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"Keep out of the way, I think that's the best way of approaching it."
John Madden was joking when he said that was how he handled directing the raft of talented actors who star in his new film, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but of course there was some truth in there too. How else can you imagine standing on a set that includes Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy, not to mention fellow British greats Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie and Ronald PIckup, plus Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel? That's a lot of main characters to handle, period, before you even start getting into the collective Oscar nominations between them (14, with three wins).
And on top of all that, the set in question is in Jaipur, india, the setting of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, where optimistic entrepreneur Sonny (Patel) lures a group of British retirees with the promise of a cheap and luxurious retirement, only for them to find the hotel itself is barely in any shape for visitors. Each of the Brits undergoes some sort of life-changing experience on the trip, and a lot of them are playing characters you might not expect given their towering reputations-- Dench, world-famous as the commanding M in the James Bond movies, plays a woman so shy and sheltered she barely knows how to go out in the world without her husband. Wilton, remembered by many as the sweet mom in Shaun of the Dead, plays a woman so overwhelmed by life in India it turns her marriage toxic.
In my interview with Madden, which you can read below, he explains the pleasure he took in handing roles to these actors that they might not get otherwise, as well as contradicting some general cultural assumptions about what it means to get old. What you'll read below is a combination of my 1:1 interview with him as well as the press conference he conducted later that day. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which opened in the UK a month ago, comes to American theaters today.
When you came on to this, was there cast attached?
I have an unusual relationship without the material, because Graham [Broadbent, the producer] came to me first with it about three years ago, with a script that was the author's own adaptation of the book. I thought it was a very promising premise, but the script was not really in any kind of shape at that point. The novel is a very different beast, it has a lot of the characters' past, and the families are all involved in the story.
It sounded really different from the movie.
It's very different. But I said I'll develop this with you, but you have to wait, because I have another film to do [2011's The Debt]. So he went off, very much at my urging, and attached another director, possibly even two. They started to try and cast the film, Searchlight got involved somewhere in there, and a number of British actors-- because we have a lot of actors in this range-- started to move in and out of consideration and become involved. My film was finished, I was supposed to do something else immediately but it got pushed back, and Graham came to me and the project was suddenly open. At that point Bill had a relationship with it, and so did Tom. Judi became involved when I became involved. Maggie had once been involved but wasn't at that point. Dev, they had had an interest in, and I didn't know him, but I felt the very least I could do was to meet him and read with him, and he was just wonderful. And I started to write the whole thing around him.
What do you mean by that-- beef up his part?
Not so much beef it up. At that point we cast everyone else, so we had this very unusual opportunity to kind of write specifically for the actors. Ol and I took the script apart, dismantled it, and put it back together again, with a ll those actors and particularly that location in mind.
How big were those changes?
Pretty big. The basic shape of it, the basic architecture, was the same. Judi's character is completely different. Maggie Smith's character's journey was different-- her journey was only half the journey, it just stopped halfway through. These things often take a while to find their final form. Probably the best way I could describe it, without any disrespect to the book, what Ol did which I completely encouraged was he put the whole movie into the present tense.
Instead of a bunch of flashbacks?
Instead of the story being preoccupied with the characters' past. In order to make the film have a chance of doing what it wanted to be doing, it needed to simply embrace the present circumstances. The piece is sort of about a certain kind of intoxication, people colliding with a world they can't understand and can't initially cope with, that nonetheless purges them all and liberates them and changes them in some way. I felt that really needed not to be encumbered with relatives and other things the book is concerned with. That way I felt the humor could float free in it, and the sort of emotional values could shift around in more immediate ways.
Britain and India obviously have a very complicated, interconnected history. How did you work around the challenge of that sometimes ugly past?
We certainly felt that history and the interconnectedness between the two countries ought to be a part of the story. The thing I least wanted to do was to patronize any of the characters-- I don't just mean the Indian characters, but the British characters as well. It's very easy to patronize old people and the issues of old age. You need always to be on your guard with a comedy, not to take an easy route with things, because laughs are available cheaply sometimes. That's not legitimate and not interesting in the end. I used the protective shield of the Indian cast to keep me honest or true about what was happening in the film. The film is obviously a funny mixture of the real, but also it has one foot in a more heightened universe, a fairy tale or Shakespearean comedy, or however you want to describe it. But I wanted the reality to be correct, so I put all of the Indian cast on alert to keep talking to me about all of that. The relationship of India to Britain is a complicated and interesting one. It's a source of humor in the film and a source of possible pain as well.
Bill Nighy has this scene later in the movie that seems different from anything he's done lately. You see a lot of these actors all over the place, but it's rare that they get parts the big, or in which they're having a romance like this. And it reminded me of Helen Mirren in The Debt, which was a similarly challenging part of an older actor. Is there some kind of pleasure in taking these older actors who aren't lacking for work, but don't get parts quite this meaty usually?
There's absolutely a pleasure in that. And there's a pleasure that was not lost on the actors. It's an unusually democratic film, because no story pops out as the obvious lead story. Each of them has a transformation of a certain kind. I think that it's not always a good idea to encourage actors to play outside-- you can run into terrible trouble if an audience doesn't want to accept an actor playing a certain kind of role. Actors always want to extend themselves and expand beyond the presumptions of what they can do. It was enjoyable, that. Maggie usually plays very aristocratic people, and Judi usually plays very powerful people, and she's playing somebody very shy. That is attractive, and it's nice to slightly come in under the radar, or subvert peoples' expectations.
You feel like you're seeing something new, with these actors. It's an old romantic comedy plot but it feels different.
It's a romantic comedy the two characters aren't really aware they're in. That's the basic premise of the story, of course. It's a bunch of people with the preoccupations of the elderly, and the deprivations and humiliations and isolation and all the things that go with that, suddenly being put in a situation where they behave like teenagers, because they both have to, and somehow they're allowed to at the same time. That's its pleasure, and that's what allows it to be funny. The fact that you can examine the issues of getting older, not famously a subject most audiences would warm to, and do it in a way where you can be seriously funny because of the absurdity of the situation, is very attractive. You can smuggle all kinds of things in there an audience might not tolerate otherwise.
It feels almost like you're trying to make a broader statement about what older people can be capable of, especially on film.
The film has a social purpose, if not paramount in its aims, to shake up the way we think about old age or old people particularly. It's a paradox I observed when the film opened in London. I couldn't imagine why I'd been approached for making the film until I realized it's perfectly obvious because I'm in that constituency. We all still think we're the person we were when we were 40, particularly if Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are the same age as you. LIfe expectancy has changed, and it may sound a little easy, but the possibility of change is quite an important thing to keep in your mind. We tend to put old people philosophically in a ghetto. You think of your own parents and think of them as being other than you, and difficult and unreasonable. The film, at least partly, wants to trick people into looking at that experience upside down, because all of these characters are behaving like teenagers in a way.
How are you different as a director than when you first started?
You learn every time you do it, and you learn how to do your homework better and how to forget your homework and let go, and listen to the film as it's unfolding. You know how not to waste time, you know how to find the most economical route to saying what the film wants to say, and you learn how to navigate better. I've done a lot of different kinds of things, and I find that very stimulating. I learn something from one genre when I cross to another. I hadn't made a comedy in a long time, and that was very liberating.
Both of your previous films had releases that kind of got bungled in a way--
Well, for totally different reasons. Killshot was a situation that had to do with the Weinstein Company, where they were, and what they were. And The Debt's fate had much more to do with the unlamented Rich Ross, who just departed, who closed down Miramax right after we made it. Then Disney sold Miramax and the film, and got picked up.
And then it got released Labor Day weekend like a year after it debuted at Toronto.
That's right, although it didn't suffer from it. Certain things turn out fine in the end, and that one did.
Yeah, and I kept having to tell people, "No, it got this terrible release date, but it's really good I promise."
And it's a terrible thing, because everybody goes "So what went wrong with that?" It's a very odd thing.
Does that take a toll on you as a director, and then you feel relieved by this kind of big, splashy premiere for Marigold Hotel? Or is it just part of the process?
All you want is for a film to get out into the light. The odd occasion when it doesn't, or doesn't in the right way, that's always difficult. But it comes with the territory, frankly. In a career it can't all work the same way all the time. Some films make a connection and find an audience, and some do and some don't. Being able to endure all that and float free of it and push through it, you just have to do that in a career. You have to remember why you're doing it. You enjoy the work and you find a story you want to tell. And it's only to do with your ability to do that next time. That's the only thing that matters. I was reading Alexander Payne saying, "These awards are about only one thing-- making it possible to make your next movie."
That's very practical.
I think practicality is an important part of it.