While British filmmaker John Madden had already established a name for himself thanks to his Oscar-winning 1999 costume drama Shakespeare in Love, he had a surprise hit in 2012 when he helmed The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which explored the dynamics between a group of elderly visitors to a rundown hotel in India.
It probably didn’t hurt that Madden’s reputation helped him get the likes of Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, as well as Bill Nighy and other veteran British actors to fill out the ensemble cast, all of whom returned for a follow-up called… what else?… The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
The hotel is still being run by Dev Patel’s Sonny Kapur, who has his eyes on expansion while trying not to lose focus on the fact he’s about to get married in a few weeks. Meanwhile, the patrons of his hotel are dealing with their own personal issues as well as a few new guests, including Richard Gere.
ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Madden a few weeks back, surprised that we hadn’t had a chance to speak with him before despite the number of filmmakers we speak to on a yearly basis.
ComingSoon.net: Glad to finally have a chance to talk to you as you’re one of the few directors I haven’t interviewed before, so let’s get to it. This is kind of an interesting franchise, because I’m sure when you went into that first movie, you probably didn’t think it would have a sequel and become a franchise.
John Madden: The “franchise” word is not actually one that occurred to us as filmmakers. I’ve always insisted on calling it a companion piece rather than anything else, because as I’m sure you know, we didn’t have any idea we would be coming back to this world. We made the first film as a film on its own and it was only when we stopped and stared at it for a long time at the studio’s beckoning that we realized that the end of the first film was in another way, sort of a beginning of the rest of their lives. We felt that there was a second half of the story to tell, which is how this film came about. (Laughs) I wouldn’t go so far as to put it as a “franchise” at the moment (laughs) because we’re all on uncharted territory really. Fox Searchlight has never made a sequel before. Obviously, it’s not really engaged in those kinds of movies but then this kind of movie doesn’t usually get a second outing.
CS: That’s true, but how did you get everyone to come back, because that’s what’s amazing to me. Usually when you make a movie and you expect to make more movies later, you sign everyone for three movies. This one, you literally got everyone back, which is astounding.
Madden: I think, yes, the simple answer to that is everybody really had a very, very good time making the first one. That wouldn’t be the only thing necessarily, but I think everybody enjoyed it and the movie turned out to at least find an audience that none of us had ever really quite anticipated. We had a discussion obviously with all of them before Ol Parker and I sat down to write and think about the story we might tell, because we didn’t want to particularly start writing a story if we felt that somebody categorically didn’t want to be part of that or come back. But actually, everybody did and we said, “Well, wait until you see the script…” (laughs) But they did and that’s to do with India and to do with the experience of the first film I think and to do with the kind of ripples that spread out from it once it was released.
CS: Even getting everyone to India is impressive. We’ve seen other Western movies that have tried to implement that culture, but you guys went right into it and captured a lot of it.
Madden: Yes, it’s true and just as I’ve said elsewhere, going to India is a life-changing experience anyway, particularly if you’re there long enough to become immersed in the culture. It was startlingly powerful, particularly when a lot of the original cast and the cast of both films were going there, in some cases for the first time. I think it gets into your system. It was a challenge and it wasn’t easy and it was hard work, but it was also unforgettable, I suppose.
CS: How easy or hard was it to get Richard Gere to sign on? Had he seen the original movie?
Madden: You know, it was fairly straight-forward. Richard and I have been in discussion before about a couple of projects that Richard wanted to know if I would be interested in doing with him. Just the timing and whatever didn’t work out, so he and I had certainly spoken before, and we didn’t write in the first instance. We wrote the story before we thought about who that person might be, but fairly quickly, his name started to become upper-most in our minds. That he really, really loved the first film. If you’re approaching it as an actor and you are agreeable to the whole idea of an ensemble, which this clearly is. This is not a movie an actor can come in and show up for five days on consecutive days and then he flies out again. This is a movie where everybody in it was in it for the run of the picture, because everybody is involved in everybody else’s scenes all the way through, even more in this one than it was in the last one because so much of it is about the wedding and very big set pieces and so on. That’s a pretty attractive group of people to (as he put it) bang heads with, a pretty amazing bunch of actors and he was very attracted to that. He liked the story of that man, and he jumped straight into it. It was an incredibly happy, utterly democratic experience (chuckles). After a day, he was totally into the movie, it was terrific.
CS: It must have been nice for him to be the young guy on the set again.
Madden: (laughs) I guess so, but there’s more of an age range than you probably credit, in fact, but a great deal of his scenes were with Dev Patel which is quite an experience. He went straight into the full Sonny Kapur experience in the first three or four days of his arrival, which he was brilliant, but as they all do, they all love Dev. I think it was very enjoyable for him.
CS: Was it hard for you and Ol to figure out subplots for everyone? There’s a running story about Sonny’s character and his wedding but other characters have their own stories.
Madden: To answer your question, we extrapolated all of those stories from where those people had got to. Obviously, the given was that five of them had decided to stay, at least for the time being, and we knew that we would pick this movie up about eight months later, which seemed to be enough time for them to have embedded themselves and gone out into the work force and become involved in life in India in more than a “cultural collision” mode that they’d been in before. I think we just built outwards from a sense of where they might have got to, most obviously, for example, with the relationship between the Judi Dench and the Bill Nighy characters. Ol and I just kicked that around, and we both just said, “Okay, if I were here in this situation, this is how I’d feel, and if I were him, this is how I’d feel” and we just developed things from there. I think because, obviously like the last one, the hotel is the common factor to all of them, but in this case, also now, the wedding and their relationship with that couple and that family. Everything became woven into that, but you know, the structural model of the piece, like I’ve said before, is a Shakesperean comedy I suppose where the notion of the disparate couples pursuing emotional destinies or entanglements is the source of a lot of the comedy. Equally, those Shakesperean models tend to turn into a sort of melancholy or darker era, too, quite frequently before they resolve themselves. Because the people were real, it felt fairly easy to figure out where they might be.
CS: You talk about going into darker territory, but from the very beginning, Sonny is making jokes that the tenants of the hotel could die at any time, and there’s this sense that might actually happen.
Madden: Well, I think that you have to embrace that quite obviously. I mean, the beauty of Sonny is that he has no sense of political correctness at all and when he quotes Maggie Smith’s character as saying—which in a sense sums the movie up—“Why die here when I can die there?” She was living, totally ignored, in some council flat in London where she was suspicious of all of her neighbors and violently xenophobic, sort of borderline racist but not for any reason other than the fact that she had no friends and repelled anybody who came near her. Obviously, the experience of the first film transforms that and the second one even more. If you’re telling a story about people at that point in their lives, then mortality is obviously an issue that’s going to be very central to all of them. And indeed, what they all experience, that mortality amongst themselves in the first film. We weren’t going to turn our heads away from that, because I think the spirit and the humor and the optimism is umbilically connected to the idea that at any moment, life might be very different.
CS: What were the logistics of making the movie? Were you able to get the entire cast in India for the entire time?
Madden: Yeah, they were. Pretty much everybody was there for the run of the picture. Not quite. We started out with a few less and we ended up with a few less, but broadly speaking, I would say that if the shoot were, I don’t know, ten weeks long, I should think we had everybody for eight weeks of those ten. I think there was a scene where Dev Patel, Tena Dasae and Shazad Latif were all sort of pinching themselves on the meal breaks. “Wait a minute, this is a scene we’re doing…”—I think it was the rehearsal party dance—“where we have Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Judi Dench, Richard Gere, all of these people as extras!” (laughs) There were two nights right the way through the night with those people. It has something to do with the way the piece operates that it’s extraordinarily democratic and a proper ensemble and lent its spirit to the movie, in some way.
CS: Can you talk about how you and Ol researched Indian culture, like the wedding and dancing, to get things right? I imagine you had consultants, but how do you know what you need to do while writing it?
Madden: I had this notion at the very beginning that dance ought to be a very big part of the story. We didn’t want the wedding to be the last thing that happened, the couple rushing to the aisle in the closing frames, because a wedding is a major undertaking that often takes two years to prepare in that country. As we knew to our cost, because we were colliding our locations with weddings that had been booked long before this film was even thought of and we had to move out to let them go on with it. The wedding these days are like mini-Bollywood movies, very frequently, and not least for the fact that there’s almost always a Bollywood number as the climax of the wedding, as there is in this one, which involves the families rehearsing with choreographers that had been hired to put on a show. That idea seemed interesting, particularly because of the possibilities of Sonny’s relationship with the dance floor. Like so many things, he doesn’t feel immensely confident in that zone, so it seemed an interesting idea to work with. That was there from the very beginning. We’d sort of had this idea that we would structure the film as three different parties, three different parts of the celebration, which is the minimum, not that there wouldn’t be that at any wedding. You just proceed from one (to another), like a graduated sequence of parties, culminating in the final one.
CS: Do you have any idea what you might want to do next? It was nice to see you returning to television with “Masters of Sex” but it had been a while since you did television, and it’s obviously changed since you did it.
Madden: It has and of course, everybody is flocking to it, because it’s a marvelous place to tell stories that perhaps don’t need to be resolved in a space of an hour and a half where you can really explore character in a much more nuanced and protracted way. I mean, that was just a fantastic script that was sent to me and I immediately responded to it, because I’d love to get involved with this, so I’ve become involved and unfortunately was not able to do any more episodes of that, partly because of this film and my life hasn’t really made it possible. But I’ve remained involved with that. I’ll do more television for sure.
CS: Any other movie projects you’ve been developing?
Madden: There are but it’s a little too early to say. We’ve made this so fast this film. I mean, this time last year we were starting to shoot it, so we’ve put it together and gotten it out there very fast. It’s been three years since the last movie was released so apart from the envelope of six months that I made “Masters of Sex,” this has been occupying my life for a long time, so I’m just taking a step back to see where I might go. As you know, I tend to never make the same kind of movie the next time around, so I might just go into a different genre. We’ll see.
Madden: Well, absolutely. I mean, The Debt was a weird one, because the studio that made it went down so that was a lost child for a while, but it all ended very happily. But yeah, it’s very nice. Searchlight did a fantastic job with the first movie and as we said earlier this is fresh territory for them, because they’ve never done a sequel or a follow-on or whatever you want to call it, even a companion piece, as I would call it. So it’s nice that it’s going out quickly, and it’s important for the audience because these characters are still very vivid to them.
CS: If this does well, maybe they can convince Wes Anderson to make a sequel to The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Madden: That would be great, wouldn’t it? They could be in the hotel business, Fox Searchlight.
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel opens nationwide on Friday, March 6 with previews on Thursday night.