Gather up a cast of some of the UK’s finest actors, most in their 60s and 70s, head to heart of India and shoot a movie? Director John Madden makes it look surprisingly easy.
“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is a unique coming-of-old-age ensemble story in which a disparate assemblage of aging Brits – Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup – for various reasons turn expatriate to live out their golden years in a supposedly luxurious hotel in Jaipur only to discover that their new home is not everything the positive-spinning young owner (Dev Patel) promised, but also so much more.
And Madden, whose deft directorial touch previously delivered “Mrs. Brown,” “Shakespeare In Love” and “The Debt,” brought his talent-packed team directly to the film’s colorful Indian locations to give the clash of cultures even more verisimilitude. But the director tells PopcornBiz that putting the film together wasn’t quite the romp it appears to be on screen.
Who needs special FX in a movie with a cast like this, right?
That's right – FX don't come much more special than those, but I've always believed that. I can't remember who, but somebody said the best special effect imaginable is a close-up of a brilliant actor, and that remains true, doesn't it?
How easy – or difficult – was it to assemble this particular group of world-class actors?
It was difficult in terms of schedules, to be honest with you, because threading the needle was quite tricky. They're all actors with complicated schedules. They work all the time. Most of these actors are onstage or in film or whatever, and there's only a little envelope of time that you can work in India, really. It's sort of the two months before Christmas and the two months after, just because otherwise it's impossible weather wise. It's too hot and too difficult. Logistically there were some issues. I have to say that my experience was that when I had been involved with the film, from the very beginning I'd been offered it, but I couldn't do it because I was making another film. I said to Graham [Broadbent], a producer, 'You need to go off and make this,' because he's got salaries of a very small outfit to consider. I didn't think he could put this into gestation for two years and wait for me, but it happened to be free even though they developed the project in the meantime. A project of mine got pushed back and Graham called up and said, 'Will you look at this again?' And at that point the piece was sufficiently known that some of the actors had become aware of it. Bill [Nighy] had and Tom [Wilkinson] had. But the other actors, Maggie [Smith] had been involved at an earlier point, but didn't want to do it now. Judi [Dench] had always been in my mind, from the first time that I read it and I think in the producers as well, but she hadn't gotten engaged with it either. That all started to happen when I came back and got involved with it. But they're very attractive parts, I think. If you had half an interest in India that had to be a part of what was appealing about it. To do an ensemble piece like that, they're very rare and they don't come along very often, and by the time that we got there the script was very strong. Also, we'd written the script to those actors. We knew who they were and we knew their voices.
How far afield from the source material, author Deborah Moggach’s book These Foolish Things, did you go to get it where you wanted it?
Well, it has come quite a distance, but sometimes I think these things need to. Some of the characters are recognizable from the book. Others, like Sonny, are not. Others like Graham – the Tom Wilkinson part – are not in the book at all. But the premise is similar. I credit Deborah Moggach with a very, very interesting idea. It just seems a wonderful premise for a film, as well as a book. Although I felt in very particular ways that the film needed to be tremendously present tense and not encumbered by the kinds of backstories of these people, because it seemed a unique circumstance where the backstories didn't matter, except in one or two cases of course. Obviously, the Ainslies bring their marriage with them, and the Wilkinson character is certainly governed by his past, to a degree, but most of the others not. So it's not a book that's sufficiently well known – or wasn't when we made the film – that we were going to be beaten about the head and shoulders for being unfaithful to the source material. It's probably given new life to the source material, the film.
Is this a real phenomenon, the Indian retirement hotel for aged British ex-pats?
I wouldn't say that it is. The idea came from the fact that Deborah Maggoch has a strong relationship herself with that country. She's visited it a lot and knew it quite well. So I think that idea came to her – and as I said, it's a great idea! I think there is a sort of love affair of sorts that's potentially going on with Britain and India. It's certainly a very, very popular tourist destination for British people. There's no reason, per say, why it couldn't happen, but you'd need to be brave to do it. I accounted a kind of heroism, actually, on the part of all of the characters, that they opt for that. Of course many of them don't have much option and they're seduced in one way or another by, of course, what turns out to be if not a false promise, a sort of enhanced promise. But there's something of course amazing about the culture. It's a very, very receptive, welcoming, benign culture, I believe. That's just one aspect of what's going on in India. It's a politically complex country and a country with immense problems, social problems and poverty and so on.
Did you and your cast integrate into India more or less successfully than the film’s characters?
Just speaking as a filmmaker, one of the things that's very odd is that they're immensely curious about everything. I can't tell you the number of times where I was walking around a place, trying to assess whether I could shoot a scene there, and often without any other technology other than a pair of sunglasses and perhaps a script. And almost immediately you find that you've got four or five, or if you have a script you've got ten people who are standing there, looking over your shoulder at the text, even actually pointing to it in some instances. It's very, very strange. So what happened – and it's there in the film – is that people wandered into the film all the time. There's a moment where Bill has just helped his wife onto the bus and he turns around to get Judi. He turns around, and it's like the third take that we've done, and instead of Judi being there, there was another guy there because we let the platform of the bus station play. This guy just wandered in, thinking that was his bus that he was getting on. So Bill just helped him into the bus and the guy gets in. It’s in the film. That happened several times. There's another scene where someone wanders right into the foreground of the shot.
What was your takeaway from working in India?
The place is to me intrinsically funny. It's to do with the attitude of the people, that there's this sort of optimism that, of course, completely defines the Sonny character that's not isolated, that's not fanciful. You see that everywhere. There's something about the culture that wants to say yes before it says no, and there's something hilarious about that because obviously, sometimes, it's in blank contradiction with reality. Actually, I have in my wallet this card that I was presented with when I was there scouting. It's a rather impressive looking card given to me by a man who called himself Sheik Musharif. It said ‘Good Speaking English' on the card and the business he ran was called Excellent Happy Tours. It had a picture of a very swanky Mercedes on the card, and the guy who gave this to me on the streets of Jaipur was standing in a tuk-tuk. He was quite seriously saying, 'I will be your driver. I will take you wherever you need to go. I won't be a problem. I know this city very, very well.' There he is in his tuk-tuk and there's no picture of a tuk-tuk on his card. I thought, 'Well, this is perfect.' It sort of validated the character that we'd written completely, and you start to see it everywhere once you're there. It's a marvelous place.