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English gent and scriptwriter Julian Fellows answers the phone in his Los Angeles hotel after collecting one of his awards for Gosford Park, and tells Andrew L. Urban how he got lucky getting the job, and how he managed to slip a little revenge into the script.

First of all, what’s a nice Englishman like you doing in a place like Los Angeles?
(Laughs) I love Los Angeles actually; I’m not one of those English who says isn’t it ghastly and I’m longing to go home; I always have a jolly good time here. The weather’s fabulous and it’s the centre of filmdom and I enjoy that. I did live out here for a couple of years at the beginning of the 80s as a struggling actor and it’s rather fun to be back with a kind of hit movie and all that. It made me laugh the other day ‘cause we were here for the Golden Globes. Emma, my wife, was going up the red carpet – pop pop pop went the cameras, “look this way,” all that going on… and she turned to me and said ‘you know, I like Los Angeles much more than I thought I would’. ‘Darling this is the way to see it!’ I told her.

If you’re going to be in LA, you might as well be on a red carpet! But you didn’t quite answer my question, are you there because of Gosford Park?
I’m here because I came out for the Writer’s Guild Awards on Saturday, which in fact I won. Thrilling. And then on Thursday I go to Las Vegas to be presented with the ShowWest Award for Screenwriter of the Year. I’m here to collect my hardware. (Laughs)

Are you going to stick around for the Oscars?
I’m actually going home for about 10 days before that and then coming back with Emma, cause she’s not with me this time. 

Does it feel a little strange to be thrust into this limelight?
It’s a kind of extraordinary experience really. It’s partly enjoyable but mainly bewildering that this extraordinary kind of circus is going on and suddenly you’re doing these interviews and photo shoots, then you’re on the television, you’re on the wireless… doing these panels, you know… I don’t know what I feel about it really. I mean it is fun to be a kind of success in a town that is built on success. And you know you smell right for the first time. I’ll tell you one thing. All my famous friends who were not answering letters or ringing back or cancelling something at the last minute . . .I now forgive them all. 

Like Hugh Grant, I gather? 
(laughs) oh Hugh, I simply love him actually. But he hadn’t answered some letter and I said to Emma ‘I think it’s pretty feeble of Hugh not to have answered…’ now I couldn’t take it back more. I mean, I am not famous. Nobody has heard of me. If I walked down the street no-one would recognise me and I am still in a vortex of madness. What it must be like for Hugh or God knows, Russell Crowe or someone, one can hardly imagine. All I know is that they have my sympathy.

Fame is a double edged sword. What about the script that you were working on with Bob Balaban when this whole idea came up.. .what happened to that script and what was that script?
That script was an adaptation of a 19th century novel by Anthony Trollop called The Eustace Diamonds and hopefully Sharon Maguire may direct it now, who directed Bridget Jones’s Diary. 

Did this project get a boost with Gosford Park’s success?
I’ll say! I mean all my old scripts are now being dusted off. It’s rather fun actually.

Tell us a little about The Eustace Diamonds….
All I can tell you is this. When Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone with the Wind, there are two books that she had certainly read. One is Vanity Fair and the other is The Eustace Diamonds. Because Becky Sharp, Lizzy Eustace and Scarlett O’Hara are all the same woman. And it is about an incredibly beguiling, incredibly attractive adventuress who effectively steals a diamond necklace. Great part for a woman. It’s set in the 1870s.

I read in the production notes to Gosford Park that when it was decided that the film would be set at a country house over a weekend in the 30s, you were chosen as you are familiar with the way these houses were run at that time - and I was wondering why.
Well that was the reason I got the job. You know, I mean the basic idea, was to make an English film in a house with servants that made a sort of gesture to the Agatha Christie format by having a murder, but the murder was not what the film was about. The film was going to be about the master/servant relationship, class and all that stuff. And in order for that concept to work, they had to find a screenwriter who knew about how those houses worked. Who knew what people were like who lived in the houses and the rest of it. And of course, where I was very fortunate, is that the list of screenwriters who know that stuff is not a long one. And that enabled me to have my lucky break. The reason I knew about it is because I grew up at the end of that world – well I say at the end of that world, but it’s still going on, in a kind of reduced way now. I mean if you stay in a house with four or five servants it’s quite unusual, whereas in those days of course, there were four times that number. I was a deb’s [debutante] delight, and I stayed in all those houses. And then of course, because I then became an actor, I had that curious position of being a kind of insider / outsider – and you suddenly get a different perspective. But you know, it’s like for any of us, when you step outside your world, you get a different perspective. And you suddenly see it as others see it. So I suppose that was my luck. I had that knowledge and I know what the servants do and how the houses work.

So you were a bit lucky being in the right spot at the right time?
Oh I’ll say. There’s such an element of luck in these things. Funnily enough I said that when I was getting my Writers’ Guild award, which is a very thrilling one to get actually – from other writers. I’ve now won four awards on this, but that was the first time when the envelope was opened and they say ‘the winner is..’ you know? And you get all ready not to look disappointed. Anyway, I said there is a myth that they say talent will out. And you know, if you’ve got it, they’ll find you, and all this stuff. But all of that is complete rubbish. The truth is there are masses and masses of people out there with a lot of talent with very interesting performances to give and things to say. And they’ve never been given the opportunity to do it. And the older you get, the more you think that’s not going to happen to you. But the thing that comes into your life, the element that changes it, is luck. And suddenly, this project was going with a world-famous director and he needed a skill that I have and most of the other screenwriters didn’t. 

Julian, you say you grew up in that era… what exactly were the circumstances?
Well, I come from one of those families… but we weren’t particularly well off or anything. My father was in the foreign office, a diplomat, and my family is listed in Bourke’s Landed Gentry. And in those days with things like ‘the season,’ the people who ran the season used to go through those books and find the names of eligible young men who were the right age and you’d be summoned to these parties. One’s supposed to say how ghastly they were, but actually, I thought they were hilarious, and I had a very good time, but then I made this career choice to move into another area. This was all going on in the 50s and 60s - and it’s still going on, even though most people hardly know. When my stepmother ‘came out’ there were three balls a night. When I ‘came out’ there were two a week, and now there are about five a year. And of course you do have things stored up about people that you want to say. And what was wonderful for me about Gosford Park was that I was given a blank sheet to say whatever I liked, to tell whatever stories, so it was an opportunity not so much to get my own back, because I didn’t have any things to avenge, but to say things about those people.

So you had a reservoir of memories and observations to pour into the script. Were any of them actual people that you used as characters?
Well, Constance, the Countess of Trentham (played by Maggie Smith), is kind of based on my great Aunt, my grandfather’s oldest sister but she’s also a mixture of my mother-in-law. And some of her quotes are from my mother-in-law. You see, all my life, I’ve put up with the upper classes’ rejection of popular culture. Which is one of the themes of the film. And all my life, I’ve had to sit next to wives of baronets, who do nothing at all in Shropshire, looking down on anything I do in the entertainment world. So all that dialogue about how disappointing when something flops, I’ve heard it all my life. Even the other day, a couple of weeks ago, a relation said ‘oh, very good luck with your play!’ 

Like that line when Bob Balaban’s character doesn’t want to reveal the ending of his film, in case it spoils it for the guests, and someone says ‘but none of us will see it…’ 
Well, yes, that’s a bit of my revenge.

Published March 14, 2002

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Julian Fellowes

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