‘Downton Abbey’ Final Season: Behind the Scenes of That Bloody Dinner Table Moment

Downton Abby Bloody Dinner Table Scene
Courtesy of PBS

The threat of endings loomed large over the final season of “Downton Abbey,” and so when Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) interrupts a stately Downton dinner by spewing blood all over the table, fans were immediately worried for his fate. “The idea for having the scene from ‘Alien’ in the show came from Julian Fellowes,” says executive producer Gareth Neame. “He had spoken some time ago with a doctor and saw all this dramatic potential in the fact that (Grantham’s) ulcer could burst rather spectacularly.”

Adding to the challenge of the scene: filming in a real estate populated by priceless antiques. “That van Dyck painting alone is worth, I don’t know what, $25 million?” says executive producer Gareth Neame. “The idea of an actor sitting adjacent to it spitting a lot of fake blood out of his mouth was something that took a lot of care and planning.” Neame breaks down how the crew pulled it off through six key contributions.

Michael Engler, director
“Engler and his first assistant, Matt Carver, had to intricately break the scene down shot by shot, working out every detail and working out the most economical way to shoot the scene in the time available. Once Hugh Bonneville did one of these takes with the blood going everywhere, the whole thing had to be reset. He had to be changed, the room had to be reset and made good again. They shot everything on every angle before the blood, and then they put the blood in his mouth and redid everything again post the blood.”

Adam Gillham, director of photography
“We’ve shot hours and hours and hundreds of scenes in that dining room over the years. He obviously had to get it right because doing retakes was very problematic and time consuming. To be honest [the actors] hated doing them. You’ve got 12 people sitting around a table and everyone speaks to each other, you have to cover every (discussion). I had to keep saying to everyone on the team, ‘You may hate shooting these scenes but it’s great to have at least one of these in every episode.’”

“They shot everything on every angle before the blood, and then they put the blood in his mouth and redid everything again post the blood.”

Al Morrow, editor
“Al has been with the show for many many years. It was a very precise piece of editing, and very pre-planned by Michael Engler, but I can’t think of how many episodes he’s done across the years, he’s been on almost every season. He was quite a junior editor when we first brought him on, and he’s probably cut more episodes than anyone else.”

Anna Robbins, costume designer
“She’s very used to having all these men on the show in white tie and tails, but not so much to have several repeats of his clothing so they could have multiple takes. And sometimes on the day, the blood projectiled a little further than they were expecting. A lot of the blood was projected onto Elizabeth McGovern’s dress, and that was a real one-of-a-kind dress, it wasn’t something with repeats. The shock of [McGovern’s] reaction is quite real — it wasn’t planned, but maybe added to the reality of the situation.”

Aidan Farrell, colorist
“He’s graded every single episode, from beginning to end. In fact they decided they wanted the color of the blood to be slightly paler than the actual color of blood, so he could color time it to the right color for blood. If they used a dark red blood that’s a more real color he would have less control of it in the grading suite.”

John Lunn, composer
“I spot every episode with John Lunn and it’s done the same way we have from the beginning. Every cue is original. We definitely use leitmotifs but every cue is specifically written for each moment. There are times when the ‘Downton’ music can become incredibly dramatic, there are other times when John is marking the comedy, or the grandeur and the majesty of it all. Sometimes just as the story twists in these right angles, the music also had to suddenly come in and do something radically different.”