Then, the fact that we were using material and fake blood that would wash out and we proved that to them on a couple of things. And so they’re all very well-trained in knowing how to protect those places, and still get the most out of shooting visually.

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

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Jace: How difficult was it in terms of direction to jump from the horror of the rupture to the emotion of Robert and Cora’s love?

Michael: It was so easy. The thing is sometimes those moments, the moments that you worry most about — the delicacy of the emotion of it, everything — they take care of themselves because having just done that, having just witnessed it and her being sprayed by it and shocks by that sometimes, those things, they take care of themselves because it’s more like being there than you’ll imagine it will be or then it would be if a lot of visual effects were being used. In a way, it’s easy for them to imagine what it would be like for her to be holding him at the end.

I think, I have to say, there was an unawareness of it being their final season together. So I think in some ways, they were already experiencing, “What would it be like…what’s it going to be like when my husband of the last six years, I don’t see him anymore and vice versa?” I think very naturally– They have much affection for each other. I think it was naturally very easy for them to play that scene.

Jace: Turning our attention to episode nine, it’s the series finale…I want to talk about the huge mass of people that are assembled in the hall. Was the hall filled with extras or with crew members for this?

Michael: Extras. There were a lot of extras. There are hundreds of them. For Edith’s wedding?

Jace: For Edith’s wedding.

Michael: Yeah, yeah. The house was filled. I’m sure we had several hundred because it takes a lot to fill that hall.

And there was one scene, the very, very last scene we shot of the entire series was the scene in the dining room to Ritz Hotel.

CLIP:
Edith: What are you asking?
Bertie: I want you to marry me.
Edith: Just like that?
Bertie: Whenever you choose. But that’s what I want.

Michael: We shot from eleven in the evening until about six in the morning. In that scene, we had huge amount of extras, but also a lot of the crew was in full-evening dress and appeared as background in that. That was a special night and moment for everybody, and a lot of goodbyes, and a very emotional, sentimental moment.

Jace: The final lines of the episode go to Dame Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton after the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve.

CLIP:
Violet: It makes me smile the way we drink every year we drink to the future whatever it may bring.
Isobel: What else could we drink to? We’re going forward to the future not back into the past.
Violet: If only we had the choice.

Jace: What was it like shooting this knowing that this probably would be the last bit of aired dialogue in the show?

Michael: It was momentous. People felt it. People were aware of it. The two of them were very aware of it. In a funny way, we started talking and when we first rehearsed it, it had a very ominous momentous quality to it. We started talking and I said, “You know, I think you might be feeling too much responsibility on your shoulders for these last two lines because it feels like you’re trying to say the last two lines of the show as opposed to have a funny little thought between the two of you.” They laughed and said, “Of course, of course. That’s the worst thing ever, is to know that you’re saying an important line or to know that you’re saying a last line.”

We did it a few more times and it became lighter. They played around with it. There were several different versions of it: one where they were laughing quite a bit, and one where they were confused or let’s say more philosophical, and some where they were just threw it away and we’re almost little glib about it. In the end, it was the lightness of it that felt most right.

Jace: I do think they speak in a lot of ways on behalf of the audience that, “Oh, that it were possible for us to go back in time.” Is the mission of the show ultimately is taking us back to another time that is lost to us–

Michael: I think that’s true, and I think actually in general, not just in that moment, I think those two speak for the audience. I think Isobel most often speaks for the kind of hopefulness and humanity of the audience. I think Violet speaks for the harsher realities, and cynicism, and slightly more mischievous, playful angles that the audience sees. But I think the two of them very much have their feet on the ground in a way that sometimes the others don’t. I think partly because they have the most perspective of anybody there, but also because they do so often speak the audience’s feelings — if the audience were only that articulate and witty — that he’s given them in the last moment.

Jace: The final televised shot, is that of Downton in the snow as the camera pans away to strains of “Auld Lang Syne;” was this final shot written into Julian’s final script and how was that shot achieved?

Michael: It wasn’t. That was something– You know I always said– The one thing from the very beginning, even before I saw the script I just thought “In theory, what is the last shot of Downton Abbey? Who is it? Where is it? What is it?” I really thought that, “Really it’s the house.” It has to be the house. I don’t know what that will mean or how it will fit into the story or maybe I’ll end up being wrong about that but that was important to me that that’s the sense of the house as a character resonated more than anything, any particular person contained in it.

The idea that as we were listening to the strains of “Auld Lang Syne” fade away in the distance that as we saw the house that felt like the appropriate goodbye that whoever was your favorite character, whoever you most connected to or whatever mattered most to you in watching it, it was all a part of what was disappearing inside. The audience member could endow the image with their own pieces of the story that way.

Jace: We’ve heard from the actors what it was like as they wrapped individually but what was the mood like when you announced that it was a series wrap on Downton Abbey?

Michael: It’s very emotional. It was very mixed, very bittersweet. There was a lot of people, several people, from the cast who weren’t even in that scene showed up for it at five in the morning in Piccadilly at the Ritz to be a part of it and to be there when it was a wrap for everybody. It was– I wouldn’t say it was somber but there was a sweetness about it and a sadness and a very loving sense of completion.

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, check out the MASTERPIECEStudio 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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