When Julian Fellowes signed on to write the “Gosford Park” script that later won him an Academy Award, it was actually his second Hollywood breakthrough, his first one coming as an actor some 20 years earlier. He built on his acting success in the U.S. and his native Britain to become a successful producer, director and novelist and also wrote the book for the Broadway musical adaptation of “Mary Poppins.”
Fellowes, whose latest novel, “Past Imperfect,” is being published this week in the U.S., spoke with Eric Estrin about a turning point in Universal’s black tower, the strength of Robert Altman and how to avoid suicide.
After I left drama school I went into rep, which in those days everyone did. And then I went into the West End of London, in a comedy that became a hit. And then I did another one, and I did an Alan Ayckbourn and I did a Noel Coward revival. For about six years, I suppose I was kind of in the West End.
Then I had one of those moments where I thought, This isn’t a bad career, but it’s just not the career I want. And I had the opportunity to get a green card, which was very difficult then, and I thought, I’m going to do this — I’m going to go out to L.A.
That was in the early ‘80s. I lived in Los Angeles for two or three years, and although it wasn’t a triumph career-wise, I did a couple of TV movies with Lynda Carter and various other things. Then I had this kind of Hollywood moment when Herve Villechaize was leaving “Fantasy Island” and they decided to replace him with a young English valet. I went through endless meetings trying to get the part.
I even made it to the top of the black tower at Universal, to the point where they asked would I be prepared to sign a seven-year contract. I didn’t get the part — but it was an eye-opener. Because I NEARLY got it, I had to address whether I really wanted it.
I realized I didn’t want to be stuck doing a kind of middlebrow thing, I just didn’t. I wanted to get more into feature films and if I did television I wanted it to be more less formulaic. It generated in me a passionate ambition to get back and make my career do what I wanted.
You know, one of the things about being an actor is you’re very passive all the time. You sit there by the telephone waiting for it to ring, but you can’t make it ring. And suddenly I became sort of angry about that, and I decided to start producing as well as acting. I do feel that was the moment of my life when I took back the reins instead of just being on a toboggan going downhill.
I started writing film scripts, and one of them was for Bob Balaban, the actor-producer –an adaptation of a novel by Trollope called “The Eustace Diamonds.” It didn’t get made; in fact, they’re trying to get it going now, but it was that script that made Bob think of me when he was trying to set up “Gosford Park” with Robert Altman.
They wanted to do a country-house murder mystery, and they couldn’t find a writer, thank God, and Balaban rang me and asked, “Would I like to write a film for Robert Altman.” I went out and I gave myself kind of an Altman festival. Over three days I watched six or seven of his films and I realized it would probably be a multi-character, multi-arc thing.
So then I was asked to have a conversation and to outline characters and things, which I did, and interestingly quite a lot of those characters got into the movie. And then I was asked to write a first draft, and all the way through that period, although I was very pleased to be asked and I worked very hard, I never thought it would really happen. It just seemed too unlikely that I was going on with my life and suddenly I was asked to write a film script for an internationally known director, you know?
It was entirely due to Bob that there were no other writers, because you know how studios panic. They’d say, “Let’s just bring someone in for a polish, just someone with a little bit more experience,” you know, all this stuff, and he wouldn’t allow that. He said no.
The thing about Altman, what he did have was absolute courage in defending his own vision of the film. So in this instance, here am I writing a film about these people that everybody thinks nobody’s going to be interested in, but he was proof against that stuff. He said, “No, I think we’re showing a way of life in this film that is going to interest people,” and of course he knew he had this tremendous cast coming to be assembled.
I mean, he could be difficult too. I don’t want to paint a picture that he was some kind of sugar plum fairy, but in this instance, his strength is what launched my career.
The lesson of this, of course, is when you do have a possible door opening, you’ve got to act as if it’s going to happen, because if it does happen and you miss out, you have to kill yourself.