John Madden Acts His Age

Known for directing major movies, John Madden explains how "Marigold" breaks mainstream rules.


From John Madden's "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel."
From John Madden's "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel."

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Director John Madden, who started out in producing British television, has made a name for himself across the pond helming films such as Shakespeare in Love, Proof and more recently, The Debt. Now, his latest film, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a hit in the UK, is set to open across North America on May 4th. The charming film (based on the book, These Foolish Things) stars Brit screen legends such as Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, and Bill Nighy—all of whom are over 60.

While the production is far from being grassroots, or ruggedly independent (in the US it’s being distributed by Fox Searchlight), the characters’ age sets Marigold apart from a vast majority of mainstream film entertainment. The story offers a rare cinematic peek at aging—which doesn’t necessarily mean having to feel (or act) “old.”

In The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, British retirees find themselves in India, taking up room and board at a so-called “luxurious, newly restored hotel.” They hope to live in luxury without paying full price. But things aren’t quite what they seem.

“It’s a marvelous trigger for a story because anybody who has been to India will know that….it’s a very startling place.” Madden goes so far as to call it ‘culture shock’ “even if you’re a humble GAP year kind of traveler of 21 years of age. But for someone who’s at a more fragile point of your life, turning 70 and wondering what else is going to be in your life, it is a massive jolt.” At first he thought that jolt was left only to the characters in the film, “Till I realized, hang on, I’m a short bunch of years away from being at the center of this story myself,” he says with a laugh.

Shooting the film on location was a welcome experience for the director. He had promised his wife that they would make the voyage to India on a significant anniversary. The anniversary was this year, but the film happened to come one year early. Still, the opportunity to experience India for the first time while making a movie was an ideal situation, for both parties, even if it did make them conscious of their own age.

Which is why Madden’s interest in the Marigold story is, indeeded, driven by a desire to examine a constituency that is often ignored. Disenfranchised. The pink elephant on the table: Old people. “In the world of cinema, you don’t see it very often,” says Madden. “You don’t often see the challenges of that point in your life dealt with as a subject.”

“There’s the old guy, or the old woman—the mother-in-law, or whoever, sort of turns up in movies, of course, but when that experience is put at the center of the story it’s unusual.”

But that is changing, observes Madden.

“There’s a large constituency out there that is a movie-going constituency with resources and time to spend going to the cinema—and it’s going to be attracted very strongly to a film that reflects their experience.”

Reflecting on his own life, he ponders, “It’s part of the evolutionary thing, isn’t it?” When he was a kid, he remembers thinking that his parents were old—when they were in their 60s. He doesn’t think that way now about people. “I mean the Rolling Stones are in their 60s for G-d’s sake,” he jokes. “I’m saying that facetiously, but actually perceptions have changed about that in one way. And in another way they haven’t. I think that for a long time the Hollywood system was kind of nervous about movies about old people because god forbid somebody might die.”

Madden suggests that in British and North American culture, in particular, we are terrified of growing old and looking our age. “We put old people in ghettos,” he says. Of course in mainstream studio films, a lot of people and cultures are left to the story’s margins, off in the distance, or misrepresented.

Outsourcing is a sub-theme in Marigold and something that will ring familiar to anyone who has had to call for help about a malfunctioning piece of technology. As frustrating as we may find the call-center experience, there’s no denying that these sorts of connections between countries and cultures are going to become increasingly prevalent. In some ways, according to Madden, this is a parallel to ageism. “That’s a sort of paradox and a circumstance that the film is sort of straddling to an extent,” he explains. “People who are connected in some way, but seem on the ground to be completely disconnected.”

Since starting out in the world of filmmaking, towering over the indie British film scene, Madden’s work has gone on to gain worldwide critical acclaim and get all kinds of awards, including an Oscar nomination. He has also been able to work with budgets higher than typically afforded indie films and his projects have received backing from major studios.

So, has anything changed since filmmaking in the early, indie-er days? “I’d like to say I don’t think that it has,” Madden begins to answer, “except that if you make a studio movie, obviously you have to go through a process that smaller independent films don’t have to go through, which is the testing process, and so on. And that teaches you how to wear your armor and to fight your corner, but maybe that’s something you learn from when you started out in the business.”

Regardless, he says, all filmmakers share a few common challenges. “There’s never enough time, never enough money, and you somehow have to push against walls no matter where you are in the system,” he says. “I think that’s what the director’s job is: to be greedy and demanding and push very, very hard against opposing forces in order to get to where you want to get to. God forbid I ever make a film complacently with enough money and enough time because it probably won’t be a good movie in my view.”

Why? “Because I think you need to be striving for something. And let’s be honest, you’re making a movie with someone else’s money. Those people have a right to see what their buck is being expanded on and have a view on what it’s being expanded on. So it’s a funny thing in that way. When you write a book, you buy the paper yourself, you’re not taking anybody’s time or money. But film is a very peculiar transaction.”

When asked if having a billion dollar budget to make a film would result in artistic doom and failure, Madden responds: “Well, I think the burden that you have to carry at that point is so heavy and it’s not necessarily a useful burden to be carrying. To be settled with that kind of budget…you can see where my heart is, I’m not striving to make a movie that costs [even] 200 million bucks because you sort of think, what if I screw up? That’s a lot of money to lose.”

Still, he is a firm believer in not spending money unnecessarily. “I want to put money in the right place,” he says, “I would always want more time to make a film than you get but on the other hand, your muscles are developed in such a way that you know how to work your way around these problems.”

A lot of filmmaking is about problem solving, he insists. “You can plan within an inch of your life and storyboard everything, but in the end you have to abandon that to the reality that you’re facing.”

Could he have made the film 20 years ago? “I don’t think it would have meant the same thing, to be honest with you,” he answers. “Like all people, I don’t know why it should be, but one looks out on the world through eyes that are somehow 20 years younger than your eyes actually are.”

Ultimately, he says, what is demanded and needed from the director is a sort of fuel to power the project forward. “You’ve got to want more than everyone else wants or else it doesn’t work,” he says. Everybody has to feed off of that fuel; the actors, the crew… “It’s exhausting!,” jokes Madden, “But on the other hand it’s marvelous.”