“Lion” is designed as a crowdpleaser that will tug at filmgoers’ tear ducts and heartstrings. Crafted by a largely Australian crew of Hollywood outsiders led by Garth Davis in his feature debut, the decently reviewed Weinstein Co. release (November 25) is Harvey Weinstein’s Oscar mission. So far it’s landed six Critics Choice, four Golden Globe, and two SAG nominations; all include supporting players Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel. The movie is holding well in limited release, heading into national expansion over the holidays.
What did they do right?
1. Find a riveting true story.
Back in 2013 when Sundance Channel series “Top of the Lake” debuted at the Sundance Festival, See Saw Films producers Iain Canning and Emile Sherman (Oscar-winner “The King’s Speech”) discovered an article about Australian emigre Saroo Brierley, who had lost his family at the age of five in Calcutta and, 20 years later, found them again via Google Earth. At Sundance the producers went straight to their “Top of the Lake” co-director Garth Davis.
They nabbed the rights to Brierley’s memoir, “A Long Way Home,” by flying directly to Australia to meet the man and his adoptive parents to win their trust. They agreed to hire L.A.-based Australian poet-novelist-critic Luke Davies, who adapted his novel “Candy” for See Saw. Davis also liked Davies’ script for the James Dean movie “Life.” “It was a beautiful script, very human and tender,” said Davis in a phone interview.
“The story was mythic, primal and simple,” the writer told me. “I didn’t mean the adaptation was simple, but the basic emotional and structural elements of the story were like a myth. It felt ancient. If you try and discover what must be a universal human experience, it’s the vulnerability of an infant’s need for safety and security.”
The trick was to tell that story without descending into sentimentality. “It felt raw and strong and powerful,” said Davies. “The story of the 5-year-old boy in peril was emotional in a way we as an audience might feel.”
With the screenplay in good shape, See Saw took the project to Cannes 2014. They gave distributors four days’ warning to read the script and express interest. That created a bidding war, which the Weinsteins won by paying $12 million for the worldwide rights. That gave See Saw their budget and more script development before shooting.
Photo By Mark Rogers, Courtesy of Weinstein Co
2. Start at the very beginning.
After landing the gig, Davies traveled to India to meet Brierley and his birth mother at their home village, then flew to Tasmania to meet Saroo’s adoptive parents. And he convinced the filmmakers not to bookend the movie in the present, but to start with the young boy getting stuck on an abandoned train that takes no passengers and stops more than 30 hours later a thousand miles from his home in Calcutta.
“It was obvious to me why it was crazy to start at the end,” said Davis. “It’s a powerful story. Coming back to linearity was the most powerful way. Saroo gets lost, he’s homeless, and gets adopted and goes to Australia. The modern guy finds his home using Google Earth. That linear story would be diluted by reversing it.”
But the due-diligence people did get nervous about waiting 50 minutes to get to recognizable movie stars, he admitted: “‘Oh my God, will the audience be able to sustain a Hindi-speaking foreign-language film with no key cast? But the story was so strong, Saroo so powerful, that we held the audience long enough to get through that gamble.”
That’s because they cast a magnetic kid who could act. Young Sunny Pawar emerged from screen tests across India of thousands of promising children, sent back to Australia. It was risky to cast someone so young, but they wanted a small and vulnerable child.
For the first few days of filming, Pawar had no idea what was going on, but he picked it up fast. “He started to understand that between ‘action and cut’ he was given permission to enter a kind of magical space of play,” said Davies. “Some of that play was distressing.”
It was up to Davis to perform “magic to get that performance out of the kid and make him feel safe,” said Davies. “He had never seen a movie. The first time was at the New York premiere at MoMA, attended by Bill Clinton.”
Photo by STACEY NEWMAN/REX/Shutterstock
3. Search for colorful locations.
On his extensive location scouts in India, from Calcutta to the central state of Madya Pradesh, Davis embraced the great ochre landscape expanses unique to the countryside near Brierley’s birthplace. He had a photographic memory of the train platform and water tower in Burhanpur not far from his hometown. It took him four years to obsessively trace thousands of train platforms until he randomly came across a satellite image that had been updated only a few weeks before.
“It’s about finding the world of the movie,” said Davis, “to create atmosphere and a sense of place, imagining Saroo in these environments at that age. I see storyboard ideas on locations where the film comes to life. That visual motif had to land on Google Earth — and in the movie.”
4. Embrace two stories.
Davis, a veteran commercial director, felt ready to direct a feature after he “spread his wings,” he said, directing four episodes of Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake”: “I learned preparation through Jane, how to prepare myself for marathon TV — and learned from working with great actors like Holly Hunter and Peter Mullen.”
When filming began in January 2015, Davis and his cinematographer of 20 years, Greig Fraser (“Zero Dark Thirty,” “Rogue One”), shot the first part of the film as an external story, and the second half as a more internal story. “Camera and sound design contributed to that,” said Davis. They shot with the Alexa, developing a special remote robot camera rig to hold the Alexa at the head height of the diminutive Pawar, which you could not do with a Steadicam — as well as aerial drones shooting the landscape from above.
5. Keep hold of the story’s underlying emotion.
For Davis, he had always “felt that something under the surface of the story was quite spiritual,” he said. “It didn’t surprise me when I met real people who had spiritual beliefs. Saroo spend every night of his life leaving his body, he’d see his mother saying, ‘I’m here, I’m alive and I love you.'”
Researching Calcutta and Brierley’s home village, Davis brought his two mothers together for the first time. His birth mother Kamla “said he was talking to her,” said Davis. “‘I know my son’s alive.'” Saroo’s adopted Australian mother had a “vision of a brown child when she was 12; she felt she was on a predestined path to adopt a child. Suddenly there were three very spiritually connected people here.”
The Weinstein Company
6. Cast a global movie star.
In the seven years since London actor Dev Patel, 26, starred in Oscar-winner and global hit “Slumdog Millionaire,” he’s often been typecast as the office computer nerd (he was Emmy nominated for HBO’s “The Newsroom”), but also starred in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and its sequel (total: $225 million worldwide). But rich leading roles are tough to find. “The world sucks in that sense of color barriers,” said Davies, “and for Dev himself, a role like this doesn’t come along. A film like this could change everything.”
Patel talks about his journey to “Lion” in our video below.
He was in a “puddle of tears” when he read the script, he told me. “It’s the role I’ve been yearning for. You want to show people you are versatile, but you can only go so far with the roles you’re given. I trust my instincts on film roles; it has to have a joy behind it, a real authentic triumph to it.”
Initially, Davis wasn’t sure that Patel possessed the “internal quality Saroo needed to have,” be said. “But he has a beautiful spirit, and I wanted to see if I could internalize his performance and get him to a deeper place. He’s so hungry for it, in rehearsal I was excited to see Dev reach a place he never had before. He worked hard.”
After he landed the job, Patel devoted eight months of prep to working out and learning the Australian accent. “Aussie was the hardest for sure, ” he said. “It’s so easy to go overboard and sound a bit ‘Crocodile Dundee.'”
Kidman was impressed that he nailed the accent. “It’s really tough,” she said. “He nailed it.” And he falls for an American girl (Rooney Mara, brought in by Harvey Weinstein after “Carol”), marking the biggest break from the true story. “Now he’ll be considered for just leading men,” Kidman added. “It breaks down — you don’t see Dev as an Indian man, you see him as man. As it should be.”
Patel watched the shooting in India in order to have the memory of his character’s childhood. His first scene was at the end of the movie, when Saroo reunites with his mother; Patel shared that exultation with the real village extras. “They’re crying when I’m crying,” he said. “I knew I had more in the tank, but I had to wait for the right opportunity.”
7. Cast a major Australian star.
When Davis met with Sue Brierley, he kept seeing Nicole Kidman. It turned out she had already read the script and was eager to meet him. “When I caught up with her in New York,” he said, “she understood adoption, and could relate to what Sue had been through.” He told Kidman of her character, “You’re a dag.”(Not stylish, out of fashion, not cool.)
Kidman believed that Davis would “elevate it into a cinematic experience,” she said. “He’s all heart. He’s not cynical, not sentimental, just very pure. He’s radiant, that’s what this film needed, a radiance.”
After Kidman met with Brierley, the actress transformed herself into a suburban housewife, putting on an altered physicality and accent like an old sweater. “These are the Australian women I grew up with,” she said. “Like my aunt, the women in Australia are down to earth, very maternal in a pragmatic way, without a lot of airs and graces. There’s a simplicity to her, there’s a musicality to the accent. I slip into it, I exist in it, I loved: ‘Oh, OK, I know this, I know this sound.'”
Kidman understood Sue: “These women are quiet, they don’t complain, don’t speak out, they’re not overly affectionate. They just get on with it, keep the family strong and together and survive.”
And Kidman knew well Sue’s journey with her adopted child. “It was an emotional and the most powerful connection for me,” she said, choking back tears. “The child as they grow and you’re their mother, the ways they move away from you and back. You’re always there to communicate unconditional love. I’m always here to give you love. I want to hear that from my mother, and be able to say that to my children in a way through cinema, through Sue and other mothers. That was the emotional basis for me of wanting to do it.”
Kidman’s mother story “thematically embodies the film’s bigger themes,” said Davies, “about the infinite and unconditional love of the adoptive parent. It’s not questions of maternal love, but the progression needed to trace from the adoptive mother to the birth mother, thematically in terms of structure, the two mother figures are the two pillars that hold up the movie. Their emblems of maternal love were the driving motor behind the film.”
Kidman has executive produced, with Reese Witherspoon, “Big Little Lies” (2017) for HBO, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, and co-starring Shailene Woodley and Laura Dern. She also stars in two 2017 films opposite Colin Farrell, Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” and Sofia Coppola’s Civil War feminist drama “The Beguiled.” Kidman also returned to New Zealand to shoot two Season Two episodes of “Top of the Lake” with her old friend Jane Campion.
Patel follows up his mathematician in “The Man Who Knew Infinity” with Weinstein Co.’s “Hotel Mumbai,” opposite Armie Hammer, set during the harrowing three-day 2008 terrorist siege of the Taj Hotel.
Davis has just wrapped production on See Saw’s “Mary Magdalene,” a retelling of the Bible story starring Rooney Mara in the title role, Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Peter.
And Davies is working with his pal David Michod on a mini-series adaptation of Joseph Heller’s satirical black comedy “Catch-22” (which Mike Nichols directed at Paramount). It’s being developed by Anonymous Content to be set in the same 1945 period, at a U.S airbase off the coast of Italy.