As many of you know, I have been doing features called Designer Dad On Location...As someone that loves film and television homes - it has been a great way for me to talk to the creative people that bring those spaces to life such as Production Designers and Set Decorators. I am a firm believer that the places we enjoy seeing on television or on the big screen - inspire us in our everyday lives...They show us new styles, new themes, new details we may not have experienced before. They open up our world, transport us and inspire us in our own lives and environments.
This time around, I'm taking a slightly different approach with this feature by talking to someone that is very much a part of the overall series that I have become a big fan of - "Downton Abbey" - Executive Producer Rebecca Eaton.
Rebecca is truly the force behind why this series came to life in the way that it deserved to here in America. She has been at the creative helm of many MASTERPIECE productions over the years and is very integrated into the PBS family. Hence, I was thrilled to be able to talk to her about this - now very well-loved production.
Having worked with the film company famous for their own period costume dramas in the past - Merchant Ivory Films - I do have a love of content that can take you back in time and allow you to experience life in another place. It takes you out of your own daily life and allows to be immersed into another world for a time. I love that. In this day of reality TV, the chances to experience that kind of quality is rare - but this is exactly what MASTERPIECE's "Downton Abbey" on PBS has done. A well-written, character-driven series, with sumptuous production values and attention to fine detail.
Though it's Second Season on PBS has just come to end as of last week, I am sure you have seen the media surrounding this series all over the place. It has attracted a varied audience of all ages, it is loved by women and men and is cultivating a new appreciation for what PBS has always been about (all the more reason to support our PBS stations!).
Rebecca Eaton : Executive Producer
of "Downtown Abbey" MASTERPIECE/PBS
So I am excited to share with you: Designer Dad On Location : Downton Abbey with Rebecca Eaton...
I think it was when I heard that Julian Fellowes was writing a period family saga set in a beautiful country manor house.
As Season 2 comes to an end and with Season 3 now filming in England, did you expect that this series would have such a fan following that seems to have been generated by word of mouth?
Downton Abbey has become the closest thing to water-cooler television that MASTERPIECE has done in a long time. By that I mean, the kind of television that people talk to each other about the next day, and now with Twitter – they actually talk to each other during the broadcast! And we have a tremendous new audience of young people.
In the world of reality television, I must admit this series is quite refreshing and timely. What is it about this period costume drama that has made it different from other Masterpiece productions?
Actually, we do SIMILAR period drama, week-in and week-out. It’s what we’re known for. Downton Abbey is SPECIAL because it hits all the high points – great storytelling, brilliant casting, and gorgeous production values. And it has the added advantage of being an original story.
You have been Executive Producer of a great many Masterpiece productions - what is the best part of what you do everyday?
I’m an Anglophile, a bookworm, and the daughter of an actress. So, to come to work and spend most of my day reading scripts, screening programs, and talking on the phone to my British colleagues – it’s like a dream come true.
What captures my attention as a viewer is the "sense of family" that is created with both the main family at Downton Abbey, but also the family that is created amongst the house staff. I do believe this is a big part of what draws everyone into this series. How does that translate on location? Is that mood the same as what we see on television?
The cast works from February through July, so they are together day-in and day-out for a very long time. When I visited the set, my impression was that they are genuinely fond of each other, and even though they are working terrifically hard, they have fun. The costumes are challenging to relax in and the hours are long, but the actors seem comfortable and fond of each other. Of course who knows what happens when I’m not there!
There is a certain romance about this simpler time in history that Downton Abbey captures. At the same time, the series is very good about showing us how far we have come and also illustrates the interesting turns of human nature and character. For someone that may not be familiar with the series YET - how would you describe the essence of what the series is about?
That’s a tough question to answer, because Downton is about a lot of things. But to reduce it as simple as possible: It’s a portrait of a group of people in England, in a beautiful house, at a time of tremendous social change. There are many stories in these characters’ lives - about love, money, loyalty, betrayal, revenge. Writer Julian Fellowes is interested in creating characters trying to do the right thing. There’s a certain sense of morality and community at the heart of Downton Abbey.
What also draws me into the series is the production design and the overall style. The main location for Downton Abbey is a real location. What was it like for you going to the location the first time?
It took my breath away. I came around a bend in the road and saw Highclere Castle with a British flag flying at the tower, and I was very moved. The house is in a beautiful setting, and knowing what was going on inside made it a very special experience. The actual house is smaller than I thought it was, but the grounds go on forever. And then I went inside!
At what stage was that location chosen? Was the house chosen once the script was written or was the house somehow the inspiration?
I think Julian Fellowes always had Highclere Castle in mind, but you’d have to ask him.
How much of the series is filmed at the house? Are there sets built somewhere else? How far is that location from other sets?
All the downstairs scenes are filmed at a set at the famous Ealing Studios, just outside London. The kitchen, Mrs. Hughes’ sitting room, and some of the upstairs bedrooms have been built there. But the main upstairs scenes take place in the actual drawing room, library, dining room and central hall of Highclere Castle. The percentage between the two locations is roughly 50/50. Highclere Castle and Ealing Studios are about 90 minutes apart.
How much of the main house had to be modified for the production? Was the furniture and artwork already there - or is a great deal of that brought in?
The drawing room, dining room and library are exactly as you see them in the television show – it’s real furniture, priceless paintings and books that are the property of the Carnarvon family, who live there. And the cast and crew have to be extremely careful in those rooms.
For you, was it like stepping back in time seeing that house staged for the production and seeing the cast in costume?
Because of all the lighting and camera equipment, and the countless behind-the-scenes crew, it’s hard to lose track of the 21st century.
What is your personal favorite space or location? Why?
My favorite is the library, because I’m a bookworm, and there are comfortable chairs just calling out to me to sit down and read in.
When you return home from the period location and come back to America - how does that production influence your own personal style or life?
I start wearing a tiara and ordering my staff around – when I ask them to wear starched uniforms, they rebel. Just kidding! Actually, my posture improves.Those Edwardian ladies sit up very straight. Also, it makes me want to give more dinner parties.
Has the set decoration of your productions overall found its way into your day-to-day settings? For example, your office - if we went into your office today - does it illustrate a certain style or look? Do you find yourself wanting flowers around or beautiful details that bring you back into that world that you just left on location.
This is the question of the chicken and the egg. I’ve always loved books and flowers, all things English. I can remember as a little girl in California, rearranging my room so it looked like an English girl’s bedroom. And I definitely have books, flowers and antiques in my own house.
I tell everyone that has not seen the series to go to your website to see the series from the start to get everyone ready for Season 3. As filming begins for Season 3 - are there some things you are excited about?
I’m very excited to see Shirley MacLaine as Cora’s mother go toe-to-toe with Violet, played by Maggie Smith. What a match-up!
What's next on your creative agenda at Masterpiece aside from Downton Abbey?
2012 is the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth, so we’re celebrating by co-producing (with the BBC) two new adaptations which air this April: Great Expectations, starring Gillian Anderson and David Suchet; and Dickens’ great unfinished work – The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
A special thanks to Rebecca Eaton and the team at Downton Abbey for taking the time to talk with me.
Check out Rebecca Eaton talking about why Americans have connected to Downton Abbey here:
For those of you that have not seen the series yet. Now is your chance. You can watch the entire series (full-length episodes) of Downton Abbey - Season 1 and Season 2 (which just ended Sunday, February 19th) online at Masterpiece/PBS and you can also purchase the DVD collection.
Here is the original preview from Season 1 to get you started:
You can also watch cast interviews and behind-the-scenes videos from the series. Plus, you can check in on all other creative programming that MASTERPIECE is bringing to life.
Check out my recent posting showing videos of the behind-the-scenes at Downton Abbey.
All I can say is thank goodness for Masterpiece and for PBS. Excellence and great attention to detail...Great television does exist in our modern world.
Still can't get enough of the series? Check out this beautiful book The World of Downton Abbey (St. Martin's Press 2011) written by Jessica Fellowes with a Foreword by her uncle - Julian Fellowes - the creator and writer of the series. It provides a great look into the creative journey and story of the series - but it also is filled with behind-the-scenes information and amazing photographs. Beautiful!
Enjoy! More to come...