Ol Parker learns ‘everything will be all right’ with ‘Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’

Ol Parker knew he had his work cut out when adapting Deborah Moggach‘s 2004 novel “These Foolish Things” into “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” As he told Gold Derby, “When you’re writing a script with nine different storylines, the challenge is in keeping the audience interested. The cast helped tremendously with that. But then the challenge is in getting them.”

But Parker, who just turned 43, couldn’t resist the idea of writing, “a romantic comedy for old people. It was so endearing to me to think of people in their 60s and 70s being as fumbling and awkward as people in their 20s. What appealed to me about this story was that it wasn’t old people doing old people things. Nor was it old people doing young people things. It was just old people being people.”

The film centers around seven British retirees — Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, Ronald Pickup and Celie Imrie — who decide to start their lives afresh in India. The film, directed by John Madden, also features Dev Patel as the young man running the retirement hotel. 

Parker gave each character their own arc, “to get the cast excited about it. If you want to get these great actors, you have to give them something to do. You have to make them want to do the film. I tried to identify with all the characters instead of focusing on just one. There were so many balls in the air I had to juggle, especially when they’re all heading off in different directions. But it’s a lovely problem to have.”

With so many characters to juggle, however, it became a challenge to give everyone a scene together. “It’s a disgraceful omission that Judi and Maggie don’t have a scene together. In fact, I wrote a scene towards the end where they say just that. ‘I haven’t gotten to know you.’ It’s a shame because Judi and Maggie are such old friends and are so great together.”

Madden, who also directed 1998 Best Picture champ “Shakespeare in Love,” came onto the project late. “John was always the dream. It seemed to fit perfectly into his wheelhouse. And because of John, we were able to get this amazing cast, starting with Judi Dench. Judi doesn’t read scripts; she only works with people she trusts. She did read this script, but having John aboard as director helped.”

The chance to shoot in India was irresistible to the filmmakers. “I thought, ‘If nothing else, I’ll get a free vacation to India,’” admits Parker. “It’s absolute chaos shooting there; the crew grows exponentially everyday. One day there’s the guy who gets coffee, and the next day there’s his assistant; then the next day there’s the assistant’s assistant. But it’s fantastic.”

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Yet India also proved to be a challenge to the filmmakers. “A lot of the rewriting I did had to do with various locations we couldn’t shoot at. We had to be adaptable every day. Other than that, John is very methodical, so I didn’t have to do a lot of rewriting in terms of story.”

“One of the best lines in the film came from working in India. It’s the line, ‘Everything will be all right in the end.’ That’s kind of what it’s like shooting in India. No matter what happens, everything will work itself out.”

The cast grew close while shooting in India. “They stayed at a far nicer hotel than the one in the film,” reveals Parker. “Every night they’d go out together for drinks, and they were all in awe of each other. They’ve all worked with each other before in the past. I remember one night Judi going on and on about one of Tom Wilkinson’s speeches. That intimacy really comes across on screen.”

Perhaps this intimacy can account for the films box office success. “It turned out to be a zeitgeist,” explains Parker. The film, which cost a reported $10 million to make, has grossed over $46 million in the US alone.

The film has also become an awards contender, with two Golden Globe nominations — Best Comedy/Musical Picture and Best  Comedy/Musical Actress (Judi Dench) — and two SAG nominations: Best Ensemble and Best Supporting Actress (Maggie Smith). Yet the film scores only 77% on Rotten Tomatoes and a score of 62 on Metacritic.

“I was surprised by the bad reviews,” admits Parker. “It seemed to me so well made and so well meaning. You really have to have a hard heart not to like it. But audiences love it, and that’s what counts.”

So what’s next for Ol Parker and company? “We’re working on the sequel,” he says with a smile. “We all want to get back to India as soon as possible.”

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