Julian Fellowes, writer, Titanic

Titanic is a huge international coproduction that is being lined up to air around the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the ship next year.

The 4x1hour mini-series has been penned by Gosford Park and Downton Abbey scribe Julian Fellowes. It is produced by ITV Studios, Lookout Point, Deep Indigo Productions, Canadian producer Sienna Films and Hungarian producer Mid Atlantic Films and is being distributed internationally by ITV Studios Global Entertainment. It will air on UK commercial network ITV, US network ABC, Canada’s Global and Australia’s Seven Network among others.

TBI caught up with Fellowes following a production trip to Budapest, where the show was filmed.

How did you get involved in the project?

It originally came to me from [Bleak House‘s] Nigel Stafford-Clark. Simon Vaughan [from Lookout Point] wanted something new to mark the 100th anniversary of the Titanic. There’s a reissue of the Cameron movie in 3D and Walter Lord’s book A Night To Remember is being republished. We are the new thing.

How are you approaching it?

I devised a structure that we sink the Titanic in every episode. Normally you would have to sit through the whole thing until the boat sinks. There’s some well known characters like [US socialite] Molly Brown and the captains are there but we have new characters like the silent movie star Dorothy Gibson.

Cameron’s story is a love story told against the backdrop of the sinking. What we’re trying to do is look at every section of the ship. I hope what we achieve is a rounded picture of what it was like to be on the ship and what it was like to be alive at that time in 1912. The world was about to hit its own iceberg.
In a way, one of the things that I’ve been allowed to do is a multi-story, multi-arc. Some are big and some are little but all are tied up together. It was quite a natural choice; that structure worked on Gosford Park and worked on Downton Abbey and it’ll work on this. This isn’t just for people that enjoy period pieces. It’s a disaster plot. One of the things that any disaster tells you is that you can’t predict who will be the hero.

Titanic is a huge international coproduction; is the story universal?
We’re lucky because the Titanic is a very iconic disaster. You could go to Timbuktu and no one ever says what’s that? There aren’t all that many iconic events that immediately interest a wide range of countries. On board there were Americans, Brits, Canadians, Italians. The story was an international one.

Was it more difficult because it was a true story?

It gives you a moral responsibility. You must be careful that the fiction reflects the truth and that the actions you give people don’t contradict their true personalities. We also had a good team of researchers. I think that we have produced a truthful version.

Would you approach this TV series differently to a feature film?
We’re very lucky in this country because we’re allowed to go between TV and film. There’s no class divide. Judi Dench can make TV one day and win an Oscar the next. You’re conscious of having more time and space to tell the story, you don’t have to get it out in 100 minutes.

Why have you joined a government review of film policy?

This government is very supportive of the film industry and I feel lucky to be part of the body that is examining the rules. This is a period where the Internet is changing things every day, the way that film and TV is released so the rules have to evolve to meet that changing time.

What’s next for you?

I’d like to do another musical and there’s an idea for that and I’d like to do something contemporary. I am interested in the whole business of examining bourgeois angst. Present culture has been so skewed towards working class drama and most of the middle class aspirational drama is coming out of America. That’s an area of interest that I’d like to explore.

I like the idea of doing contemporary drama on TV because you have the space to explore so the idea of a series set in the modern day is interesting. But I’m sure I’ll just do a period drama and that will be that.

Would you like to set up your own production company?
I’m quite attracted to that. What all of us actors, writers and directors are striving for is a measure of artistic control.

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