An Australian director known for Top Of The Lake, Garth Davis has made an impression this season with The Weinstein Company’s Lion, his feature film debut. Based on Saroo Brierley’s incredible true story as captured in his memoir, A Long Way Home, Lion follows 5-year-old Saroo, who is separated from his family in India. Adopted by an Australian couple, it takes 25 years for Saroo to reconnect with his birth family, through the magic of Google Earth. Below, Davis discusses the difficult task of working with child actors, and what he took away from putting himself through Saroo’s emotional and physical journey.
How did you get involved with Lion?
I had just finished doing Top of the Lake with See-Saw Films and they brought my attention to this article that had just come out about Saroo’s story. I went and read it and just completely fell in love with it. We then went off and got the rights for it pretty much, but it was just one of those projects that seemed to fit everybody and we got very excited about it.
Clearly the story is this ridiculous story, but I think the thing that really struck me is that I was really curious to know what created the miracle in their lives and when I dug a bit deeper, I realized that there was such a sense of love in this family that I believe that the miracles were born from that place. I just found that a very exciting thing to explore as a filmmaker.
Did you then find yourself tasked personally with winning Saroo’s family over?
I was definitely in the conversation when the producers were negotiating the rights and I did meet certain key people, so I was involved in the sense of presenting myself to those people to make sure everyone felt comfortable, and then obviously I met the real family a little bit further down the track, and started the process of building a relationship with them in the making of the film in a respectful way.
What is it about the producers at See-Saw Films that makes them strong collaborators for you?
They’re just people that have really good taste, and they have really good instincts for people’s talent and matching up materials. Emile Sherman and I met with another project a very, very long time ago and he offered me up for Top of the Lake. I had nothing really dramatically under my belt. I was a successful commercials director, but there was just something they felt fit in. That was a wonderful opportunity for me and I don’t think they regret it. It was a great opportunity for us. They just have great instincts and they give people a go.
They don’t wait for you to be an awarded director. They give people a go early on and I think that’s their skill. They’ve got guts.
With your prior filmmaking experience, was there still a learning curve in making your feature debut?
Well, I’ve learned a lot through commercials and obviously learned a lot through Top of the Lake. Top of the Lake was a great taste of working with major stars and that was an interesting experience. I definitely felt like I was prepared in many ways, but I think that the greatest challenge I had on Lion was working with a five-year-old child and also just artistically, I’ve never made a film, so in many ways I was quite relieved because TV is like a sprawling novel, where a film to me was this beautiful form. It was like a sculpted form that I could really craft, so I actually found it quite liberating and exciting to work on.
I believe you worked with a dramaturg, Miranda Harcourt. Did she help you through the experience of working with child actors?
Look, I definitely was looking for the best people I could find to support the children’s performance, especially Sunny [Pawar]’s performance because it was so important. Miranda Harcourt is someone that I met on Top of the Lake, actually. I hadn’t really worked with her properly, but I just adored her as a human being and I thought, “Well, let’s see if she’s interested,” so she came on. Together, we prepared a process which started very early on, and developed a very strong relationship together, and a kind of environment whereby Sunny could be supported in the most positive way. I just love Miranda. She’s incredibly clever. She’s quite a famous acting coach. She’s worked with everyone from Saoirse Ronan to Nicole Kidman.
In addition to Harcourt, did you have on-set translators for the non-English speaking cast, as well?
Yeah, she needed a translator and I needed a translator, so we actually hired an actor…He was like our assistant acting coach and translator, and because he was an actor as well, he really understood the language and understood the process that we were talking about. The three of us, I call us the triangle of trust. When Sunny came to set, he had this triangle that protected him from everything around him, and he felt very safe and it was a really strong friendship. It was beautifully planned. It was definitely the way to do it.
You traveled to India, and Kolkota specifically, going to the place Saroo grew up, and many of the places he found himself before arriving at home with the Brierleys. What did you gain in tracing Saroo’s footsteps?
Because it’s a true story, I felt that I had to get as much real life exposure as possible. The first thing I did, and this is even before we had a writer, I went to India by myself. Actually at the time, I tied in with 60 Minutes, who were going over. They took the adopted mother to meet the birth mother. I was actually in the village during that moment, which is extraordinary because I got to meet everybody in a very deep emotional space, so that was really interesting, and I learned a lot from that.
The way I work is I like to immerse myself in the world of the film and in the character’s lives, and then from that, I get a lot of ideas of how the film could be made, how it could be told. I suppose the thing that I absorbed was the way village people unite—this sense of togetherness and family and culture was very strong. The landscape was very strong. The textures and the colors, I thought, was a very big part of home for Saroo. I really absorbed that, and just watching the kids of today playing in the dam as Saroo did, I got a lot from that.
Then, in Kolkota, I was really struck by how busy it was. I’ve got children, myself—one of my daughters was probably around Saroo’s age when I was working on it, and it was really impactful to imagine my child being lost in the station, and I think that’s when the power of the story really hit me, and the reality of it. I realized, “Oh shit, this is actually a serious story.” I heard stories about what’s going on there at the moment, even today. It’s just a great travesty, what’s happening to the children of today, not just lost children on trains. I don’t know. I just felt a real responsibility to portray that. I was completely absorbed by it, mate, professionally and spiritually.
What approach do you take in constructing a dramatic arc out of a true story?
I suppose we were lucky in the sense that it was just such a perfect story, so it already had a structure we felt that was very strong, but I think the danger in that was making sure that there was enough to explore subtextually. I wasn’t so worried about India. It was more the Australian side that I felt wasn’t really explored in his book or in his memoirs—we didn’t start with that, by the way. We started before the book came out. The book came out during our process, so we were just basically going off interviews and meeting the family and things like that.
The big thing that we did is we went to Hobart and tried to meet his friends and to try and absorb the modern side of the story, and very quickly we started to see some great rhymes and parallels, and that’s when I got really excited about the story, getting inside his internal story in Australia and just how that worked. And also, Sue [Brierley] opened up enormously to us. She was really the shining light in the whole process.
How do you navigate days on set when you’re shooting intimate, emotional moments with actors?
With Dev, like tuning a radio station, I had to tune into the right emotional wavelength for the film. I had to really work on his performance, in a way, and just gently guide him into this space, which he instinctually really grew into and really got into, which was fantastic. We did a lot of rehearsal exercises that gave him a taste of where the film would be going emotionally. He just worked so hard, and ultimately, I think really flourished, and found himself in the character. I worked very hard with all the actors to really do their work and to do those emotional rehearsals so that they could meet in a really special place that was honest and brave and open.
The film deftly imbues an intimate human drama with cinematic scale. Is that something you consciously think about with your projects?
I love landscapes, as you can see in probably all my work. I love a sense of place, and I also love the internal landscapes, so for me, two people lying in bed in the quiet is like the biggest landscape. I absolutely adore the inner and the outer, and I love weaving between the two, because sometimes the intimacy of a moment may build up an emotion that you then take into the landscapes in the next scene.
For me, a sense of place and intimacy, there’s an alchemy in the two of them if you weave them correctly that’s very powerful, especially in this story, someone that’s holding onto these secrets. He’s not expressing really what’s going on his life, and seeing him sitting on that mountaintop up high in Hobart, almost like Google Earth is beyond him, and it’s all about what’s not said and the silences. You hear the wind and the birds, and there’s an alchemy about that that’s really intriguing.
A lot of the directorial nature of the movie was about just gently tuning Saroo’s sensitivity to his past, and just how that opened up, so it wasn’t just the jalebi and the Indian students that awoke his past. It was also meeting Lucy, and Lucy had this sense of place, like you see them skipping down the street, and it’s almost like he’s with his brother again. It’s almost like India is coming through him, through her, as well, through her behavior and tactility, which is something he hasn’t had for a while.
What was it about Rooney Mara that you connected to? She’s also starring in your next project, Mary Magdalene.
I think Rooney is just an extraordinary actress. She’s like the Mona Lisa for me. A lot of people go, “Oh, she’s cold,” but I actually think it’s quite the opposite. I think she is a deeply special human and she’s got a great humanity. I just didn’t find any of those stereotypes that people label her with. I actually found her very generous. I thought that she brought great life to the film. She just held the mystery of the story in such a way that it wasn’t sentimental or cheesy. It was just genuine. Rooney’s like that—she won’t play the sentimental card, or the obvious card. She’ll always want to go at it from an angle that’s intriguing and more like real life.