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Oscar®-winning Julian Fellowes on the UK Screenwriters' Festival and his collaboration with Martin Scorsese and Graham King

An interview with Julian Fellowes for Film London

This Interview was first published on 9th June 2008 on the Film London website.

This year Julian Fellowes will take his place among an illustrious line up of speakers at the Screenwriters' Festival in Cheltenham 1st - 3rd July 2008. His latest film Young Victoria is in collaboration with Martin Scorsese and Graham King. The pair turned their attentions from Boston gangsters The Departed to the British Royal family after a tip off from the Duchess of York. Oscar®-winning  scribe, Julian Fellowes, was approached to bring the project to life....

Smothered by a neurotic mother and weighed down by a royal destiny; The Young Victoria focuses on the Queen's early years and her relationship with Prince Albert. Why did you choose to focus on this period of the Queen's life?

We chose to focus on the Queen's young life because we felt that was a very interesting part of her life. All people seem to know of Victoria is the dumpy little widow with a handkerchief on her head, so we felt that her young life was what we should be looking at. She had a tremendously successful marriage and her relationship with Albert was a life defining one. When you understand the years she'd lived through, finding Albert and finding that this essentially arranged marriage was bringing somebody into her life that kind of had sympathy for her predicament as well as being a very romantic figure, it just completely transformed her existence. It isn't really possible to deal with that early chunk of Victoria's life up until she was about 40 without seeing that central intensely romantic relationship as being kind of the pivot of the whole thing.

The Young Victoria was collaboration between yourself and 2 of the most formidable producers in Hollywood. How can writers collaborate better with producers and directors?
I think that some producers and writers work well together, I mean hopefully they work well with more people than they don't work well with, but there is always a kind of happy mix in it. Graham King was a very very nice man to work with, they were both nice actually, but I saw more of Graham. Very interesting man, this Englishman who has gone over and conquered Hollywood in a very modest and understated way, but he is in fact a figure of immense power in the film industry now, and unusually he is also very courteous and very charming to be with. The producer on the spot was a guy called Dennis O'Sullivan who also worked on The Departed and several others of their films. Very very nice man again. I think what it comes down to in all of these things is whether or not you're trying to make the same film. Sometimes, particularly when a director is appointed, you sometimes come up against the fact that he doesn't really want to make the film that you've written or everyone else seems to want to make. And there has to be a kind of resolution of that, and sometimes there is a resolution, sometimes what they're bringing makes the whole thing more interesting than it was before, it's just you have to get into step. But I didn't have any difficulty on that film at all. I loved them all and I think Graham was exceptional. The whole business of producing, I talked about this the other day at BAFTA actually - when you start out in writing you sort of feel that you've written the script and that's the script and that's it and what's the problem? Whereas of course that isn't really the process of film-making at all; the script when you've finished the first draft is a kind of starting point, and you know there are other people who are entitled to be part of the shaping of a film, and obviously in the end the longer you go at it there are people you are very much in sympathy with and you enjoy working with them and others perhaps less so. But nevertheless it doesn't alter the fact that the producers do have the right to make you write the film they want to make. I know that sounds simple, but it is quite a big mouthful to swallow when you start in this career, because you send off your first draft, you think you're just going to be given an enormous kiss and in fact what you're doing is embarking on a long sometimes torturous, sometimes painful process, before you reach the script that the producers and the director and everyone else wants to make. But this was a pretty happy job actually. I liked all of them, and on the whole of course there are always some things that get cut for budgetary reasons, or characters that get rolled up or simplified or whatever, and that happens both in the writing process and it also happens in the edit and you lose things in the edit that you mind about and everything else...but that's just part of it. Those difficulties are just part of the process and you have to get through it. But as a producer I would hold up Graham as a kind of model, he was non-intrusive always very polite, all his observations were worth listening too. So I haven't got any complaints at all.

Do you think networking and attending events like the screenwriting festival can benefit writers?

Writing is a very solitary business and you sit alone in your room and of course feeling half the time that you're sort of mad. I mean that's bad enough when you are an employed screenwriter or novelist or whatever and people are commissioning you and you know what you're doing is going to be paid for and possibly made or published or whatever. But when you haven't got those securities and you're just sitting in a room trying to get this career going, then I think it is very easy to be disheartened and one of the advantages. I think that the screenwriters festival has 2 roles really, one is that people talk about interesting things and stuff that you ought to know if this is the career you are embarking on this is how funding works, this is how a film is publicized, this is what a producer means when he's looking for such and such, all of that is practical help and its up to you to pick and choose which ones you want to attend and which you think you'll find profitable...But the main purpose of the festival is to bring writers together because it's not a group activity. It's not like being an actor where you are bound to meet other actors in the course of doing your work. You don't meet other writers, and in this kind of situation you have the opportunity to meet other writers who are beginning. Maybe you're beginning and they're facing the same problems as you are and so on, but also you meet writers who are not beginning who are making their living at it and that is also, I think, pretty valuable. You have to remind yourself that there are perfectly normal men and women out there who are doing what you want to do so therefore it must be possible and I think it can be reassuring when you hear from people who are perceived as successful that they have had very similar problems as you and very similar self doubt and all that kind of thing and I think that that can be a strengthening thing actually.

What inspired you to be a writer?

I don't really know. I haven't had that sort of life. My life has been a series of random events like the white rabbit falling down the rabbit hole in Alice and grabbing things off the shelves as he fell. Very originally I wrote some trash novels when I was about 19 because I just wanted to write something that got published. But then I didn't write anything for years and years and I was just being an actor and then I was producing something and we didn't feel the scripts were right and we'd run out of money and so someone had to rewrite them for nothing and I ended up doing that. I was sort of in a way rewarded for that by the BBC who then commissioned me to do a version of Little Lord Fauntleroy for BBC Television; which I did and it got made and it did very well and it won an Emmy in New York and this that and the other, and suddenly I was this writer! But it wasn't in any sense pre-planned, it just happened. I thought my second career was going to be producing actually. I mean I'd got to the point with acting when I realized that I better have a plan B. I've been very lucky, the first film I wrote that got made - not the first film I wrote you understand, but the first film I wrote that got made - was a big success and I won the Oscar® and all that stuff and then I wrote my first novel and that was a best seller and then I wrote a musical and that was a big hit. You know there's a big element of luck in all this. I mean, don't let anyone ever tell you different - there are marvellous things that you do, and I think in addition to those I've done some pretty good things that didn't particularly blaze a trail across the sky, it's just luck as to whether the public gets it or if someone wants to promote it or whether the timing is right for whatever it is you've done and you're not really in control of that. I mean you chuck it out on to the water and you just hope it comes back buttered toast. I think a lot of that is luck. I think I've been pretty lucky to be honest.

William Nicholson commented at the BAFTA launch that "the problem isn't bolshie writers...the problem is writers who have completely lost their guts". What do you think he meant by this?

The process of writing a film can be quite flattening. I love Bill, but I think the truth is between the two really. I think its counter productive for the writer to become so bolshie that people roll their eyes when you stick your hand up, but at the same time they often are losing the point of some element of the narrative that and they will regret it when the picture comes out and it is criticized for being unclear in this way, or this character development doesn't work, or this plot link isn't present. One of the things all producers do, is they forget they have seen the film many many times and they start to say "oh this isn't necessary" and "that isn't necessary", because they forget that they have complete back knowledge of the whole story. Elements can be taken out and members of the public don't understand and you often see this when you go to the cinema, that a plot becomes very unclear because whole elements have been removed by producers anxious to move it on. There is a sort of curious fear at the moment of any kind of slowing down, any lingering, and so there is an anxiety to move a film forward. I don't think it's always wrong actually. Sometimes you know the opposite extreme is those very self indulgent films which you see at the moment as well, you know 3 hours of someone making a cup of coffee. So I'm not saying they're always wrong, but it is up to the writer not to give in and to keep saying look I know I've said this before but the fact is if you cut that scene nobody will ever understand she's his daughter or whatever it is, and there is a kind of writer that becomes quite pistol whipped by the process and in the end they just agree. They just agree to everything, and I think that that is the other fault. But you know I don't quite agree with Bill that the problem isn't bolshie writers because I don't think it's a problem for the industry, but I think it's a problem for the writer when they become bolshie.

Last year Terrance Davies commented "If anyone tells you to climax on page 62 tell them to p*ss off." Have you ever subscribed to screenwriting theory?

Do you know I've never read a book on scriptwriting in my life. And it's rather like an alcoholic actor whose afraid to give up drink, I'm afraid to now because I feel like I'll be jinxed. I mean I wrote Gosford Park and won the Oscar® and never read any of that stuff! I remember when one of the famous screenwriting gurus said "the one thing you must never have is voice-over" - this rule came in and everyone was obsessed with having no voice-over, then you get Million Dollar Baby and about 15 other films that come out that were all told through voice-over and they're very successful and everybody wins the Oscar® and nobody knows why they weren't supposed to have any voice-over. It's just these completely arbitrary rules that gurus can pretend are absolute values and of course they're not, it's like in a film as in anything else, sometimes it works and it's a success, and sometimes it doesn't and it isn't.

What are your favorite screenplays / writers?

I was very keen on Mankiewicz (All About Eve, Letter to Three Wives) and those films, I found them very witty, I like the kind of dryness. Also my great thing I always like is when you change your mind about characters because I find that thing with a lot of films at the moment where you're just told who the hero is and you almost exclusively stay with the hero or heroine and they don't really let any of the subsidiary characters develop. I find that very boring. I like to change my mind. I absolutely love the screenplay of Crash which won Best Picture, because there was a film where you never knew whose side you were on. Just as you'd decided someone was absolutely ghastly there would be a scene when you were rather on his or her side, and similarly you get an incredibly sympathetic character like Ryan Phillipe's who ends up being the murderer. I thought that was very well done. Of the modern screenplays I'd put that pretty high up. The other one that I absolutely love of modern films, which again has a similar quality, is LA Confidential, where your loyalties are complicated and you're not quite sure whose side you're on. I mean the whole Kevin Spacey character; who is essentially superficial and rather tiresome, and suddenly he has this attack of conscience in the middle and so he is rendered completely sympathetic and suddenly you're given this other dimension of his character which you haven't really seen before, yet it's completely compatible with the man you have seen because you can't suddenly just introduce an incompatible element. I thought that was a marvellous piece of writing and actually a marvellous piece of directing from Curtis Hanson. I think that's an absolutely all time classic film and the test of that for me is that you can keep watching it and there is always something that intrigues you.

Essential for writers, producers and directors alike, past speakers at The Screenwriters' Festival have included: William Nicholson (Gladiator, Shadowlands); David Hare (Plenty, The Hours); Stephen Frears (The Queen); Michael Goldenberg (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Where the Wild Things Are); Diana Ossana (Brokeback Mountain); Terrance Davies (Of Time and City); Olivia Hetreed (The Girl with a Pearl Earring); and Abi Morgan (Brick Lane).

This year the line-up includes Mike Leigh (Happy-Go-Lucky, Naked, Vera Drake) Guillermo Del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy II) Christopher Hampton (Coco Avant Chanel, Atonement, Dangerous Liaisons) and Deborah Maggach (Pride and Prejudice) alongside exciting new talent including David Lemon (Faintheart). Other speakers include renowned fantasy writer and creator of the Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett, Jane Tranter (Controller of BBC Fiction, who runs the BBC Drama group including BBC Films), Laura Mackie (Director Of Drama ITV), Peter Kosminsky (The Government Inspector, Britz ) and a return of leading psychiatrist Dr Raj Persaud who will explore how writers overcome the mental challenges facing them. There will be plenty of networking opportunities for writers looking for writing partners, producers or readers.