Much-touted and almost here, the film version of the successful ITV/PBS television series Downton Abbey premieres in theaters on September 20. As one might expect, the gang’s all back together again, led by Maggie Smith as the archly acerbic Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, Penelope Wilton as her modern yet now-titled friend and cousin, Isobel Grey, and Michelle Dockery as the witheringly cool Lady Mary, Violet’s worthy understudy. Returning, too, is the striving, principled hub of activity downstairs presided over by Carson, his now wife, Mrs. Hughes, and house cook Mrs. Patmore. New characters and disruptive storylines, expertly woven by writer/creator Julian Fellowes, jostle and tug at the show’s previously sewn seams, even resolving a few long-held hopes harbored by fans of the TV series.
Cinematographer Ben Smithard, BSC, is also new to the ensemble, although he’s worked with many of the actors, producers and below the line crew before on such films and television series as The Second Best Marigold Hotel, Belle, My Week with Marilyn, The Hollow Crown and Cranford, another PBS import. He has been, more often than not, the camera operator as well as the cinematographer, and he received a credit for both on Downton. We spoke to Smithard about the challenges and pleasures of shooting in historic locations, in the studio and in the air; why he chose the new Sony Venice 6K cinema camera; the logistics of closing down an entire village for a full day’s shoot and commandeering Europe’s largest ballroom (pictured, top); and the secret to filming a national treasure like Dame Maggie Smith, who makes her last appearance in the franchise.
StudioDaily: What kind of brief did you get from the producers, or from creator Julian Fellowes, to tackle the film version after such a successful and popular TV series?
Ben Smithard: The only brief I had from the producers, apart from shoot a great film, was to make it look pretty epic. It needs to transcend the television series as much as it can, obviously, so it was quite difficult. We had to try and get it to that next level. But I actually love that kind of brief, because it’s so simple and straightforward. You just have to use your money wisely, then the sky’s the limit, really. You just have to try to make it absolutely amazing.
As for Julian, he wasn’t on set an awful lot, but I said hello to him when he did stop by. Julian knows what he’s writing about and he watches the rushes, and as long as you’re not going off track and veering away from that original world, I don’t think it bothers him. Bear in mind that Michael had shot some of the episodes of the original series, whereas I’d never been involved. But in addition to a lot of the cast, I knew the production designer, Donal Woods, very well, and I knew the producers. Michael already knew there were certain limitations with regard to etiquette that you must shoot a certain way. You have to stick with that and you can’t break those rules when shooting a story about a house with that kind of staff and aristocracy of that sort. And with Julian, I think when he knew we were doing the right thing with regard to etiquette and how the characters were being true to themselves — whether aristocracy or working class — it was fine. Julian was just very supportive all the way through. I don’t think he feels he needs to be on set all the time, really. He’s one of those writers that lets you get on with it.
We did also always have a historical adviser, Alistair Bruce, on set with us who was also very useful and very helpful. He knew everything about the aristocracy — how they walked, what they did during the day, how the garden looked, etc. Alistair’s ex-military but also very easygoing and respectful. He didn’t make our lives difficult and he didn’t slow us up, which can happen sometimes if you get really picky about the details. But you know what? I have to be respectful of those details. There’s no point trying to break the rules. And although that world doesn’t really exist in England anymore, some of those etiquette rules still exist in this country; they are subtle signals of how the class system demarcated itself, how the upper classes separated themselves from the middle class and the working class. It’s a film about class, and the series always has been. On the really big set pieces we had two historical advisers who really knew their stuff in laying out a dining table or how the servants would serve—there were just so many details, it was unbelievable. But we were always on the same page. There were no fights on Downton Abbey!
Did you shoot any handheld in the downstairs scenes [shot on a soundstage] to delineate the frenetic energy that goes on beneath the slow, mannered elegance upstairs?
It’s a good question because, originally, I’d discussed it with Liz Trubridge, one of the producers. I asked how they’d done it in the TV series, but there was no pressure to shoot it like the series at all. I did intend to shoot a lot of handheld downstairs. But when it came to it, because the studio part of the shoot was at the end of the schedule, I didn’t feel that handheld was necessary because, as you quite rightly pointed out, it’s already quite frenetic downstairs. Especially when the King and Queen come and their entourage precedes them, the downstairs swells. There are lots and lots of people in those scenes. If you had the normal house staff, you are talking about 10 people. But suddenly you are talking about 20 or 25 people. I didn’t feel I needed to go handheld to capture it all. There a few handheld shots in the film, but not many. I love handheld, but I think if you’re going to do it, do it for the whole film or at least a good majority of the film, so it’s normalized for the audience. If you throw it into scenes that don’t need it or you can’t justify, I think that becomes an issue. And Liz, who is a fantastic producer, even though we discussed it, ultimately she agreed.
I instead stuck with the dolly and Steadicam, which I wasn’t originally going to use at all downstairs. Again, it didn’t need enhancing. It’s a bit like shooting Maggie’s scenes: I didn’t feel I needed to rubber-stamp it with that feeling because what’s happening in front of the camera, from the acting to the meticulous production design, costumes, makeup and sets, is giving you everything you need to know anyway. The looks are so different anyway; there’s less natural light downstairs, and the art and set direction is so different. Downstairs is a place that has a function. The dark gray paint work is uniform throughout. They would paint it once, then continue to paint over it with the same color. That’s the way it was. Upstairs, in the real Highclere Castle, every room has a completely different color palette, feel and look.
What was your A camera?
I used the new Sony Venice for 98 percent of the film. I kind of knew I was going to use that, although it had only just come out. I did The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel  and I shot Belle  on the Sony F65, so I knew the Sony cameras would be really great.
Had you worked with director Michael Engler before?
No, I’d never met him. He’s obviously a very experienced American director in New York.
But you’ve worked with Dame Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton before.
Yes, I think this is the fourth film I’ve done with Penelope [and] the second film with Maggie, and I’ve worked with Jim Carter, Imelda Staunton, Michelle Dockery, Matthew Goode and a few others. I hadn’t worked with anybody from downstairs except for Jim, but they were all amazing to work with. It was a really great experience shooting such a talented ensemble.
Wilton and Smith’s scenes together, with Julian Fellowes dialogue, are a master class in comic timing. How did you approach them?
There isn’t much you really need to do with Maggie: you just have to let her go and not get in her way. She does always steal the scenes, and whatever you do, you’ve just got to let her do her thing. I just let it happen. I try not to shoot too close because it’s the kind of comedy that you need to see the body language. You don’t come in for a close-up just when she’s about to say something biting. You don’t want to rubber stamp it. Just let it happen.
Without giving anything away, I was very moved by the final scene she has with Lady Mary, which was lit so beautifully in that darkened sitting room. There was a very subtle softening to her character, Violet, the Dowager Countess. Did you use any special filters?
I always filter the camera a little bit, depending on what we were shooting, but mainly I only used diffusion for the upstairs parts of the story. I never used it downstairs because it needed to feel a bit grittier. But it’s quite subtle; I didn’t want it to become too obvious. In the case of Maggie’s face, it is 100 percent Maggie’s face, and I know it very well now. I let her face be what it is, and she seems to be happy with that. If you’re not careful, it can be a bit obvious, so I didn’t want to stamp a real strong look on it because it’s not necessary. In that scene, it was pretty soft lighting, for sure. The ball scenes were shot in Harewood House, which is an independent charitable educational trust and is full of very, very expensive antiquities and paintings and furniture. You can’t go anywhere near the furniture. In that scene, one of the shots is fairly wide and the room has a lot of mirrors. I couldn’t really hide any lighting and I certainly couldn’t hang any lighting in there, and I didn’t need a balloon or anything. I did have a fireplace I could work with, however. Basically I put some lights in the fireplace, the only place where I could get some light from. The rest is just lit with practicals in the scene, all of it pretty low-level light. If you’ve got practicals like table or standing lamps in the shot, you make it look like it’s lit only from those lights. Otherwise, it can look too fake. It’s always a little bit of struggle but I think we made it work on that scene.
How many sunrises did you need to capture those early morning scenes on the grounds of the house and did the weather cooperate?
We were pretty lucky. We shot in October and November last year. I’ve shot a number of features during our autumn, and I’ve been very lucky overall. I think it’s the best time of the year to shoot in this country. There was the odd occasion when it rained, so we flipped scenes around and then went back. There’s a shot of Lady Edith walking through the grounds to have a conversation with her husband and we started that off in the morning, but it was really foggy. I stood by my guns and said, ‘Look, I don’t want to shoot this now.’ It would have been very difficult to justify saying that if it were the TV series. Michael just let me do it and said, “I hope you get it right later on.” We came back out, after shooting a scene in the house, in the early evening and that was the light we got: it was unbelievably beautiful. But that was, again, pretty lucky. I could have had egg all over my face. There is another scene with Penelope and Maggie (as Isobel Grey, Baroness Merton, and Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham) when they are walking and talking quite early in the film. We had shot it outside Penelope’s character’s house in the village, and it was blowing a gale. It was kind of silly to see these two characters have a conversation in the garden and it was if we had a wind machine on them. It didn’t work at all. So we reshot that, and again, we got such beautiful sunlight with the house in the deep background. I’m glad we had the opportunity to reshoot both of those scenes. But we all agreed in the moment that it wasn’t working. Their hair was all over the place!
Any other tricky scenes to shoot?
The shot of Matthew Goode as Henry Talbot running up the stairs was pretty tricky. We did that with a PowerKam, which goes straight up the middle on hydraulics and follows him as he leaps up the steps. We did it about 13 times and it was challenging because he’s running pretty fast. They ended up using the third take, which I nailed.
The house itself is a major character, from its beating heart in the kitchen up to the elegantly appointed appendages in the rooms upstairs. And the exterior, sitting at the end of that long gravel drive. How many aerial shoots did you do?
We did a few days because I think the weather wasn’t so great, and then we did it again. Everything around the house is done with drones. It would be too difficult to get those shots with a helicopter. However, the aerial footage in the beginning of the film above the steam train is done with a full-sized helicopter. I went up and shot that.
The Yorkshire Hussars cavalry formations seen during the King and Queen’s visit looked very challenging to shoot. Were they?
Well, they could have been. I think we shot that scene in about four days. We had some other things to do in the village. But it was one I had shot in before, called Lacock, in Wiltshire, which is outside of Bath. It’s a very beautiful, preserved village. People live in it, but we had to clear the entire street, we had to clear a cricket pitch — it was a big number. Again, if the weather hadn’t been good we would have been in big trouble, because we closed the whole village down. It took weeks and weeks and weeks of negotiation by the location department, who I’d worked with before on Cranford, when we had closed down the whole village for weeks on end. But this was a huge number, with 100 soldiers and 100 horses and thousands of extras. Co-producer Mark Hubbard, who I know very well from other features, I just kept looking at him in the morning, going, “Please don’t worry.” He had this worried look on his face. It all could have gone very wrong. If the weather was bad, like it can be in England, we certainly would have been in trouble. But we planned it well. We had four cameras most of the time, plus cranes — we had everything. For three full days the sun shone perfectly, we finished on time, nothing got damaged and nobody got hurt. It was brilliant. But they were some of the biggest scenes we did in the whole film.
How long did you film at Highclere Castle, which stands in for Downton?
We were there for quite a while, about three weeks. And the entire time, you’ve got to be very careful. It’s very old and there are a lot of very expensive artifacts and paintings surrounding you. We also shot at Harewood House, at Wentworth Woodhouse and at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, though we didn’t go inside. They are always tricky to shoot within, however, when you’ve got a lot of crew. At least the owners of Highclere have been used to having the TV series there for some time, and they were very welcoming. But if something goes wrong, they can just throw you out. Nothing went wrong for us. For the ballroom scene at the end of the film, we were shooting at Wentworth Woodhouse. It’s a really big house in South Yorkshire, and nobody was living there at the moment. But the reason we were there is that ballroom is one of the biggest in Europe. It’s priceless but it isn’t easy to get your equipment inside. We had to get a crane inside, because we needed it for that last scene, so that all had to be organized in a lot of detail. It’s a thrill to shoot in them, but it’s not easy. Highclere is quite a special place and is a really beautiful house. And sitting in helicopter shooting the exteriors of Alnwick Castle [made famous by the Harry Potter franchise and as the home of the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland], I kept thinking, this is simply amazing that I get to fly around and shoot period cars outside this ancient castle. The TV series had actually once filmed there inside, and I’d been there once before on a scout, but we just needed to show Lady Edith [Laura Carmichael] driving outside her own formidable house.
I have to say, production designer Donal Woods really knows what he’s doing, especially on that kitchen set. It may be true to the era and utilitarian, but it also feels so of the moment with its spare lines, deep hues and unfinished wood farmhouse table.
That’s true. He knows exactly what he’s doing! I’ve known him for over 10 years, and he’s designed some truly beautiful sets. He’s also very calm, very experienced, very knowledgeable and he’s such a joy to work with. The production design is such a big, collaborative part of what I do. If you’ve got that right, it makes my job so much easier. He designs things around my needs; he’s very collaborative and we get on well. He’s a good friend. I had never worked with Anna [Robbins], the costume designer, before but loved working with her. She was amazing, and it shows in those gorgeous costumes. Anne [Oldham], the makeup and hair designer, was also amazing. Everyone was just brilliant, top to bottom, from Liz and Gareth and the other producers on down through the cast and crew. They were really supportive. There’s just something about that film. I think it’s probably the most enjoyable feature film I’ve ever shot. It doesn’t always happen, and there’s a lot of pressure to make it happen, especially with such a big cast. But everybody knew what they were doing and we all got on and I think we all did some really good work.
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