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Director Garth Davis Finds Magic in Lion


Sunny Pawar and Deepti Naval in Lion(2016) Photo: Mark Rogers
Sunny Pawar and Deepti Naval in Lion (2016)
Photo: Mark Rogers

“I could feel there was magic in this story. Magic is a tricky thing to portray,” stated director Garth Davis about Lion, the touching true account of a five-year-old Indian boy, adopted by an Australian couple after surviving the challenges of being lost on the streets of Calcutta, who twenty-five years later, uses Google Earth to find his home and lost family.

The director was excited about the odyssey that traversed two different worlds – 1997 India and modern day Australia – and thought the journey would be a great experience for audiences. The story element that really hooked him was the feeling of unconditional love that all the characters had for each other; a love that had no borders, which engineered the miracles that happened. Davis did not so much see the movie, but rather he could “feel the movie.” Every decision Davis made came from an emotional place.

The director does a lot by himself very early in the process before anything starts. Because he likes to find his worlds, he often scouts locations before a location scout joins the production. Preferring to work from the inside out without any preconceptions, Davis traveled to rural India where the character came from. He wanted to find a world where he could allow his actors all the freedom that they needed for their performances, while giving as much scope to the camera as possible.

“I spend time walking around. I see the forest. I watch the kids play in the dam,” shared Davis. “The location is very important to me. A location gives you a lot of value for the film. If you find a world that is all there that you respond to, it’s very helpful. On a shoot day I can go here, here and here, rather than me thinking, ‘this is what I want’ and someone works to find that.”

According to Davis, once that work is done “the movie starts to come alive and feels real.” The director took thousands of photos. He also spent a lot of time with the real people that the characters were based upon.

“One thing I noticed with Saroo [Brierley] and his birth mother was the tactility. She would just touch the face and kiss. There was this beautiful primal connection,” revealed Davis. “And all these street kids, they don’t have any luxuries […], they only have each other. All their enjoyment comes from that tactility. They have their arms around each other. That was something I noticed. These are the things I discover in my research, which I bring to the D. O. P.”

Although Lion is the director’s first feature, Davis has known director of photography Greig Fraser for twenty years. Doing numerous commercials together, they were used to the chaos of shooting on location, knew the possible pitfalls, as well as how to use the chaos to their advantage. For the film, they discussed how to visually capture elements that Davis discovered in his preparation and started to build a language for the film.

Rooney Mara and Dev Patel in Lion(2016)
Rooney Mara and Dev Patel in Lion(2016)

Compared to India, the Australia that Saroo comes to is a clinical, pristine world, but when he has grown up and gone to college, the world is more ramshackle and multicultural – a bit more like India. When he meets Lucy, she is very tactile and playful like his brother, so the behavior of the people that Saroo meets, renews the pull that he feels towards India. Ideas were carefully designed to use the camera and the performances to bring back India.

Once the team started working with the material, Davis noted, “You start to see some rhymes. You start to see some patterns forming. Together with production designer, Chris Kennedy, myself, and the cameraman, we start to see things connect. It’s really beautiful when you make those discoveries because they’re from the truth.”

Tasked with creating the disparate worlds of the film, Kennedy researched period India. Because the director wanted the world to feel completely authentic and real, the production approach was not to build sets, but rather to work in the real locations. The challenges were to make themselves invisible in those places.

The film is also about choices and fate. Does the character go left or right? The team realized the images, the roads and avenues, even the passageway on the train, felt like choices to be made. All of these rhymes informed the direction of the film.

Color was important in the visual concept of the film. The ochre, the yellowish color of Saroo’s hometown, becomes a major clue that the character stumbles upon with Google Earth, which ultimately helps him find home. A lot of detail went into the visualization with the team using a myriad of techniques “to feel the rhymes and the subtext of the story.”

New Zealand acting couch Miranda Harcourt was an invaluable addition to the team, and a mandatory request by the director who called her “an absolute genius.” She was brought on board to support 5-year old Sunny Pawar’s performance. They worked together preparing the young actor. Although Davis was quick to note that Harcourt “is clever enough” to get around the language differences in communicating with the boy, they also worked with translator, V. Gupta, who as an actor also knew the language of a director.

Having an inexperienced child in the lead part – with all the pressure, money and the success of the film hanging on his performance – is not for the faint of heart. The director realized that in many ways it was one of those films where everyone was out of their depth. For him, it was both exhilarating and terrifying.

David Wenham, Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman in Lion (2016) Photo: Mark Rogers
David Wenham, Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman in Lion (2016)
Photo: Mark Rogers

“Between the three of us, there was a fantastic triangle for Sunny to arrive on set and feel very safe,” explained Davis. “A lot of work went into that kid’s performance. It’s a total gamble and there is only so much you can prepare for. Each situation is different. On night the idea you have to get a performance works, and then another night, it fails dismally and you have to respond in the moment.”

Sydney-based casting director Kirsty McGregor was another of Davis’ great collaborative relationships. They overturned every stone to find the right actors for the job. “Sometimes they are people you imagine and it works. Other times they come from left of center,” admitted Davis. “At the end of the day you realize it couldn’t have been anyone else.”

When the director met Dev Patel, he had some concerns. The actor had mostly done comedy and the film required a “social realist” performance, but Patel was “hungry” to have a role that would show that side of his talent. Davis saw a huge potential for the actor to do a role he had never done before. Patel worked hard through a tough rehearsal period, learned the accent, put on a lot of weight and got hairier in order to become a “swarthy Australian.”

After choices were made on set, choices had to be made in the cutting room. During production, editor Alexandre de Franceschi assembled the film in Australia. Davis had never worked with him before, but wanted to work with the editor who had cut Jane Campion’s episodes for the television series, Top of the Lake, for which Davis had also directed episodes.

Davis viewed the assembly after production wrapped. “What I get from assemblies is just the form of the film,” noted Davis. “You get a feel of the script. You can see the problem areas almost immediately. I find it really helpful. I go back to the assembly almost daily when we are cutting. I use it a lot.”

Abhishek Bharate in Lion (2016)
Abhishek Bharate in Lion (2016)

According to Davis, the editor was “impeccably prepared” and had “beautiful craft.” The edit room was beautifully presented with a glass of water, and a note pad and pen ready for the director to take notes while viewing the edit. They worked daily until 12:30pm and broke for a half hour lunch. After the meal, they came back, worked until 5pm, then broke for the day. The editing was very efficient, with no after hours. In addition to the precise workday, Davis commented on the editor’s “incredible heart.” Because there were “no egos in the room,” there was an open process of collaborating and shared ideas without the need for the director to negotiate for his desired cut.

The director knew much of what he was doing was going to be experimental. He shot a lot that was not on the page. He wanted to experiment with Saroo’s isolation period both past and present. He needed to make sure he had enough material to capture the emotional rhymes between the two eras. Because they shot India first, the director “had to take a guess on a lot of things.”

“For instance, Guddu at the end when he walks on the tracks was not in the script,” said Davis. “When I was shooting Dev in that railway scene at the end – that was his own closure for Guddu – I was using Abhishek [Bharate] the actor that plays Guddu as an eyeline. It suddenly struck me when he walked onto the tracks that we had to film him. It was one of those amazing moments. It’s one of my favorite bits of the film.”

The director’s cut took twelve weeks. After that point editing continued for another eight weeks with producer’s notes and test screenings.

The director and editor both love sound, which was an important part of the film because of the unique soundscape of India. Sound editor Robert Mackenzie did a lot of storytelling with the design. For example, through the subtlety of sound mixing, when 25-year old Saroo goes into his isolation period, Indian sounds are incorporated within the contemporary landscapes in order to play with the audience’s subconscious.

Davis did not have a composer when he started editing.  He was sampling the music of several composers that he loved in the offline.  One of them, Volker Bertelmann, was performing a live concert down the road from the director’s hometown, so Davis decided to attend. The musician sat down at his piano and introduced the next song as “like being on a train with an open window looking at the passing landscape.” As Volker started playing, Davis thought the music was just like film. After the concert, the director introduced himself and asked Volker if he would mind collaborating with another composer, Dustin O’Halloran. As it turned out, Volker had been the best man at O’Halloran’s wedding.

That’s the magic I’m talking about.” Davis continued, “There is a magic in this film and a serendipity and a spiritualism that is quite on front foot, I would say.”

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