The 2012 film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel pulled in $137 million worldwide on a $10 million budget, numbers that seem especially impressive when you consider that the film was about, in the words of screenwriter Ol Parker, “older people not behaving as they normally do onscreen. They’re not dispensers of wisdom, or dying, or waiting to die.” What they were doing: heading off, for various reasons, to a shabby retirement hotel in India. Not to die, but to live. “To our surprise and joy — and to the studio’s as well, I’m sure — it turned out to be an itch that wanted scratching,” says Parker. The studio asked about a sequel. Parker said he was happy to leave things where they were, with Bill Nighy and Judi Dench “heading off on a motorbike into an Indian dawn. But when I put the phone down, I thought, Maybe that’s the beginning of something else.” The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is that something else, “the second half of the story.”
Matthew Lickona: I’ll grant that the film isn’t about old people waiting to die, but death is still very much a presence. Still, it isn’t oppressive. How do you write about death in a lighthearted fashion?
Ol Parker: You can’t not — if you hang out with anybody over the age of whatever, it’s ever-present. It’s a factor in the way they live their lives. But there’s still laughter to be had there. In infirmity, the collapse of things. I was looking for that, hopefully in a truthful way. While we were shooting the first film, I realized to my horror that I hadn’t put Judi Dench and Maggie Smith in a scene together. They’ve been friends for 60 years, and they’re a fantastic resource. I wrote an apology into the script, where Maggie says to Judi, “We haven’t talked much.” For this one, I said to [director] John [Madden], “We need to have them do something more.” He said, “Yeah, they need to argue.” A few weeks later, I rang him up and said, “I know: they argue about who is going to die first.” It was great fun for them; Maggie saying to Judi, “You’re still in one slightly sagging piece” had them both roaring with laughter offscreen.
ML: Speaking of tonally tricky bits, there were some genuinely sweet moments in this film, and I don’t mean that as an insult. It’s hard to write sweetness.
OP: Drama is conflict; things going wrong is so much easier to write. So to see people happy and having fun is always a nightmare. The worst thing is if you write a joke that makes people laugh onscreen but doesn’t work for the audience. It’s just death: they’ll hate your characters for the next ten minutes. It does help if you cast Bill Nighy and Judi Dench. Audiences just instinctively lean in to whatever they have to say and support them and sympathize. But in terms of writing, it’s the same as anything: you have to earn sweetness. Do the building blocks and get there.
ML: Speaking of Maggie Smith: do you consider the actress as you’re writing?
OP: If you write for Maggie, you have to. You don’t get to be Maggie Smith onscreen without being Maggie Smith offscreen as well. They’re all extraordinary actors; they’re all from the London theater, where you make whatever dross you’ve got work. But you know if you write a good one-liner, there’s nobody who’s going to deliver it with the same acerbity as Maggie. You think, I can’t wait, and then sure enough, it’s even better than you thought it would be. They’re also seekers of truth — not to be pompous — and so if I write something that they don’t trust or don’t like or can’t make work, they’ll tell me, in different degrees of politeness.
ML: Tell me about writing about an older-people love affair. I’m thinking of one scene where you have a couple who still have sufficient passion for frequent sex, but then, when one of them strays, there’s not enough passion to get pissed off about it. Even though there’s heartbreak.
OP: I think the older you get, the less traumatic it becomes. If you understand what’s underneath it, the act itself takes on less relevance. I would suggest that they have a deeper understanding of human foibles, and so they can understand the motivations, rather than viewing it as an act of crass hatred and stupidity. In that case, they’re both afraid of being left alone.
ML: Talk about handling so many plotlines, deciding what to highlight when.
OP: It’s instinct and hope and guesswork and trusting John. I had the great benefit on this one of working with him on the script. I started writing it in March and we were shooting it that Christmas, because you can only shoot in India for three months of the year. Otherwise, the conditions are more or less intolerable. Once I got into my groove, I was sending John every 10 or 15 pages, and we would talk about it, and I would rewrite as we went. It helped that many viewers would already know the characters. But I knew I had to do things fast without having them feel perfunctory: if you’re going to get Maggie Smith, then you have to give her something to do.
ML: Is this kind of movie going to be a genre?
OP: Nobody thought the first film would do what it did. But I know it made the studios sit up and notice the fact that there’s a market. And we’re mentioned in the reviews of lots of other movies, which is incredibly flattering. But the nature of the zeitgeist is that it moves on and finds something else. You just try to do the thing you like and hope that other people like it.