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.