Saroo Brierley’s story is every parent’s nightmare. In 1987, aged five, he was separated from his brother at a train station in India and ended up destitute on the streets of Kolkata. Adopted by a Tasmanian couple, 25 years later he used Google Earth to try to track down his birth family, a search he recounted in his autobiographical book A Long Way Home.
Now Melbourne-based director Garth Davis tells Saroo’s story with his feature film debut Lion. The movie stars Dev Patel as the adult Saroo, and Nicole Kidman and David Wenham as his adoptive parents.
Audiences are loving the film’s emotional impact and, with the full lobbying power of the Weinstein Company behind it, the film is expected to receive several Oscar nominations on January 24.
Garth, when did you first learn Saroo’s amazing story?
I was at Sundance with the See-Saw producers [Emile Sherman and Iain Canning] and they had come across an article about Saroo and they thought it was a great fit for me. I read the article and fell in love with the story and See-Saw went ahead and got the rights, and we started to develop the project together.
What is Saroo like?
He’s quiet, but incredibly charismatic as well. When I’m in Hobart with him he’s a leader and everybody loves him, and he has a wicked sense of humour.
Is it true Dev stalked the producers to get this role?
Not only the producers! I was in LA with [screenwriter] Luke Davies, at his house, very early on – we were just mapping out the arc of the script on this big whiteboard – and Dev Patel pops around to the house. He’s like, “I really want to be a part of this movie” and I go: “We haven’t even got a script yet mate!” He was onto it very early on. He was crazy for it. He was on a mission.
Dev Patel pops around to the house. He’s like, “I really want to be a part of this movie” and I go: “We haven’t even got a script yet mate!”
Were you skeptical?
I adore Dev Patel but movies he’d acted in before did not align with what we were about to make, so I needed to digest that. And even when we did get into the casting process I was looking at a lot of Indian actors as well. But when we got together in London I spent a very intense four hours workshopping with him and that was when I realised he was actually the best actor and really willing to go to places that he hadn’t gone to before.
Sunny, who plays five-year-old Saroo, is a delight.
This might sound bizarre but as soon as I saw him he was exactly the boy I had been holding in my mind and heart. I thought, I think it’s him. I got very excited and we just had to put him through his paces to see if he was capable of enduring [shooting]. But he was very special; he was the one.
We heard that Sunny was denied a US visa and that Harvey Weinstein eventually chartered a plane to get him and his father into the country in time for one of the premieres.
I have no idea what happened there, but it’s a bit of a process to get anyone from India into America – or Australia for that matter. It took us around four months to get Sunny’s paperwork and visas in order to get him to Australia as well. So it’s definitely a lengthy process.
When did Nicole Kidman come on board?
We were on our casting round trip, through India, London and America basically screen testing all our shortlisted actors, and it was on that journey that we got an email from Nicole saying she had read the script and she wanted to be in the film. Which was weird, because the longer I spent with Sue [Brierley] I just kept announcing to my producers, I think it’s Nicole Kidman. And just after that Nicole reached out, so it was serendipity.
I love the story that you had a barbecue at the start of filmmaking so everyone could meet and hang out.
Yeah, as part of one of the rehearsals I decided to throw a barbecue in Hobart where the real family could come and meet the actors. Nicole Kidman was playing cricket and soccer with the kids, and Dev Patel was hanging out with Saroo, and it was a really special moment and kind of celebrated the journey we were all about to go on together.
You shared directing duties on the first season of Top of the Lake with the great Jane Campion – did you learn anything from her that fed into Lion?
I definitely learned from Jane Campion how to prepare myself for something of that magnitude; managing the marathon ahead of you. And that your instinct is never wrong. And it was an opportunity to work with stars, which I never had before. All of that was great preparation for Lion.
What were some of the challenges of shooting in India?
The biggest challenge I have generally in making movies is getting the approvals for locations that ordinarily would be impossible. In [Kolkata], we closed down the Howrah Bridge for two hours. It’s unheard of to do that. But we wanted to do it, and it’s just choosing the right people to help you get to that place. The pollution was tricky – everybody was not healthy, working at 70 per cent energy levels. The flip side is that India is so visually rich, you’re getting a lot very quickly.
Lion has got such heart, but its message is utterly at odds with what politicians are trying to tell us at the moment. How does that feel?
I think it’s really important that we keep the message simple, because that’s where the power is. Reminding people that what’s important is just accepting people no matter where they come from, and that home is not a house or a car, it’s actually love, and through the power of love anything is possible. And we need to be behaving in that way a lot more than we are. There’s a lot of ignorance in [Australia] and no one is really having a one-on-one experience with these people that they may be judging, and I love this movie because it just cuts through all of that. So hopefully it’s one of those films that can bring people together. That’s my hope.