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Downton Abbey - director Simon Curtis loved filming in South of France

He talks to The Connexion about Covid quarantine in Juan-les-Pins, a mixed French/English crew and how the cast got along on location

Simon Curtis and Downton Abbey cast in France

Simon Curtis (left, with Michelle Dockery) directs the Downton cast in France for the first time Pic: Universal

Shooting Downton Abbey: A New Era in the south of France has whetted its director’s appetite to work on more projects in the country.

Simon Curtis said his experiences on the French set of the period drama were wholly positive, despite Covid complications and a mixed French/English crew.

“Because of the pandemic, we were not sure we would even be allowed to travel to France,” he said.

“But finally we made it, in June 2021. With a film crew, you have to be cautious because just one person can shut down the entire shoot. We remained in our bubble for the entire time, and before we started we all quarantined for a week in a hotel in Juan-les-Pins, which was amazing.”

French actress Nathalie Blaye joins cast

The new movie, which is currently showing in cinemas across France and the UK, picks up a couple of years after the last film (set in 1927) and features all the favourite characters.

They are joined for this latest instalment by veteran French actress Nathalie Baye, who Mr Curtis singled out as a true ‘grande dame’ in the Downton tradition.

“In quarantine, we ended up watching François Truffaut’s Day for Night [1973], Nathalie’s breakthrough film, which was quite a moment.”

He said that Baye does not share any scenes with Downton’s indomitable dowager countess, played by Maggie Smith, although their storylines are connected. 

First time Downton leaves UK

The plot centres on the latter’s inheritance of a plush property on the Riviera from a mysterious man in her colourful past. 

The location chosen for the French house was Villa Rocabella in Le Pradet, Var, but filming also took place on the road to the property and aboard a boat.

Curtis says the weather was perfect for the entirety of the shoot, and his crew were ably supported by a French contingent.

“We brought about half the crew with us and were joined by French crew. It was seamless,” he said.

“We loved working in the south of France and for the story it is significant because it is the first time Downton has moved outside the UK.”

‘French see cinema as art’

Mr Curtis says that apart from some filming in Paris, this was his first taste of shooting in France.

With the right story, he is keen to do it again as the experience reinforced all his assumptions of the high esteem in which his industry is held here.

“The French really do regard cinema as an art. I love France, and shooting there was a real attraction. I have been spending holidays in the south of France all my life. It is the perfect destination.”

Expect tears and laughter

Curtis is married to actress Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Lady Grantham, but the film was his directorial debut with the Downton franchise, and he was struck by how close the cast are.

“It is a story about a family that is played by a group of actors who have become almost like family over the 12 years they have been working together. The kids, in particular, have grown up with the show.”

The film has the usual mix of emotional drama and comic relief.

“The fun is in some of the differences between the way the household is run in France compared to Downton Abbey,” 

Mr Curtis revealed. “Mr Carson just loves things done his way.”

He said he hopes the film will provide a couple of hours of respite from the current gruelling news cycle.

“Audiences are returning to a family of characters they are already invested in. The first film took people back to a time with simpler themes, and I hope this will also provide some escapism. A holiday from the problems of the modern world.”

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