Homeward Bound: Garth Davis’ festival hit ‘Lion’ is a moving drama about the search for a lost family

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Garth Davis calls Saroo Brierley's life "a miracle." But bringing that miracle to the screen meant somehow discovering what fueled Brierley's remarkable search to find his lost family.

Based on Brierley's memoir A Long Way Home, the Weinstein Company release Lion shows how a young boy from a rural village near the city of Khandwa, India, ended up in Hobart, Tasmania. Directed by Garth Davis from a script by Luke Davies, the movie has been winning over viewers in festivals around the world.

Speaking by phone from Italy, where he is shooting Mary Magdalene, Davis admits that the structure of Lion was challenging. The first half of the movie shows how Saroo (played by five-year-old Sunny Pawar), separated from his family, winds up some 1,600 kilometers away, alone in Calcutta.

Lost in the turmoil, Saroo tries to survive by sleeping in railroad stations, hiding from police, predators, and hundreds of indifferent commuters. Here Lion essentially becomes a silent movie, especially for viewers who don't speak Hindu. Davis has to get the story across through imagery, not words.

"The silence was really about the fact that he was invisible to everybody," Davis says. "I found that a powerful way of telling the story. And when you become invisible in those places, the imagery is all about intimacy."

Davis explains how he and cinematographer Greig Fraser focused this part of the story exclusively on Saroo, keeping the camera in tight on his face rather than using wide shots—"Never remove the story from Saroo's point of view."

Because Sunny Pawar is just five himself, Davis felt a responsibility to build a structured, supportive environment for him—"right down to his diet, having good sleep, not letting him be 'hero-worshipped.' I had Miranda Harcourt, a genius dramaturge from Wellington, and an Indian actor working with me, preparing Sunny for what he was going to do."

Saroo's early story is suffused with the loss of his home, his brother and best friend, his mother. It's a lot to ask of a five-year-old.

"You hear stories about people playing tricks or being cruel to children to elicit emotions," Davis notes. "That was never the case here. What happened was that Sunny felt so safe that he eventually began to understand what we were doing, to understand how acting works. And he really started to imagine Saroo's experience and feel those emotions."

Some of the most harrowing scenes in Lion take place in an overcrowded orphanage, where the weak fall prey to the strong, and no one is truly nurtured. "Saroo is one story and through that story hopefully we can bring attention to all the others sitting in train stations and orphanages," Davis says. "I didn't realize how powerful the orphanage scenes would be until I was in the editing room. All these children need is love, and home is love. Not necessarily a place, a house, but someone loving them and seeing them for who they are."

Davis, best known for his work on the intense and often eerie television series "Top of the Lake," spent years on the Lion project, traveling to India three times to immerse himself in the locations and situations young Saroo experienced.

"Sometimes it's as simple as sitting watching children play, how people move through the village, understanding the pacing. Shooting in India is not easy, but one of the exciting things about being there is the people. They have such humanity and spirit, they contribute so much to the performances and the moment. To me, it's a real pleasure to shoot there."

Adopted into the Brierley family, Saroo (now played by Dev Patel) moves to Hobart, Tasmania, with his new parents John and Sue (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman). Entering college in Melbourne, he is haunted by an image from the past, opening memories hidden in his subconscious. Encouraged by his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara), he starts to search for his biological family.

Patel campaigned for the role early in the process, but Davis was skeptical of the Slumdog Millionaire star until they met in London and workshopped the part.

"We got to a place that was very different for him," Davis remembers. "So I said, 'All you've got to do now is get an Australian accent, put on some weight, and you'll do the best performance of your life.'"

Davis admits that his directing process can seem unorthodox. "My big thing is, I don't rehearse scenes, I build relationships," he explains. "With Rooney and Dev, this might sound very strange, but I had large piece of butcher paper and had them trace each other. And then I asked Rooney to paint in Dev's outline as Saroo, what she's feeling about him. And he had to paint Rooney's outline as Lucy, paint what he feels about Lucy."

Rooney's portrait of Saroo was dark, with a bleeding pink heart, his arms covered with lines as if from a map. Patel painted Lucy in bright colors surrounded by a pink aura which blended in with the bleeding heart when the pictures were pushed together. It was a clue to the actors how Lucy's spirit would help Saroo.

"I do kind of crazy things," Davis says, laughing. "You've got these Oscar-nominee actors and you want them to lie on a piece of paper, do some painting. But at the end of the day, the people I choose to work with are into those processes."

Working with young children in her early scenes forced the Oscar-winning Kidman to give up "acting" in order to match their realism. But a later scene, in which she reveals her thwarted dreams to an older Saroo, let her unleash her talent. It's an extraordinary moment, one that requires Kidman to shed her glamorous image.

"We had already done a lot of work breaking down the meaning of that scene," Davis recalls. "So we knew where we had to go. That day she came in early, went quietly into her chair and just sat there. We very quietly set up two cameras, one on her, one on Dev.

"I had some material from a documentary about adoptees with disorders sort of like Saroo's brother Mantosh. I would play that to her to remind her of what she had been living through. I asked her to enter the scene, and then we were rolling."

Davis shot four or five takes, but ended up using primarily the first take. "I forgot I was in the room, she was so strong."

The director has what he joked was a "telepathic" relationship with Greig Fraser, who's worked on projects as varied as Zero Dark Thirty and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The two have known each other for 20 years, and have paired again for Mary Magdalene.

For the rest of the crew, Davis sought out people who would be passionate about the project, feeling that their energy is reflected on the screen. He developed a relationship with editor Alexandre de Franceschi while working with him on "Top of the Lake."

"We had nowhere to hide in editing this," Davis says. "The two halves, the unusual structure, it was a challenge. I was really just hoping that we could find the poetry that was sitting under the narrative. A lot of work went into creating rhymes and patterns."

Davis points to Lucy's first scenes with Saroo, where she is tactile, playful, like Saroo's life in India. Her behavior opens up Saroo's past as much as his encounters with Indian students and food do.

"So there's a lot of emotional engineering going on in terms of how the narrative is affecting Saroo," Davis explains. "The editing was a big part in that opening of what you could call his Pandora's box, or the awakening of his past."

Davis feels he is still developing as a director, describing his work on "Top of the Lake" as "pretty green." Judging from its impact with viewers, you would never guess that Lion was a debut feature.