Amidst the craziness that is awards season for the promising contenders, I had the opportunity to sit down with screenwriter Ol Parker. His latest script, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, is an indie-favorite of this year. It focuses on 9 characters, all British retirees, who travel to India to stay at a newly restored hotel. With a titan cast including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Billy Nighy, Ol discusses his role as the writer on set, his love for trashing treatments and the greatest line in cinema history.
TSL: John kept you on set and flew you to India for Best Exotic. Do you want to talk a little about that process?
Parker: The position of the screenwriter on set is a very odd one. It’s very perilous; it’s very tenuous. You’re there absolutely at the directors’ behest. If you make yourself difficult, he or she will ask you not to be there. John is lovely. He’s old school, charming and polite, but also secure. We got on great, which helps. He was very happy to have me there and very comfortable. There’s got to be a clear line of communication. Sometimes if directors see you talk to actors, they say, “What was that about?“ But in this case, John was utterly secure, and I was on set every day and re-writing as we went. But the great thing about working with quite old actors is that they really struggle to remember lines. You can’t change lines at all. If you go up and say, “Maggie thought I might slip these two lines into your speech,” she’ll look at you with absolute horror!
TSL: Well, that was one of my questions. You became really close with the cast. Did you find yourself trying to write for the actors?
Parker: Yea, Massively.
TSL: You didn’t find you were stuck to initial ideas?
Parker: So much about this movie was incredibly great, but one thing was that we started shooting in October and the cast was finalized in May. Between then, all of the re-writes I was doing were specifically tailored towards the people I was writing for. Bill Nighy was an interesting one because he gives such weird idiosyncrasy delivery. He’s incredibly faithful to exactly what you write, but he makes it his own. There’s a speech right at the end [of the film] and he’s talking to Judi at the gate…and that was a very satisfying day for me to watch because that speech was so for Bill.
TSL: John has talked about the fact that once Dev was cast, he gave him more of a part and made him the center of the story?
Parker: Dev’s whole story isn’t in the book. I couldn’t’ get it quite right writing his character. And then Dev came in. I don’t think his part got bigger, but Dev was so great: he’s chaos, he’s chaos! I think he was so great that it underpinned the story. Then John believed in it more, he started to find faith in the hotel story line. It’s always scary if you’re going to India and writing a lot of Indian characters talking to each other. It was a particular challenge, moving to another culture. But once we had Dev, it became much easier.
TSL: I studied playwrighting and am learning to be a screenwriter. You wrote a play in your 20s!
Parker: Ya, I like cutting. I don’t think I have the patience to write an extended scene. If it goes past three pages I get really nervous. The interesting thing about writing films is that whenever you feel, “I could cut there”, even if you planned a whole scene, then you have to cut there. Otherwise, in the editing it will start to feel “eggy.” One thing you’ll learn is that scenes begin much later than you think, and they end before you expect them too. Get in late; get out early. A sense of momentum is required.
TSL: I always like to ask writers if they have a “through-line” to their work. Both Best Exotic and Now is Good are about a rite of passage but with different age groups. They’re both about mortality. Is that something you’re interested in right now?
Parker: I mean you take what you’re given. But, there’s something about turning 40 I think, and confronting my own morality. A friend of mine died a while ago, and I knew at some point I’d write about grief. I just didn’t know what form it would take. And then Now is Good came up; I was like, “There it is.” At some level it’s about me writing about my friend. It’s something to do with an emotional response to losing my friend. And having daughters. As a parent you just worry all the time.
TSL: I have a good friend who wants to write about a personal experience with death. But I gave her advice not to write herself into the script. If you write yourself exactly, you may fear straying away from the actual situation. When you’re writing a character or story, have you found they’ve taken you to a place you didn’t expect?
Parker: I don’t do outlines or treatments. Which I’m sure are great, and I constantly regret that I don’t do them. But I like being surprised. I know treatments are there to be thrown away, but I find it overly didactic. I’d much rather the characters talk to each other and one of them was like, “I’m your father, Luke!” That’s amazing! I’m sure George had that planned from before. But I love the idea that the greatest twist in history cinema could come out of actual dialogue than from planning.
TSL: [And then we went on a tangent about our mutual mad love for Judd Apatow and how he’s a master of improv with his actors and script. But we ended circling back to this nugget of brilliance from Ol:]
Parker: Try and let the process of writing define itself. Think of it as sculpture, that it’s there already underneath the block of marble or wood or whatever it is. You’re trying to chip away and find what it is. And then let it be that thing and not impose…exactly what you’re saying by not writing yourself. Not trying to impose something on it. Not “My previous idea would be this”, but let it form itself.
Rumor has it that there’s a sequel to Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is in the works, but Ol can’t say it’s happening for sure. He did say, “I called everyone in the cast, and they’re all on board.” I’m keeping my fingers crossed, that’s for sure.
Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is currently out on DVD. No excuses now, check it out.