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A Conversation with John Madden

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
25 February 2015

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is the expansionist dream of Sonny (Dev Patel), and it’s making more claims on his time than he has available, considering his imminent marriage to the love of his life, Sunaina (Tina Desai).

Sonny has his eye on a promising property now that his first venture, ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful’, has only a single remaining vacancy – posing a rooming predicament for fresh arrivals Guy (Richard Gere) and Lavinia (Tamsin Greig). Evelyn and Douglas (Judi Dench and Bill Nighy) have now joined the Jaipur workforce, and are wondering where their regular dates for Chilla pancakes will lead, while Norman and Carol (Ronald Pickup and Diana Hardcastle) are negotiating the tricky waters of an exclusive relationship, as Madge (Celia Imrie) juggles two eligible and very wealthy suitors. Perhaps the only one who may know the answers is newly installed co-manager of the hotel, Muriel (Maggie Smith), the keeper of everyone’s secrets. As the demands of a traditional Indian wedding threaten to engulf them all, an unexpected way forward presents itself.

The Fan Carpet’s Amanda Dal had the pleasure of talking to John Madden ahead of its release on February 26…



You must have developed a very special relationship with Judi. You helped launch her international film career with Mrs Brown…

Yes, it’s kind of hard to imagine that she didn’t have an international film career before that since she was already a giant of everything else she did. I’m very happy to have played a part in that. I offered her genius up to world; I take no more credit than that. It’s fantastic to have had the chance to work with her once let alone four times.


What is her genius?

She has a sort of an incredible range of skills at this point that comes primarily from playing to an audience in a theatre space, as she would say it where she has learnt everything she knows. She is blessed with some very particular qualities. She has voice that is absolutely unmistakable, very very emotional. She has a physicality, which people don’t usually recognise, a sort of dynamic quality of withholding then sudden rushes and so forth; it’s very dynamic and very involving. She has an emotional depth that is second to none but I think that the quality that she has, which marks her out is something she can’t control or take particular credit for, is just that she engages an audience immediately. She has some quality that every audience that sees her leans forward to her almost literally you can see it happening if you watch a screening, people just go towards her. Whatever she’s playing, if she’s playing a demonic character or a very powerful character or a very impotent character, she connects. It also helps that she has become an extravagant beauty the older she has got, she’s always been a very beautiful woman a very interesting woman but she’s really become a beauty, she’s become a sort of movie star late her in her life. What you see on screen, I don’t mean in terms of personality, is exactly what you get off screen.


She likes a laugh apparently…

She is outrageously disrespectful of the process and everything else. She is the worst ‘corpser’ in the business; she makes other people laugh on stage. It is easy to get around that in film but on stage it’s less easy to get round it. She’s very bad, a very naughty girl. She likes a laugh, she takes her work seriously but utterly likely at the same time.


The fact that so many of cast are good friends, Bill has obviously worked with Judi for ages and she knows Maggie Smith well, does that make it hard in the sense that you have to corral a group of friends?

It doesn’t make it hard, you know sometimes corralling them and getting them to shut up is a little bit of an issue but not really. I mean the truth is it’s true of English actors because they work across so many media, if you’re based in London you’re working in film, theatre and television radio all of those, so you’re crossing paths with these actors who are in great demand and do a lot of work. So they’ve all worked with each other multiple times most of them. I mean Penelope Wilton and Bill have played husband and wife at least twice, if no three times, before they did in the first film and that is a short hand you are able to take advantage of. The director’s job in the situation is to get the script right and make sure that they understand exactly what each scene is doing, provide a sort of physical circumstance and a shooting pattern that is going to deliver that then get out of the way because these are geniuses of a kind in what they do. Bill Nighy is unique and there is no actor like him in terms of what he does and the way he does it. So I just, the same goes for Ol Parker, we write very specifically for those actors. We know their rhythms and you can see a line and you go ‘ I know exactly what Bill is going to do with that’ in the sense that I don’t know exactly what he’s going to do with it but I know he’s going to do something marvellous with it. If you’re writing jokes you know how to write for those people because you know the characters they are playing.

Essentially it’s not there is nothing to do, there is a lot to do for me, not least because as you can see in this film there is an enormous number of multiple set pieces with many characters at intersecting angles to one another, and the only way to make that work properly is to give it a life in the space that you are working in, not to try and control that rhythm editorially later. You’re dead if you do that with a comedy anyway. You have to let it happen in the space and that frequently involves saying ‘stand there and ask me later why you’re standing there but that is where you need to be’. I used a technique I have never really used before on this film where I would simply start shooting immediately, partly because we were shooting digitally and it didn’t matter how many bits I was using opposed to reams of film we were going through, and I would just simply shoot and I would never start taking anything effectively until around seven, eight, nine 0r ten takes or something. Just because by that time they had suddenly taken possession of the scene, they knew what each other were going to do and how that was going to work and we would just sharpen up the physical somewhat. Then they were fine; then they can do anything. Each time I did that I was beaten up by Maggie Smith saying ‘how many times am I going to have to walk into this room?’ ‘You wouldn’t as your mother to do it’ she would tell me.


Does she really say such things between takes?

Totally. What you see Maggie doing on screen is very close to what you see Maggie doing off screen. She takes no prisoners. The truth is we did the first film together, we know who we are with it and obviously she’s very much the centre of this film. So, it’s fine. She needs to test the water of anything she’s doing. So, if you don’t pass that test watch out, and I don’t mean just in terms of personnel. She interestingly is never satisfied with what she’s done ever, so the paradox of her saying ‘we’re not doing it again are we?’ means of course she would always want to do it again because she never thinks she’s got there and she can find film frustrating for that reason. The truth is that her ‘not-good-enough’ is dazzling mostly. Before she goes there she needs to understand what’s she’s doing and she that can rely on direction that’s not going to steer her off or what another character’s doing. I was terribly terribly lucky because she is the absolute chief of the Dev Patel fan club, she absolutely adores him, and thinks, as I do, that he is spectacularly talented. He is right out there on the limb obviously but he could do no wrong in her eyes and that was a very useful dynamic for me because obviously it is the central relationship in the film. She adores him.



How long did the whole filming of the second one take?

I think about ten weeks of which almost every actor was there for at least eight because everybody is involved in everybody else’s story obviously. So you have this kind of slightly, from a director’s point of view, uncomfortable situation where you’ve Richard Gere or Maggie Smith waiting, standing walking, whatever they’re doing for a very long time to say one line at the end of a scene. It was always genuinely democratic film, well both of them are the most genuinely democratic films I’ve made, because they’re all co-dependent and interdependent and that works. It’s nice for an actor I think because that means you’re not carrying a movie.


Did Richard Gere ask to be in?

I don’t know where that came from. Well he approached me on two, if not three, occasions to do a project with him, which I couldn’t do as it turned out in any case because of availability or whatever. No, it’s not true because he didn’t know about it initially. When we started to write a character we didn’t know, certainly it wasn’t nationality specific we didn’t even know what gender that character would be to begin with but then we fastened on to an idea that implied a certain kind of quality that the actor would have. Therefore, his name came into our heads fairly early on, in mine for the reasons I have stated. So, I don’t know if that somehow got reported as he asked to be in it. We didn’t show him the script until we’d finished it and then we said ‘would you consider playing this?’ And it turned out that he was a very big fan of the first one and he’s displayed more and more of an appetite for doing smaller independent less main stream kind of fair. So, he didn’t need much persuading I’m glad to say but actually let’s let that one fly and ignore what I have say and say ‘yeah he did ask to be in it.’


Is there ever a case when the first film is surprising successful, is a sleeper hit, that maybe you don’t want to make a second one?

That’s a perfectly fair question and believe me we thought about it a lot because you don’t want to squander whatever is you might have been lucky enough to achieve the first time around. We had no wish to make the same film again but we did I think allow ourselves to think about how that story might continue was worth thinking about. Particularly because at the end of the first film, although it concluded, it sort of concluded with a beginning because the first film was about people taking a sort of break encounter, a intuitive choice, about their lives as the end of those lives got rather closer and by the end of that film they have decided to stay with choice haven’t they? Therefore, it’s the beginning of something else so once we had identified that because none of us had any expectation of there being a second chance, as it were, to use the motif of the film. That is what we thought, we thought it’s up to us and we might as well bet on ourselves rather bet than against ourselves. We were certainly inclined to back away from it if we didn’t come up with script that we though would not be embarrassing to offer the actors. It remains to be seen of course how we will do with this but at least it’s true to the first film and true to what the first film threw up. It certainly gave us a chance to explore some things that, in the best way, we had uncovered for ourselves in the first film; in other words, we hadn’t necessarily found certain things floating up to the surface in the first film that we had expected. It’s nice when you discover when you find the film talking back to you and find things that you didn’t completely know were there and have a chance to push those things further the second time around.


What do you mean?

I knew you would say that. Ask Richard Gere he has all the answers. No, well the mortality obviously hovers as a presence over the first film and in my mind any humour has to come out of something real and in this particular case a lot of the humour comes out of their own acknowledgement, and anybody at that age will know what it’s about, of mortality and what that means. A very British response to that is to take the piss out of that idea all the time, gallows humour famously, which obviously occupies front and centre stage in this second version. I think that one of the surprises of the first film to an audience who of course were marketed a film that was ostensibly a righteous comedy about cultural collision and British people trying to make their way in India but it had a sort of more melancholy side that I think took people by surprise. If they had seen the trailer they wouldn’t have know it was about that and I think it was quite right to trail it that way. We felt that we should obviously, in thinking about the story in the second, put that front and centre again because I think it felt unacceptable to just say ‘Oh, ok there all now having a wonderful time and you can all hopefully roll about in the aisles because there is nothing to worry about’. It’s not that there’s nothing to worry about it is clearly a presence in all of their lives. Judi and Maggie’s characters are always talking about whose limb is going to fall off first and so forth. So, you know looking at that was one aspect of it. Something of course gesture-aly at the end of the previous film seeing Judi Dench disappearing down the road on the back of a motorbike that Bill Nighy is riding has a meaning in India – if anyone has been there will know what that is because you see it all the time. Therefore, It means something cinematically or it appears to mean something cinematically. In actual fact when we sat down, even before we shot the end of the film, examined what is that relationship going to be about? How is that going to evolve? And suddenly we had an opportunity to do that which may look like we have unravelled the end of the first film only because those gestures mean something at the end of those films you think: ‘oh they lived happily ever after’ but of course then in our minds they are real people who re both backing out of complicated and disastrous marriages in one way or another and that of course is going to create difficulties. Weirdly a sort of inversion of a sort of romantic comedy trope which has to with commitment phobia but usually that is the male role and the woman is charging towards the alter.


A very British thing…

Yes, of course it is and that is part of the fun it too is that they can’t get out of a code. If Douglas, Bill Nighy’s character, could only say something other than ‘would you like to come in for a coffee?’ then it might be easier but this is a man who has trodden around a fantastically dysfunctional marriage, suffocated and made a monster of his wife by being endlessly decent and accommodating and in a weird way he doing the same thing with her. There is this powerful romantic yearning he has for Judi Dench, who wouldn’t, but he can’t express it and he doesn’t want to invade her enough to hurt her or upset set. It’s terribly British but that’s fine and also Bill is sort of a poet of that behaviour, he just nails it so funnily and so truthfully. So you know there were things that we discovered that we could explore which we didn’t have a chance to in the first one because the first one was primarily about the collision, primarily about trying to deal with India and so forth. This time they are living and this time they are living the rest of their lives so it’s interesting to break that open and clearly an audience has an interest in people that age, investigating their emotional lives in way we don’t imagine they can or deserve.


Bill quite fancies South America actually…

That is exactly what we didn’t want to do, take this group of people to Guatemala to a hotel there. I think it’s also perhaps a British thing, don’t push your luck, but I think if the audience is responsive to this film it will be both pleasing and relief because the worst thing you feel is that you’re sort of selling yourself short and you don’t want to disappoint. More than that I can’t tell you.



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