As HBO raises the curtain Jan. 24 on the long-awaited Julian Fellowes drama “The Gilded Age,” executive producer and industry veteran Bob Greenblatt offers an inside look at the 12-plus years it took to bring the story of the wealthy and powerful families of America’s gilded age to the screen. Greenblatt’s pursuit of Fellowes began before the latter became a red-hot TV creator in 2010 with the success of “Downton Abbey,” which forced Greenblatt to patiently keep the project that became “The Gilded Age” alive in development as he moved through jobs over the past 10 years as Showtime Entertainment president, NBC Entertainment chairman and WarnerMedia Entertainment chair. Today, Greenblatt is a busy producer who helped Fellowes finally realize his vision for exploring a pivotal moment in American history. The following is an excerpt from Greenblatt’s upcoming memoir “The Rockford Files: Epiphanies in Show Business.”
I was a huge fan of “Gosford Park” (2001), Robert Altman’s wonderful depiction of upstairs/downstairs and murder in a British country manor. It was written by character actor Julian Fellowes, who turned to writing later in life and then handily won an Academy Award for his inspired screenplay. He also wrote “The Young Victoria,” starring Emily Blunt, which caught my eye in 2009 when I was at Showtime. While we were having success with our own royal drama “The Tudors,” I was on the lookout for more shows about British aristocracy and the different classes. I reached out to Julian’s agents and told them he had an open invitation to create a series for Showtime whenever he wanted.
A general meeting with Julian a short time later revealed he’d always been fascinated by America’s royalty, those millionaires of the gilded age in New York such as the Astors and the Vanderbilts. I immediately said, “How quickly can we get something like that into development?” I knew HBO had been working on a script in this arena about “The 400” richest families in New York, but I didn’t think it was going anywhere. Nor did it have an Oscar-winning writer on board. Julian started researching the period, and within months he had the set-up for the pilot and broad storylines for the entire first season. I was excited not only about the milieu, but his approach to it was unique. I felt he was onto something special.
The finished pilot script, titled “The Vanderbilts,” was exactly what I hoped it would be, and I wanted to move into production as soon as possible. But before that happened, I ended up leaving Showtime. However, when I got to NBC in 2011, I was quickly in a panic after realizing there were few viable shows in development to help turn the network around. I thought about “The Vanderbilts” and wondered if it might be right for NBC. Well, why not? I didn’t have anything better in front of me, or anything to lose for that matter (one of my recurring mantras).
Julian was on board with going to NBC, but getting the script released from CBS Corp.-owned Showtime proved to be harder than I thought. Julian was resourceful, however, and said forget about that script, he was more than happy to start from scratch on a whole new approach. He came up with the idea of focusing on two fictionalized families in 1882 New York, one from “old money” pitted against one from “new money” that was trying to be accepted into the upper echelon. Some of the Vanderbilts (or Astors) would be part of this world, but only in the background. Problem solved!
But not so fast. Then I learned that Julian had just started production on a new series for ITV in the U.K. called “Downton Abbey,” about an aristocratic family in post-Edwardian England. That meant we would have to put our gilded age project on hold for a bit. Turns out that “Downton” was being produced in association with our NBC international studio, so I got more details about it from Michael Edelstein, the producer-turned NBC executive who oversaw the studio in London. He said the show was indeed well under way and executives at ITV were very high on it. Unfortunately for me, Julian would be busy for a little while, if not a few years.
Incidentally, Edelstein asked me if I might want NBC to take the U.S. run of “Downton” since they hadn’t yet sold it in America. Still new to the job, I replied that I wasn’t sure who would watch a quaint British family drama, and respectfully passed. Big epiphany in retrospect. First, it was a mistake to simply dismiss a show without even seeing it, and second, it was ridiculous to assume a network audience wouldn’t care about a period British show. “Downton” was ultimately sold to PBS where it went on to become the most impactful series for PBS in decades. (Not to mention a favorite of mine as well. Damn!)
“Downton” ran for six years and became a massive hit around the world. And because Julian was the sole writer of all 50 episodes, there was nothing else he could focus on until at least 2016 when the series had run its course.
By then, NBC was back to No. 1 again in primetime in the adults 18-49 demographic, and Julian was the Emmy-winning showrunner of a very popular hit. I guess having to wait wasn’t the end of the world. In fact, I was even more excited to get started on it by the time he was ready again. Also, Gareth Neame (Julian’s producing partner on “Downton”) came aboard, and we had the added benefit of a classy producer to help bring this epic period show to life. So, I officially ordered Season 1 “The Gilded Age” and Julian began writing episodes.
But again, not so fast. There was another delay due to the “Downton Abbey” movie — yes, there was a movie too. And since history had a way of repeating itself, I was also on the move again in the fall of 2018 after I decided to leave NBC after eight years. NBC had been in first place for five straight seasons and I felt there wasn’t much more I could do there. Plus, it’s always smart to go out on top rather than waiting for things to start slipping again. Also, my longtime colleague Jennifer Salke had left her NBC post a few months earlier to become the new head of Amazon Studios, which saddened me personally but that was a phenomenal opportunity she couldn’t pass up.
Once I left the network, the cost of “The Gilded Age” started to worry everyone, and my successors ultimately decided not to make the show after all. That gave Universal Television the opportunity to then take it to the open market to see if there was another interested buyer. It had never been exposed to anyone else in town because the idea had always followed me. I knew Julian and Gareth were disappointed that the rollercoaster ride of this project had taken yet another turn, but they kept their spirits up. In fact, they even asked me to join with them as an executive producer, and I was delighted to come aboard to see if I could help set is up elsewhere and get it made. Finally!
But — once again — not so fast! Before we presented “The Gilded Age” to anyone new, I took a job as chairman of WarnerMedia Entertainment and had to step away from serving as one of its producers. HBO was in my new portfolio, however, and I immediately thought, What network could possibly be better for this show than HBO? Julian and Gareth loved the idea, but the studio thought it was still prudent to canvass other buyers and see how much interest there might be for it. Or at the very least, start a bidding war.
Casey Bloys was the head of HBO original productions and one of my new direct reports. A smart, intuitive and resourceful executive, he grew up at HBO and was actually an assistant way back when I was a producer with my longtime friend and collaborator David Janollari for HBO on “Six Feet Under.” Casey and the respected (and well-dressed) executive Glenn Whitehead oversaw a great period for HBO when “Game of Thrones” was one of the biggest hits on television, and other shows such as “Veep,” “Succession,” “Big Little Lies,” “Mare of Easttown” and “Chernobyl” came to life.
I knew going into the job that “Game of Thrones,” “Veep” and even “Big Little Lies” were in their last seasons, so HBO was in need of some new assets. I thought “The Gilded Age” fit the bill perfectly, but I didn’t want to force it on Casey or the drama team headed by the well-regarded Francesca Orsi. I told them to read the scripts and hear Julian’s pitch and think it over. While it wasn’t a world-building fantasy a la “Game of Thrones” or “Westworld,” it was sophisticated, richly textured and a world unto itself. And it had auspices that were hard to beat. They read it quickly and whole-heartedly agreed.
Universal Television was very interested about the prospect of the project landing at HBO, but we were informed that there were multiple offers on the table and they asked us to take our best shot. While I couldn’t force my old partners Julian and Gareth into HBO’s hands, I knew it was their first choice, pending the right deal, of course. And I’m happy to say HBO ponied up for it — fair market value! — and won the day. “The Gilded Age” landed at the network that wasn’t afraid to spend what was necessary to make it, market it and get an audience fired up about a finely drawn saga set in late 19th century New York.
Julian got to work finishing the last few scripts of the first season (a total of 10 hours). He created two dozen characters and two complete families, each of which also had separate “downstairs” servants (maids and cooks). They lived across the street from each other on Fifth Avenue, one in a timeless brownstone and the other in a brand-new Stanford White creation indicative of the new age. While there were similarities to “Downton” in design, I think “The Gilded Age” was built on an even larger footprint because there were two sprawling families instead of just one.
Populating this sprawling world with the right actors was critical. Nothing makes or breaks a show like casting. I’m happy to say that a rich ensemble came together quickly, simply because so many people wanted to be in a Julian Fellowes production. Christine Baranski was our first choice to play the widowed matriarch with the sharp tongue (shades of the Dowager Countess in “Downton”), but there were some conflicts with her schedule on the Paramount Plus drama series “The Good Fight.” However, she intervened personally to work it out because she wasn’t going to let this role pass her by.
Baranski’s co-stars include Cynthia Nixon, Morgan Spector, Louisa Jacobson, Denee Benton and Carrie Coon (who replaced Amanda Peet after COVID reared its ugly head), to name just a few. Because we were shooting in New York, we had the opportunity to hire numerous theater veterans to inhabit “Gilded Age.” The list includes many personal friends and even a few alumni from the live holiday musical productions that we staged during my tenure at NBC: Audra McDonald, Kelli O’Hara, Michael Cerveris, Donna Murphy, Linda Emond, Katie Finneran, Bill Irwin, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Debra Monk, Douglas Sills, Kristine Nielsen, John Douglas Thompson and Patrick Page. There are over 80 speaking parts in Season 1. It’s an impressive cast with an extraordinarily deep bench.
HBO pulled the stops out on the physical production. The first member of the team to be hired was the extraordinary Bob Shaw (“Nurse Jackie”). He is one of the most impressive production designers working today, especially for period projects. His award-winning credits include “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” “Nurse Jackie” and “Boardwalk Empire.” He jumped in with both feet and created massive interiors for these homes that were essentially American palaces. The ceilings were cavernous and the rooms were often decorated with priceless antiques gathered from Europe. Only a few of these places still exist in Manhattan today and now function as museums or public buildings. Some scenes were also going to be shot in historic homes from the period in Newport, R.I., such as Chateau-sur-Mer, The Elms and The Breakers.
The vast exteriors had to be created too, which was even a more complicated feat because the vistas wouldn’t be bound by walls. No expense was spared to get a view down Fifth Avenue populated with rows of period buildings, horse-drawn carriages and the bustling world of 1882 New York. This required the careful combination of full-scale facades that went up on a backlot in New York and the use of CG technology to upper stories and extensions of roads and parkways.
Likewise, “Gilded Age’s” costumes had to be indicative of the staggering breadth of the period and also depict two very different styles between old and new money. Kasia Walicka-Maimone, an experienced costume designer of dozens of films (including a few for Spielberg) was hired to execute this important aspect of the show. Months of preparation went into historical research followed by designing, sourcing, renting or building thousands of garments. Attention to detail was critical since the gold standard for authentic period recreation had been set on “Downton Abbey.” And we were determined to surpass that if we could.
Leaning on the “Downton” team, we decided there was probably no better director-producer to bring on than Michael Engler. He not only directed many of the best episodes of that series, he also helmed the 2019 movie that was well-received. I knew Engler from another lifetime ago, when I was a Fox network programming executive and he was one of our favorite directors on the drama series “Party of Five,” which ran on the network from 1994 to 2000.
Legions of other craft, crew and technical workers made vital contributions that allowed us to bring this long-ago period back to life. Finally, after so many twists and turns, filming was set to start in late March 2020. But before that, we decided to bring the massive cast together in New York for a table reading of the first five scripts. There’s nothing better than hearing the material out loud with the actual actors for the first time. This also gave us an opportunity to gather before the start of production and review the beautiful set models and get a show-and-tell of the incredible costumes.
The table readings took place March 3-4 at the Harvard Club in New York, an appropriately old-world, wood-paneled setting, with nearly 100 people gathered around a never-ending square table. Hearing the scripts was exciting and informative, and while there was still some work to be done, we were ready to go into production.
But not so fast — yet again. The rollercoaster ride took another sharp dip at that moment when the world shut down due to COVID just a few days before the cameras were set to roll. At first, we postponed for a few weeks. But as everyone knows now, the pandemic proved to be a much longer ordeal than anyone expected. “The Gilded Age” went on hiatus for more than six months.
Things finally got going with all the necessary COVID protocols more than a year ago. During the darkness of the first year of the pandemic, the production team and HBO came together to get this enormous show back into production safely. Shooting began in September 2020. There were a few subsequent COVID-related delays in filming, something that happened to virtually every show at the time, but “The Gilded Age” moved forward relatively smoothly for the first season.
As I write this — nearly two years after the first table readings — I’ve already had a sneak peek of the first few episodes and it’s everything I hoped it would be: intelligent, funny, enlightening, emotional and ravishing to look at. The series’ Jan. 24 premiere date comes nearly a year after the original plan.
I’m also pleased that “The Gilded Age” found its rightful home at HBO. Getting it under the supervision of Casey and Glenn turned out to be the most fortunate turn of events, and to watch the sublime team at HBO put this enormous period show safely into production was impressive, to say the least. I know this as a producer and as an executive: There’s nothing better than finding a real champion for your show, a group of people who love it and will do whatever it takes to make it a hit, especially when the going gets rough.
It’s remarkable to reflect on the dozen years that it took to get “The Gilded Age” from inception to completion, and Jeremy Barber, Julian’s agent at UTA, has been there every step of the way. Working with Julian and Gareth has been a very rewarding experience, in spite of the fits and starts we experienced together. And while I’m no longer part of the team going forward, it was an honor to be part of getting this series launched at every stage, first as an executive, then as a producer, then as an executive again. And now I will enjoy it simply as a fan.