Between what he's put the couples through on "Downton Abbey" and now taking on "Romeo and Juliet," you'd be forgiven for assuming writer Julian Fellowes is more than a little obsessed with doomed, tragic love. And he'd admit you're onto something — but it's not his fault, he swears.
"This whole business of love ending in death, I grew up on it," he says. "I mean, you remember those songs — 'Tell Laura I Love Her' and 'Leader of the Pack' and 'Terry' — they were all ending up with the guy dying on the motorbike or being smashed in the car race or whatever. And that was really my adolescent culture. So in a way I got there before 'Twilight.'"
But early exposure to pop music aside, Fellowes insists he's just giving audiences what they really, really want. "There is something about the ultimate sacrifice to preserve your love, which is completely pure and takes over your life, that we all find very appealing — perhaps because it's a sort of ideal that most of us don't live up to," he says of the enduring appeal of Shakespeare's romantic tragedy. "There is a moment in some incredibly unhappy pursuit where most of us think, 'Oh, to hell with it' and then we just go home. But what we love about these lovers is that they don't think that. The go all the way and in the end they would rather die than be apart. It somehow chimes with the memory of first love and early love, which we've all been through."
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And when he says "we all," he's including himself. "These stories — and 'Romeo' more than any other — take us back into that emotion," he says. "And I suppose I respond to that as much as anyone else does, really. Odd as it may seem looking at this porky old fellow, bald and fat, once inside there was a lover."
That does leave one nagging question, though: With so many previous adaptations of the Bard's love story — and especially with Franco Zeffirelli's definitive 1968 edition and Baz Luhrmann's more experimental 1996 entry — why does the world need yet another?
"There are certain stories that won't die, and they just continually get reinvented," Fellowes explains. "Sometimes ['Romeo and Juliet' has] been turned into modern musicals about the back streets of New York ("West Side Story') or it's been made modern and set in an ice rink or it's in an underground garage or everyone's in Nazi uniforms. But the point is we keep going back to it. And I think the reason we go back to it is that it touches something at our very core. And that's why it seemed right to give this generation their own 'Romeo and Juliet' and not constantly get out a fuzzy VHS of Zeffirelli's version."