'Downton Abbey' creator Julian Fellowes likes 'sinking the Titanic every time'

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The trick to engaging a worldwide audience for "Titanic," ABC's miniseries premiering Saturday, April 14, and concluding the next night on the 100th anniversary of the ship's sinking, is to go beyond the tragedy's basics.

Everyone knows how a series of worst-case scenarios led to the sinking of what was supposedly the best and most luxurious ocean liner ever. The goal is to tell this story in a new way.

And "Titanic" succeeds terrifically. This isn't trying to be James Cameron's "Titanic," the 1997 phenomenon that captured 11 Oscars. There have been so many films and documentaries, but this one stands apart.

Granted, the facts must stay the same, but what this production does is blend actual and fictional characters and show the disaster from different vantage points. It's a masterful reimagining by writer Julian Fellowes (Academy Award for "Gosford Park," Emmy for "Downton Abbey").

"There was something about these people, so powerful and so rich and all of this, and yet everyone is powerless in the face of nature," Fellowes, a Briton who grew up interested in the story, tells Zap2it.

"I like the idea of sinking the Titanic every time," Fellowes says. "Normally with a miniseries, you sit there for two, 2 1/2 hours and hit the Titanic."

Each of the four segments features the sinking, and the miniseries delves into who the passengers and crew were and how they interacted with one another when death was imminent.

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Ideally, Fellowes wanted great actors to flesh out the characters but not huge stars whose presence would overshadow the story. The large cast includes Linus Roache, Geraldine Somerville, Glen Blackhall and Antonio Magro.

Roache, best known as ADA Michael Cutter on "Law & Order," speaks in his natural British accent as Hugh, Earl of Manton.

"Obviously, he is an aristocrat, part of an era before the fall of the British Empire, a couple of years away from the First World War," Roache says of his character. "It is very hard to relate to a man of that status, who had inherited wealth and a lifestyle led by society. He had responsibilities in life, but the way I felt what Julian captured, you got a sense of the man standing on all of that entitlement but very progressive in his thinking."

The movie opens with the earl insisting that his daughter be freed from jail this instant; she had been locked up for protesting as a suffragette. Like the others booked for first class, the earl has a sense about him that he simply deserves the very best. Yet there's also a genuine hint of altruism to him, which comes through during the four segments.

Somerville (Harry's mom in the Harry Potter movies) plays Roache's wife, Louisa, the imperious Countess of Manton. Roache and Somerville had last acted together in a 1989 staging of "The Glass Menagerie," which was Somerville's professional debut. In this, she is high-handed. At times, she's the sort of woman who is insufferable, considering everyone beneath her.

"I have only seen the first two," Somerville says of the four installments. "I was shocked when I saw it. Oh, my God, she is horrible! Everyone is going to hate me. She does turn into an OK person."

"She is coming across with people on this particular boat trip, and coming across with people not like her," Somerville says. "She is a woman struggling to come to terms with the fact that the world has changed, and she is not coping very well. And she has a rather distant relationship with her husband, which was fairly common in those days."

"They have a reprieve as a couple," Somerville says. "Within any other situation, they might not have this life, and death is the first honest moment they actually have in years between them. This rather imperious, not terribly happy woman is given this moment."
This couple is among many whose relationships are instantly clarified as the ship goes down. Couples, parents and children, and siblings all experience that moment when death is certain, and in their final moments, they need to make peace.

Just as when it was clear to people in the Twin Towers that they would perish and they called home to say simply "I love you," many people here have those three words as their last. And, as in the terrorist attacks, strangers helped one another.

"The tragedy of the Titanic brought out the best in far, far more people than it brought out the worst," Fellowes says. "When you read the accounts, the vast majority of them were incredibly brave, and I do find that very inspiring. I think it is sort of heartening."

Shot over seven weeks in Budapest, Fellowes was duly impressed by the set. First class is sumptuous, steerage bare bones. One of the largest water tanks in Europe was built for the movie, Roache notes.

"It was pretty impressive working in Budapest, in the middle of summer, pretending to be on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic, about to hit an iceberg, and sweltering in the heat," Roache says. "One of the most challenging acting challenges was how to look cold."
Photo/Video credit: ABC