The dramedy The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, from acclaimed and accomplished director John Madden, follows seven retirees from the U.K. in need of a transformation, who find themselves spending their golden years at a rundown hotel that does not quite live up to the lush amenities pictured in the brochure. The hotel’s naive young owner, Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel), inherited the once sophisticated building from his father, hoping to turn it into a high-end luxury hotel. Instead, the water and electricity are iffy at best, and India’s overwhelming contrasts are both intoxicating and frightening for these seven newcomers, who are unsure about what the future might hold. The film stars Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, Ronald Pickup and Celia Imrie.
During this recent exclusive interview with Collider, director John Madden talked about why this premise was so attractive to him, determining what aspects of India to capture, the fact that he didn’t anticipate quite how much this entire experience would change everyone involved with making the film, and assembling such an incredibly talented cast. He also talked about what attracted him to directing the pilot for the Showtime drama series Masters of Sex, about Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), the pioneers of the science of human sexuality whose research touched off the sexual revolution. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
John Madden: The initial premise of it is very attractive to me. The immediacy of a group of people colliding with a country like that, and particularly that country, seemed very rich and potentially very funny. I really liked the idea of old people suddenly becoming pioneers in an environment that they didn’t recognize. It seemed heroic, as well as absurd and frightening, and it seemed to engender all kinds of emotions that would be interesting to look at. You could lift the lid on an experience that most people, particularly in the West and in the U.S. very particularly, want to look away from because they’re frightened by it. Nobody wants to be old and nobody wants to think they’re getting old, or that they belong to that constituency. That seemed like a provocative and enjoyable premise, particularly one that you could engage humor, as a way of telling the story. And then, you could try to undo some assumptions.
I’m not saying that I set out with all of these things, but it seemed to me that the premise had the potential to unlock all of that. The other factor was just India. I had always wanted to go there. I told my wife I would take her there on a significant anniversary, but the film beat it out by 18 months. The place is astounding. For the first 36 hours I was there, I thought, “I can’t do this film.” I couldn’t find anything funny because it’s so shocking when you first go there. But, very quickly, I got under the skin of all of that and began to think, “No, there is a way of actually recognizing and honoring the culture you’re a part of there, and still tell the story.” That optimism that the Dev Patel character has is absolutely a national characteristic. They see possibility everywhere, sometimes hilariously and sometimes in completely contradictory circumstances.
How did you decide what aspects of India you wanted to show with this film?
Madden: India is made up of so many different cultures. You can’t really generalize India from any one place, but that place is exactly like you see it. You can’t not respond to it, as a filmmaker, because it’s visually so fantastic. I don’t just mean in terms of color and architecture and so forth. There is a visual story going on, everywhere you look. You see a little microcosm of somebody’s life because it’s very public. Because of the weather, people live outside and you can see the most extraordinary stories going on everywhere.
Did you suspect, at all, how much this entire experience would change you, as well as the cast and crew?
Madden: I don’t know that I did anticipate that, quite to that degree. It’s always a very special privilege to go and make a film in a particular place. That seems to me to be the extraordinary thing you can do with film, that you can’t do with any other form, like the novel or anything else, in quite the same way. You can actually get the smell and feel of a place, in a way that can be very viscerally experienced. If you make an entire film in that environment, that’s an even more intense experience. India, famously, enforces that you cannot not be changed by it. The culture is pretty overwhelming, and there is a totally welcoming thing about the place and the people that marks you, in some way. Some people can’t cope with it, very like the character in the film who collapses in front of the challenge and goes into a slow-motion nervous breakdown. That’s not an uncommon response. But others, like the characters in the film, and I’m certainly one of them, feel very, very affected by it and will go back there and feel a very strong connection to it. That became true of some of the actors in it, too. The film is an unabashed love letter, in a way, to that country. If the film makes people want to go experience that place and that culture, I feel like I’ve repaid them something, at least, because it is amazing and addictive, in some strange way.
Madden: Well, with Judi [Dench], certainly, yes. With Maggie [Smith], I felt nobody else should be playing that part. With Penelope Wilton, I felt the same way. These are actors I’ve grown up with and know. Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson had both circled the project at a point when I wasn’t involved with it. I was involved with it, at the very beginning, but I couldn’t do it because I was doing another film. It was a friend of mine who was producing it and I said, “Either I can develop it with you and you can wait for me, or you need to get on and make it.” So, he went off and developed it with a couple of directors. But then, eventually, the project came clear again, at a point when something of mine had been postponed.
During that time, a few of the actors had been circling around it. Bill and Tom could have probably actually swapped roles, in a certain way. So, they were involved, but Celia [Imrie] wasn’t and Ronnie Pickup wasn’t. Dev [Patel] had auditioned for one of those directors, but then re-auditioned for me. I wasn’t sure whether it was within his range to do, and then discovered instantly that, not only was it within his range, I could not imagine more perfect casting. He’s just got a wonderful innocence, but also a comic gift and an energy that was so perfect for it. Casting is everything. That’s where you make the film, in my view. You have to tread a little bit carefully, in an ensemble piece like this, to make sure that there aren’t two people who can’t work together, but most of these people had worked with one another before.
What attracted you to directing the pilot for the Showtime drama series Masters of Sex?
Madden: Well, the answer is that it came to me as a script, and the script was really terrific. I thought it was very, very interesting. [William] Masters and [Virginia] Johnson were part of my past. It took me 30 pages to realize that’s what it was about. I kept seeing the word “Masters,” and then seeing the word “Johnson,” and I thought, “Oh, hang on!” I think I was a prurient schoolboy when Human Sexual Response was published in the mid-60’s, and we all rushed to get it, thinking it was going to be erotically interesting, but it wasn’t at all. It was all maps and graphs and data. But, it’s a very interesting story because the personalities and the relationship between those two characters is very interesting, nevermind the whole idea of demystifying sex, which is essentially what they did.
[Alfred] Kinsey began that journey, but his studies were all based on documentary interviews. They witnessed it quite literally because their studies were clinical and aimed to understand the physiology of sex, but some of the processes that were involved in doing that were outrageous and extraordinary, from a modern perspective. They were funny and interesting and, obviously, erotic. It just seemed like a very interesting project. I also admire American television, particularly cable television. They seem to be able to do things that movies can’t do. Masters is a complex character, who is not always sympathetic and not always doing things that you would ever allow a character to do in a movie because you can’t let people fall out of love with the people they’re watching. The longer form allows you to investigate things in really interesting ways.
Will you continue to be involved with the show, past the pilot?
Madden: I’ll have an ongoing relationship with the project, if it gets taken up. I think it’s looking promising. It’s really good.
And, it’s got a really great cast of actors.
Madden: Yes, Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan are great [as Masters and Johnson].