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Interview: Garth Davis Talks about Directing His Feature Debut – Lion

Lion is the remarkable true story of a young boy who gets separated from his brother in Calcutta, India, and the unfathomable effort he made years later to find his way home. Young Saroo, lost at age 5, was eventually put up for adoption. However, Saroo never forgets his birth mother nor gives up hope of seeing her again, and as an adult sets out to find his first family, determined to be reunited with them.

Davis and I caught up recently to talk about Saroo’s truly moving and magnificent story. “We used it [Google Earth] a lot in location searching,” Davis says. Saroo was obsessed with using the new technology to help find his roots. “I thought it would be even more powerful than what we’re reading in books.”

The roles of Saroo, as child and young adult, are played by two actors, young Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel. “We got lucky with beautiful Sunny He’s so extraordinary that I didn’t realize what he had done until we got into the editing room,” Davis says of Pawar who gives such a captivating performance of the 5-year-old Saroo and carries the first half of the film on his shoulders.

Read what Davis has to say about his directorial debut in making Lion starring Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman:

Awards Daily: I actually saw this film in Middleburg and actually met Saroo Brierley there and got to speak to him. His story is quite something. His determination and motivation to find his family. How much of his steps did you have to retrace for you to tell this?

Garth Davis: I retraced of it as much as I could. The first day of my research trip involved me going along with the Australian 60 Minutes team who were at the time doing a segment on Saroo’s story. It was at the time when Sue, his adopted mother was about to meet his real mother for the first time. I was there to witness that moment and to be on the ground with them, and it was so extraordinary.

AD: That’s incredible.

GD: Isn’t it? So, from that moment, I was able to delve quickly and deeply into their lives and from there I retraced the younger Saroo’s story. I went to Calcutta and visited the places. I was completely overwhelmed imagining a young child in all those environments. The gravity and the power of the story struck me in such a visceral way and I could really start to see how this could be a movie experience, not just what you read. To bring it to life, I thought would be even more powerful than what we’re reading in the books or newspapers. I went to Australia and met his friends, spent time with Sue and John and I absorbed that life spending a lot of time with the real people.

AD: Google Earth is a character in itself in the film. Did you actually use it to find any locations for the film?

GD: [laughs] I always use Google Earth. It’s so good now, we use it a lot in film location searching. The open landscape became a very important part of how Saroo found the home. We had to do a lot of Googling to find those open maps. We actually used it to find the villages and all sorts of places.

AD: In the film, you show his determination, and this is how he’s going to find his family. What was that like recreating this driven character?

GD: He loves his family so much. He remembers everything about his life in India. It’s not like he has any problem remembering his past. It’s all there. It’s just that he doesn’t have hope for finding his home. He has this private grief, right? So, it’s this crazy idea that a seed of hope is planted in him and it becomes this double-edged sword because on one hand, it could get you home, but on the other, the other half can lead you to madness. I think just boiling down the truth of his journey really inspired all the directorial decisions we made in how to stage that journey. I think at some point, Saroo himself starts to feel that it could come at such a huge cost if it kept going.

With all the characters, it felt like something magical and spiritual was happening. I think all the real-life characters and, hopefully in the film, was something they couldn’t turn their back on.

AD: You have two actors playing the same role, Sunny was a gem, and then Dev as the older Saroo.

GD: There’s no hiding the fact that casting little Saroo was important. He essentially has to hold the first half of the movie. There’s nowhere to hide. If we don’t get the right child, we’re kind of doomed. At the end of the day, every role has to be brilliant for the kid to work. We obviously put a lot of time and investment into finding him, and we put a lot of investment into surrounding him with the support and love that was needed. We got lucky with beautiful Sunny He’s so extraordinary that I didn’t realize what he had done until we got into the editing room.

He’s amazing and I knew that, and half the time it was about survival while we shooting. To sit in the comfort of that room and see the beautiful work he was doing was extraordinary.

Both characters had to hold the audience in a way that was magical, honest and true. I think it was important to have that consistency.

AD: Did you shoot this in a linear way?

GD: We shot India first which I think was a good decision because as filmmakers and the crew had to experience what India was like. I wanted to find the visual lines that we could take into the story. You can become very complacent. We shot in Melbourne, and I drive past things daily and it’s not special to you. I think what was great, was taking that India experience into the contemporary landscape and somehow allowed that to come through in the way we covered it.

Linear was good, and it was that in a sense, but Dev’s first scene was him meeting his mother. [laughs].

AD: Oh my.

GD: It was linear to the point. We shot the end of the film before we came back to Australia.

AD: How easy was it to get the financial backing for a film like this?

GD: It’s a pretty irresistible story and the script was strong, so it didn’t take much. Anyone that read it loved it.

AD: How has the whole experience been for you? I saw the film in Middleburg, and the reception has been so wonderful.

GD: It’s had such a visceral reaction. I watch people in the audience and people cry at different points. Some people start early on. [laughs]. Others start when he gets adopted. Then the others start later. I think this film can touch all sorts of people, even mothers, and fathers who have issues with their children, and it’s about coming together and remembering what’s important.

To see ordinary people do something miraculous is also moving. To comprehend the plight of these children in India, but in an experience where you relate to that child is also moving. Also, I suppose to know that love can overcome anything. It’s been really interesting.

AD: How’s the next film going?

GD: We just wrapped Mary Magdalene in Italy.

AD: How controversial is that going to be?

GD: Oh boy! I’m not allowed to say anything. It’s that story told from her point of view, she’s not a prostitute and it’s a very humanistic portrayal.

AD: I look forward to that film.