The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel Writer Ol Parker on Good Sequels, and Judi Dench and Maggie Smith’s 60-Year Friendship

Ol Parker. Photo: Fred Duval/FilmMagic

It’s been three years since a group of aging British expats moved into The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but they’re back this week in screenwriter Ol Parker’s follow-up to 2012’s surprise international hit. Parker chatted with Vulture about the first film’s success, the process of writing a sequel he never expected, and why working with two of Britain’s most beloved dames is anything but second-best.

I’m a big fan of the first film. The sequel wasn’t what I was expecting, but I’m not sure what I was expecting.
What do you think you were expecting that you didn’t get, or thought you would get more of?

I’m not sure it’s something that I didn’t get, I just didn’t realize the whole thing would be structured around Sonny’s (Dev Patel) wedding.
Well, how could you realize? [Laughs.] I mean, movies need distraction. One of the many interesting things about this film was that you’d never write a movie that starts off with them in India. You’d write the first movie. Simultaneously, you’re trying to write a movie that will bring in people and please people, hopefully, who haven’t seen the first one. Although, thankfully, there’s not many of them left anymore.

I saw it with someone who isn’t as familiar with the first one as I am, and was relieved that this film felt like its own independent thing.
Obviously none of us made it expecting that it would make a tenth of the money or the success and were thrilled and delighted that it did, but clearly there was not a plan to be back. If you told any of us while we were out there shooting that we’d be back again two years later — it was a preposterous idea. It was only a couple weeks after it had come out in America and did insanely well that the studio rung and said, "Have you thought about a sequel?" And I said, "God, no!" We got away with it the first time, and that’s great. I left Bill and Judi heading off on a motorbike and into the Indian dawn. But when I got off the phone, I thought, This is the beginning of something. Genuinely. The beginning of the rest of their lives. And I thought that would be interesting to see. 

Sequels, by nature, are often retreads of the first movie with a slightly bigger budget — which reaches its apotheosis in Die Hard 2 when Bruce Willis says, "How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?" Which is fine, and it’s a perfectly good movie and I don’t mean to dis, but that was always the plan: not to do that. To tell a new story. The first one has a natural three-act structure. They arrive in India. They deal with India. They either stay or they go. So you have to invent a structure for the second one, which was a challenge.

How did structuring it as a traditional Indian wedding come about?
The glory of the Indian wedding is that it has many stages, so it seemed like a natural way to break up the movie. When I started to think about it, I thought, Okay, where have Billy and Judi got to? And when we were shooting the scene at the end of the first one where they talk about tea, I was at the monitor with [director John Madden] and I said, "I think they’re about eight months away from their first kiss." So when I went to talk to John about the second one, he said, "Is it the next day? Five years later? Where are we at?" And I said, "No, it’s eight months later." And he remembered the conversation we had had and [agreed]. From that, Sonny and Sunaina were getting engaged, so this is the natural climax. We used it to break up the movie in that way. It’s nice to have a journey towards something and not just, there at the beginning, there in the middle, and there at the end.

Gloriously, when I started to think that I might think about it, I rung up all the actors. If any of them had said no, I wouldn’t have done it. That would have happily called it off for me. They all said yes, God bless. I rung up Penelope Wilton [Jean] and said, "This is a little bit odd because I don’t think you’re in it, but if you were in it, would you come back?" and she’s like, "I bloody am in it!" So I put her back in.

At what point was it decided to switch the focus from Judi to Maggie?
It just felt organically right. It wasn’t really about giving Maggie anything, you know. Dev and Maggie got along tremendously well in the first movie, offscreen as well as onscreen. I enjoyed the contrast between his joyful mania and her incredibly dry, acerbic wit, as she never moved. And I wanted to write more for them, and that just rose to the fore. It wasn’t conscious or asked for, it’s just the way the movie worked out.

Did you go back to India before writing the sequel?
I didn’t need to. I would have loved to, but it was still incredibly fresh. I pitched it in February or March, and we knew that we were shooting that Christmas. You can only shoot in India for three months a year, otherwise it’s very inhospitable.

I know that the first one was already a pretty significant departure from the novel. By the time you wrote the second one, did you feel like the characters were yours?
They did the first time. As you said, it’s a significant departure. The nature of development is that it gets further and further away from the source material. It wasn’t my intention when I started the job that it would end up that way, but clearly that’s how it worked out. And so, this one, I dunno. I felt like I owned them already! It was an enormous gift to know which actors would be saying the lines. And obviously, directors of that caliber are a fantastic resource. And if you write something daft, then they’ll tell you! Maggie will tell you. [Laughs.] They tell you so you can write something better. And if you don’t strike oil, they’ll help you strike it.

In the movie there’s a line about her being 19 days older than Judi — that’s true, isn’t it?
It’s actually the other way around! Judi’s actually 19 days older than Maggie, but I couldn’t make it work. But they love that shit, which is actually really nice. When I wrote the first one, I committed the cardinal sin of not giving them a scene together. They’ve been best friends [for] 60 years, and they just crack each other up and have a lovely time. And I completely failed to put them in a scene together. Their stories just didn’t intersect in any way. Actually, there’s an apology in the first movie for that — when Maggie says, "We haven’t talked much, you and I," and Judi says, "My loss, evidently." And that’s me basically going, I’m so sorry, everybody. I screwed up. And in this one, John said they should argue. So I went away and thought that they don’t really care about the same things passionately enough, you know? Maggie’s thinking about Dev and the hotel, and Judi’s thinking about her love life and Bill and committing. They can talk about it but they can’t argue. But John said, "I just have the feeling that they should argue." And then I rung him up one day and said, "I know what they’re going to argue about — which one’s gonna die first."  So I rung up Maggie and Judi and said, "This is what you bicker about." And they were delighted. It pleased them enormously.

Their 60-year friendship is so obvious.
It’s extraordinary. They are both extraordinary, and to have them both twice is a rare gift. It’s the easiest thing in the world, when you’re 80, to not go to India to make a movie. So I couldn’t believe that they showed up again.

Three months, you said?
It was about three in total. It was wedding season, ironically, so we were regularly interrupted by processions of elephants cruising past our windows.

What are you working on next?
[Laughs.] This is it for me. This is the apex of my career. It’s all downhill from here.