On paper, a small, gentle comedy about British pensioners who travel to India to spend their retirement years at a hotel in Jaipur certainly didn't sound like an international box office hit.
But once brought to life, audiences responded to 2012's "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," which boasted an impressive cast of veteran actors, including Oscar winners Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, as well as Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson at the top of their game, Dev Patel ("Slumdog Millionaire") as Sonny, the young owner of the hotel, affectionate direction by John Madden ("Shakespeare in Love") and a script about lost love, dying love and clashing cultures by Ol Parker.
"Marigold Hotel" wound up making $136 million worldwide and earned Golden Globe, BAFTA and Screen Actors Guild Awards nominations in marquee categories.
That unbridled success took its creative team by surprise.
"We assumed it would be received primarily by the demographic that is the age of most of the actors in it," said Parker. "I can't ever easily describe what I think its appeal was. The humor was recognizable and available to anybody. And you have a cast from heaven, and then the cultural collision."
Three years later, the cast whose characters survived has reunited — and added Richard Gere to the lineup — for "The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," which opens Friday. Set just eight months after the first movie concluded, "Second Best" finds Sonny hoping to expand to another hotel while preparing for his marriage to Sunaina (Tena Desae).
Evelyn (Dench) and Douglas (Nighy) have joined the workforce in Jaipur, but they haven't taken their mutual attraction any further. Smith's Muriel, who was a lonely xenophobe in the first film, is now co-managing the hotel. The lovelorn Madge (Celia Imrie) is juggling two wealthy suitors. And checking into the hotel is Gere as the charmingly mysterious Guy, a handsome American who may or may not be a budding novelist.
"Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" is Fox Searchlight's first sequel in its 21-year history.
"I think we approached them first with the notion," Claudia Lewis, Searchlight's president of production, said about contacting the film's creative team. "And they kind of almost laughed it off, not sure we were genuinely serious about it. Then they took their time really thinking it through carefully to make sure that it felt like there was a genuine, vibrant story to tell and not that we were going to repeat the same old, same old. Once they came up with that, which was relatively swiftly, because they are so creative and fast-thinking, we all dove in together very excitedly."
Steve Gilula, president of Fox Searchlight Pictures, noted that the film was more of a continuation than a typical sequel. "We in the audience loved those characters," he said. "The whole idea was they had finished a chapter rather than a whole book."
"At the outset, we always said it was a companion piece," said Madden. "The interesting part of it was to see what happened when they became part of the world they collided with in the first one. In some sense, the last film was sort of a beginning for these people. We didn't want it to lose its shape and lose its meaning."
In late 2012, Parker and Madden met at the director's home in Norfolk, a few hours outside of London, to figure out the narrative "that would tell the next bit of story but respect the first film too," said producer Graham Broadbent.
Madden and Parker set the story less than a year after the conclusion of the original because of a conversation the two had on the set of the first film while watching the penultimate scene of Nighy and Dench having tea.
"I said to John, 'I think we are eight months away from their first kiss,' " said Parker. And that time frame played out perfectly for the rest of the story. "In that time, they have become part of the country rather than tourists. This time, we could get them more in the world and about more."
After Parker and Madden worked for a week on the concept, Broadbent joined the group. "I came up for the weekend, and they simply told me the story as we walked up and down the beach," he said. "I said, 'This is going to be great. This really works.' "
Though he had no script to show them, Broadbent began calling cast members to see whether they were interested. "We all had been close making the first film," he said. "We lived together in India for eight weeks, and we knew each other quite well. So you call up Judi and say, 'What do you think of this idea?' and you call up Maggie."
"To get [the actors] back was logistically challenging, just from a scheduling point of view," said Gilula. "That Graham and John were able to get everyone was kind of extraordinary."
Gere's name popped up as the character began to take shape. "We didn't want to approach him until we had a script to give him," said Madden. "Luckily, he was a fan of the first film."
Parker's first draft was delivered in January 2013. The picture began pre-production in September, and filming commenced in early 2014.
The production went smoothly, even with only four viable months to shoot in India, to avoid the area's hottest weather and monsoon season, Parker said. Though he did notice a visible toll on some of the cast members. At 79, Smith and Dench "were considerably more spry [at the start] than they were by the end of the movie."
A Buddhist who has a strong connection to India, Gere fit in well with the rest of the cast. "Maggie Smith called him 'Top Gere,' " said Parker.
"It was very communal," noted Broadbent. "It's rare, as a producer, that you ask people to travel away from home for so long, and that creates almost a repertory theater atmosphere rather than a normal filming environment."
The production used the majority of the same crew and Indian actors for the sequel.
"The places we shot in luckily were available," said Madden.
They did have some difficulties, though, because the film was shot during the wedding season in India. "Everything stops for weddings," said Madden. "We were constantly being interrupted by weddings and the noise of weddings and the chaos of weddings. In fact, we had to move out of the Viceroy Club for three weeks because there were weddings booked at the location. In one case, they simply used our set. It was very funny."