Roar & Emotional

25 January 2017 Rebecca Harkins-Cross

Roar & Emotional

Photograph by Transmission Films

It wasn't until Garth Davis was standing on the platform of Howrah Station in Kolkata, India, that he finally understood the journey of Saroo Brierley. At five years old Saroo accidentally boarded a train in rural Burhanpur which, 1500 kilometres later, abandoned him in another world: a frenetic transit hub to rival Grand Central or Shinjuku Station, where a lost child screaming for help in Hindi was drowned out by the Bengali-speaking crowd.

The Australian director is tall and gangly, but he felt Brierley’s dislocation. “I was standing there imagining a five year-old child getting off that train,” he recalls. “I have kids as well…and it totally changed the way I saw the story.”

It makes for a heartbreaking scene in Lion, Davis’ adaptation of Brierley’s 2014 memoir: a tiny boy at sea in the bustle of commuters, shooed away when he tries to get a return ticket. After a treacherous few months sleeping rough, Brierley was taken to an orphanage and eventually adopted by a Tasmanian couple. 

Telling Brierley’s story who, after 25 years, found his way home through a needle-in-a-haystack search on Google Earth, was a huge ethical responsibility. Davis immersed himself in Brierley’s world, travelling to India and spending time in Hobart with Brierley and his adoptive parents, Sue and John. 

“I had to emotionally and spiritually absorb their story so I wasn’t just looking at a headline in an article,” Davis explains. “I had to really try and understand how these people lived in the absence of their son.” 

Drawing analogies between a first-time feature filmmaker and a lost child is tempting, but Davis isn’t your usual debut director. He’s a rock star in the world of advertising, where his commercials have taken out top prizes at Cannes. His Emmy Award-nominated co-direction of Jane Campion’s miniseries Top of the Lake (2013) now sees him widely recognised. 

“Movies, for me, had to be really special. It had to be my art. I wasn’t interested in doing something small… I probably should’ve done it earlier,” he laughs. 

Making up for lost time, Davis is now perhaps the busiest “debut” director around. When we chat he’s just returned home to Melbourne from Italy after completing shooting on Mary Magdalene, a controversial biopic starring Rooney Mara as the fallen woman and Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus, before jetting back to the US to publicise Lion’s international release. Since then, Lion was nominated for four Golden Globes, including Best Picture. 

Still, Lion is an ambitious first feature for an Australian director. It was executive produced by the Weinsteins, shot across several locations worldwide, and brings together David Wenham and Nicole Kidman (as John and Sue) joining Dev Patel as the adult Saroo and Rooney Mara as his girlfriend, Lucy. 

Davis demanded a similar immersion from his actors, which brings out facets of Patel audiences have never seen before. You wouldn’t recognise the bumbling hotelier of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011), who’s not only beefed up for the role but also nailed an Aussie accent.

“I just put him through boot camp,” laughs Davis, recalling a four-hour screen test in London. “Dev’s got a lot of nervous energy, which is what everyone loves; he’s got this sense of humour, this kind of extroversion, which I had to take away from him. I had to go, ‘Sorry, you’re not allowed to throw that energy away, you’ve got to retain it.’ He just started to tune into it and went to some really beautiful places.” 

When I ask Davis to describe his approach as a director, he defers to the words of an actor from Mary Magdalene. “She said to me, ‘I understand how you work now, Garth… You give the actors a lot of space – a lot of space. But you’re like a painter, so you gently allow the actor to paint that colour, and then you suggest another colour and then the scene is formed in this very free but painterly way.’” 

This intuitive assessment makes sense. When Davis talks about why he chose Lion as his first feature, he uses words like spirituality; Brierley’s story thrums with some strange sense of providence. “This is a portrait about love and the power of love,” says Davis.

“Saroo would say to me that he would go to sleep every night and he would just fly home – like an out-of-body experience. He would imagine himself going back to India, he would imagine the landscape, he would go down the laneways and he would find his little house. He’d go inside and he’d tell his mother that he’s alive, he’s okay and heloves her.

“His birth mother, Kamla, she always felt like she could hear him and feel him… Everyone thought that she was mad, but she’d go, ‘No, I know he’s alive, I know he’s alive.’ They’re psychically connected.”

Kamla was talking with a friend about Saroo on the fateful day a neighbour knocked on her door. “Kamla,” the neighbour said, “I think your son has returned."

by Rebecca Harkins-Cross 

This article first appeared in edition #528 of The Big Issue magazine