“I’m just learning that if you make a good movie, you’ve got to put four months of your life aside,” jokes an exhausted Garth Davis as he darts from one continent to another to promote his debut feature Lion. He concedes that it’s a small price to pay for a film that’s picked up six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Lion, starring Oscar-nominated Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman, tells the extraordinary real life story of Saroo Brierley who got separated from his family on a train in India and ended up being adopted by an Australian family. Over two decades later, Saroo retraces his steps to his village and his birth mother with the help of Google Earth.
The film was shot extensively across villages of Madhya Pradesh, Kolkata and Tasmania. Davis shot most of the scenes on live locations like busy railway stations. But looking back, he says the toughest part was directing child actor Sunny Pawar who plays young Saroo in the film. Pawar, who was five years old at the time of shoot, is an untrained actor who hails from a Mumbai slum.
You’ve spoken about coming to India before you shot Lion to retrace Saroo’s steps as a child. What was that process of discovery like and how did it shape your film?
It totally shaped the film because being a true story you have a responsibility. But also the type of filmmaker I am, I like to work from the inside out. I need to spend as much time as possible with real life people and also the environment they live in. So I spent a lot of time by myself just wandering around Saroo’s hometown – Ganesh Talai and surrounding areas. I tried to imagine what it was like living there as a child. I sat around the dam watching the kids of this generation playing and absorb even little things like the sounds of the forrest and the village because life hasn’t changed much there ever since the story. I did the same thing in Kolkata and that’s when it really struck me. When I saw that railway platform, I could imagine my 5-year-old child at odds with the world in that place. That really had an impact on me. I did the same thing in Australia as well and in some ways that was harder because it’s what’s not said – it’s all under the surface.
Shooting in India is hard and you made it harder for yourself by filming in live locations. You shut down the Howrah Bridge and shot at local railways stations. What were some of the toughest moments on set?
There are a few. One thing that frustrates me about most movies in India is that it’s not really India. It’s an idea of India. I just wanted to take a global audience through a real experience and really capture it. That meant making some really ambitious choices like closing down the Howrah bridge. Honestly that wasn’t really the toughest day for me, but it was for the India production company. For me, it was working with a five-year-old child (Sunny Pawar) in complicated locations and you have to get a very moving, intimate performance. Preparing children in getting those emotional beats – those were really my toughest days.
How did you overcome the language barrier?
It definitely complicates things but in some ways this is a universal story so the themes are very easily explained. And it’s amazing what happens in a relationship you have with an actor. You become very intuitive and we started using sign language. We very quickly felt each other. We had this unspoken communication.
Tell us about directing Dev Patel in the movie. He recently mentioned in an interview that some of the scenes were so emotionally draining that by the end of the day he felt like he had lost a limb.
Dev was ready for the ride and he had to go there so I just did what I had to do to get him into the best space and his story is just a testament to how deep he got into it. And if he felt like that, then probably Saroo felt like that and that’s the trick for actors. They literally embody the characters.
Was it intentional to start him off with possibly the toughest scene in the film – the one where he meets his birth mother?
We all felt that we should shoot India first, because the crew needed to experience the event and learn from it before we went to Australia. With that came the realisation that Dev’s first scene was the biggest scene in the film. So a part of me was like ‘this is crazy’ but then the other part of me was like the fact that you’re so out of your depth is probably right because Saroo must have been experiencing the same thing. So maybe it helped the scene, throwing him into the deep end. Dev was terrified – utterly. You never know if you can be prepared enough for something like that. But Saroo would have been. so it’s about taking those anxieties and using them to your advantage.
Did you make a lot of calls to the Brierleys while filming? How nervous were you before showing them the film?
Absolutely. Sometimes I’d call up Sue (Brierley) and ask her some questions about an event or a moment, and same with Saroo. Anything I felt I couldn’t understand, I felt like I should call and ask him what he was feeling. He hadn’t seen any rushes while we were filming so I was very, very nervous to show the family the film.
I was in many ways the protector of their story. They saw a director’s cut in Sydney and it was just the family. At the end of the screening they were just hugging each other for 20-30 minutes. Sue was so emotional after it that she could hardly walk. It’s a big story – they’ve lived through a lot. Also reliving Saroo’s experiences as a child had a big effect on them as well.
Watch Trailer of Lion here: