The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was a hit far beyond anyone’s expectations, as the physical and spiritual journey of seven very different British pensioners looking for the next chapter in their lives captured the hearts of audiences across the globe. In The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the fact that there is only one remaining vacancy in the Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful leads Sonny (Dev Patel) to want to expand to a new, very promising property, so that he can have more space for fresh arrivals. Once again directed by John Madden and written by Ol Parker, the film also stars Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton, Ronald Pickup, Tena Desae, Richard Gere, David Strathairn and Tamsin Greig.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, director John Madden talked about how he never could have imagined that they’d make a sequel, that the fact these films make you feel every emotion is the key thing, how the story for the second film evolved, that the destination and ending were always very clear, throwing Richard Gere into the mix, and trying to figure out what he’s going to do next.
Collider: When you started production on The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, could you ever have imagined that you’d be here now, talking about The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel?
JOHN MADDEN: No, that would have been the most bizarre thing that anybody could possibly have said to me. If you’re a director making a movie, you obviously have to believe in it, in every way, because you’re the fuel that everybody else is running on. The material had qualities that I’m especially drawn to, which is a mixture of turns. It’s great working on comedy. I love working on comedy. But the comedy in the first film, and very much in the second one, comes out of a strangely melancholy place because of where these people are in their lives. All of the characters in the first one started out in places of pain, of one sort or another. The fact that it makes you feel every emotion is the key thing. I hope I had a grasp of that, when I was making the first one, but I didn’t know how that would translate. Although I do feel that audiences respond to that. Audiences love being up-ended with a surprise they hadn’t seen coming. If you can make people laugh, and then suddenly make that laugh stop in their throat, that’s a delicious experience. It’s having the rug pulled out from under you, which is not a pleasant experience in love, but in movies, is very pleasant. I think that has something to do with the reason the films work. But, I had no idea. It’s one of the nice surprises this business can give you, occasionally, just as it can give you bad ones.
In the time that you spent talking to the screenwriter about what the film should be, did you guys touch on any ideas or storylines that didn’t end up making it into the film?
MADDEN: The answer to that is no. Because it was so unlikely, we didn’t imagine we’d be doing it. One very critical thing occurred to us, when that conversation began, which was a very gentle nudge from Fox Searchlight, who made the film and are not in the business of making second installments of anything. We looked at it and thought, “No, that can’t be right.” And then, we thought, “Well, I suppose the ending of the first film was the beginning of that story.” They had chosen a life and just come to that decision, by the end of the first film, but that life was just beginning. That seemed like a perfectly reasonable door to go through and see what happened. We said, “We’ll make this, if we can come up with a story that we think is worth telling and that is true to these characters without spitting in the face of the audience.” Also, crucially, we had to attract the actors to doing it a second time. We obviously canvassed their likelihood of their wanting to be a part of it first because we didn’t want to write an entire script and have one or the other of them say, “You must be joking. I’m not going back.” But none of them said that, and certainly none of them said that after they read the script.
All of their stories emerged quite organically. It’s like when you’re working on a scene and you’re trying to figure out how to shoot it. If the camera just naturally wants to go in a certain place and I can figure out, very easily, how to accomplish the story that I want to tell in that scene, that means it’s a good scene and the scene is working. Likewise, if you find the right location, it’s not difficult to shoot. And likewise, if you find the right general lines for the story and they come easily, then something feels right about that. We didn’t have to bend. We had to construct a narrative that had its surprises and reversals and unexpected developments, but they came pretty organically out of the reality of the characters that we had started with. It fell into place pretty naturally, and its held that shape. The destination was always very clear in our minds. The ending was always very clear. We shot it that way and we cut it that way, and that’s the way it is. For better or worse, it’s what we were after. We’ll just have to wait and see if we got it right, in any way.
The film follows this impending wedding of the younger couple while you have an older couple trying to figure out how to get on the same page and have a relationship. Was that role reversal intentional?
MADDEN: That was something that started to feed back to us, as we were writing it. Obviously, the wedding was implicit. Once we realized that we were going to continue that story, the wedding was the topic of the end of the last movie, so that structure for the film suggested itself. With the Bill Nighy and Judi Dench characters, we just thought, “Okay, what’s going on with them? They had one date, and it was for a cup of tea. He smuggled her onto the back of his bike, which means a certain thing to an audience, but what does that mean?” These are two people coming off the back of difficult marriages. She’s been totally up-ended, and all the assumptions she’s made about her life, all the way through her life, turned out to have a fault foundation. He’s just escaped from a marriage that both of them should have been released from, long ago, but because of his own decency and sensitivity, he couldn’t break out of it. And in this case, his own decency and sensitivity, and his worry that he might be invading this woman’s emotional fragility, makes him not be able to speak outside of a certain code, which gives her all sorts of room to feel doubts. At a certain point, I remember saying to Ol [Parker], “This is hilarious! This relationship is about commitment-phobia, except that it’s backwards and upside down,” with the wrong demographic and it’s usually the guy who doesn’t dare commit to the woman. The opposition of young and old was very much part of the strategy of the film. It’s implicit in the end of the first film, and very much, in our minds, the topic of this one. This family is both bi-generational and bi-cultural. Those two things belong to one another. The dominant relationship, you could argue, in the film is between Sonny (Dev Patel) and Muriel, the Maggie Smith character. Who these characters are and what they’re about guided the storytelling, and nobody was forced into a shoe that didn’t fit them.
What was it like to add Richard Gere to the mix, this time around?
MADDEN: We had come up with a character before we had any idea what ethnicity that character would be or who would play him, or even whether it was a him. But we started to write towards a certain kind of presence, and therefore Richard popped into our heads, as being a natural candidate for that. We didn’t go to him until we’d finished the story. I thought, “This will be interesting.” We hadn’t necessarily imagined an American. We knew the film was going to have America as part of it, but that character could have been any nationality. It’s not specific to who he is. My test was whether he wanted to be in the movie. It’s not just fly in, do your part for five days and fly out. He was there for the duration, as every actor was. He really loved the first movie, he has a very strong connection with India, and he thought the part was very appealing. Of course, it’s a part that does embrace Richard Gere’s screen persona, to a degree, but it was nice to be able to play inside and outside of that. And he’s shown an increasing desire to do movies that are off the center line.
Do you have any idea what you’re going to direct next?
MADDEN: I don’t know. This has been very, very fast, this film. From the moment we first started talking about it to the moment we started the story to pitching that to the studio to going into pre-production to the actors showing up, we were just starting to make it, this time last year. I haven’t really had a chance to step away from that. Something that’s as enveloping as this makes it difficult for me to evaluate exactly what I want to do next. It will probably be something very different. I can’t really talk about any particular thing yet. There are two or three things that I’m involved with, but I’ll just have to wait for a beat and acquit myself from my responsibility to this to see how that falls out. But, I’m excited to do something. I just find it really difficult, when you’ve had a very intense time making something, to just step away. I rather admire directors who can go straight from one thing to another.
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is now in theaters.