Royal Occasion: Michael Engler Orchestrates the Big-Screen Return of Downton Abbey

It’s rare for a television series to transfer to the big screen with its original cast and creative team aboard, but “Downton Abbey” is an exceptional phenomenon. Spanning the years 1912 to 1926, the British saga of the patrician Crawley family and their retinue of devoted servants has earned three Golden Globes and 15 Emmy Awards and has found an avid fan base in more than 200 countries.

Now, less than four years after the series finale, the denizens of Downton are ready for their multiplex close-up. Series creator Julian Fellowes (who wrote all 52 episodes of the TV show) has devised a momentous occasion for the Crawleys and their household staff: a visit from the king and queen of England. Nearly the entire cast is back, including Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Penelope Wilton, Laura Carmichael, Matthew Goode, Jim Carter, Phyllis Logan, and the incomparably wry Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess. And directing the feature is a relative latecomer to the series, American Michael Engler, a veteran of such series as “30 Rock,” “Sex in the City,” and “Six Feet Under,” who helmed four episodes including the finale. We spoke to Engler by phone about Downton Abbey’s September 20 return via Focus Features.

How do you turn a long-running TV series into an event for the big screen?

Very carefully. One, I think you have to acknowledge what it is that people always loved about it. And make sure that you deliver that, which is a great, broad canvas of characters, upstairs and downstairs, young and old, that people love and recognize. And all of those people have to be accounted for in an individual way, as well as having a story that in some way engages the whole group. The tricky thing about that, I think, is that normally on the series every week you can adjust who’s in the foreground and who’s in the background and whose story is heating up and whose is at a simmer on the back burner. And the overall effect is one of a big world and a lot of different people you care about. And just like with your own family and friends, sometimes you see more or less of certain people, or maybe they become more important at certain times in your life or in their lives. I think what was important for Julian and what he did so well in the screenplay—brilliantly, actually—was to create a story that is one complete arc, beginning, middle and end, that encompasses the whole world of Downton and yet allows each of the people that we love and that we missed from the series to have their own little story line, their own separate one where we understand something about where they are in their lives.

So that’s one thing, shifting the time and storytelling narrative frame so that it feels satisfying in a two-hour format. And then the other thing is to make it feel like more of a cinematic experience. ‘Downton’ even on television always felt pretty cinematic—that was an adjective that was often applied to it. But we wanted to make sure that if we were going to put it on the big screen and ask people to come out for it and pay their money to see it in the cinema, we gave them something of a scale and beauty and technical complexity that we couldn’t have given them in the TV series. And I think we’ve done that well.

And to do that, Julian hit on this idea of the royal visit, obviously.

It’s always been important for everybody to work together to keep Downton alive and running and thriving, as individuals and collectively. The idea that the King and Queen are coming somehow raises the stakes even more for everybody. The servants have to go beyond where they’ve ever gone, the family themselves, on every level they have to do what they’ve always done and what we’ve always come to love about that world, and they have to do it better than ever.

You came into the series fairly late in the run. How did you, especially as an American, get hired?

Well, I got hired because I had met [producer] Liz Trubridge through a friend. We were just talking about television, and I was huge fan of the show and she had seen some of my work. I think it was really just the way we spoke about it, that she felt I could potentially bring something to it that, as an outsider, might give a new perspective or bring some fresh blood into it. That I might help the actors and department heads and creative people also look at it differently and maybe ask some different questions. Being such a big fan and never really thinking I would be able to [work on the show], the strange thing was I never felt more at home than I did when I went there. Just the work ethic, the discussions, the way we spoke about the English class system and labor and personal issues. It is so universal, this story of what it means to be part of something larger than yourself.

I’m always amazed to hear how big the show is in places like Asia. It really is universal.

Right. I think they appreciate it too because there’s so much in their history, in their culture that has to do with the idea that wherever you fit, even in a very hierarchical system, there is always the possibility of honor, of behaving and performing honorably, of going above and beyond your personal position in the system. And that character somehow transcends all of those things. And I think that is very much the Asian social hierarchical ethos as well.

I guess the most important person you had to hit it off with was Julian Fellowes. Can you talk about your relationship with him?

Well, first of all, Julian is almost encyclopedic in his knowledge of this particular world, and actually of lots of things. I think one of the reasons we get along so well is that he is in some ways more like a playwright than a traditional screenwriter. I think the essence of what makes his writing so brilliant is not just visual storytelling but the character writing, the relationships, the subtext, the fine-tuning of voices and how they work together to create a kind of bigger, almost orchestral mix of voices. And that’s really what I’m interested in—storytelling through character and through psychology and intellect of people and how they express their needs together, whoever they are.

What’s also great about him is he’s very practical. He’ll write something and then if we say, oh, here’s an interesting production opportunity or beautiful location—or the opposite, this is going to be very tricky to work—he can find other ways to adapt it. I think we both share a sense of priorities about what’s important in the storytelling. So that even though he wants it to be lush and beautiful and visual, as do I, he also understands that that stuff can take over and that if [the story] isn’t there, it doesn’t matter how lovely the characters are; it can get boring. He’s thoughtful and practical and he has a very strong voice and point of view, but he also has a very subtle ability to shift things, to take advantage of opportunities or to avoid difficult production problems.

You have an amazing list of TV credits, including one of my all-time favorite shows, “My So-Called Life.” But this is only your second feature. Are there appreciable differences between TV work and working on features?

I wouldn’t say there are. It’s less and less as time has moved forward, given all the different formats, HBO and Netflix and what everybody’s doing, I think audiences are much more sophisticated and are looking for more sophisticated, cinematic storytelling. So whatever format you’re working in, it’s a sophisticated filmmaking world right now where everybody’s looking to do things in the most interesting ways possible. With this film there was just more money and more time, which allowed us the ability to do more complicated things on a bigger canvas, so that you can leave things in shots that you might have to edit more to get inside the psychology of people if you imagine people watching it on a smaller screen. But the funny thing is, even that I think is changing, because so many people in their living rooms have bigger screens and they’re as close to it as they would be relative to the size of a larger screen in a theater. So I think even a lot of those differences are falling away. Mostly it has to do with the timing, the format, the fact that people are gonna settle in and take time and you’ve got the time to grab them. It doesn’t have to be ‘Get ’em now or they’re going to turn to something else’ that you have in television. It allows you to be a little bit more leisurely in some ways, but also more generous with time and being able to tell the story in ways that aren’t as quick to reveal themselves.

Even though the mediums are kind of merging, I assume you still want as many people as possible to see this film on a big screen.

Oh yeah, absolutely. I feel very happy, I feel like it is worthy of it. There’s a certain fan base that I think will go anywhere to see Downton Abbey and would be happy to pay the money, but we wanted them to feel that they were getting something that they couldn’t get at home, that they couldn’t get from the series, that we were able to do things that we couldn’t do during the series. That it would feel like a different kind of experience in the storytelling, but also in the visual scale of it, the sound, the music—every aspect of it has been scaled up to suit the story, but also to fill the cinematic experience.

I want to ask you about two actors in particular. Is it intimidating to work with Maggie Smith?

Yes. It’s intimidating and it’s exhilarating working with Maggie. It’s only intimidating because there is nobody more prepared and more curious and insightful and thoughtful and demanding—not demanding in a rude or unpleasant way, but just somebody who knows what the responsibility is of the actor and the script and the director. We get along great, and I love Maggie and have a fantastic time working with her, but she keeps you on your toes, the way the best ones do. She isn’t sitting and having her time wasted, and I don’t blame her. Nor should it be. But she’s intimidating because no matter how prepared I am, and I consider myself fairly prepared when I get on the set, it never fails to surprise me that she’ll come up with a question or a series of thoughts about something that I hadn’t considered. And so I find you have to work fast, think fast. She’s also one of the smartest, funniest, wittiest people around and somebody who loves being part of a company, an acting company. The thing you always worry about when you’re doing those big scenes, the pageantry or a large dinner table scene where for huge chunks of the day, unless the shot is about a particular actor, everybody else becomes almost like extras. What I was amazed by was that Maggie would love sitting there all day even if it wasn’t about her, because she loves talking to other actors. I would be working on a close-up of somebody, down at the other end of the table, and I’d say ‘Cut’ and she would say, ‘Oh, wasn’t he marvelous?’ That is so fascinating that she really took it in. She is excited and interested in being part of the process with other actors to stimulate her as well, both the young and the most experienced ones.

New to the cast is Imelda Staunton, as a cousin of the Dowager Countess’s late husband. I didn’t realize that she is married to Jim Carter [who plays reserved butler Mr. Carson]. So it was almost like a homecoming to bring her into the movie, yes?

It was. I think she was surprised. We’ve all gotten used to the structure of how Downton works. Most of the time you’re either working with the upstairs cast or the downstairs cast, the servants or the members of the family. And so the crossover is rare. It’s rare, and it’s usually with people like Carson or Mrs. Hughes or the footman, Thomas. In the dining room, for instance, most of the dialogue, all of the action is centered on the people at the table, the family and their guests. People like Jim and Kevin Doyle and Michael Fox and Rob James-Collier are essentially extras—they’re in the background moving plates and pouring wine and every now and then they share a look. So it was sort of funny that whenever Jim and Imelda were in a scene together, it was usually Jim standing in the back quietly or giving a nod of the head or saying, ‘Yes, milady.’ It was a funny thing for the two of them to be on set and realize that even being in the same film, even being in the same scene a number of times, they would have no interaction at all. Essentially she would barely be aware of his character. I think they enjoyed in a funny way the subtext of that, given that they’ve been married over 30 years.

Can you give us an update on “The Gilded Age” [an upcoming Engler-Fellowes TV series for HBO]?

I don’t want to talk about it too much. We are just in the early prep phase. We’ve been scouting locations in New York—we’re going to be shooting parts of it all over New York and also in Newport. We’re just beginning to cast it. It begins in New York in 1882, and it’s about the introduction of a whole new world of money, especially in America, and what that does to the shifts of power and the social structure and how that sets the stage for everything that’s to come in America. It’s similar to what we’re dealing with today, the super-rich, the top 0.1 percent, and then everybody else. We start shooting it in the spring, and we’ll be finishing it at the end of next year to air in early 2021.

I hope the Downton movie is a big success for you.

Thank you very much. I hope you enjoy it. I feel like we’ve delivered what everybody was hoping for, and then enough surprises and new things to make it fun and to make it feel like it was worth doing for more than nostalgic reasons.