John Madden, 66, reveals some behind the scenes secrets about his latest movie the Second Best Marigold Hotel – which is all about a group of retirees who move to India
Q You must have a close relationship with Dame Judi Dench, having launched her international film career with Mrs Brown?
A Yes. It is hard to imagine that she didn’t have an international film career before that. She was already a giant in everything else she did. Yes, I am very happy to have played a part in that. I offered her genius up to the world. I take no more credit than that. It is fantastic to have had a chance to work with her once, let alone four times.
Q What is her genius?
A Where do you start? She has an incredible range of skills at this point, which primarily comes from playing to a large audience in a theatre space. That is where she says she has learnt everything she knows and she is blessed with some very particular qualities. She has a voice that is absolutely unmistakable and very, very emotional.
She has a physicality that people don’t usually recognize a sort of dynamic quality of withholding and then a sudden rush. It is very, very dynamic and very involving. She has an emotional depth that is second to none. But the quality that marks her out is something she can’t control or necessarily take credit for, which is that she engages an audience immediately.
If you watch her on screen, people just go towards her, whatever she is playing. Whether she is playing a demonic character, or a very powerful character, or a very impotent character, she can connect. It also helps that she has become an extravagant beauty the older she’s got.
She has always been a very beautiful and interesting woman but she has become a beauty and movie star late in her life. What you see on screen, and I don’t mean in terms of personality, but in quality, is exactly what you get off screen. She is an extraordinary presence.
Q And she likes a laugh…
A She is terrible at corpsing. She is the worse corpser in the business. She makes other people laugh on stage. It is easy to get round that in film but on stage it is less easy. She is a very naughty girl but, yes, she likes a laugh. She takes her work seriously but utterly lightly at the same time.
Q So many members of the cast of Marigold Hotel are friends. Does that make it hard for you in that you have to corral a group of friends who are always having fun?
A No, it doesn’t make it hard, though sometimes corralling them and getting them to shut up is a little bit of an issue. The truth is with English actors, because they work across so many media – film, television and radio, theatre – you are constantly crossing paths with these actors.
They are in great demand and do a lot of work so they all work with one another multiple times, most of them. Penelope Wilton and Bill Nighy have played husband and wife at least three times before they did it in the first film, and that is a shorthand you are able to take advantage of.
The director’s job in this situation is to get the script tight and make sure they understand exactly what each scene is doing – to provide a kind of physical circumstance, a shooting pattern that is going to deliver that. Then you get out of the way because they are all geniuses at what they do.
Q Bill Nighy is unique…
A There is no actor like him in terms of what he does and in the way that he does it. The same goes for [screenwriter] Ol Parker. We write very specifically for these actors. We know their rhythms and you can see a line and know that Bill is going to do something marvellous with it.
If you are writing jokes you know how to write for those people because you also know the characters, like they are friends. There’s a lot for me to do. Not least, because as you can see in this film, there is an enormous number of set pieces with many characters at intersecting angles to one another.
And the only way to make that work properly is to give them a life in the space that you are working in. I would never start taking anything effectively until around take seven, eight, nine or ten because by that time that had taken possession of the scene.
Each of them knew what the other was going to do, and how that was going to work. At that stage, we’d sharpen up the physicality. Although, each time I did that, I was beaten up by Maggie Smith saying, ‘How many more times have I got to walk into this room. Believe me. You wouldn’t ask your mother to do it.’ That’s what she used to say to me!
A What you see Maggie doing on screen is very close to what Maggie does off screen. She takes no prisoners! But we had done the first film together and we know where we are with it. Obviously, she is very much the centre of this film.
She needs to test the water of anything she is doing. And if you don’t pass that test, watch out. Interestingly, she is never satisfied with what she has done. Ever. So, there’s the paradox of her saying, ‘We are not doing it again, are we?’
But she would always want to do it again because she never thinks she has got there. She can find film frustrating for that reason. The truth is that her ‘not good enough’ is dazzlingly good.
I was terribly, terribly lucky because she is the absolute chief fan of Dev Patel. She absolutely adores him and thinks, as I do, that he is spectacular and he is right out there on the end of a limb. But he could do no wrong in her eyes and that was a very, very useful dynamic for me because it is the central relationship of the film.
Q How long did filming the Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel take?
A I think about 10 weeks — of which almost every actor was there for at least eight because everybody else is involved in everybody else’s story. So from a director’s point of view you have a slightly uncomfortable situation where you might have Richard Gere or Maggie Smith waiting for a very long time because they might have one line at the end of a scene. But they have been genuinely the most democratic films I have made because they are all co-dependent and interdependent, and that works. It is nice for an actor when they are not carrying the movie.
Q As the first film was such a hit, was there ever case of you not wanting to tarnish that by making another movie?
A We had no wish to make the same film again but we did allow ourselves to think about how the story might continue. That was worth thinking about, partly because the end of the first film concluded with a beginning.
The first film was about people taking a brave and intuitive choice about their lives as the end of those lives got closer, and by the end of that film they have decided to stay with that choice. And, therefore, it is the beginning of something else.
Back then, of course, none of us had any expectation of there being a second chance to use the motif of the film. But we thought about it and decided that we might as well bet on ourselves rather than bet against ourselves. We were certainly inclined to back away from it if we didn’t come up with a very good script. Also, when we began looking back on the first film, we found certain things floating up to the surface that we did not necessarily expect.
It is nice when you discover something, and the film talks back to you and you find things that you didn’t completely know were there. You then have a chance to push those a little further the second time round.
Q What are you thinking about, specifically, when you say that?
A I think that mortality obviously hovers as a presence over the first film and in my mind any proper humour has to come out of something real. In this, a lot of the humour comes out of the characters’ own acknowledgement of mortality and what that means. And there’s a very British response to that; they take the piss out of that idea all the time.
Gallows humour occupies front and centre stage in this second version. And I think that was one of the surprises with the first film, which was marketed as ostensibly a riotous comedy about cultural collision and British people making their way in India. It had a more melancholy side that I think took people by surprise.
A Is there more of a story to tell about these people? I am sure there is and I wouldn’t be averse to telling it. I always insisted on calling this a companion piece because the word ‘sequel’ felt vulgar somehow, which is absurd and I probably shouldn’t have said that.
I feel completely happy about these two films because they organically belong to one another. They make sense and if we did something else, that would have to make sense. We could be in Mumbai. We could be following Douglas and Evelyn. I don’t know what we would be doing.
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is now available on Blu-Ray DVD