Since establishing their UK-Australian production banner See-Saw Films in 2008, Iain Canning and Emile Sherman have had a career trajectory that most young independent producers can only dream of. Their indie blockbuster The King’s Speech won Best Picture in 2011, and from there the company has become one of the most respected international independent production houses around, whose films frequently crop up in the awards race. Sitting in their uber-cool Shoreditch offices in London’s East End, Canning reflects on their latest film Lion, based on the true story of Saroo Brierley, a man who, 25 years after being orphaned on the streets of Calcutta, uses Google Earth to track down his childhood home and family.
How did you find Saroo’s story?
We were in Sundance in 2013 and were screening Top of the Lake there, of which Garth [Davis] had directed three episodes. We were trying to find something to do with Garth next and we became aware of what was becoming a very hot story out of Australia. Vanity Fair had just done an article on Saroo and we knew people were meeting him and his reps to talk about making a film version of his story. Emile knew he had to get back to Sydney. We chatted to Garth and he was keen to direct it if we could get it. So, we had the director, but we just needed to go and get the rights.
It’s important to note that this wasn’t just a Saroo decision, it was his entire family that we had to persuade.
Sunny Pawar, who plays the young Saroo, is so remarkable on screen and carries the story so well for such a young boy. How did you find him?
We first met him through all the auditions when he was five. He was six when he made the film and now he’s eight. We auditioned between 1,500 and 2,000 kids and we needed the combination of the characters Guddu and Saroo so we sent a few people ahead and they started putting everything on tape. Garth looked at all the tapes, whittled it down to 100 kids and then flew over. Sunny and Abhishek [Bharate] were quite quickly identified as having the right spirit.
And while Sunny is extraordinarily cute and wonderful in the film, it’s such a director’s performance from Garth. Some directors try to trick kids so they’ll take them to an emotional space which is untrue to get the type of performance that looks right on camera, but Garth didn’t want to trick him, he wanted him to trust him so he would talk to Sunny about each scene and by the end of the process, Sunny became an actor, and is now in other films.
What about the older Saroo, Dev Patel?
As it was Garth’s first feature, he wanted to go out and meet every potential actor for Saroo. Dev, in a very graceful and un-egotistical way just went through the process like every other actor. I think he ended up doing an eight-hour audition process in the final round and he totally embraced the process and showed us that he was exactly the right person for it.
The great thing about this film is that we were able to finance it without any cast approval. We were backed by The Weinstein Company, Screen Australia and Transmission [Films] in Australia and New Zealand, so we were able to cast whoever we wanted in the film. People’s perceived star value became, in some ways, irrelevant, because we wanted to find the right actors for the role.
How involved was Saroo and his family in terms of developing the story?
They trusted us completely. We showed them the script as we went along and because we were taking a very truthful road, they were very supportive. It was a bit bizarre for them because this had all happened so recently, but they have been enormously supportive and when we first screened it to the whole family, they were all sitting like individual cinemagoers watching the film, and by the end, they were all collective, sitting together. It was really, really lovely.
[Saroo’s adoptive mother] Sue is just really incredible. They waited for years to adopt and she always says she didn’t mind waiting because it allowed Saroo to be born, and then for him to need her.
Saroo had another brother in real life—Kallu. Why is he not in the film?
We actually filmed him, but we felt it started to confuse the dynamic between Saroo and Guddu. So we had to make a decision to streamline the story from a character perspective. At the time when they were growing up, the dynamic was very close between Saroo and Guddu, so we had to streamline the narrative, because they had such a strong relationship that that ended up dominating the story. But Kallu does get a name check actually at the start of the film—both he and his sister are mentioned, but you just don’t spend time with them.
You have had a lot of success with The Weinstein Company with, for example, The King’s Speech. What does the journey with Lion feel like with them, given the changes that have been happening within the company?
It feels like they’ve obviously had a bit of a transitional period where more of the established staff members have left, but I think the people there now are having their moment in the sun. They’re doing a great job and Lion has always been a film that has connected with audiences. I think if you can produce a film that Harvey can run with and his job then is to publicize and bring in as many people as possible, then it becomes a really exciting process.