The Award winning screenwriter talks about writing and directing his first film, working with Robert Altman and the recent script he wrote for Martin Scorsese

Julian Fellowes epitomizes what it means to be a renaissance man. An accomplished actor and writer in both TV and Film, Fellowes received an Academy Award for his screenplay of Robert Altman’s Gosford Park. It is this scribe’s ability to really get inside and explore the moral universe of his characters, that has made him in demand by auteurs like Altman and most recently, Martin Scorsese.

On a conference call from England, Fellowes sat down with us to discuss his first directorial effort, Separate Lies. An adaptation of Nigel Balchin’s book A Way Through the Wood, the film, which Fellowes also wrote, is a tightly woven character study that examines the lives of 3 people and the decisions they make. The film stars Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson and Rupert Everett.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that Julian Fellowes, in addition to working on new screenplays, is also putting together another film for himself to direct.

What was it about the subject matter of Separate Lies that made you want to tell this story?

Julian Fellowes: I’m always very drawn to subjects which have complicated morality. Where you don’t really know whose side you’re on... where you keep changing sides. Where people aren’t really sort of delineated as black hats and white hats. I mean, this year I tremendously enjoyed the film Crash. That has a similar thing... just when you’ve decided that one character is awful, some element comes in that you start to rescind your judgment. Similarly, another character is very sympathetic and suddenly they do the worst thing in the film.

That seems to me to be a much better reflection of real life, than just “these are the bad guys, these are the good guys.” What I liked about the situation in the original novel, which is A Way Through the Wood, is that the two of them, Bill and Anne, they don’t discover how bad the thing they’ve done is, until it’s too late for them to make any difference. So in other words we’re asking them to confess and to wreck their lives, basically for no ultimate purpose, because by then he’s already in the hospital, he’s already gonna die, whatever. There’s nothing to be gained from their facing up and taking it. That makes it a much more ambivalent and difficult moral situation, I think.

How do you direct such accomplished actors like Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson and Rupert Everett? Is there a lot of direction or is it just conversations about the character?

Julian Fellowes: In a sense, I took a leaf out of Bob Altman’s book. One of the great things about Altman is that he really, really loves actors. He really likes them, he wants to hear what they have to say, he’s interested in their opinions and so on. I always remember him once saying to an actor on the set of Gosford Park, who was asking him a question, I forget what it was now, and he said, “But, I want to be surprised? How can I be surprised if I’ve told you what to do?”

And I feel rather similar to that, really. We had a kind of week of what they call rehearsals, which isn’t really rehearsal, but we had a week of going through the script to make sure that we were all sort of having the same images of the scenes. As you probably realize, in a lot of the stuff I write, what the characters are actually saying in the scenes, isn’t really what the scene is about. Like in this film, there’s that whole conversation about the pudding. When really they’re talking about their marriage. So you want to make sure that all the actors have kind of got that straight, and they know what everything’s about, and sometimes they have better ideas or they want to change this or that.

Having done that before we ever started filming, on the whole I just let them go away and cook it. These are very, very accomplished actors. If you were dealing with a much younger actor who was a beginner or something, I think you hold their hand a bit more, but these people don’t need any of that. Your job, I think, is to make sure that the thing is correctly positioned, it’s choreographed and photographed. And sometimes, you know, it may be that they’re not aware, or they’ve forgotten, that it cuts in with such and such a scene, and so you say, “Well, this is too near in mood or something,” but basically, I think you let them do the work. Once you’re clear that they understand what the story is, you know?

How did you go about adapting Nigel Balchin’s book A Way Through the Wood? Did you try and be very faithful to it?

Julian Fellowes: No, I don’t think I had to be tremendously faithful, because it’s not a book that everyone has read. Indeed, I would pretty safely say that these days it’s a book that practically no one has read. Although, I very much hope that the film leads to a bit of revival or interest in Nigel Balchin. I know that they’ve brought the book out again which I’m very happy about. The advantage of adapting a book that is unfamiliar to most of your audience, is that you do have a freedom that you don’t have if you’re doing a very famous classic. Then you are quite tied to the original work.

I was pretty faithful to the basic moral conundrum. The accident, Maggie, and the husband and wife and the lover, and so all of that is pretty close to the book. For instance, I didn’t use any of the dialogue. All the dialogue is new. I think it’s a mixture really. I have adapted a book that everyone knows when I did Little Lord Fauntleroy, and I’ve adapted a book no one knows in this one. The hardest of all actually is to adapt a book everybody thinks they know, but they haven’t read for 25 years. Which I’ve also done in Vanity Fair. In a way, they’re talking about the book that they can’t really remember, and that gets quite confusing. In this case I did have a pretty free hand, really.

Now you mentioned Robert Altman and I have always wondered, what is the writing process on a movie like his?

Julian Fellowes: I don’t know if I had a completely typical experience with Bob, because he wanted to make a film about this rather arcane group of English, upper-class people in the ‘30s. Who were very specific in the way they talk and so on. He was very keen to get as many of the details right. He thought, and I have to say I completely agree with him, that if you are going to take a subject that is quite unknown by most people, the more you get the details right, the more authentic it feels. So he was absolutely determined to get the details as correct as possible and, indeed, that’s why I had the very unusual experience, for a writer, of being invited to be on the set during the filming. Which is terribly unusual... and I was there for the whole thing.

So in a way, I think he was more interested in doing the script than sometimes he perhaps might be if he was making a picture about the American midwest. It was a very happy experience for me.

Do you see yourself as one thing? An actor, writer or director? Or, do you see yourself as someone who can easily live in all three of those worlds?

Movie PictureJulian Fellowes: I’ve been very fortunate being allowed to try different things. And not only those... I’ve been allowed to write a musical, I’ve been allowed to “Present” on Television and do even a game show, because I just was on a roll. I was very happy directing a film and I am in the process now of setting up, I hope, my next picture to direct. I did really, very much enjoy it. I’d like to feel like I could direct a few more before I finally hang up my gloves. I suppose I consider myself all of those things, really.

If you could give a young screenwriter one piece of advice what would it be?

Julian Fellowes: (Laughs) Find a director who appreciates scripts. So many filmmakers now think the script is the bit that matters least. I can assure you that among that numbers not the audience.

What are you currently working on? You had mentioned something... can you talk about that more?

Julian Fellowes: Well, not really... you mean the Scorsese picture? I just handed in the first draft of that. I’m not really supposed to discuss the subject. I don’t think there’s any kind of sinister reason, I just think he likes to control when he brings certain projects into the public eye, you know? Which is fine by me. Anyway, I’m doing that and then I’m doing a date movie for Fox, which I’m very pleased about actually. It’s absolutely modern, American, middle-class, midwest, middle America... there’s not a butler in sight. I’m very flattered and delighted to have been asked to do that. Then, I’m doing a thriller which again is a nice departure for me.

I’ve always enjoyed thrillers, actually. They’re my favorite kind of film in a way. So I’m absolutely delighted to be asked to write one. You know that feeling you don’t want to get too constrained in one particular thing... sort of period and upper-class and all that stuff. So it’s nice to have some opportunity to move out of that really.

Does these projects you’re working on have titles?

Julian Fellowes: They do but I always sound so kind of pathetic in this. I’m supposed to kind of get permission before I talk about them, and I never know whether I’m allowed to or not. I am sorry. I will check out for next time so I won’t be so feeble.

Separate Lies will be available on DVD February 21st, 2006 through Fox Home Entertainment.