The Crawley Family — who we first met in 2010 via the megahit series Downton Abbey before they made the leap to the big screen in 2019 — returns to theaters once again in Downton Abbey: A New Era.
The film represents a changing of the guard of sorts, with the story inching slowly towards the 1930s (it was set in 1912 when it all began), as the family is going through many changes, as is the world around them — including Hollywood. A New Era finds half of the family traveling to the South of France to a villa that the Countess Dowager (Maggie Smith) secretly inherited from a long-lost flame, while the other half stays behind to serve as hosts to a crew of Hollywood outsiders looking to shoot a movie on location, just as the film industry is transitioning into the sound era. They bring along with them new characters played by Hugh Dancy, Dominic West, and Laura Haddock.
As we wrote last month in our review of the film, Downton Abbey has always been catnip for those interested in below-the-line crafts, from its costumes and music to its lovely cinematography, and given that the title of this entire franchise refers to a place itself, one can expect that careful thought has been put into the production design of the film as well.
Last week, Below the Line spoke to Downton Abbey’s longtime production designer Donal Woods about his work on the franchise and the little twist in A New Era that required him to create a villa in the South of France — a relatively rare occurrence in the Downton world. Read on as Woods explains how he created the original sets for this beloved period drama and new ones for the forthcoming sequel.
Below the Line: You’ve been involved with Downton Abbey from the very beginning, so how did that first come about?
Donal Woods: I started looking for Downton Abbey in 2009, for a TV series that would run for one series. I rang up the producer [Liz Trubridge] and asked her, ‘What is this about?’ She said: ‘It’s about a very rich, noble family that lives in a villa.’ I said: ‘Liz, nobody is going to watch that. We just had a global crash!’ So, [it] goes to show what I know.
BTL: Well, why do you think it’s been so popular then? I mean there are even crazier crises now than in 2009, and it’s still quite popular.
Woods: It’s Julian [Fellowes]’s writing. It’s entertainment. You need good writing. He has such an ability to create characters, you can tell who they are in four lines. And he has this ability to interweave so many characters. He manages to do a feature film with 16 leading characters, nobody else can do that. He’s a genius.
BTL: So then let’s talk about your work then — you don’t have 16 places to go. You have the upstairs and the downstairs, and in this one, you have the France twist, so how did you go about approaching this project?
Woods: The big thing was definitely finding the villa. Liz and [I] were in the South of France in the Summer of 2020 and visited about 6-8 villas. The Villa Rockabella, which we chose, was the prettiest. It was one of the small notes I got from Focus. They wanted it to be different. A colorful Mediterranean house that the Crawleys would never have been on their own. So this is the one that fit the most. And then, because of COVID, it took eight months to get people back because of the lockdowns in France and England.
BTL: So what work did you do on the location once you had it?
Woods: My set decorator Linda Wilson had to take out all the furniture, and through Zooms, she and I worked on what we thought we would put in where. We had to change all the light switches. We had to do the gardens even — some modern things to cover up. We had about 4-5 days to do that before we started filming, 4-5 days to get them to the 1928 state.
BTL: What about the fact that there is a fake Hollywood crew filming at Downton in this movie?
Woods: It was very busy. Extra crew, can you imagine! I did My Week With Marilyn and I had contacts with people who had collected period moviemaking equipment — cameras, lighting, etc. So we used that and put that in there. It’s incredibly technical. Literally cutting sound on a record, as you saw in the film. It was fun to pretend to be filming a film in 1928. And it was informative about how early sound films were being made, [and] how they were being mixed in.
BTL: Continuity is a big thing in the world of Downton Abbey, but in this film, we get the sense that they are pushing into a new chapter. Did that affect how you approached your job on this film?
Woods: A lot of the country houses in England have 1930s furniture anyway, and that has been a constant, a good thing for the audience. We had more fun with the French house, we were able to put in Modern Art from the 1920s, which we got from The Met in New York, cleared art from there. It was a great resource and we had it on the walls. You can go in and it’s cleared for all films, and it’s beautiful.
BTL: So does that mean you always use the same furniture in Downton itself?
Woods: About 30 percent is the same for many years, and the rest changes. The smoking room, where they did the gambling within the film, we built that as a set. The bedrooms we’ve always built as sets from zero every time, by the way. In Season 4, we had the smoking room briefly, and we revived that. It had a big roulette table and the actors are filming their own movie there. Then we had a green screen to get you back into the rest of the house.
BTL: Where did you source the furniture for the Villa from?
Woods: We tried to get it from a great place in Paris but, again, the lockdown. We found a mix of modern 20th Century with Louis XIV furniture, and I’m afraid we had to get it all from England. But we actually got some great things there at old furniture stores. It was a challenging time but hopefully it looks good!
BTL: Is the downstairs a set as well?
Woods: Yes, that’s always been a set, not on location. Right from Season 1, we did it that way. The downstairs is restrained and muted, black and white, almost noir. The upstairs is wonderful and colorful. We’ve always tried to maintain that, and of course, the green screen connects it, but that’s where we are going for.
BTL: What other sets did you have to construct?
Woods: A hat shop in France, Mr. Carson’s cottage — where he meets his wife, Imelda’s daughter. We constructed the server, as I mentioned. Isabel Crawley’s house was on location, not far from London. But it belongs to an elderly couple and we didn’t want to go to their house during COVID, so we had to build that one up. Myrna’s and Mary’s bedrooms get rebuilt always. Or maybe “refurbished” is the right term, as they’re in storage but they always need some rebuilding.
BTL: How much oversight or collaboration is there with the director Simon Curtis, given that you’ve been on this project for a long time and he’s directing Downton for the first time.
Woods: Well, as you know, he’s married to Elizabeth McGovern [Lady Mary Crawley], so he’s actually lived it almost as much as we have. But yeah, he had to trust us a lot. He couldn’t come to France to pick up the Villa. It was collaborative but he definitely trusted me.
BTL: This has been such a long journey in your life — what’s been your favorite part?
Woods: We do what we do to entertain people. Whether it’s TV or [a] film. It’s been fantastic to be a part of something so successful. Of course, you get the paycheck, but in the end, when you have an audience — especially in your country, and the first film did so well — you’re so pleased people like it. It’s entertainment to get people, just for two hours, not thinking about Ukraine or the pandemic.
Downton Abbey: A New Era arrives in U.S. theaters on May 20 courtesy of Focus Features.