No one could have predicted just how successful The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel would prove to be at this point last year. A film about British pensioners retiring to a run-down hotel in India went on to become on of the most profitable films of 2012 and now finds itself in the thick of the awards race as the BAFTAs, Golden Globes and Oscars approach.
We caught up with its screenwriter, Ol Parker (who also wrote and directed Now is Good last year), to ask him about the film’s continuing success.
So, how is the awards season treating you so far?
It’s totally surreal to be honest with you. I’m jet-lagged because I just got back yesterday from the place where they keep flying me out to talk to people. So yes it’s surreal but it’s also very pleasant because it’s a complete surprise.
Was there any stage at which you thought the film could be as successful as it was? $130million at the global box office for this kind of movie is phenomenal…
No, no sense whatsoever. I thought it was a cracking idea and I was thrilled to get the gig. It was sent to me when there were a couple of drafts from other writers. But I loved the idea, I loved the idea of the outsourcing of age and I had a lovely time writing it. And then Judi [Dench] signed up, John [Madden] signed up, the director, and the cast then becomes slightly self-fulfilling after a point. I think then Maggie [Smith] was next, and then we got Tom [Wilkinson], and then you want all your cast to match that level and the other cast are inspired by those that have already joined.
So you start to think, well this is going all right. And then we had a lovely time shooting it and they were all such lovely people and wonderful actors. And then I remember I’d come back to England and friends would ask, ‘so what are you doing out there?’ and I’d say, ‘well you know Bill Nighy and Judi Dench fall in love in India while Maggie Smith wanders around being racist in the background’. Anyone of any age was like ‘oh, I’m there!’ and so we sort of had a feeling that it would do good here basically.
We thought we’d be on BBC for Christmas Day even if we’d laid a large egg; it was one of those sort of films that you’d have to screw up for it not to do something. But here it opened quite small here and Fox were a bit like ‘huh, okay…’ but then it just kept going. My private theory is that some of the audience were just so old that they’d forget that they’d been, so they could go again and again as if for the first time, perpetually, a bit like a goldfish really.
So yeah it was just a tremendous surprise, and considering it had been mildly critically pissed on as well it’s nice…well, maybe not pissed on, but snooted if you know what I mean. It was a bit like ‘yes it’s heartwarming, but I mean, really’. It’s like fuck you, you try and please a crowd! Genuinely, crowd-pleasing was an insult in one of them. Well yes it is crowd-pleasing, but it’s not fucking easy I tell you. But yes it’s lovely, and it’s lovely that the film has made people happy. When I tell people I wrote it they smile as they think about it, and it’s hard not to sound like a dick but that’s better than any awards thing – when people go ‘oh that’ and then they just smile.
Do you think the audience that the film played to is underserved usually?
I think hugely underserved, but it wasn’t easy to make. We had to get that cast in order to get it made. And various people had the chance, Working Title had put the film in turnaround before I got to it, obviously that was a different writer and a different version but it was still the same notion and they just didn’t develop it any further, they didn’t think there was any money in that film. And we were getting closer to production and there were other people who could have invested in more or less that cast and that script and that director and they still weren’t interested.
But the great thing about the zeitgeist is that you can never hit it deliberately by definition, you can’t go after it, if you try and calculate it something will fail horribly. But it just turned out well and you can’t argue with the power and the popularity of the thing, and India was a huge plus, and there was just something about it that people wanted and now it’s incredibly flattering that it gets lumped in with much better films like Amour. Now people are suddenly making films for older people, and I think people will make more films for them as a result of us taking a lot of money.
You just have to look at the size of the marketing push Quartet is getting at the moment…
Yes, I’m sure that’s true. And Hope Springs did great, and Amour is a masterpiece. But yes we’re mentioned, I believe, in the first line of every Quartet review which is lovely. And I haven’t actually seen it but he’s [Ronald Harwood] a great writer and I hope it does great and I’m looking forward to it.
Your film has been jokingly referred to as ‘Pensioners Assemble’ this summer, do you think it was The Avengers for another audience?
Well, Fox had the brilliant idea of releasing it opposite The Avengers, which is part of why it did so well in America. It came out on May 4th on the same day as The Avengers, and it really was for a grown-up audience, or anyone over 40, the only film to go and see in the cinema for months basically. They were full of blockbusters, and The Avengers is great and The Dark Knight Rises and what have you, but there were just no other alternatives if you didn’t want that type of film except ours and so people just flocked back again and again.
I read one interview in which you said there was a stage you almost left the film when it seemed to be heading in the wrong direction. What was going wrong at that point?
You get written out of things to be honest; you just get tired of writing. There were so many directors coming and going – John was the fifth. Every director when they come on board, as they should do, want to make it their own, that’s their prerogative and it would be a bad film if they didn’t. But one of them wanted it to be more about Judi than the others so we go okay and try and do that, and then another wanted them to be on a road trip and more like City Slickers so they get to the hotel and then they set off somewhere else…and so you go okay, let’s try and do that.
And that is my job, but also to try and bring what I want to do to it as well and what I thought was right. So at the point when John came on board, thrilled as I was that he was doing it I was just kind of done. I genuinely didn’t think I had anything good or clever left to write. Partly I was knackered, but partly I felt the film would be better served if someone came in with fresh energy and eyes, trying new things, and could go for it more. But John in his charming, polite and ruthless way wouldn’t let me quit.
And it turned around to the extent that John kept you on set for the entire shoot in India?
Yeah, he did. He comes from theatre and he believes that the primary relationship on any film is between the writer and the director as on a play. And he’s the loveliest man and we got on great, and obviously for me if Maggie Smith is playing something that I’ve written then it’s preposterous that I would be anywhere other than on set watching. There were bits of work to do because working in India is slightly chaotic and you might not get the location you thought you were going to get. Filmmaking is always fluid and subject to change, but even more so in India, so I was there and doing bits but I wasn’t working hard I was just hanging out and advising when I was asked.
And now you’re back talking about the film again because of the awards recognition. Do you view it all as a build up to some of the bigger awards like the Oscars, or are you just taking it one ceremony at a time?
The film seems to have taken everyone by surprise all the way down the line, and it’s still doing that. The brilliant thing was the cast getting nominated for the SAG award and no one thought that was going to happen, so who the hell knows. Every time we think, okay that’s it we’re done. We thought when the film made some money that was great and well done us, but then it went on and on. And so we didn’t think we’d be nominated for anything and here we are now. It will all end soon by definition because there are only a few more nominations left to be announced, and then we’ll have to stop flying around and decide what to do next. So it will all end soon, and it feels like the Golden Globes could be the end of it, but who can tell. The very fact that we’re having this conversation ten months after it came out is completely surreal.
And then it could potentially all happen again because you’ve written a treatment for a sequel?
Yes, and it seems almost comic to me that after wrapping it up so ruthlessly at the end of the first one that we’d be back there. None of us thought so. But yes the cast all really want to which is nice, and now it’s not a surprise that Fox want to because obviously it did business. But it’s very nice, because my wife [Thandie Newton] was just working in Vancouver, and I flew back and hung out with John for a week and we kind of didn’t feel any pressure to do it at all if we didn’t want to. He has asthma, and he’d get a really bad cough whenever I made him laugh so I started to gauge how much I wanted to do the film by how hard I could make him cough. And after a few days I would suggest things and we’d almost have to call an ambulance so I started to think well okay maybe we could do this. So yes, that’s my yardstick, whether I can make the director nearly die.
So it looks like now that I’m going to write it, but I wouldn’t want to tarnish the memory of the first one for those who liked it by looking like we’re just money grabbing, so I’d like to think that we’d be able to look at it and know if it’s not going to work. But if it does feel good and the actors are all still healthy then there would be nothing better for me.
At this stage do you have an idea of the story that you’d like to tell?
Yes we have a story; we have some new characters that we’d like to bring in. Yes, we have some things that make John cough so that’ll do for me.
There were rumours that Helen Mirren and Colin Firth could join, and also that there was a role for an American actress?
That was wildly premature being that there was no script, but I do like writing for people and imagining that it’s going to be someone and the surreal thing about the film is that they are almost completely the people that I had in mind. And so yes, now that those rumours have got out I though okay cool, I’ll put Colin Firth in it. But they’re friends with people too, which is why the rumours started. Helen is friends with John so that’s why for her.
And so aside from sequels and awards ceremonies, what else are you working on at the moment?
I just wrote a pilot for NBC which is somewhat of a rite of passage, you have to do it, but they never make them so that’s fine. But there is the possibility that could be made, and I just adapted a Diablo Cody script for myself to direct that I’m hoping to do next. It’s called Time and a Half and it’s set in Portland and it’s a funny, brilliant script by Diablo Cody that I’ve slightly rewritten that would hopefully be later this year but who the hell knows.