June 30, 2011 10:40am PT by Tim Appelo
Julian Fellowes Addresses Monte Hellman's 'Gosford Park' Claim, 'Downton Abbey's' Shocking Scene
Julian Fellowes, whose superb PBS miniseries Downton Abbey ranks just behind HBO's Mildred Pierce as frontrunner for the Emmy on GoldDerby's new 11-pundit poll, tells THR he did too write the Oscar-winning script for Robert Altman's Downton Abbey-like 2001 English manor drama Gosford Park -- no matter what director Monte Hellman claims. (Also -- see spoiler alert below -- Fellowes reveals that the most startling scene in Downton really happened.)
Cult director Hellman has no direct connection to Gosford. But in his current comeback movie, Road to Nowhere, a screenwriter character says, “It would be great if you used one of my lines." And in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, Hellman said he’s actually quoting Fellowes. "With Gosford Park," Hellman tells Filmmaker Magazine, "literally the whole script was rewritten on the set. [Fellowes] won an Academy Award, and not one line of dialogue remained in the movie. [Laughs.] And he actually made that statement."
"I am saddened to think this canard is still current," Fellowes tells THR, "as I would have thought that Downton, if nothing else, had proved that I did write Gosford, since the characters, and certainly Maggie [Smith], speak with exactly the same voice." Smith got a supporting Oscar nom for Gosford; playing basically the same dowager countess in Downton, she is the frontrunner for a movie/miniseries supporting actress Emmy, says a GoldDerby poll (she gets 7 votes, versus two for Evan Rachel Wood and one for Melissa Leo in Mildred Pierce).
"Ninety percent of Gosford was not only written by me, but written (with plenty of notes from Bob) before shooting began. Bob liked to have the actors say the scripted lines and then, if the scene was still continuing, to bang on until it was over. Naturally this only applied to the big, group scenes, where the scripted dialogue would flit around the room. The small scenes were simply shot as scripted. But, even in the big scenes, while the murmur made a good base for the dialogue, very little that was improvised made it into the final edit."
So why did Hellman misspeak? "I think this comes from a desire in the industry, particularly with people like Hellman, to believe that Bob was a free spirit and always improvised, and maybe Bob liked to foster this belief at times, but I do not think it was the case...Of course, this may have been because Bob was very aware that, in Gosford Park, he was dealing with a set of characters he neither knew nor understood, and he did not want to look a fool. This is why he asked me to stand beside him for the entire shoot, which I did. The arrangement would hardly have been practicable if the script were to be discarded before my eyes, as I would naturally have left. How anyone, least of all a film director, could imagine you could improvise 20 or 30 interlocking plotlines, in the class language of the 1930s, is difficult for me to understand. And you only have to see Kristin Scott Thomas's interview with Charlie Rose, or Maggie Smith's interview in the Los Angeles Times, to see how the cast, in the end, became irritated by the idea that they did not have the discipline to deliver on a script."
Spoiler alert: Fellowes offers a second revelation: The most spectacularly improbable event in Downton Abbey — the sudden death in flagrante delicto of a hunky, naked visitor to the manor, promptly covered up by proper ladies to save their reputation -- actually happened. “It wasn’t made up at all. A friend of mine came upon this diary of his great-aunt, a blameless dowager. This young woman had this man in her bed, a diplomat, and he died of a heart attack. If this story got out, the scandal would’ve been sensational and ruined them. So they dragged his body down the corridors into his own bed. The deception was completely successful. I said, one day I’m going to use this in a script. Ten years or so later, I did. I kept the story in the squirrel-nut box one has in one’s head.”
Fellowes' own reputation looks safe. "Downton Abbey needs to bring home some hardware at the Emmys," tweets THR's chief TV critic Tim Goodman. "This much is obvious."