Julian Fellowes Writes Heartfelt Tribute To Late Producer Ileen Maisel: “Making Films And TV Shows Was Her Whole World”

Editor’s note: Downton Abbey and The Gilded Age writer Julian Fellowes has written a heartfelt salute to his friend and colleague, the producer Ileen Maisel, who died in London on February 16 aged 68.

Ileen Maisel was born in Los Angeles, California, where she was raised. In fact, her father had moved there from Alabama to work in retail sales, so she had no immediate help with a career in show business, but it was clearly enough that she breathed the same air as the great filmmakers of the past and present. It is no surprise to learn that by the age of 15 she was working for the entertainment journalist Rona Barrett.

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From then on, she embraced, bathed in, and generally loved the film industry until the end of her life. There was never much doubt as to where she was headed and she was still young when she entered the industry.

Ileen had a big personality, and could be daunting, as everyone who knew her would testify, but she was also wonderfully funny and extremely wise. She was lucky, too. Having a giant character can be a disadvantage when setting out, but there were people, from the start, who recognised her potential. In 1980, she was taken on by Frank Yablans — he being the former chief at Paramount Pictures, who was, at that time, flourishing as an independent producer.

When Yablans became Chairman of MGM, Ileen followed him there as Executive Vice President. Later, her path crossed with that of Bernie Brillstein, the brilliant talent agent and the producer who gave us many hits. Bernie had seen Ileen’s potential from the early days, and took her to Lorimar in 1983, where, as Senior Vice-President of Production, she would supervise the making of several well-received films, including the international hit, Dangerous Liaisons, which gained several nominations and three wins at the Oscar ceremony of 1989. By this time, it was clear that Ileen’s show was definitely on the road.

In 1990, she was put in charge of European production for Paramount which became her speciality, and in turn carried her to England, where she would make her home. It was not the land of her birth but it became the land of her heart, even if it was London, rather than the green and rolling hills, that held her. Few would dispute that Ileen was not a country girl. When she paid us a visit in Dorset, her car had hardly come to a halt on the gravel when she asked, loudly, “When are we going back?”

From Paramount, in 1998, she would move on to Fine Line Cinema, as Senior Vice-President of European Production and Acquisitions and then on to New Line Cinema, an appointment that again made use of her special talents. One of her last major adventures was when she teamed with the documentary film-maker Lawrence Elman to establish Amber Entertainment, an intellectual property company dealt deals with the likes of Endemol.  This would include not just feature films, but also television dramas, and documentaries.

By this time, she had other champions. It was Bert Salke who brought Ileen into Fox 22, and she enjoyed working with him enormously, and then, after Fox merged with Disney there came a collaboration with Karey Burke at 20th Television, where she flourished.

The point is, the Hollywood system was a game and by the time Ileen was 30, she understood the rules and she knew how to play it. Her reward was to live through an extraordinary time for herself and for the industry, when she oversaw the production of some outstanding films, including Ripley’s GameThe Golden CompassInkheart and Onegin, with Ralph Fiennes and Liv Tyler, which earned Ileen a BAFTA nomination for Best British Film.

In the late 1990s, she arrived in my life, and after that I would be an eye witness to the place she had made for herself in entertainment. I had written some children’s serials for the BBC, but they grew tired of my great ladies and grateful footmen, and although I was still acting, my career behind the camera was flagging.

What saved me was that Ileen and I were both friends of Duncan Heath, the head of ICM at that time, who was, and remains, at the centre of the British industry. He introduced me to Ileen, and, at his suggestion, she took me on as a script editor. I was immediately impressed by her respect for audiences. She was determined they should enjoy her films and have a good time watching them.

In those days, audiences were not necessarily a high priority for many filmmakers, who were more anxious to display their own beliefs and angst as they tussled with the challenges of life. As a consequence, a lot of the films being made were very boring, and Ileen wanted to change that.

We were working on a script with a particular writer and it became ever clearer that Ileen’s message was not getting through, until the day when she turned to me and suggested we had wasted enough time. “Just write a draft yourself,” she said. I did. It was never made, but eventually it got me the job to write what became Gosford Park. Her role in the film’s creation was enhanced by Mary Selway, her long-term and much-loved partner, being appointed as casting director by Robert Altman — all of which gave Ileen a place in my story, which is why I thanked her from the Oscar stage in 2002. In the same year, she was producing Ripley’s Game with John Malkovich for New Line, one of her best films and perhaps the one she was most proud of in her career.

Ileen very much dictated the terms of her own life. From breakfast every day at her beloved Claridge’s, accompanied by about a hundred mysterious vitamins, to the moment she closed her eyes at night, she made her own decisions and followed her own patterns. We made Romeo and Juliet together in 2012, and I was able to study, at close hand, her trick of combining her memorable luncheons and dinners, full of amusing men and women, and marked by informed and witty conversation, with a minute grasp of everything that was happening on any one of her sets.

In conclusion, I suspect that Ileen’s greatest gift was her understanding and assessment of people. She could see what they were capable of, and would not hesitate to press them to do it, and do it better. Of course, she had a smile that could light up a crowded awards dinner, but she could fight like a tiger to get what she wanted.

She was determined and single-minded and seldom distracted, perhaps because making films and programs for television was her whole world. She was at ease in it, she was at peace — something that is rare to see, even in successful entertainers.

Many who do well in the industry suffer from the imposter syndrome, the fear that they are going to be rumbled and expelled at any moment. Others develop colossal egos to deal with the pressures of their job, until they divorce themselves from all reality, and end up clinically deranged, and the victims of manipulative toadies. None of this was true of Ileen. She knew her place in that universe. She felt she belonged there. And she was right.

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