ITV Studios has sold mini-series Titanic to 95 countries and its international premiere in the U.K. gave broadcaster ITV1 its highest ratings for a drama on this year. The Hollywood Reporter spoke to series’ writer and Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes just before he left Cannes’ port about his obsession with the sinking ship, the success of the show abroad and why his next vacation may likely be on an ocean liner.
The Hollywood Reporter: Downton Abbey begins with the sinking of the Titanic. Now, you’ve made a mini-series about it. Would you say you’re obsessed with Titanic?
Julian Fellowes: I think I may be a bit obsessed with Titanic. But I used it in Downton Abbey for a different reason. By using something iconic, you don’t need to explain as much. Very few people can’t place the approximate time period of the Titanic sinking. It’s really a cheat. It’s a piece of shorthand so that you don’t need references to other parts of history. But yes, I am very interested in Titanic.
THR: Have you always been interested in the subject?
Fellowes: I saw the film when I was a little boy. I was struck by the totality of this disaster. I was very intrigued by the idea. When I was approached for the project, I said ‘I’d love to do this, but how can we sink the ship every week?’ What’s interesting about a disaster is how people behave in a disaster. By sinking the ship every week, we’re able to give people all of the drama and the terror in one episode.
THR: Watching the mini-series, audiences may be waiting to hear "Jack! Rose!" How did you work to make your project different from the film?
Fellowes: Clearly Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslet have captured the imaginations of a whole generation. But that was a movie – it’s a different kind of experience with a huge budget and special effects. Our version is more of an analysis of who is on the ship and interlocking stories that are more suited to television. You couldn’t have done our treatment in a movie. And I’m certainly going to see the movie in 3D.
THR: Would you say the Titanic was a microcosm of society at the time?
Fellowes: Yes, that’s why it does echo down the years. It was an encapsulation of that society. It was the modern world, but at the very end of the old world. That’s why it resonates today.
THR: It’s resonated with buyers everywhere and has already sold to more than 95 countries here at MIPTV. What do you think it is about the mini-series that gives it such global appeal?
Fellowes: Titanic was a genuinely international event. In today’s market, you tend to get a lot of Europudding, but that isn’t true of this show because it was a drama that involved several countries including America, Italy, the UK and Canada. It’s organically international instead of having to impose an internationality on it. It’s haunting even to people whose countries weren’t involved. It’s primal fear. Jaws touched something in all of us. Whenever you get on a ship, part of you thinks: “I hope it doesn’t sink.”
THR: Is Titanic still a modern story?
Fellowes: I think it was very much the 9/11 of the day. There was a shock element to it that went right around the world.
THR: ITV has sold the mini-series to more than 95 countries. Did you expect such international success?
Fellowes: You always hope for it. As a writer, you can’t get into any of that. You just have to make a show that you as a viewer would want to see.
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THR: Titanic deals with the relationships between the different classes of people in society. Is Titanic Downton Abbey on a boat?
Fellowes: People want it to be, but it’s more complicated than that. Titanic isn’t just about people and their servants. It’s about all of these people from different worlds coming together on one ship. My theory on disaster, though it’s a bit nanny, is that disaster brings out the best of you.
THR: So will you be traveling by sea anytime soon or have your primal fears of disaster been touched by working on this film?
Fellowes: I rather want to. My parents went everywhere by ship. Now, I feel I would rather like to go on a liner. I’d have to persuade my wife however…