Go behind the scenes of 'Downton Abbey' with film composer John Lunn

The original cast of the hit series 'Downton Abbey' reunites for a big-screen adaptation on Sept. 20.Focus Features

September 16, 2019

"Switch the dialogue off, and pay attention to what's happening on screen."

That's the first tip John Lunn offers aspiring film composers. It's also the same advice he followed as he wrote the musical themes of Downton Abbey.

The beloved British period drama, which follows an aristocratic family and their servants at an Edwardian estate, ended after its sixth season in 2016. Now fans can revisit their favorite characters in a big-screen adaptation that premieres in North America on Sept. 20.

Lunn, the mastermind behind the show's music, set to work on a new score after learning that a film version had been greenlighted by Focus Features in 2018.

John Lunn
'Downton Abbey' composer John Lunn
Phil Watkins

"There was a real desire to not change too much of the music, in order to create continuity between the series and the movie," he says.

Fans can expect to hear the popular 'Downtown Abbey Suite' theme along with other familiar motives, as well as new music.

"The first five minutes of the movie are purely music — no dialogue," he says. "So there was some pressure to get that sounding perfect."

Scoring for the big screen presented new challenges for Lunn.

"There's a scene with an orchestra playing at a ball, and so we needed the audio to match with the musicians playing on the screen. We used some creative editing to achieve that."

Lunn worked with the Chamber Orchestra of London when recording the music for the series. To create a fuller sound for the film version, they doubled the number of string players from 32 to 64.

The biggest difference between composing for TV versus a movie? The storylines. In a TV show, Lunn says, you have multiple storylines for the characters, and you create musical themes for each that weave throughout the episodes. In a film, you have one major storyline that connects all of the characters.

Since he first began writing music for TV and film, Lunn has made major developments in his composition style.

"I now compose instinctively," he says. "I don't think about how I work until I have to explain it to someone else."

When looking to other film scores for inspiration, Lunn loves the music of Chinatown and Dr. Zhivago. He also finds Stanley Kubrick's use of music in his films "very stimulating."

Lunn says his musical tastes are diverse and his listening preferences change throughout the year.

"I've always been a massive fan of Miles Davis, particularly anything from 1955-1975. I've been listening to a lot of Debussy and Ravel at the moment, as well as Scandinavian Jazz. And my life would be miserable without Bach!"

Fans might be surprised to learn that the music of Downton Abbey was added in post-production, after all the scenes had been filmed and edited. Lunn watched the footage and then set it to music. He describes his job as using music to "reveal to audiences what is not seen."

"I focus on the relationship between characters, and I try to convey those feelings rather than compose for their location or time period."

What's next for Lunn? Fans can hear his work on the upcoming season of Netflix's The Last Kingdom and the upcoming ITV period drama Belgravia.

Downton Abbey hits theaters in North America on Friday, Sept. 20. Hear a sample of Lunn's score in the official film trailer below.