By Iain Blair
The plot of Lion, the new awards-buzzy Weinstein film, sounds like an over-the-top, completely made-up Hollywood tearjerker — a five-year-old Indian boy named Saroo (Sunny Pawar) wanders onto a train, falls asleep and wakes up thousands of miles away from his home and family. Frightened, he ends up in chaotic Kolkata. Somehow he survives living on the streets, escaping all sorts of terrors and close calls, before ending up in an orphanage.
Eventually, Saroo is adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) and finds love and security as he grows up in Hobart. As an adult, not wanting to hurt his adoptive parents’ feelings, Saroo (Dev Patel) suppresses his past and his hope of ever finding his lost mother and brother, but a chance meeting with some fellow Indians re-awakens his buried yearning. Armed with only a handful of memories, his unwavering determination and Google Earth, Saroo sets out to find his lost family and finally return to his first home.
This true story, adapted from the memoir A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley, was directed by Emmy Award-nominated Garth Davis (Top of the Lake). The screenplay was by Luke Davies (Candy, Life). The film was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Picture category.
I talked to Davis about making the film and his workflow.
This is your first film. What were you looking for in a project?
I’d read a lot of stuff, but I only wanted to make something I was very moved by, scared by, where there was something I could explore and question. I was just so moved by this story and felt there was a lot that I could bring to it. Producers Emile Sherman and Iain Canning of See-Saw Films, who did the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech, offered it to me at Sundance in 2013. We were there for the world premiere of the TV series Top of the Lake, which I co-directed with Jane Campion for See-Saw. I just had to do it. We got the rights and I began doing research very early on — even before the book came out — and digging into the story in a deeper way, and retracing all the steps in India and Australia.
When you first read this, did you think, ‘No one’s going to believe this. It’s just too Hollywood’?
Yes. That was the big risk of doing it. So the task for me was to make a movie that was a lot more complicated, with a lot more detail, because the basic story was very simple. Luke did a great job with his script in expanding it all. But when I began, I didn’t really have the end game in mind. I was very excited by the story, curious about the characters and also curious about how the miracle came about. It was a great spiritual story as well, which really attracted me.
You’ve had successful career directing commercials. How did that prepare you?
They’re great preparation in terms of your practical skills, shooting in lots of complicated situations, dealing with tons of problems — so you get very experienced on set, but also in telling stories succinctly, paring things down to what works and what doesn’t.
You assembled a stellar cast — along with co-star Google Earth — but one of the great challenges must have been finding an Indian boy to play Saroo as a five-year-old?
It was, and we screen-tested thousands of children before we found Sunny. He’s a natural and we got lucky, because children can be good actors from about the age of eight but it’s very difficult to find a five year old capable of acting. But I knew it was important to have a small boy, as it’s visually very powerful having a tiny boy lost in the big, wide world, and he had this great look behind his eyes; he turned into an actor before our very eyes. And then Nicole and Dev and everyone just got called in by the story — that was the hook.
You shot on location in Kolkata. Was that tough?
Very tough. Absolutely. I enjoy complicated locations, but shooting there’s not for the faint-hearted as you’re dealing with all the crowds, the heat, the pollution, the dust. We kept it as agile as possible, and there’s glory there if you can get it right. But you run into so many problems, like you’re allowed to shoot on this railway platform for three hours, and then you get there, the train arrives, and there are padlocks on every door, so your three hours turn into 40 minutes.
Do you like post?
Love it, as you’re crafting all the way to the end. We did it all in Melbourne at Digital Pictures and Iloura, who did all the VFX. Then we did all the sound at Sound Firm with sound designer Robert Mackenzie. Sound design was very important in this film to the story, and we established a lot of audio maps, all the sounds of nature, and we had a lot of subtle stuff going on.
Tell us about working with editor Alexandre de Franceschi, who’s a frequent collaborator with Jane Campion, and who cut John Curran’s The Painted Veil.
He never came to the set. He was in Sydney while we were shooting and then when I got back, he came up to Melbourne and we began cutting. We watched the assembly and then all the rushes together. This had a special emotional alchemy, so the challenge was to not move too quickly through a sequence or something got lost. We had to honor the emotional arc of the story, so it was a very artistic thing. On the one hand, you had to structure the story, but on the other we had to really pay attention to that arc and it was a very detailed edit. It took us about six months in the end.
This is obviously not a VFX-driven piece, but they were important, right?
Yes, and the main VFX stuff was the butterflies, and the matte painting of the guard running beside the train on the embankment. We had a big problem when we shot that, as they wouldn’t let us take the train out again, and we ended up shooting that scene in the railway yard which was really depressing. But the matte painting worked very well, And then during the edit we decided to combine two Google searches into one, but they were shot at different times in different locations, and Dev was wearing a t-shirt in one and long-sleeved shirt in the other, and Iloura changed the tee to a long-sleeved shirt, which was pretty amazing.
Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film?
I love sound because it creates this immersive experience. You can have an interior scene and have sound from 100 meters away, and you may not consciously notice it, but it places it in context. So I decided very early on that the sound design would be crucial on this. So, for instance, when Saroo first wakes up alone on the platform, there’s no sound to create that sense of peril — just the cicadas, which becomes overbearing. And I love music and didn’t want to be afraid of using it.
Where did you do the DI?
At Digital Pictures with colorist Olivier Fontenay. I’ve done so many for the commercials, so I’m pretty experienced. The difference is you’re working with the cinema screen a lot more, doing the sound mix with Dolby Surround, and working with far higher image resolution, which I loved. I’m completely in the world of the movie and I don’t want to leave.
I’ve shot my second film, Mary Magdalene, and we’ll be doing all the post back in Melbourne again where I’m based — the same set up basically. I’m so excited about it.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.