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‘Marigold Hotel’ director John Madden: The joy of addressing ‘a neglected constituency’

Dame Maggie Smith is 81. Dame Judi Dench – her co-star and co-executive producer with her of “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” – is 19 days older.

Richard Gere is now 65. David Strathairn is 66, as is Bill Nighy. Veteran British character actor Ronald Pickup is 74. Lillette Dubey, who plays Gere’s romantic infatuation in the film, is 60.

If you add all that up in the film’s cast, that’s about five centuries of life on this cosmic blue marble.

It is no secret that “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is so much more accommodating to audiences who have been around a while than most films being tossed at us in the 21st century. And considering how much of a smash hit the first “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” film was, why wouldn’t it be?

Who better to ask about that – as well as about the dramatic care and feeding of some of the most charming actors in English language movies and theater – than John Madden who directed both “Marigold Hotel” movies as well as the Oscar-winning “Shakespeare in Love,” “Mrs. Brown,” “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,” “Proof” and “The Debt?”

Here, then, is a recent phone conversation with as articulate and wise a film director as one is liable to find these days.

Question: Let’s get right to the big question: This movie deliberately flies in the face of the demographic targeting that has become commonplace in movies. In one of Woody Allen’s movies, a character uses the word “demographic” and Woody responds “You mean that thing that ruined everything?” I’d love to hear your feelings about all this. These Marigold movies have located an unusual audience quite brilliantly.

Answer: One of the things that was most interesting about the film was the chance to address a neglected constituency as it were. They’re either on the cliched margins of a story where they’re used as comic relief or they’re the center of a darker story about the depredations of old age, illness and so forth. The first film gave us the opportunity to take age out of the discussion in terms of the way people behaved.

This idea from the original book of outsourcing retirement is a very interesting notion. We made the film imagining that an audience might respond to it. And we were very surprised to find that – to take Woody Allen’s formulation – far from “ruining everything” it turned out to be in our favor at the end. It sort of defied this demographic.

People were responding to it from the generation below and even two generations below. I don’t completely understand why or how that happened. I supposed it’s because we were dealing with a real group of people with the real concerns they might have at that point in their lives.

Obviously we were very alive to the comedic implications of that – the absurdities of old age. We were able to root that in real characters ... That turned out to be something refreshing and unusual for people. We were as surprised as anybody else to find out how wide that engagement was really. Our audience didn’t respect any border.

Q: Because of demographics, were the films hard to finance?

A: It took a while to get going. It took tenacity. And then Fox Searchlight became interested in it. They were not afraid of the subject matter. And also they’d made films in India before. They were attracted to it for slightly different reasons.

There WERE concerns at that point: “Will any audience want to see anything that might be dealing with death from old age?” That might be a hard sell in America. But we stuck to our guns in that. … There was definitely a concern that audiences might turn away from that. But far from it in fact. The humor in both films, I think, comes out of the sense of melancholy.

Q: When you’ve got actresses like Maggie Smith and Judi Dench in a movie, how much directing does a director actually have to do? I would think it would be a bit like traffic direction. I remember John Huston once admitted that with “The Man Who Would Be King,” Michael Caine and Sean Connery would come to the set with scenes completely rehearsed by the two of them, requiring little more than Huston blocking it and getting them set up on camera. Does anything similar happen with Smith and Dench?

A: Your job is so much easier when you’re working with people of that caliber. But I would say the following: we were able to write specifically for the actors we knew. My approach as a director anyway is to negotiate with the actors about what happens with their character – talk them through the story, investigate the scenes so that we have a common language about them. In an ensemble film like this, I don’t want to be taking time dealing with actors on the set about something like that. I need them to know where they all are. … My job is to really get out of their way if I can. Unless I see things pointing in a direction I don’t think they should be …

When we’re shooting, everything has to belong to everything else. My part of the film is orchestration.

Judi I’ve worked with four times now. And we have a shorthand. Maggie’s very much the same. I would just go out and talk to her before the scene that day and “let’s compare notes.”...I don’t like to define things too clearly for an actor because then you’re going to box them in. And these people? God KNOWS you don’t want to box THESE PEOPLE in.

Q: The success of “Shakespeare in Love” took a lot of people by surprise – not that it was a success but the degree of that success, financially, at award time. Was there anything ever a little uncomfortable in such huge and unexpected success – envies, resentments, say, you didn’t see coming?

A: You don’t ever want to make something that’s a disappointment after you’ve made a surprise success. People relish the surprise a great deal. Obviously you can’t repeat that. But I think you can surprise in other ways. [In this film] people had enormous affection for these characters. I think that first film found its way into people’s hearts – partly through not demanding a great deal and partly because people discovered it. That’s a very pleasurable exercise for an audience.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

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