It’s hard not to be moved or touched by Saroo Brierly’s beautiful story about a young boy who was separated from his family at age 5, adopted by an Australian fmaily, and then years later, with the help of Google Earth makes every effort to recall his home in India to be reunited with his birth mother. “My enthusiasm shot through the roof,” says screenwriter, Luke Davies, recalling when he first came across the book. Davies spent months traveling to India and Australia as part of his research and then sat down to write the script for Lion. What made Lion different from other stories about lost children being reunited with their families is technology. “This story could never have happened until ten years ago, when Google released Google Earth,” Davies says. “It wasn’t just an ancient myth, the reunion with the lost mother. It was like a brand new myth, and the excitement was pure and beautiful.”
Lion is on general release and stars Sunny Pawar as young Saroo, Dev Patel as the older Saroo, and Nicole Kidman as his adoptive mother. Read our interview and see how Davies adapted Saroo Brierly’s A Long Way Home to make Lion.
Awards Daily: It’s a pleasure speaking to you today about this film, Lion.
Luke Davies: I’m having a great time. We all love talking about it because we all enthusiastically love this film, and we had our hearts broken open in the process of creating it from start to finish.
AD: I didn’t expect to cry as much as I did. His story moves you in such a special way.
LD: His story is improbable and that makes it so beautiful.
AD: He used Google Earth to make his story happen.
LD: From space. Literally. [laughs]
AD: What’s going through your mind when you first heard his story?
LD: I’d actually heard his story four days before the producers came to me and said, “Look at this book.” The book had just been released and there were stories about him online, and that was part of the publicity of the book. I had seen it on Facebook too, but it went in one ear and out the other.
I then read the book and raced through it, and that’s when my enthusiasm shot through the roof. It was a fairy-tale meets nightmare element with a myth. What was so incredible was that this story could never have happened until ten years ago, when Google released Google Earth. It wasn’t just an ancient myth, the reunion with the lost mother. It was like a brand new myth, and the excitement was pure and beautiful. You want stories where the elements are pure and simple, and there are no frills.
On the other hand, there were these beautiful challenges that were to do with the exhilaration of technology and the positive side of the new world we’ve moved into where technology can be a force for good, and not just another form of self-medication in the world.
AD: That’s the thing. It’s a story that’s been told before, but this time you have a new technology and how that helped.
LD: That’s right.
AD: The film sheds light on the case of these lost children in India. How did you research that? Did you feel there was a responsibility to show that at all?
LD: That’s a great question. I think having agendas or thinking that you’re doing something didactic that can give people a message, can not always be good for the creative process. I was working with Garth Davis (director) and primarily, we had two tasks. One was to create a watertight good yarn and make it compelling. We have moral and ethically responsibilities to keep in mind the balancing act that we are portraying people who are very much alive in this world.
It’s been a really interesting experience is this conversation about adoption that is emerging and the ethics of that. There’s a conversation about the horrendous and vile world of child sex trafficking that exists strongly in India. It’s at its ugliest and worst there. It wasn’t like that was an agenda, but we were very aware of how very real this is. 80,000 children in India go missing a year. It’s something I wasn’t aware of.
Here’s another horrible statistic for you. About 20,000 children are trafficked from Nepal into India as Child sex slaves. They’re paid for with a deposit while they’re still in the womb. The traffickers go there, hand over down payment, and they come back for the kid when she is four.
AD: How horrible!
LD: Why is that story invisible? It’s evil. It’s a very real part of the world that our film touches on. We didn’t set out to say, “We’re going to preach a message about how bad this stuff is.” But, we’re happy that this film may in any way raise awareness about these horrors.
AD: What about in terms of your experience? How was this different for you?
LD: As a person making a living as a screenwriter, you learn new things with each project. At a level that affected me profoundly? The very first person I told the story to was a friend. I told her this three-minute version, and I started sobbing. I didn’t expect to cry. You’re a guy, you have very good defense mechanisms about not crying and then this happened.
This film unexpectedly broke my heart open and made me a softer person as a human being. It put me in touch with the infinite love of the mother, about self-forgiveness, and about gratitude. In a film like this, the climax is so immensely beautiful that you don’t have to work too hard to experience the fact of being alive. By all accounts, on a million occasions his life should have ended, and it didn’t. To be part of that journey towards exhilaration and that process of becoming a softer human being, that was incredible for me.
AD: I spoke to Garth earlier about how the shoot went from India and then Tasmania. What was that experience like for you?
LD: For me, doing the research trip was an amazing mini journey. Garth was talking about how important it was to shoot the India stuff first. There was a moment where it looked like we’d shoot Australia first, but Garth fought against that because they understood that if they as filmmakers shot India first, they’d learn stuff that would emotionally affect the Dev scenes as adult Saroo.
I visited the set in India and Australia as an honorary visitor.
AD: Tell me about how the writing process was for you?
LD: It was remarkably streamlined. I worked with Garth for ten days, we had a whiteboard and tea. I was alone in my bubble, and in a very compressed six-month period I delivered the first draft, got notes, and made changes. By then, See-Saw films took it to Cannes and created a bidding war which ended with Weinstein getting the film.
The Saroo stuff as a young boy was concrete and very much in place. The psychologically complex second half which is more interior, took longer as we had to work out the relationships. I did that for about nine months, on and off.
AD: It’s been a pleasure speaking to you.
LD: Thank you. Thank you for crying, that’s what we wanted. [laughs] I want to hear people crying. I still cry when I see it. My script was just a way station at the beginning of the process. Garth is a magician and he did such a beautiful thing, that I experience the film as an observer. There are five or six moments and somewhere in there, I’m going to cry.