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Shooting ‘Downton Abbey’ with Ben Smithard, Director of Photography

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When popularity boosted the Crawleys from the Public Television Screen to the Silver Screen, the producers tapped Goodbye Christopher Robin and The Trip’s Ben Smithard to capture the scope of the luscious life and times of our favorites at Downton Abbey.

With experience in television and film shooting period dramas like Belle, King Lear, Henry IV and many more, Ben was a perfect fit. We talked to Ben about his opening scene in the film his favorite scene to shoot, grabbing pints with Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan on The Trip and inserting a chase action scene into the Downton Abbey movie.

FOG!: Is this your, is this your first project with this team?

Ben Smithard: On Downton Abbey? Yeah, I… Now I didn’t do any of the TV series, I got offered the very first two episodes, but I also got offered a TV series called The Trip with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon at the same time. And I went off and did The Trip instead. So I didn’t work on the TV series at all, but I knew a lot of the people and knew a lot of the producers and the crew and a lot of the cast, but I didn’t… Had nothing to do with Downton until the feature film, now.

Well, I’m a fan of The Trip, too, so that’s an extra bonus there, those are beautifully shot.

The Trip was brilliant. It was so much fun. I mean we just went out there with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon and there was no script. It was all improvised and they just made it up as they went along. And it was seven weeks on the road with those two, with a very small crew. And I ended up doing that instead of Downton, but I loved doing The Trip.

With the improvisation and the brilliant minds you’re dealing with there, you really come up with some beautiful shots and in The Trip, so kudos for you to for being able to adjust and move as things were being thrown at you.

It was like a documentary really, to be honest. We were just, a lot of the time we’re filming them eating lunches or whatever, and then we’d be driving with them we were in beautiful countryside and stuff like that. And Michael Winterbottom, the director, is kind of in control of everything, so we’d work really hard during the day, and at six o’clock in the evening he’d go, you know what, I’ve had enough now. And every time he said that, we’d be in a pub, and we just went, okay, well let’s have a drink then, fuck it, let’s just…

Because we’ve worked really hard. And then, you know, and then we’d have a drink or dinner or whatever with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon and they were just, amazing company, of course. Some of the stories, made me say, “Oh my God”!

Seven weeks of that, that’s what we did. We just… We’d go to bed, wake up, film them. There was not one word of scripted dialogue in that TV series at all. It was all improvised, the whole thing.

The whole thing, it was all made up.

No scripted dialogue at all.

Let’s talk the Crawleys because that is definitely a huge pivot. You are known for some very great cinematic movies but here we’ve already had other directors and five great seasons of TV.  What you had to do was you had to step into their world? What were your major challenges, you think, approaching Downton?

Well, not to disappoint anybody, that was for sure, because the producers just knew that… Like a lot of these TV shows, they know the show inside out, they know everything about it. They’ve been through everything. Because obviously directors come and go, DPs come and go. Luckily, I’d worked with the producers before, so I knew them. They said, “I tell you what, just make it as big as it is epic and move it on as much as you can, and we trust you”.

Luckily, and obviously, I’ve done a lot of period feature films, so I know what you need to do. I’ve also worked with lots of big casts, so I’m used to having lots of actors on set and lots of big actors. And I’d worked with Maggie Smith, Jim Carter and Michelle Dockery before

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Everyone was really supportive. The director, the producers, the cast, the crew and we got some great stuff and we shot at a really interesting time of the year in England, which is this time last year actually, which is September, October, November, which is a great time to shoot in the UK.

I really enjoyed it and I think that everybody else did. I think that… It’s a British feature film, so it’s not a massive movie, it’s not a big Hollywood movie. But we made it look really big and impressive and I think that it was important to make it look Epic. I’ve always said, the thing is that if I’ve got to make a feature film, I want people to be able to watch it in 20 or 30 years’ time and enjoy it because it’s a moment in time.

That’s what I really, that’s what I really love about making movies.

As an American, I’m one of those Anglophiles that just eats up all of the product, from Python, to Downton Abbey, to everything that Coogan does. You’ve said you’ve worked on period features before so you get the benefit in this movie we get the King and Queen and you get really luscious costumes and great color to work with. You had huge ballrooms. There were just so many cool scenes. Great to watch. Very cool movie. I loved it.

I mean, these are amazing places to go with filming and I’m quite lucky. I mean, I kind of chose it because I like this style film. I like Lawrence of Arabia, The Remains of the Day and Howard’s End. These beautiful British feature films, period films. I just, I love all that kind of stuff. It’s hard work, working in those locations. But you know what, I’m getting paid to go and shoot amazing scenes in amazing locations and we may have really long days, but it’s like, I guess because I’m English, I was born in England. It’s a good job I like historical films because that’s what we do a lot of.

Is it a patriotic thing for you?

Well, I don’t know, but it’s just it’s all there. I guess if I lived in LA, which I’d love to one day, or New York, I’d be shooting amazing landscape locations in Arizona or New York state or whatever, so it’s a different kind of thing. It’s… A lot of this history still exists in this country, it really does, it’s still there. Sometimes you have to look for a little bit, but there’s amazing houses. I mean the kind of lifestyle these people live don’t really exist so much, anymore, but some of those amazing buildings are still. There are hundreds of them, there’s literally, I mean you are tripping over big old stately homes in this country, you know?

And yeah, you talk about the landscapes. One of the things that I like in a particular shot that I like, it’s not a trend, it could go back to The Shining when they’re driving up to the, to the Outlook Hotel. They shoot a lot of them with drones for TV. Seeing the rolling landscapes, it really looks beautiful to be able to be in all those places.

We had some good weather but to start with. But you know, we shot so much, so much great footage of the house because the house is really beautiful. Actually, the house just blew me away. It’s a really quite special place. We shot a lot of driving stuff around the house and some of it is not in the film because we shot so much of it.

And it’s a great reference. The Shining is one of the best movies ever made. You know what I mean? Downton Abbey is not The Shining. Maybe they should make a version of it. It’s like The Shining were everybody gets locked in and they all murder each other, that would be a great movie, definitely.

I’ve got to say they left it open for a sequel at the end. So not that out of context.

I know. They could see they could do something really cool because the story is getting long, you know? And then it’s just one murder after another in a big Shining film. And then the little boy is racing down the hallways in his little tricycle. Yeah. I haven’t seen that movie in a New York second!

We shot with a real helicopter on this because we saw the sequence with the train in the beginning.

I said to the production, look, you can’t do this with a drone, because a drone can’t follow a train. So, we shot that, and I’ve done a lot of helicopter work all around the world. We shot that in a full-size helicopter chasing a train, it was up in North Yorkshire.

We had an amazing pilot and that’s a big thrill kind of doing that thing, where you’ve just got big train, this helicopter and we’re just flying around with an amazing pilot, you know? And we just made it back. We shot the scene with the train, got all of our footage, we just made it back before a massive storm.

We were 10 minutes late. If we were 10 minutes later, trust me, it wouldn’t have gone well. It wouldn’t have gone well at all. Luckily we just got it. I wanted to make it look really big because I could still watch Lawrence of Arabia now, which was made in 1965. I could still watch that, and it just looks beautiful and amazing. I’m just trying to recreate big spectacles. So, when people go to the cinema, they just go… They don’t forget it. I mean, I did the best I could. I really did the best I could. Hard work.

I do have a question about a particular scene and just about filmmaking in general. You did have a little bit of an action scene. I don’t want to spoil what happens…but there’s an action scene that’s in a village right before a parade. I wanted to ask you about shooting that action scene and also, I always hear that film makers are chasing daylight. You’ve got to really take advantage of all of every minute. Right?

That was pretty well planned out. I chose the location because I’d worked there before and I said this is the right place to do this because with that kind of chase scene, there needs to be parameters. … Originally, they were going to do in this big open space and it just wouldn’t have worked because you’ve just got people just running around aimlessly.

I chose the location and it was a big deal because we had a hundred horses, a hundred soldiers, 200 or 300 extras and it was a really big deal to set that up in the middle of Downton Abbey, which is not really known for its action sequences.

I tried to make it as big as I possibly could because I wanted it to be exciting, you know? I planned it out really well. I think. I hope I was lucky with the weather. Of course, again. It took all day to shoot that scene. Obviously, the sun moved from one end of the street all the way to the other. I mean, if you really look at it closely, some of it’s not quite right because we’ve had to shoot in a single day. But you know what? I don’t know whether anybody would notice.

I think that maybe filmmakers might notice, but the fans don’t. I thought it was just once one sunny day and this was a tragic thing about to happen and we’ll see. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So that was great.

Maybe other DPs would, maybe other DPs would look at it maybe, or meteorologist would look at it and go… But who cares about that!

It was a big thing, and nothing went wrong. And we closed the whole village down, which is to close the whole village down in the middle of England is not an easy thing to do. It took weeks and weeks and weeks of preparation. And everybody was a bit worried and stuff like that.

I wanted it to be big. And I came up with a lot of the ideas for the chase myself. I could have ended up with just everybody hating me and just thinking it was all my fault, if anything had gone wrong with it, everything went right, the weather was good and we did it, but we had good actors. They were excellent and stuff like that. And the horses just kind of just pooed everywhere.

Well that’s the thing about this historical fiction is that they are to the letter on the accuracy, but we can’t forget that this is a gigantic fantasy and it is fiction but you were able to have shoot that scene in particular a very cool, very engaging to watch and I’m sure there was a ton of planning. Where each of the actors are going and this or that. There was probably a thousand different ways to skin that cat and I think the way that it came out in the movie was nice. It was great.

If it had been down to me, you know, I would’ve made it even bigger but there were parameters because at the end of the day we are shooting Downton Abbey and it was up to me that it would have been a little bit of a cross between Saving Private Ryan and the Avengers movie. But you know, look, the producers are there to stop me doing stupid things like that.

What was your favorite shot in the film? Either visually or just that everything seemed to click as something that you really took away from it as a favorite memory?

I think it’s the scene that we were just talking about, the long lens scene down the village, where you’ve got all these extras and you’ve got all these horses and then you’ve got the chase going because so many things can go wrong. A couple of the horses slipped over. I mean, it’s got to be my favorite scene because it was so hard to do.

You kind of expect to see scenes like that these days on really big Hollywood films where they’ve got a lot of money. We didn’t have a ton of money. Universal looked after us really well and they gave us what we needed to be honest. We were well looked after, but that kind of scene is what you’d expect to see in a much bigger movie. So the relief on my face at the end of that day was crazy. You know what the great thing was? Right to the left of where the camera was when the director called wrap, was a pub. I’ve never had a pint of beer that felt good in my life.

It was literally, the director called wrap and I… everybody was like cheering and clapping, yelling “we did it, we did it, we did it.” And I just went, you know what? I just want a beer. I just need a beer.

Well, cheers man.

I will never forget those moments, Clay, because it was a big thing for something like Downton. And the question you asked is valid, how’d you make it into a bigger movie? Well you just have to… Just really try and be ambitious about it. And that’s what we were.


Downton Abbey is now available on
DVD, Blu-ray Combo, Digital HD and On Demand


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