Lion: A Powerful, Primal Childhood Fable
Luke Davies on bringing scenes to life, symmetry and turning points, and why a script has to be both a technical document and also a work of art.
Lion is a film based on a true story that contains no traditional antagonist, with much of the “action” happening on Google Earth, a website used by millions of people daily.
In other words, screenwriter Luke Davies faced a difficult task when he was hired to write the screenplay adaptation of A Long Way Home, the book written about the extraordinary true story of Saroo Brierley, an Indian man who was separated from his family as a child, adopted by a Tasmanian couple. Twenty-five years later, Brierley began using Google Earth as a means to find the home he had been separated from.
Davies, who is an acclaimed author of fiction, poetry, and journalism, connected with Brierley’s story after he was presented with the book by the producers behind Lion.
Davies’ first film, Candy, which was adapted from his novel and co-written with director Niel Armfield, created professional associations that eventually led to him being hired to write the screenplay for Lion for director Garth Davis.
Candy was based on Davies’ personal struggles with addiction, which perhaps prepared him to tell Brierley’s personal story in screenplay form. Following Candy, Davies’ co-wrote the screenplay for 2014’s Reclaim and wrote the screenplay for 2015’s Life.
Creative Screenwriting spoke with Davies about meeting the real-life individuals who are portrayed in Lion, how he adapted a book that didn’t seem cinematic, what Lion has in common with mythology, and why a screenwriter should strive to create a “document” that inspires others to take on the project.
Note that this interview contains spoilers for the film.
How did you get involved in adapting A Long Way Home?
I had an existing friendship and working relationship with See-Saw Films that went back ten years. One of the producers of Lion was one of the producers of Candy, which was an adaptation of my novel. It was a little, dark, Aussie drama that I think was the third-last film that Heath Ledger made before he died.
Iain Canning and Emile Sherman, who are See-Saw Films, met on the Candy shoot. They went on to form See-Saw and make The King’s Speech. Over the years we’ve tried a few things that didn’t get off the ground.
They came to me with the book A Long Way Home and said, “Have you heard about this amazing story? Do you want to look at this book and tell us what would be your approach if you were to adapt this?”
It wasn’t a job offer, it was a “Would you like to audition?” offer. [Laughs] I literally read the book in two or three hours and I was instantly passionate and excited.
It wasn’t that I saw an easy screenplay. I just saw at the end of the road an amazing film, because in the bare bones of the story it’s an incredibly powerful, primal childhood fable, with all its scary elements and the way you can identify in a very singular way with the central character.
It feels like a story that came from the earliest origins of mythology, yet at the same time it is a completely amazing, modern needle-in-a-haystack story about this kid who literally finds his mother from space with the use of the latest technology.
My heart leapt when I read it, and I really hoped I would get the job. I wrote a few pages of free-association of my thoughts on the challenges and problems of telling it. That led to long Skype sessions with Garth Davis, who was already on board. For him too it was a matter of finding a person that he wanted to work with. Thankfully, we hit it off – Garth is an amazing person.
Within a few weeks I had a more formal 15-20 page document, and they said “You got the job. Go to India, Saroo is waiting for you. He will take you around to all the places where everything actually happened.”
We went to the train station, the orphanage, and his hometown, where I met his biological mother. That was an amazing two or three hours, but I felt really bad because she wept the whole time! I kept apologizing through an interpreter after every question I asked, and she kept saying “No, it’s okay, I really want to do this.”
You could feel all that grief and trauma that lasted for twenty-five years that was contained inside her. One of her sons had died, and she found that out six weeks later, and one of her sons had disappeared off the face of the earth. That powerful mix of grief, sorrow and suffering that stretched across twenty-five years was in her, as well as her joy – my God, to be in that room it was impossible not to cry!
That was an incredible trip because it gave me a sense of the underlying emotional texture that the story was about. It made me understand really profoundly that one universal thing we all have in common is the utter vulnerability of the defenseless infant, and the safety and security that a mother figure offers.
Kamla is an amazing person who suffered through this not knowing what happened to Saroo. I went out of that meeting knowing where the story had to head emotionally, and what it had to feel like at the end.
Then I went to Tasmania and met Garth and Saroo’s adopted parents. I was taken around Hobart by Saroo and got a sense of his life there and his Australian-ness.
I think a really important part of the film is that this purely Indian boy went through all these survival-based transformations that were thrust upon him. They were not transformations of his choosing; they were transformations of fate that molded him into the person that he is. That person included this really Aussie guy – a young, handsome, adult man who watched sports, worked in bars, went dancing, and had girlfriends.
Then the process began. Garth came to Los Angeles and we worked for a few weeks with a whiteboard and cups of tea. Getting to know Garth and his vision was a lot of fun. He’s an incredibly focused person who always knew his aesthetic and emotional vision for the film. We had a great, friendly compatibility and were in many ways on the same page about what the structure, emotional journey, texture and color of the film were going to be.
You said when you first read the novel that you didn’t see “an easy screenplay.” Many aspects of the book, especially the parts about the Google Earth research, are not what would be considered cinematic. Were these the most challenging aspects of adapting the novel?
It was exactly that. It was finding the right balance of the big cinema “no-no,” which is that screens on screens is not good. Yet we felt very strongly that our situation was quite different from the usual procedural crime drama TV model, where there are a whole bunch of actors that are crammed with exposition-heavy dialogue pointing at computer screens. We felt that we were a million miles away from that.
The relationship with the technology was instigated by a purely and deeply emotional drive and desire to make it to the end of the myth – to find wholeness with the reunification with the lost mother and to find out who you are. We knew that story would’ve never taken place if Google Earth had never been invented. Suddenly, at this point in history, this man’s story became possible.
It was really a matter of layering the amount of stuff we would be seeing on the computer screen, and not have the feeling that we were weighed down with the boring stuff of a man staring at screens.
One of the interesting methods to bring that alive was how director of photography Greig Fraser’s cinematic, gliding aerial drone shots were consciously interwoven into the script – “Now we’re seeing real camera footage, and now we’re seeing a Google Earth screen, and the two screens are echoing each other.”
We felt that if the aesthetic treatment of the beautiful hi-res film aerials were blended properly with the low-res Google Earth screens it would embed the audience in the emotional journey of Saroo’s ever more desperate and obsessive search for home.
The second thing is in terms of acting. The order of shooting was that Dev Patel arrived in India and spent a week rehearsing with Garth, while Garth shot the footage with Sunny Pawar (Young Saroo).
One of the crazy exercises that Garth likes to do with actors was that he had Dev, Sunny, Priyanka Bose – who plays his biological mother – and the young actors who played Saroo’s brother and sister play hide and seek, and all these other exercises.
Garth was recording the sound of their laughter on a handheld recorder. Three months later, when Dev has to sit in front of blank computer screens and muster up emotions and memories about what he’s seeing on the screens out of sequence, Garth played the recordings.
In a really compressed form, it gave Dev nostalgic, vivid, auditory memories of some beautiful things that had happened months earlier at the beginning of the shoot. That brought on real tears for Dev as he’s looking at blank screens with his finger on the mousepad.
These methods made the technology as organically embedded in the emotional narrative as possible. To me, it’s one of the reasons why we’re all really proud of this film and love Garth so much. He did these very unusual things that had a purpose in the end.
I feel the end result – and I hope I contributed to it in the screenplay – was that the technology is in there, but it’s not overbearing. We hope the final effect is that the chase toward finding home feels exhilarating.
One interesting part of the narrative is that while Saroo is searching to reestablish lost relationships, he pushes away the relationships he has with his girlfriend and adopted family. Could you talk about writing a character that embodies that conflict?
Some of that came out of getting to know Saroo himself. He talked about the suppression of his feelings. Literally every night for twenty-five years, in the privacy of his mind and his heart Saroo would go back into his imagination and walk the steps back through the alleyway to his home and say to his mother, brother, and sister, “I’m here, I’m here!”
For us that was a very vivid thing that we needed to capture in the screenplay, and develop in the film itself.
In broad terms, the journey was about suppression through guilt. He had a good life, and he thought – wrongly – that he would hurt his adopted mother if she knew that he was obsessing about this “alternative” mother. Apparently, this is a genuine emotional or psychological experience that many adopted people go through.
There is a finality that occurs when the thing that’s being suppressed just bursts out because it can’t be contained any more. Then the obsessive journey begins, and the collateral damage from Saroo’s obsessive journey is that he’s not a good multi-tasker. He stops being good at being present in his life. Therefore he is pushing away the people who are closest to him that he needs to be present with.
In real life, when Saroo went to the hotel management school he met a lot of international students. One of the things that started happening is that there were Indian students, and they spoke in Hindi. It was like a twenty-five year gap since he had heard those fragments of language and they were coming back and bringing up gut memories. For Saroo, that was very unsettling.
That’s in the film a little bit when he meets the Indian students, but we felt that we needed to compress it. In cinematic compression, a moment is better than a generalized, broad period of time of hearing fragments of Hindi. Therefore the jalebi moment was our way of trying to push all that into a turning point moment in the film.
There are two big turning point moments in the film that have symmetry, and it’s deliberate. In the first five minutes of the film, we find out who he is and what the context of his life is. Then he steps onto that train and everything changes.
The symmetry to the second half of the film is when he pops out of the water as an adult like it’s a new baptism, and we learn who he is now for roughly five minutes. Then he sees the jalebi and everything changes.
The first journey, from the moment he steps on the train, is the moment of catastrophe. It’s very physical and full of peril. That child is scrambling and in every single second he’s making left-right decisions – “Do I do this, or do I do that?”
In the second half the journey becomes more subtle and interior. It’s about an adult’s journey though all this suppressed stuff that pops out like Pandora’s Box at the moment he sees the jalebi in the kitchen. It becomes “How do I navigate this situation and keep it secret from everyone?”
The beautiful irony at the end of the film is that he didn’t need to keep it secret. His adoptive mother is an incredibly loving, supportive person who always wanted this to happen.
Your bibliography covers novels, poetry, journalism, and, of course, screenwriting. How do you approach screenwriting differently than your other writing?
It takes an absolutely fundamentally different part of your brain to write a screenplay. It’s a very technical document that has quite specific rules. The work of art is the film at the end of the road, not this document that is about how to tell the story.
The development of the story – while working with a director in some cases – involves writing a really detailed treatment prose document that everyone can read and get a feel of what it is that we’re all trying to do. That is a really important part of the process even before we get to the blank page one of the screenplay. Then the document itself is super-technical.
On the other hand, I believe that if you want to write a screenplay that is a good emotional experience for anyone who’s reading it, you should somehow try to democratically reach a bunch of different people – producers, financers, actors, a director, production designer, costume designer, composer. You want a whole lot of people to be able to read this one all-purpose document, because you’re not writing different documents for composers and production designers.
Try to contain everything in there to the best of your ability in a poetic way, where readers can get excited because they’re seeing the movie on the screens inside their heads and feeling the emotions in their hearts and in their guts.
What you want to be doing is to create that excitement, and make people want to move forward, give you money for the film, audition for the film, and make the film in all of these different cases. Most of all, you want the director to say, “Yes, this fits my vision and this is the way I want to portray this incredible story.”
There’s a split – the document itself is in this very technical part of your brain where you’re being like a plumber. But part of what you’re doing is coming from the other part of your brain, which is the storytelling part. We’re obsessed about cinema because it tells stories that hold your heart in a vice-like grip until they release you at the end.
I certainly feel proud of the Lion screenplay, because I wrote a document that had some of those effects on various people that led to getting the film made. It’s a really nice feeling, because I know being proud of your screenplay and being satisfied with the film doesn’t happen all the time. It’s also not your film, because it’s also Garth’s film and all the amazing actors’ film. It echoes the screenplay and captures the essential deep, inner, spiritual story that it tells.
Not all films are spiritual stories, but we strongly believe that Lion is ultimately a film about spiritual wholeness.
We believed in it so strongly that we broke a lot of rules. We thought, “Let’s begin the film with a five year-old non-professional actor speaking in Hindi with English subtitles for the first fifty minutes of the film.” That’s a good model that will get the film financed!
And “Let’s make a film that essentially doesn’t have a traditional antagonist!” Sure, there are some bad characters in the Kolkata section of the film and some child sex traffickers, kidnappers, and a horrible orphanage, but no overt traditional film antagonist. We believed in the story because we knew we could pull off adult Saroo’s interior doubts and demons in the second half of the film.
Because we felt this is an amazingly primal, mythic fable, we could really believe in it and do it. The reason why myths last for thousands of years is because they have something of profound inner spiritual truth to the journey.
To me, there was a feeling of privilege that I was friends with the producers at See-Saw and they gave me the chance to audition for this film. Because the book had all these beautiful specific moments filled with joy, that I got to put into the screenplay. It felt like we were on this epic, mythical journey, because this is a film about reunification with a lost mother. On that level, it’s such an exciting journey.
Of course, that was a challenging journey, but it was an incredibly pleasurable one.
Featured image: Dev Patel as Saroo Brierley and Rooney Mara as Lucy in Lion © Long Way Home Productions 2015