Emmy-nominated television director (Top of the Lake) Garth Davis makes his feature film debut helming Lion, released nationally in November. The film, based on the book A Long Way Home, tells the real-life tale of Saroo Brierley, an Indian boy who became separated from his family at a crowded train station, survived on his own, was later adopted by an Australian family, and tracked down his long-lost Indian family using Google Earth. Starring Dev Patel in the lead role, Nicole Kidman as his adoptive mother, Sue, and Rooney Mara as his girlfriend, Lucy, the film is considered a strong contender for Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Supporting Actress nominations.
Davis spoke to Boxoffice about the challenges of being a first-time film director, the rewards of working with non-actors, and why he changed the title of the best-selling memoir.
This is your first feature film as director. What surprised you most about the feature film process?
Features are this beautiful, singular way of storytelling, and to actually have this opportunity was deeply fulfilling. I am always amazed by the collective passion of cast and crew, and how that can make a beautiful film.
What were the biggest challenges?
There were many challenges in making the film. The biggest one was finding the young Indian boy to play Young Saroo. He has to carry the film for the first third of the movie; he’s in every scene in the first third of the movie as well as several scenes throughout the film in the form of a flashback. So we needed a boy who not only could hold the audience with his performance but who also had the stamina to endure a very demanding shoot. On top of this, we needed Young Saroo to feel very authentically like a young boy from a small, poor village, and so we did a wide open call for non-actors across three cities in India. We were very fortunate to find [newcomer] Sunny [Pawar], who has done an incredible job.
Why was the title changed from A Long Way Home, the title of the book?
People seemed to be having trouble remembering the title A Long Way Home—they would always get it wrong and say something like A Long Journey Home—and so to avoid the confusion we decided to change the title. In terms of why we changed it to Lion—that’s something you have to see the movie to find out!
The theme of lost children has been a common one at the cinemas in the second half of 2016, with The Light Between Oceans and Kidnap. What is it about that theme?
For me it wasn’t about the theme of missing children per se, it was that Saroo’s story is just so incredible, so epic, it has mythological characteristics. Not only did this young boy survive, incredibly, on the streets of Calcutta by himself for months, narrowly escaping all sorts of peril to be adopted by a loving family from Tasmania—but then, 25 years later, using Google Earth, he finds his way home. That’s an almost unbelievable story—except that it’s true!
Dev Patel had to adopt an Australian accent for the role, among other challenges. What else did he bring to the part?
Dev put so much into this role—he transformed himself completely—both physically and emotionally. He worked so hard at the accent, and I’m pleased to say he really nails it in the film. Dev is such a pure, loveable soul, and he brought honesty to the role. He’s extremely good in the film—I’m so proud of his work.
Thousands of boys auditioned to play the role of Saroo Brierly as a young boy. Why did you eventually settle on Sunny Pawar?
Sunny was one of the first kids I saw when I traveled to India to do the casting workshops. He just has these incredible eyes, and even when he’s doing nothing, you just feel the story in those eyes. And he’s so small—I really loved the idea of this very small child in the really big, dangerous world. And Sunny evolved into an incredible actor during the course of the shooting of the film. He’s just instinctive and honest, and this comes through in his performance.
Did you consult with the Brierly family at all while preparing for or filming the movie? If so, what did they add?
Yes, we consulted with the Brierley family the whole way through the process, from script development all the way through to post-production. They read script drafts, they watched a previous cut of the film, and gave us their thoughts. I spent a lot of time with them, particularly Sue and Saroo, to help me better understand their characters. There is a lot of story in the film that’s not in the original book—these parts are taken from stories told to me by Saroo and Sue from their lives together.
Nicole Kidman is the real-life mother of two adopted children. How did that experience inform her portrayal of an adoptive mother in this film?
I’m sure that experience influenced her performance in a significant way. It’s an extraordinary performance and she put so much of herself into the role—it was incredible to watch her work. She’s a wonderful actor, and a very amazing person.
Nicole Kidman and David Wenham are both Australian actors and have worked together before, most notably in Australia. What was their working relationship like on set?
Nicole and David have known each other since they were kids at acting school together. Their mutual admiration and respect for each other is very strong, and I know they really cherished the opportunity to work together in this way.
Why did you start the film in India with Saroo’s childhood? You could have started with him in the present and told the story through flashbacks, much as Sully did a few months ago.
Believe me, I looked at it every which way. It was a very well-considered decision—the way we told the story. For me it was important to tell the story chronologically because this is the way anyone who ever describes the story tells it—it starts with this young boy getting lost on a train, and gets more incredible from there, up until he actually finds the roof of his house using Google Earth—amazing! I really wanted the audience to be experiencing the story with Saroo and not be ahead of him at any time.
The film is about Google Earth. Did Google as a company help with the production process?
Google were very helpful during production, giving us access to their satellite imagery to use in the film, providing us with versions of Google Earth from the correct time period, and providing a lot of technical support so that we could shoot those scenes in-camera rather than having to do fancy VFX.
Several actors in the film are in their first roles, including Saroo’s brother Guddu, who is played by Abhishek Bharate, and Young Saroo, played by Sunny Pawar. Why did you take that casting risk?
We needed real kids, authentic kids, kids who felt like they had grown up in a small, poor village. Abhishek had actually played a role in a small Murathi [language] film before Lion, but Sunny had done nothing else before. For me, casting real kids wasn’t a risk; it was the only way to ensure the performances and the characters felt authentic.
Was it especially challenging to film in a crowded train station in Kolkata?
The filming on the trains was enormously challenging—we need to be able to control whole trains, whole train lines, and whole stations. This is no small feat in India where there are billions of people. We needed to be able to drive the trains where we wanted to drive them—go forwards and backwards, etc.—and this is something which would have been impossible in most countries of the world. Fortunately, in India we could make it happen, and we worked with a very good production services company there, India Take One Productions, who helped us do all of this.
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