It was while shooting Mr. & Mrs. Bridge (1990) in Kansas City, that actor Remak Ramsay, who was reading "The Remains of the Day" (1989) novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, while playing a part in the film, gave the book to James Ivory to read, thinking that its subject and setting might intrigue Ivory.
Anthony Hopkins, as a guest on the TV show Inside the Actors Studio (1994), said that he got tips on how to play a butler from real-life butler Cyril Dickman, who served for 50 years at Buckingham Palace. The butler said there was nothing to being a butler, really, when you're in the room, it should be even more empty.
Jack Lewis, the character played by Christopher Reeve in the film, is a composite of two different people. In Kazuo Ishiguro's source novel "The Remains of the Day" (1989), the new employer of James Stevens, portrayed in the film by Anthony Hopkins, is an American by the name of Farraday, and has nothing to do with Mr. Jack Lewis, the Senator.
One of the film's producers, Mike Nichols, described the film as a tragedy of "what someone could have been . . . what he could have been as a man, because in his way Stevens is a remarkable man, but he never got off the wrong track, as well as what he and Miss Kenton could have been together, but they missed it. That breaks everybody's heart, because everyone has a sense of a similar loss, everybody has that feeling, 'I could have, I would have, I should have'."
Ismail Merchant, one of the film's producers, said of the film: "Stevens [Anthony Hopkins] is a devoted man. He's very conscientious of his duties, but he never wants to express himself too loudly. He has been trained since birth to know his place, never to speak out. That is one of the things which is sad about the film. Stevens has lost the opportunity in life. He wanted Miss Kenton but he never could come to express his feelings to her. If you are not ready to express yourself or grab the moment, you lose out".
Butler James Stevens, portrayed in the film by Anthony Hopkins, examines his 'life with the eye of hindsight as he embarks on a journey to the seaside town where he hopes to catch up with Miss Kenton ('Emma Thompson') and to perhaps engage her again as the housekeeper of Darlington Hall. "Like most road stories, it's a journey into himself," explained Kazuo Ishiguro, who wrote the prize-winning novel of the same name on which the film is based, "a journey into his past". Ishiguro notes: "Travel gives Stevens a certain perspective that allows him, for fleeting moments, to drop the defenses of self-deception and see through some of the stories he has told himself all his life about who he is and what he has done". In the 1930s, Stevens was proud to serve his master's cause. As the years pass and new, more accurate information becomes available, Stevens' pride diminishes. Ishiguro adds: "Lord Darlington is used as a pawn by the Nazis because he yields to a common aristocratic urge to contribute something large to the world. He is somebody who starts off with very good and noble impulses, but because of a certain kind of naiveté, which almost all of us would share, he becomes a pawn".
By bringing together the most outstanding features of some of England's finest country houses, Merchant Ivory created a single imaginary setting of quintessential beauty, the perfect backdrop to a compelling drama. Not one, but four of England's greatest country houses were used in the creation of Darlington Hall for the film. They were scouted for the movie by the architectural historian Joe Friedman, who had acted as location scout on previous Merchant Ivory Productions such as Maurice (1987), Howards End (1992), and Mr. & Mrs. Bridge (1990) for the Paris Scenes.
The picture's director James Ivory said of this film: "I first read The Remains of the Day in 1989 while we were shooting Mr. & Mrs. Bridge (1990) in Kansas City. One of our actors gave me the book. I knew at once that I wanted to make it into a film. The story seemed to me to be a sort of classic triangle, with Stevens the butler (Anthony Hopkins) torn between his loyalty to his dubious master, Lord Darlington (James Fox), and his growing and unsuspected feelings for the housekeeper he has hired, Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), feelings which went both unexpressed and unexamined. The milieu was also interesting for me, as well as the period: a great aristocratic establishment centered in an English country house just before and after the Second World War, but seen from the perspective of the staff, and most particularly, the butler. We had touched slightly on this world in Maurice (1987) pre-1914, and I felt it had a lot to offer. I instructed my agent in England to see if the novel's rights were free, but I soon learned they were not. Harold Pinter had optioned the book and was said to be writing a screenplay for Mike Nichols, who would be making the film for Columbia Pictures. I thought, 'Well, that's that', but I followed the progress of the project anyway, things can always happen, this time through my American agent. And things did happen: Mike Nichols withdrew, his replacement Christopher Menaul also in time withdrew, and Columbia, who already knew I was interested, began looking around to see who might be ready to take up The Remains of the Day (1993). This coincided with the first success of Howards End (1992). The result was that Merchant Ivory ended up forming a partnership with Mike Nichols and John Calley to make the film in the fall of 1992. I felt I needed a different script and Ruth Jhabvala [Ruth Prawer Jhabvala] agreed to supply one. Many of our collaborators from Howards End (1992) were also available: Tony Pierce-Roberts would be the cinematographer; Luciana Arrighi came back as production designer, as did the costume designers Jenny Beavan and John Bright. Andrew Marcus was again to be our editor, and Richard Robbins who has [had at the time] done the musical score for every MIP [Merchant Ivory Productions] film but one since 'The Europeans (1979), came on again as composer. That is probably why the film was made so swiftly".
The film was nominated for 8 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Music Score, Best Costume Design, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, but the movie failed to win an Oscar in any of these categories.
Another important location used for Darlington Hall was the former royal residence of Corsham Court in Wiltshire, at the time of shooting being the home of Lord Methuen, where filming was allowed in the famous picture gallery, which measures 72 feet long by 24 feet wide. The gallery has been one of the largest and most impressive of all Georgian domestic interiors, with a ceiling by Capability Brown, pier glasses by Robert Adam, sofas and chairs by Chippendale, original crimson damask wall hangings, and an outstanding collection of old master paintings. Lord Darlington (James Fox)'s library and dining room, neo-gothic rooms designed by Nash, were filmed at Corsham Court as well.
Dyrham Park was a natural choice for the exteriors of Darlington Hall. Built around the turn of the eighteenth century for a minister of William III, the honey-colored stone structure stands in the cleft of a valley, with a network of fields and unspoiled scenery stretching clear to the horizon, a long and winding drive providing captivating views through carefully-crafted gaps in the surrounding park.
Much of the interior action of Darlington Hall was shot at Powderham Castle, near Exeter, for six hundred years the seat of the Courtenays, Earls of Devon. Several key scenes take place in the staircase hall, a spectacular interior of the 1750s with virtuoso rococo plasterwork, the molding picked out in buff against a background of luminous aquamarine. Other interiors which were featured in the film include the Music Room, a masterpiece of Neoclassical design by the celebrated architect James Wyatt; the Library, an elegant twin-room apartment dating from the Regency period; the Ante Room, furnished with magnificent Baroque bookcases of the 1740s; and the State Bedroom, containing a giltwood four-poster bed with crimson velvet drapes, the tester surmounted by an Earl's coronet.
Director James Ivory described the film's principal character, James Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), "as a bit like a priest who puts his life almost on an altar. He serves his lord unconditionally, and in this case, his lord is literally a Lord i.e. Lord Darlington. Perhaps it's a mentality that we don't know so well in the United States, except in the military, or indeed, in the priesthood. Within Stevens' life there is a very, very small area that is his and the rest of time he belongs to, or is committed to, a larger idea, or ideal: that of unquestioning service to an English aristocrat: his master, right or wrong."
None of the filmmakers had any experience with the way a great English country house is run, or the minutiae of a butler's life. Source novelist Kazuo Ishiguro himself was the first to admit this, and had to learn about it in the course of writing his novel. Anthony Hopkins was afraid of making all kinds of gaffes and requested that an experienced butler be somehow attached to the unit. This was done, the advisor being Cyril Dickman, the retired Steward to Queen Elizabeth II, and he in time brought in others who were experienced in the exact way of doing things in a big house like Darlington Hall. There was an exact pecking order, with specific servants to handle specific assignments. From the butler and the housekeeper on down, there were under-butlers, footmen, house maids, under-housemaids, the cook, the scullery boys, the gardeners, grooms, and gamekeepers, even the servants of the servants. It was a kind of extraordinary little kingdom.
On Nazism and the Second World War aspects of the movie, director James Ivory commented: "The British Government was trying to keep England on an even keel so that they would not have to go back to war. World War I was a terrible tragedy for that country, and no one wanted to face a war of that sort again. Historically, it seems now to have been a fruitless and dangerous kind of appeasement of a proven dictator, but a generation of young Englishmen had been recently decimated by the Germans, so it's not surprising that figures in the British government in the late thirties tried to reason with Hitler [Adolf Hitler]".
"The butler's job is just to serve his master and to accommodate these great dinners and banquets and house parties" noted Anthony Hopkins, whose chilling portrayal of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) had just prior to the picture recently won him a Best Actor Academy Award (Oscar). Hopkins added: "Hitler's ambassador comes to Darlington Hall to meet secretly with Prime Minister Chamberlain and yet Stevens always remains detached. He even says at one point during the film, when Darlington's godson challenges him to comment on what's going on, 'It's none of my business, sir, to know. My business is to serve'."
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
The original screenplay was written by Harold Pinter for Mike Nichols. A few of his scenes survived the rewrite after Columbia reassigned the film to Merchant Ivory Productions, after which Pinter insisted that his name be removed from the credits. One of these scenes, almost at the very end of the film, where Anthony Hopkins finally accepts his failures, and cries in front of a total stranger, a retired butler, did not make the final cut. The scene appears in the deleted scenes special features of the 2001 DVD release.