English actor turned writer Julian Fellowes makes his directorial debut in Separate Lies, a suspenseful moral maze set against the backdrop of England’s upper middle class, starring Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson and Rupert Everett. The story tells of the personal devastation that occurs when a single lie told in haste quickly spirals into an irreversible tangled web.Fellowes plays with various themes: the instability of life and love, real truths behind seemingly idyllic middle-class lives, and perhaps more poignantly, the tug of war between right and wrong that occurs in all of our lives. “There’s this suggestion that there are only bad people and good people, and this bears no resemblance to most of our lives,” says Fellowes. “I like doubt, and complication. In real life bad people do good things, and good people do bad things.”The film’s picture-perfect settings are a dramatic counterpoint to the tragedies of the characters’ situations. Its impeccable design and marvelously defined (and designed) characters reveal a passion in the filmmaking that grounds a story that touches the soul on so many different levels. Below the Line: What appealed to you about the story, originally a novel by author Nigel Balchin?Julian Fellowes: It was a wonderful opportunity to make the kind of film I wanted to see. I’m interested that the prosperous middle class, which is always going to be the heartland of any western democracy, is under-represented in British filmmaking. It’s rare for this group of people to be treated seriously. Yet most people want to be living a prosperous middle-class life. But of course, nobody is living a dream life, however much it seems. It’s an unraveling hell in this charming setting. That’s what attracted me to the novel. I’m also interested in choice. All of our lives are governed by our choices. Particularly as we approach late middle age: our life is our fault. Emily [Watson] takes the decision to tell the initial lie by not saying anything. Once she’s done that, she goes down a path that ends in the complete destruction of her entire life.BTL: In your vision for the film, what kind of look were you and your DP, Tony Pierce-Roberts, going for?Fellowes: I wanted that sort of glowing look that the film has, because there’s a kind of irony implicit in the movie that it looks lovely, but everything is actually absolutely terrible and they’re in a kind of living hell. There had to be ambivalence in it. I didn’t want the color drained out and the film getting drab; I wanted the continuing irony of the fact that everything’s going wrong.BTL: How did you go about picking your key crew?Fellowes: I had a fabulous crew. When you’re a first-time director you have to have a group of people who you can trust completely, and who know what they’re doing. They were very nice. I was never made to feel like the new boy. I got, as my first assistant, David Brown, who was first AD on Monarch of the Glen [the BBC series Fellowes starred in for five years]. I wanted to have someone I was confident was a good first, and who I already had a relationship with. Your first is the one you speak through all the time. He’s your pundit to what’s going on among the crew and on the set. After that, your DP is completely crucial. I met two or three I really liked, but settled on Tony Pierce-Roberts who was very experienced and has done some beautiful work. He was very very helpful and made good suggestions. You take their advice. My location manager Jane Soma was someone I could trust to go and find exactly what we needed. She found these wonderful houses to shoot in. I didn’t want a huge English country house that would alienate the audience. I wanted something that any taxi driver would look at the screen and say, “God, I want that.” She found a house that was great, but it wasn’t huge. They looked lucky to be living there.BTL: What were some of the contributions of your production designer, Alison Riva?Fellowes: It was important to me to get a designer who knew people like the characters in the film. She knew those people, and she knew what I was after. I didn’t want it madly aristocratic, or nouveau riche; I wanted it comfortable. With a designer I never think it’s a terribly good idea to tell them what you want, because then you don’t give them any room. I showed her images of what I was looking for and the impression I wanted, and then she went off and found what worked. BTL: You shot the film almost entirely on location and in the actual places the story was set: London, Paris and the Buckinghamshire village of Turville. Did that pose any difficulties?Fellowes: We only had trouble with one guy in the village, who was angry at us filming there. He would park his car in the background while we were filming, which really irritated me. But the rest of the people in Turville were very nice. We used a lot of that village. I wanted the sense of the perfect English village: the church, the graveyard, the house, everything was in the village. I think these days, people know how films are made, and they know that things aren’t real. I felt the story required a dimension of reality. In many of the shots you can see that we were in that house. We used the inside and the outside of the house in the village. Just as in their London house, all the rooms were actually in that house. If you’ve gone somewhere else [to film] you can sometimes sense a slight change of scale that gives it away.One of the bigger problems was the rain machine, which we used in one of the London scenes. First of all, the size of a rain machine is beyond belief, if you want the street to be washed with rain. This thing arrived; it looked like something out of the reconstruction of New York. Everyone was getting soaked, and the residents got hysterical. The police said we had to stop at midnight. It was just down from the Albert Hall, and all the waitresses stood in the windows to watch the filming, which meant, of course, we had to stop filming until we could make them all go away.BTL: With so much filming in practical locations, and in noisy cities, what kind of challenges did that pose in terms of sound?Fellowes: This is an increasing difficulty everywhere. When we were in the country, we had the motorway, and you have private planes now. It becomes a problem when you have a distinctive sound suddenly appear at exactly the place where you want the audience to be concentrating on something else. In southern England it’s very difficult to film now for sound. Our sound guy, Chris Monro was incredible. He won the Oscar for Black Hawk Down.BTL: The costumes were very effective in defining the characters, and revealing things about them. How did you collaborate with your costume designer Michele Clapton?Fellowes: Michele is so nice and very good to work with. With James [Tom Wilkinson], we wanted to show his entrapment. In London he’s never out of a suit and that suit fits him perfectly. When he’s in the country he’s in perfect country clothes: Barbour, cords, jeans. He’s absolutely confined by that. But Emily has this journey where in the beginning she wears the kind of clothes that his wife would wear, and after she’s free from him her clothes change slightly—the long open, slightly hippyish coat she’s wearing when she meets him in the park in Paris. Very subtly she becomes a slightly freer person. Her hair is differently styled, and you feel she’s styled it the way she wants to wear it. The great difficulty in dealing with those types of women in films, is they wear very coutured clothes, which are incredibly expensive. And we were working on a budget. I think Michele did a very good job of walking that line.BTL: Your hair and makeup artist RoseAnn Samuel avoided making the characters too pretty. Was that by design?Fellowes: I wanted them all to look real. I wanted them to look like real people
leading their real lives. In film there can be a temptation to make the actors look perfect. They have real faces. Tom and Emily look like an attractive, but not a movie-star couple.BTL: The film’s editing is very finely crafted. You tell the story, but never reveal too much. What were the contributions of your two editors, Alex Mackie and Martin Walsh?Fellowes: In the beginning of the editing process, it’s like asking to cut the little finger off your baby. You can’t bear to lose anything. And you remember the agony you went through to get the shot. Then gradually the film starts to take on its own life, its own energy. And you realize it’s not so bad to lose bits. Editing is the most enjoyable bit for me. You wake up in the morning and you’re just going to make a movie out of the raw material. It’s the two of you sitting in a room, more or less from morning to night. Alex and I worked very closely together in the first stage, but then she had to go off and do another job. When Martin came on board, we were all very keen for him to look at it fresh. He put back certain things. One of the great dangers when you’re editing a film is you see it so often you start to think, ‘we don’t need that; we’ve got that,’ and you remember you’re seeing the film for the 128th time and they’re seeing it for the first time. I absolutely adored them both. They were both amazing.
Written by Sam Molineaux