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.
Today we’re talking with David Evans, the director behind two of this season’s most explosive episodes: last week’s episode, which featured Downton’s second deadly car crash — this time, at the racetrack:
Tom: Won’t be long now.
Mary: Really? It feels as if we’re trapped in some witch’s curse for all eternity.
Jace: And this week’s episode, which gave us the emotional rupture six seasons in the making.
Edith: I know you to be a nasty, jealous, scheming bitch!
Mary: Now listen, you pathetic —
Edith: You’re a bitch!
Jace: David will take us behind-the-scenes of all these memorable moments, and talk about translating Downton Abbey from the script to the screen.
David Evans (David): I always felt it was an intention from the producers to kind of announce that the season was coming to an end and that they were definitely intending to go out in a blaze of glory. And I’m really glad it was a blaze of glory, because if I hadn’t done my job well, it could have been a very, very expensive disaster and I felt that pressure very keenly.
Jace: You might recognize David’s voice from this week’s podcast, where we featured a portion of this interview. But the rest — from the racecar sequence to directing Dame Maggie Smith — is brand new.
In addition to directing two episodes this season, David is also credited on several episodes in Seasons 3 and 4. He’s also directed for a range of other television series, including Shameless, Robin Hood, and Whitechapel.
Jace: During your time on the show you directed six episodes over the course of three seasons. How do you see the show evolving during that time?
David: Well, because I dipped in and out of seasons three, four, and then six, my overwhelming impression was how the story was gradually building to a climax. Particularly being brought on board to do the last two episodes of season six, meant that I was really acutely aware of how carefully storylines had been planted as early as the end of season three.
Jace: You directed the first two episodes after Dan Steven’s Matthew Crawley was killed off to know small uproar from fans. Were you concerned at all with helming the series in the wake of such a major character death?
David: Oh, absolutely not. In fact, I actually shot little bits of the final sequence where Matthew meets his end. I kind of felt that season four would most likely begin with a sort of grieving period having happened when the show was off air, if you like; that Lady Mary would be back on an even keel and the series would be set up to continue in its usual energetic, somewhat optimistic way.
When I first read the script for the first episode of season four, I was completely delighted to have Mary in the depths of grief stricken depression…
Mary: Matthew is dead, 50 years before his time! Isn’t that enough for me to deal with? Just leave me alone!
David: …And then bring her from that very dark place into the relative optimism of the end of the episode. It was a great narrative arc. The fact that we were able to combine that with a very unusual sense of the season, of winter turning to spring, which Downton doesn’t very often have a flavor of winter, but because we were shooting in February, we were just able to make the most of that.
I meant to be honest it was the most enormous fun to do because I’d be driving through the grounds to get to the unit base in the morning and there would be frost on the grass or there would be mist hanging in the trees. I was desperately phoning the director of photography saying, “I know we’ve not starting shooting yet, but can you please get a unit together and go and shoot some stuff because this will have burned off by the time we’re actually officially filming.” It made a really, really distinctive episode. I was really delighted to have that challenge.
Jace: Do you have any humorous or surprising behind-the-scenes stories from your time on the show?
David: I’m sure everybody you’ve asked that question of may well have memories about how none of the kitchen staff can cook. When Daisy said goodbye, she gave us all little pots of jam saying, “Daisy’s Jam” because she was always making jam ‘cause all she had to do really, was stir a pan of glop to make it look like she knows what she’s doing for those kind of things.
Jace: What is like directing Dame Maggie Smith?
David: Well, the experience of directing Maggie Smith can, on a bad day, be really quite terrifying. The truth is, and I would say this is true of all of the cast of Downton Abbey, but they really love to work. They really love to feel like they’re doing good work. Therefore, as a director, you’re definitely one of the people on set who can help them do good work.
For example, Maggie and I, I think, did some great work together on the scene in season four, episode one where she tells Lady Mary to embrace life and not give herself up to her terrible depression that she’s in danger of falling foul of.
Violet: The fact is, you have a straightforward choice before you. You must choose…either death…or life.
Mary: And you think I should choose life?
David: The scene that they have in Mary’s bedroom in season four, was a scene which required both artists to take the relationship between these very familiar characters to a new place. And that was something that was discussed and Maggie is very very hungry for notes.
She wants to be given notes. She wants to be pushed or stretched or whatever, just like anybody else. Therefore the idea that she is herself a great institution of British theater and cinema is something you basically have to forget. You just have to forget and just work with her as you would with any other actor.
Jace: Now turning our attention to specific scenes from these episodes, the first is in episode seven — the crash at Brooklands and the death of Charlie Rogers. Can you discuss what went into preparing for and shooting this sequence and set the scene for us?
David: It was quite extraordinarily hard. It was shot over five separate days. There were two full size replica cars that were for the artists that were being pulled around on tracking vehicles, so coordinating all of those different elements with camera rigs, there were drones with cameras in them, there were complicated tracking vehicle that were bouncing along at 70 miles an hour next to the vehicles. In the end all of that boiled down to these extraordinarily tough shooting days where we had every little block of 20 minutes was allocated to one ambitious, “Maybe it will work maybe it won’t,” high risk shot after another. It really was like something that you would expect to be shooting on a feature film set. And of course I’m bound to say utterly utterly fantastically delightful when we came out with the final edit.
Because let’s be honest, racing cars, probably not the first thing on the list of priorities of the putative Downton Abbey audience. We’re offering it up to them as an extra treat in episode seven, but we all of us had to basically say, “Do they really want to see this much racing?” We decided that they definitely ought to because we’d shot all of this wonderful stuff, and the sequence worked absolutely perfectly.
I should add, it was by far the most expensive sequence that Downton Abbey has ever shot, not least because the cars themselves were not replicas. They were genuine 1925 racing cars, so a single one of those cars the insurance value was over 30 million pounds.
Jace: Who were the drivers for those cars? Those were the owners themselves?
David: Yeah, I mean for the reason that I said that the cars themselves are, all of them, phenomenally expensive collector’s items; they really are works of automotive art that are being flung around the track, so therefore it was either the drivers themselves, the owners themselves who are obviously very interesting people, but not perhaps particularly used to doing high speed stunt driving for television and film, or their own delegated drivers. So coordinating what were in effect high speed stunts with that group of drivers was another layer of complexity.
Jace: Now, I may be wrong, but correct me if I am, did you switch to a handheld camera when Mary hears the crash?
David: Yes. Yes, we did. To be honest, for the reasons I was alluding to. The shooting style of that whole sequence was so diverse and the general style was quite loose and quite whippy. There was a lot of kinetic energy being added to the sequence. For that reason, it felt like extending that handheld feel back into the dialogue section where Mary and Edith and Branson and the rest are running to the crash site itself, that would just be a way of keeping that energy going.
Jace: Yeah, to me, it’s sort of as Mary’s world potentially goes off kilter, so does the camera itself.
David: You’re certainly right. It’s certainly true that you don’t often see Lady Mary with a handheld camera. That’s terribly daring.
Jace: Is there anything else that viewers at home might not realize about this scene that you can share?
David: Gosh, there’s so much. I don’t know where to start. Everybody knows that Downton Abbey’s very very carefully researched, and in terms of matters of dress and props and things like that, the people behind the scenes really strain every sinew to get that kind of thing exactly right.
In the melee around the burning vehicle, I said that we weren’t allowed to cheat. We had to use the actual fire extinguishers that they would have had available in 1925. Well unfortunately the fire extinguishers that they actually did use, they looked like rather large brass syringes. Once you got that image in your mind it was very hard to take it seriously. And in the end we had to cut those shots out because they were accurate, but they just looked stupid. That was one occasion where the will for authenticity at all costs slightly turned around to bite us.
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Jace: Turning our attention to episode eight, and this might be one of my favorite scenes not only in the episode, but the series…
David: I do love it when you say things like that.
Jace: …It’s when Mary visits Matthew’s grave. You mentioned earlier about directing Michelle in episode 401, what was it like to come back to directing Michelle in this other extremely powerful scene?
David: I’d love it if I thought that I could take credit for the emotional tenor of a performance like that, but I owe Michelle so much in terms of what she gave on the set, particularly this year. Her professionalism and her determination and just her perfectionism, really. Although in some other scenes, Michelle and I would probably have had long conversations about what was going on for the character, I honestly don’t think there was anything that I said, I think it was all just in her heart.
Mary: The truth is… I love him. But I so very much want to feel that you’re happy for me, as I’d be happy for you, my darling. Remember, however much I love him… I will always love you.
Jace: Was the scene, including the bit that follows with Penelope Wilton, originally in the script or one that was added later?
David: It’s actually one of the very rare occasions where the script gets amended because of the process that goes on after the artists and the director get the script. A kind of conversation happens about the script. In this particular case, there was a conversation which filtered back to Julian, basically to do with the fact that the ending of episode eight happened really quite rapidly. That the time that elapsed between Mary changing her mind — having her change of heart — and actually being a married woman was quite a short amount of screen time.
Therefore, by increments this new idea obviously started to gain a bit of traction, because suddenly Julian presented us with this whole new scene. Of course, it did have the virtue of sort of stretching out Mary’s character’s arc at that point; you could see the way that she was gradually coming round to realizing that she found a new future.
Such a lovely way to do it, with a scene like that. That’s, I suppose, the mark of a good writer, is that he can recognize a new idea and then totally make it his own.
Jace: I think episode eight might actually be my favorite episode of the show, full stop. There’s just so much emotion, there’s a lot of resolution, there’s also a number of fights in this episode, as well. Most notably between Mary and Tom and Mary and Edith. How did you make each of those fights feel different and distinctive?
David: Mary and Tom is easy to explain and the reasons for that really are to do with the circumstances of what it’s like on set. The row between Mary and Tom was the very last scene on Downton Abbey that I ever shot.
To be honest, it was just like two actors who are very much at the top of their game. Allen just came in– He walked onto set completely ready to give it to Mary with both barrels and she was completely on point.
Mary: I didn’t mean –
Branson: Don’t lie! Not to me! You can’t stop ruining things! For Edith, for yourself! You’d pull the sky in if you could! Anything to make you feel less frightened and alone!
Mary: You saw Henry when he was here– high-handed and bullying and unapologetic. Am I expected to lower myself to his level?
David: It was all over and done with in like ninety minutes. We shot the scene very quickly. Just went with the energy that they were bringing to the scene and we did it.
The scene with Mary and Edith, the moment where Edith says things that the audience have been desperate for her to say for six years. That scene was probably the only time, really, that I think we all felt the burden of the millions and millions of viewers weighing on our shoulders.
Edith: …and not content with ruining your own life, you were determined to ruin mine!
Mary: I have not ruined my life and if Bertie’s put off by that, then –
Edith: Don’t demean yourself by trying to justify your venom. Just go.
David: So that was a very strange atmosphere for the three of us. We all three knew what they needed to give, that they needed to go there and find that strength of emotion. There’s also, you know, a great sense of discretion, particularly for the women who are in the cast of Downton Abbey, that they’re always acutely conscious that they’re playing women from another age. The question is constantly, “Can I go there? Can I be that off the leash?” Obviously, the way that Downton Abbey is written is that there are very few scenes where people are completely out of control and have lost their temper and are saying things really unguardedly like that. That just made for a very different atmosphere. Both of them were feeling, “Is this too big? Is this too much?” And I was basically going, “Nothing is going to be too much in a scene like this.”
They completely nailed it, I have to say. There they were in one of the most familiar sets in the whole show, behaving in a way that they’ve never behaved before. It was disorienting.
Jace: Looking at episode 8, Bertie and Edith break off their engagement. This scene to me contains one of the most gorgeous images in the entire series. It’s a long shot of a broken hearted Edith facing away from the camera with Downton behind her, sort of scarf blows in the breeze. How did that specific shot come about?
David: Well, there was something about Laura’s acting; I’ve noticed that she often does this, that the way she plays Edith is Edith has this heartbreaking tendency to be super nice when super niceness is really not required, almost as if Edith is thinking, “If I actually do succeed in turning myself into an angel, maybe things will work out for me.” In that scene she kept doing this thing that I’d told her that I’d seen how powerful it was, that it’s almost like she was speeding Bertie away from her.
Bertie: I’d better go if I’m to catch my train.
Edith: Yes hurry. I doubt we’ll meet again so I want to say good luck, and everything else that goes with it.
David: It’s like she’s desperate to throw herself off the cliff. It’s like, “What are you doing?” You want to say, “Fight for yourself,” and instead she seems to be bringing about the parting that’s going to break her heart as quick as she can, because in her heart of hearts she feels she deserves no better. But it’s almost like at that moment when he actually turns and walks away she can’t quite believe he was actually going to do it.
And so for me that last image, powerful though it is, the reason that it’s earned, the reason that it lands, is because of what’s preceded it. That you’re watching this woman watching somebody walking away, who in her heart of hearts thought might turn back.
Jace: Can you talk about the larger concept for this scene and how it developed from the page to the screen?
David: One of the reasons that I love that scene so much is that for me, talking about the scenes that I’ve had the chance to direct, it is the archetypal Downton Abbey scene, because where Downton Abbey gains a huge amount of its power is to show really really really strong emotion being trapped in really, really rigid social convention. But that scene is a perfect example of a Downton Abbey scene, where both of the characters are in absolute agony, and yet they still insist because of their own idea of their own identity, they neither of them can break out of the straight jacket that society has made for them.
You know, it’s just unbearable, it’s unbearable, and therefore of course it’s the easiest blocking in the world in terms of mapping out a scene. It had to feel as rigid and formal as it possibly could. And I deliberately composed the scene to take place with that architectural majesty of the house behind them to kind of insist on that almost courtly atmosphere, where they can’t reach across that distance to touch each other.
Jace: Thank you so much, David. It’s been a pleasure.
David: You’re welcome.
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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.
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