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INTERVIEW: Oscar Nominee Luke Davies Discusses Adapting 'Lion'

Oscar-nominated screenwriter Luke Davies discusses the challenges of adapting LION, how they chose what real-life events to keep, what to lose, and much more!

Career journalist Andrew Bloomenthal has covered everything from high finance to the film trade. He is the award-winning filmmaker of the noir thriller Sordid Things. He lives in Los Angeles. More information can be found on Andrew's site: Email: Twitter: @ABloomenthal

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Luke Davies headshot

At the tender age of five, Saroo Brierley got lost on a railroad train that took him thousands of miles from his remote Indian village, and deposited him on the perilous streets of Calcutta. After narrowly escaping the clutches of a child sex-ring operator, Saroo landed in an orphanage, before a compassionate Australian couple adopted him. Twenty-five years later, armed only with a few hazy memories and a revolutionary new technology known as Google Earth, Saroo set out to find his lost family and return home at last. Such is the true story of Lion, adapted for the screen by famed Australian novelist/screenwriter Luke Davies, from Saroo Brierley’s memoir A Long Way Home.

Directed by Garth Davis, starring Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, and cute-as-a-bug newcomer Sunny Pawar as young Saroo, Lion is both an epic adventure, and a personal story about loss, longing and hope.

In researching this project, Davies got up close and personal with the real Saroo, as well as his adoptive parents, Sue and John Brierley, and his birth mother, Kamla.

“We spent three hours talking with Kamla through an interpreter, and every question I asked her about Saroo as a child made her cry, because it brought back memories of the loss and the pain of that situation,” recalls Davies. “I kept apologizing, but she kept saying, ‘No, no, no, I want to do this.’ It was a complex situation, but she was wonderfully supportive.”

Davies’ homework clearly paid off. Fresh off his BAFTA win for Best Adapted Screenplay, Oscar-nominated Davies spoke to Script Magazine, about bringing this unique story to life.

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Philosophically speaking, do you think technology assists destiny or interrupts it?

In general, I don’t know. But what I love about the specifics of this story, is that it felt like an ancient myth and yet it feels completely modern, because it just could not have happened before ten years ago. We wouldn’t be having this interview right now if we weren’t at that technological level, because Saroo could never have matched the memories inside his head with the real images, until Google Earth came along. So technology completely assisted with this story and is an integral part of the emotional glory of Saroo’s reunification with his lost mother.

Dev Patel stars in LION

Dev Patel stars in LION - Photo: Courtesy of The Weinstein Company

Are you intrinsically tech savvy, or was there a heavy educational component in understanding Google Earth satellite technology?

I wouldn’t describe myself as “intrinsically tech savvy,” nor would I put myself at the lower end of the scale of cluelessness. On a scale of zero to ten, where zero is “I’ve never seen a screen before,” and ten is “I’m a programmer,” I’m probably your average “six” kind of person. But Google Earth is an elegant app that’s simple to use. When it came out, I did what many people do, which is go to a certain childhood street and see what it looks like from above. I remember the low resolution and the roughness of the pixels in the early version. But it’s not like I did research other than reminding myself of how it felt to operate it. I would zoom down to remind myself how the icon of a train station suddenly appears and bounces into view.

Sunny Pawar stars in LION Photo: Courtesy of The Weinstein Company

Sunny Pawar stars in LIONPhoto: Courtesy of The Weinstein Company

All the Google imagery in the film is period accurate, right?

That’s true. Dev Patel, Saroo and I spent a day at the Google campus near San Francisco, and met the head coding guy who helped us with the film. He used the term, “the archaeology of the coding,” to describe digging into long-dormant, massive programs, to recreate exactly what the screen looked like in 2007, 2008 and 2009. These Google guys are brilliant tech nerds, and they looked after that stuff, so all I had to do was write the story and keep it flowing.

If too many liberties were taken with accuracy, the film might not have become such a phenomenon.

I agree. And we didn’t have to take too many liberties with the essential elements, because what really happened was so extraordinary, it was like a gift. We had to make basic changes for the obvious reasons of compression and time, like the real Saroo had two or three girlfriends that he drove crazy during that period of time, where we only needed one girlfriend, who ultimately became the Rooney Mara character. But those kinds of things don’t feel like a big deal.

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Garth Davis said of Sunny Pawar, who played little Saroo: “There was a certain point, maybe a week into the shoot, where Sunny became an actor, where it was clear he was putting together different emotional ideas.” Were you surprised at Sunny’s ability to transcend expectations?

Sunny Pawar stars in LION Photo: Mark Rogers

Sunny Pawar stars in LION Photo: Mark Rogers

Well, I know that most directors working with children are trying to manipulate the child into doing certain things in certain moments, and basically capturing those moments and then stringing them together and crossing your fingers that it comes together in editing. But if you can somehow create a circumstance in which the child becomes a true actor, and you’re not just stealing moments that approximate what you want, you get a beautiful film like this. And in the case of Sunny, there was literally this learning curve where he was suddenly able to do incredibly complex things. It’s not just a kid performing tricks; it’s an actor conceptualizing an entire scene. He would have three or four physical marks to reach during a scene, and with that, he would have three or four completely different emotional moments. This five-year-old kid was able to effortlessly interweave difficult physical and emotional tasks. He’s a natural. But just in case, Garth made absolutely sure he shot the train sequence last, because he didn’t know how it was going to pan out with Sunny, but he knew the most demanding emotional moments would be when little Saroo wakes up on the train and realizes he’s trapped. And what you see in the final edit isn’t stolen moments or tricks, but the full flow of an actor completely immersed in the narrative imaginative space of his character.

I have a theory that when you strive for answers, the solution only comes after you’ve exhausted all avenues and surrender in frustration. And in Lion, adult Saroo ultimately gave up the search for his childhood home, before answers finally came. Is there any validity to this theory?

We wrestled with this a lot, because in Film Writing 101, theoretically, the rule is that the hero is almost defeated, then he does the “one thing” that turns everything around. He makes an active choice that leads to his destiny. And in real life, what happened with Saroo was that he literally gave up, because he thought he was losing his mind, and because he realized he needed to be in the present for his family, which was falling apart. He needed to be with his adoptive mother and not keep pursuing this fantasy of finding his biological mother. It was purely by accident that he clicked way outside of his search radius on Google Earth, and just happened to zoom down on a random railway line, and then he sees the water tank he remembered. And I said to Garth, “We probably need to change that. We need to make it feel like your traditional heroic moment of decision where he turns around and solves the problem, and we get the heroic ending of the film.” And Garth said, “No, no, no. I love the fact that this really happened completely randomly, and I want to keep it that way.” So we took the risk and hope it works beautifully.

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Nicole Kidman and star in LION

Nicole Kidman and Sunny Pawar in LION

Discuss writing the moment when Saroo’s adoptive mother, Sue Brierley, played by Nicole Kidman, reveals that she was actually capable of having biological kids, but instead chose to honor her girlhood vision of one day adopting a brown boy.

It was a really big and important scene. I have to admit that there was a period where I said to Garth that maybe it’s more powerful if she doesn’t say “brown child,” but instead just says, “We could have had kids, but we chose you,” and then she jumps to the end where she says, “And now I don’t know what’s happening. This family is falling apart.” But Garth said that Sue’s vision of adopting a brown child really happened, so it was non-negotiable that I kept that in. My challenge then became how to write it beautifully. I put my heart and soul into that scene, because I knew how good Nicole would be, and I knew how intense and close up it would be—not just on Nicole, but on Dev Patel, processing all of this amazing information.

Lion excerpt border

Why were you reluctant to retain the phrase “brown child”?

That was just me saying, “What if the audience doesn’t buy this prophetic vision of her destiny? What if people find this to be too hippie-trippy?” But Garth is more of a cosmic hippie than me, and he was like, “I don’t care! It really happened to Sue.” So I guess I was just being a minimalist, thinking that if she said less, her pent-up emotion would be more powerful. But Garth insisted that we let the long monologue unfold, where she said, “I imagined adopting a brown child, and I saw my future, and I knew everything was going to be okay.” In the end, I was a convert to Garth’s opinion, and I was like, “Oh man, I’m really glad that I wrote that.”

More interviews by Andrew Bloomenthal

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