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Interview - Australian Director Garth Davis Talks 'Lion'

Lion

It’s been nominated for 4 Golden Globes and I recently spoke with director Garth Davis about his feature film debut, Lion.

Matt:  It’s nice to see another Australian director making a name for himself on the world’s stage.  Can you tell me a little about where you grew up and developed a love for filmmaking?

Garth:  I grew up in a very artistic family.  My mum was a painter and my dad was in advertising.  I went to college and studied fine art and design.  My father bought me a film camera when I was 21 years old.  I filmed a few things with it, cut it together and I felt emotion looking at what I made.  I just fell in love with film.

Matt:  So what part of Australia are you from?

Garth:  I was born in Brisbane and spent my teenage years on the Gold Coast.  I moved to Melbourne to attend university and I’ve been there ever since.

Matt:  You’ve done a bit of TV and a lot of commercials but this marks your feature film debut.  Were you hoping to transition into feature filmmaking sooner than this?

Garth:  I got caught up directing commercials and I was very grateful for that. I did want to get into movies earlier but the time and the project has to be just right. 

Matt:  Well let’s talk about the film.  The screenplay is by another Aussie, Luke Davies.  How did it come across your radar?

Garth:  The producers, Iain Canning and Emile Sherman, had worked with Luke before and serendipitously, I was lurking around another project and had come across Luke’s work as well.  We engaged him on the project and never looked back really.

Matt:  Were you familiar with the story of Saroo Brierley beforehand?

Garth:  I was at Sundance with Top of the Lake which had the same producers.  They had just read an article about Saroo in the press because he’d just found his mother at the time.  They said “Garth, you’ve got to read this article as it could be a great movie.”  I thought it was amazing and really wanted to get the rights so as to make the movie.

Matt:  In Hollywood there are true stories and then there are “true stories”.  How faithful is this to Saroo’s life or were a few changes made it make it more cinematic (for use of a better word)?

Garth:  It’s a good question.  I said to the Brierleys that this wasn’t intended to be a documentary but rather, I hoped it would be an emotional and spiritual portrait of their life.  That said, the story is true to fact as best we could.  We did have to amalgamate a few characters for to help the efficiency of the film.

Matt:  Did you get to speak to the real Saroo prior to and throughout the filmmaking process?

Garth:  The family were very engaged with the film.  We all had access to the family and we all had our own conversations and exchanges with them.  I actually spent a lot of time in India and Hobart to get insight into their worlds.

Matt:  I was interested in how vivid the memories of his childhood were given he lost his mother when just 5 years of age?

Garth:  It’s a good question which a lot of people have asked me about.  There are a couple of differences.  Firstly, Saroo remembers everything.  He has a photographic memory.  I was with him in India and we were walking around a random part of the village and he could remember where he played as a kid and where he’d get dropped off to be babysat. 

My memories as a child are most vivid when I lived in the country.  I think India is an amazing place for a child to grow up – the nature, the animals, it’s all so visual.  If that was your world and you never travelled outside of it for 5 years, I think you would remember it.

Matt:  I’m curious about the way the story is told.  I can think of other filmmakers that may overlap the two timelines throughout the film but you keep them distinct into two separate halves.  Did a lot of thought go into that?

Garth:  Yes, we wrestled that idea for a while but it became clear that the linear structure was the way to go.  It seemed to be the most powerful way for audiences to experience the story.  Also, it wasn’t a story about a guy trying to remember something.  He remembers everything.  What’s interesting is how this guy is sitting on this big secret in his contemporary life. 

Matt:  In the second half of the movie, Saroo spends quite of bit of time sitting at a computer using Google Earth to help find where he came from.  It might sound kind of boring but you actually make these scenes quite suspenseful.  Were they tricky to put together?

Garth:  It’s kind of amazing to think how he’s using the software.  He’s not using it the way the rest of us use it.  He’s got so much emotional luggage that he’s carrying when viewing those images.  Those blurry Google Earth images then become powerful and haunting.  It’s his only hope to find his home.   

Matt:  It’s a question I’m sure you’ve answered a 1,000 times already but how did you come across Sunny Pawar who plays the younger version of Saroo.  He is incredible?

Garth:  It was just one of those things.  There’s no rhyme or reason to it.  We had a team working extensively for 5 months looking at thousands of children and we eventually came across him in Mumbai.

Matt:  And you get to work with some terrific actors here like Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman and David Wenham.  It’s not a bad group for your first feature outing?

Garth:  It’s fantastic to get the support from these wonderful actors.  I’d worked with David Wenham before on Top of the Lake and we’ve become very good mates.  The most special thing to me is that all of these actors, despite their fame, were so passionate about making the film and I think that made the difference.

Matt:  What was it like showing the film to some of the real people like Saroo and his real family?

Garth:  Terrifying.  We did show the family in Sydney a while back and they had the whole cinema to themselves.  I went into the projection booth as the end credits started to roll and I saw the three of them embracing each other so it was clear the film had an impact.

Matt:  You took the film to the Toronto Film Festival where it was runner-up behind La La Land for the prestigious Audience Award.  Did you have such expectations and think it would be received so positively, especially by North American audiences?

Garth:  I was involved with a lot of research screenings where you get real, honest responses from audiences.  I knew we had an “audience film”.  It didn’t matter if you were a teenager or an elderly person – people were loving this movie.  I didn’t know what critics would think but I was confident that broader audiences would like it.  They went crazy for it in Toronto and we won a few other audience awards in America which was great.

Matt:  And since then it’s now been caught up in the crazy awards season in America where it’s been nominated for 4 Golden Globe Awards including best picture drama.  What are your thoughts on all of that?

Garth:  I don’t know, I’m just going along for the ride.  I was just trying to make the best film that would touch audiences and get them talking after the movie.  Everything else is icing on the cake.  It’s a wonderful tribute to everyone’s hard work and I’m really excited to see what happens.

Matt:  I’ll finish up by asking what are we going to see from you next?

Garth:   Two weeks ago, I finished shooting another film called Mary Magdalene.  I’m taking a short break from that to do publicity for Lion and then I’ll go back to the editing process early in the new year.

Interview - Director Garth Jennings Lets Us 'Sing'

Sing

Sing is one of this year’s big Boxing Day releases in Australia and I recently spoke to writer-director Garth Jennings about his project…

Matt:  It wasn’t until I did my homework this morning that I realised you directed the film clip for “Imitation of Life” which is my favourite REM song.  That was incredibly creative for its time back in 2001.

Garth:  It was an insane thing to do because it was so complicated.  I love and worship R.E.M.  They always made fabulous videos and so when they asked us to come with an idea for that song, you can’t say no.  When it was finished, it was one of the most rewarding final results that I’ve had for a music video. 

Matt:  You’ve directed live action shorts and features before.  Is this your first foray into the animated world?  Was it a long time to go from script to screen?

Garth:  Yeah, I’m completely new to this way of working.  It took a lot longer than I expected as it’s been 5 years since it all began. 

Matt:  What was it like writing the script?  There’s so much more you can do with an animated film as you don’t have to worry about settings and such.

Garth:  You can, that’s true.  I tried to write it like a live action film that just happened to have animals starring in it.  I wasn’t going out of my way to make it nuts.  However, there are points in the movie where we you couldn’t have done in a live action movie unless you had a Jerry Bruckheimer budget.

The writing process with an animated feature is ongoing.  You’re continually re-writing as you’re building the scenes in story reel and getting the first voices in from the actors.  The process never ends… until now which is why I’m so happy to be speaking with you.

Matt:  It feels like there are parts of this film where there’s a different song every 20 seconds.  Do you know how many songs are actually in the movie?

Garth:  That’s a good question.  I don’t know exactly how many but it’s a lot.  They’re not used in their entirety because it’d be a 9 hour films so some you only hear for a few seconds.  Some songs are arranged exactly as the original and some are completely different.  We open with The Beatles song “Golden Slumbers” that has been done as an orchestral song with Jennifer Hudson.   

Matt:  What’s the process for getting all the rights to the music?  I’m guessing it’s something you have to do early on given the characters have to be signing them (as opposed to using them as a backing soundtrack)?

Garth:  Yeah.  Many of the songs were decided upon and recorded almost two years ago.  We needed to do that because so much work had to then go into creating the animation.  It helps in a way because you’re not trying to choose songs that are popular in the moment because you’re never going to be in the moment.  You choose songs that are right for the story and that can show these characters and their evolution. 

Matt:  Were there songs you really wanted but couldn’t get the rights to?

Garth:  We got them all which was incredible.  I’m the worst person to ask because I’m the guy who says “can we please have ‘Golden Slumbers’?” and I’m not the guy who has to go and make that happen.  That’s a world of pain and I was lucky to have a team who was gracious and patient and was able to pull it all together.   

Matt:  One thing that’s interesting is that there are a mix of songs from the current day but also from well in the past.  I’m guessing that was a conscious decision to appeal to audiences of all ages.

Garth:  It wasn’t so much trying to appeal to audiences of all ages.  It was trying to get as broad a range of music as we could.  When we first say down and chatted about the film, one of the biggest draws was that we could have a piece of Frank Sinatra, Pavarotti and punk rock all in one film.  It wasn’t in a gratuitous way but hopefully in a way that felt exciting.

Matt:  How does one go about casting an animated feature?  Do you have auditions in the traditional way?

Garth:  In this case, no.  For most of these characters, we knew exactly who would work and so we approached the likes of Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon directly.  There were also people like Taron Edgerton who we knew was a fantastic actor but we’d never head him sing.  He did an audition but only for the singing part.  The opposite went for Tori Kelly who we knew could sing but we wanted to see how natural she was as an actor. 

Matt:  You’re also the writer of the film and I’m curious to know how you settled on these particular animals.  As an Australian, it’s a nice touch to see a koala in the leading role.

Garth:  None of the animals are really based on their country of origin.  They all started as human caricatures.   For example, Taron is the son of a gangster that you might see in a Guy Ritchie film so it made sense to portray them as big, goofy gorillas.  With someone like Ash – she’s a goth rocker who has got a lot of attitude and a rubbish relationship with her passive aggressive boyfriend.  Making her a porcupine made sense.  She’s spikey and when she got angry, quills would come flying out from her body.

Matt:  I think my favourite character in the film was Miss Crawly – the green iguana who serves as Buster’s assistant.  I was going through the credits afterwards and realised that she was voiced by you too!  How did that come about?

Garth:  Before you do an animated film, you get the actors in and you do a rough version with just people in the office providing voices.  I did several of the voices myself just to get it done.  One of them was Miss Crawley and I just loved being this elderly lizard.

Matt:  Take me through the animation process.  How many people have you got working and pulling it all together?  I can imagine it’s a massive undertaking.

Garth:  Yeah, it’s a big number.  At the film’s peak we had about 300 people working for us – and that was just in the animation studio.  We had a head office in Los Angeles and we had another studio in Paris. 

Matt:  What are you working on at the moment?  What are you going to do next?

Garth:  I genuinely do not know yet.  We only finished this film a little while ago and I’m so relieved. 

Dunes 2016: Dinner with Rickie Fowler & Jimmy Walker!

It was one of the best golf trips I've been on so I had to post a few photos on my blog to preserve the memories. There have been no movies viewed over the past week as I've spent time on the Mornington Peninsula competing in the 2016 Dunes Medal.

2016 Dunes Medal
Considering his Snapchats are viewed by roughly 250,000 people, it was nice to make Rickie Fowler's public feed.

 

 
2016 Dunes Medal
The trip began with a game at The National Old Course which is currently ranked 10th in the country as per Australian Golf Digest.

 

 
2016 Dunes Medal
The super 3-man fourball team who managed to go around The National Old Course with a score of 10 under par. The highlight was Jed Morgan's hole-out from 80m on the 12th.

 

 
2016 Dunes Medal
There aren't many golf holes in the country more stunning than this. The tee shot on the 7th at The National Old Course. I flubbed an 8-iron to 20 feet.

 

 
2016 Dunes Medal
With Louis Dobbelaar at the The National Old Course. He recently won the 2016 New Zealand Men's Amateur which included a win over Luke Toomey in the semi-finals. No one has more experience at beating Toomeys than Louis!

 

 
2016 Dunes Medal
A great group teeing it up at The National.

 

 
2016 Dunes Medal
Our accommodation for the week at St Andrew's Beach.

 

 
2016 Dunes Medal
Teed it up in the Dunes Medal but putted worse than a one-armed monkey to finish with 81-83-164. Was great to see Louis, Jed and Lochie make the cut.

 

 
2016 Dunes Medal
Recovery session at St Andrews Beach. Not pictured: Me because it was too bloody cold!

 

 
2016 Dunes Medal
Catching up with Charlie Dann & Shae Wools-Cobb for dinner at the beautiful Portsea Hotel.

 

 
2016 Dunes Medal
If it's not the longest course in Australia, I'd like to know what is. Had a crack at Moonah Links Open Course off the back tees which measures over 6,800m.

 

 
2016 Dunes Medal
No trip to the Mornington Peninsula is complete without a visit to the Peninsula Hot Springs.

 

 
2016 Dunes Medal
Walking with Rickie Fowler & Jimmy Walker at the Crown Casino. Kudos to my super 15-year-old contact for teeing up the experience of a lifetime.

 

 
2016 Dunes Medal
Just chilling in Rickie Fowler's penthouse apartment which waiting for him to get changed for dinner.

 

 
2016 Dunes Medal
It's not often you get to have dinner with two golfers ranked in the top 20 in the world. Rickie Fowler & Jimmy Walker had plenty of words to offer when it came to golf, cars and women.

 

 
2016 Dunes Medal
Rickie Fowler has more than $26 million in career earnings on the PGA Tour. Jed Morgan wasn't after swing tips though. He needed Rickie to teach him about chopsticks.

 

 
2016 Dunes Medal
Closing the evening with a group photo outside the Spice Temple. Thanks to Jimmy for picking up the tab for dinner (my wallet wasn't quite deep enough).

 

 
2016 Dunes Medal
I was already a fan of Rickie Fowler but you can add 2016 US PGA Champion Jimmy Walker to the list. Both amazing guys with a great sense of humour.

 

 
2016 Dunes Medal
Probably my favourite photo for the week. Introducing the new One Direction...

 

 
2016 Dunes Medal
Competing in the 1st annual Victorian Sand Greens Links Championship. Was a tough track with plenty of water in play!

 

 
2016 Dunes Medal
They say that the 18th tee at Pebble Beach is picturesque. I'd argue this one is even better.

 

 
2016 Dunes Medal
The final day of the trip was spent at the World Cup of Golf at Kingston Heath and after dinner two nights earlier, we spent a bit of time following Jimmy Walker and Rickie Fowler.

 

 
2016 Dunes Medal
Jimmy Walker somehow found the green out of this lie on the tricky 16th hole at Kingston Heath.

 

 
2016 Dunes Medal
I guess it's true. A picture does say a 1,000 words.

 

 
2016 Dunes Medal
In the car and heading to the airport at the end of the trip. Still not sure how we packed the luggage so perfectly.

 

 

 

Interview - Dave Johns is 'I, Daniel Blake'

I, Daniel Blake

I, Daniel Blake won the Palm D’or at the Cannes Festival and it’s one of the year’s most powerful films.  I had the chance to speak to star Dave Johns about his unusual background, the film’s content, and the approach of director Ken Loach…

Matt:  You’re a name that many won’t be familiar with here in Australia.  Tell us a little about yourself.

Dave:  I’ve been a stand-up comedian for 27 years.  I’ve been to Australia and done the Melbourne Comedy Festival a few times as well as the Adelaide Fringe and a couple of gigs in Perth.  I’ve been working all my life doing stand-up in the UK and around the world and that’s pretty much my background.

Matt:  So is this your first leading role in a movie?  How did Ken Loach find you?

Dave:   Yeah.  I did a play up in Edinburgh a few years ago with a load of comedians who wanted to do a serious play.  We got together and did Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men.  We performed it at the Edinburgh Festival and it was a massive hit.  We came back the next year and did One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and then a few other ensemble plays.

The producer got in touch with me last summer to let me know Ken Loach was making a new film and he was looking for a guy my age from the North East of England.  He felt I was perfect so I got in touch with the casting people and was invited in to meet Ken Loach.  He got me talking about football for 10 minutes to kind of feel me out.  I was invited back for 3 castings with different actresses and he then offered me the part.  It knocked me for six.

Matt:  Tell us about Ken Loach.  He’s 80 years of age and has been making films for 50 years.  What’s it like to work with an icon of British cinema who has so much experience?

Dave:  I adore the man.  He’s got a great sense of humour.  He’s very gentle but he has a steely determination to get across his message which is fantastic.  The way he works is so different.  Ken shoots chronologically and you don’t get the script at the start.  You get a couple of pages of script each day and so it’s like you’re living the life of the character as you go along.  He has a crew around him who have been working together for years who are sworn to secrecy so they never tell you what’s going on.  

Matt:  Was there no script at all at the start when you signed on for this?

Dave:   No.  All I knew on day 1 was that my name was Daniel Blake, I had a wife who had passed away, I’d recently had a heart attack, and I’d been knocked back for sickness benefits from the welfare office.  I was going to meet this young mum with two kids and we’d have a plutonic friendship together.  That’s all I knew.  I’d get new pages of script each day and I’d have to learn them overnight.  Ken wanted it to be spontaneous and fresh and for the emotions to be real.  

He doesn’t have closed sets either.  There’s a scene where Hayley is in a grocery shop and it was just an ordinary shop with real people coming in and out.  Ken would say “when the guy at the counter has finished paying his gas bill, we’ll start another take.”  This is how the film has a real, gritty feel about it.  

Matt:  I know there are some people who are going to look at this film and go “this is over-exaggerated and there’s nothing wrong with the welfare system.”  The screenplay from Paul Laverty – is it based on actual events?

Dave:  Oh yeah.  Ken and Paul could have made it a lot worse than what it’s portrayed in the film.  They did extensive research, they spoke to people to worked in the job centres, and they spoke to people who had left work and become sick themselves.  All the things that happen to Daniel and Katie in the film are taken from real life situations that people spoke about.

Ken actually used ex-job centre staff in the film for some of the scenes.  There’s also information that came from the foodbanks that shaped one scene in particular involving Katie.  They’d found a young mother in that same situation.  

Matt:  An important part of the film is that it’s not demonising the staff at the welfare office.  Yes, the system is flawed but as we see, there are some well-intentioned people there that are sympathetic to Daniel’s cause.  Have you had welfare officers speak to you as well?

Dave:  I think a lot of the people who are working in job centres and implementing this system are victims as well.  The government has lost sight of why social security in this country was set up.  They’ve even changed the name to “benefits” to give the connotation of a hand out.   It always used to be “social security” which provided security for every person in the country if you came across hard times so that you wouldn’t become destitute.  

I’ve been to film festivals all through Europe and people have come up to me to say it’s happening in their country as well.  This push for austerity and trying to save money has led to a level of bureaucracy that has lost sight of the person.  I never knew about this before the movie.  I’ve been self-employed and I haven’t been on the dole since the 1980s.  Hearing about sanctions and people having to fill out 52 page forms came as a shock.  

After the film came out, my ex-wife phoned and told me about her 42-year-old sister who has Down syndrome.  She was called in and interviewed.  She shouldn’t have been on her own but because she wants to show everyone how capable she is, she exaggerated some of her abilities.  The welfare office deemed that she was able to work and she lost her benefits.  The case is now being appealed but the original interview should have been terminated straight away when they released she was on her own.  

Matt:  I’d like to hope that cinema does have the power to instigate change.  Do you know if anyone within the British government has had a chance to see the film and offer their thoughts?

Dave:  Damian Green is the Work and Pensions Secretary and he said he hasn’t seen the film but that he’d seen a trailer and it was a gross exaggeration of the situation.  Jeremy Corbyn raised it in question time in Parliament and asked Prime Minister Theresa May to go and see it.  He even offered to buy a ticket for her.  

There has been a lot in the press about the film.  People who have seen it are angry with where the system has got to.  It’s portraying two ordinary people that people relate to.  Katie could be your sister or your daughter.  Daniel could be your grandfather, uncle or dad.  People who are unemployed have been branded as “scroungers” and it’s their fault that they’re poor as opposed to the system.  If we’re a decent society, she should be able to help people who are less fortunate.

Matt:  Tell us a little about Hayley Squires – she gives a terrific, heartfelt performance.  

Dave:  Hayley is an amazing actress.  Ken said to me on the first day that he needed Hayley and I to listen to each other in each of the scenes.  If you do that, you’ll find the truth and you’ll find the honesty that will show on screen.  If you’re working alongside an actor who is always giving 100%, it makes your life a lot easier.  Ken saw that in the early auditions that Hayley and I had a connection together.  He’s brilliant when it comes to casting.

Matt:  You had the chance to attend the Cannes Film Festival this year where the film won the top prize, the Palm D’or.  What was that whole experience like?

Dave:  It was insane.  I was in a lift with Woody Allen, just the two of us, and the funny thing is we never spoke to each other.  It was so surreal.  Cannes was insane with the red carpet and thousands of photographers.  Since winning the Palm D’or, this film has taken on a life of its own.  I’ve heard I’ve been nominated for best actor at the European Film Awards and I’ve been nominated at the British Independent Film Awards.  In Variety magazine, they had me ranked as #20 in the list of actors who might be nominated for an Oscar this year.  I’m in between Jake Gyllenhaal and Colin Farrell which is insane.  There are times when I think “have I just banged my head and am in a coma somewhere?”  I’m so proud that the film is having an impact around the world.

Matt:  What’s the plan going forward?  Would you like to continue making feature films or do you have other things in mind?

Dave:  I would love to keep making movies and I’ve got some offers coming in at the moment.  I want to find the right project.  If I never made another film ever, I can always say that I was the lead in a Ken Loach film that won the Palm D’or at the Cannes Film Festival.  I could definitely accept that.  I’ve still got the day job and I’m still doing stand-up.  I’m off to Paris tomorrow to do two shows and then I’m off to Slovenia.  So yeah, I’d love to do more films but if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.