Ever since they achieved success with The King’s Speech, the dynamic See Saw Films duo of Britain’s Iain Canning and Australia’s Emile Sherman have given a boost to Australian cinema and to local filmmaking talent. Their latest venture Lion is a good example.
Most significantly, the film marks the feature directing debut of Garth Davis, who had co-directed Top of the Lake with Jane Campion and it also boasts the talents of writer Luke Davies (Candy, Life), production designer Chris Kennedy (The Proposition, The Water Diviner), and set designer Nicki Gardiner (Mad Max: Fury Road).
Canning and Sherman were in Toronto for Lion’s world premiere as was the film’s third producer, Aussie Angie Fielder, who had produced Wish You Were Here, filmed on location in Cambodia. Her input was invaluable as the first all-important section of Lion was shot in India.
Based on Saroo Brierley’s memoir, 'A Long Way Home', the film follows the Tasmanian businessman as he searches for his birth mother via Google Earth. It begins with five year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) accidentally travelling 1500 kilometres on a train from Khandwa and ending up lost in the slums of Kolkata. The second section follows Saroo as he grows up in Australia, with Dev Patel playing the adult Saroo, and Nicole Kidman and David Wenham as his parents, Sue and John Brierley.
Interestingly Pawar and Abhishek Bharate, who plays Saroo’s brother Guddu, proved such talents in front of the camera that they have both appeared in the US-India drama, Love Sonia, alongside Demi Moore and Freida Pinto (Patel’s ex-partner and co-star in Slumdog Millionaire). Love Sonia marks the directing debut of producer Tabrez Noorani, who has worked on so many English-language productions in India, and was a casting consultant on Lion.
Kidman has since appeared in two upcoming See Saw productions, Top of the Lake 2 and John Cameron Mitchell’s How to Talk to Girls at Parties. Wenham of course co-starred in Top of the Lake.
You’ve had enormous success since The King’s Speech.
Iain Canning: Yes but it’s been through our collaboration with writers and directors who we’ve fallen in love with: Steve McQueen, Jane Campion, Garth Davis and Luke Davies.
How did you come to the Lion story?
Emile Sherman: Iain and I were in Sundance in 2013 with Top of the Lake when we heard about the story. We thought, “We’ve got to go after this thing!” I think we were a little late to the party, to be honest. I travelled back to Australia and met with the rights’ holders, the managers of Saroo, and they were already in quite advanced negotiations with a couple of other groups. But thankfully they entrusted the story with us. I think it was because we’d had success with films like The King’s Speech and Tracks, telling stories of real people and being able to do it in ways that the real people, especially in the case of Tracks, were very happy with. It was also about being able to do it in a way that it reaches a broad international audience.
Why did you hire Garth as director?
ES: The director is probably the key decision for us. We could have got some big A-list names and Garth hadn’t made a film before, but we just couldn't go past him. He is an unusual director in that he’s incredible visual and he’s wonderful with actors and brings out the truth in the performances. He’s not afraid of emotion. He loves to explore the connections, the things that bring people together, and to do it in an unsentimental way.
We told Garth about the story and he’d been waiting for his first film for two decades really, and Top of the Lake gave him permission to do this. So we went with an Emmy-nominated director but this film’s in Garth’s DNA and it’s been his passion from that day forward.
Was it difficult shooting in India?
Angie Fielder: Making a film in India is challenging but made easier by the production services company Take One Productions. They worked on Slumdog Millionaire, Zero Dark Thirty and pretty much every English-language film that has a scene in India. India is a very bureaucratic place, so we had to have a lot of preparation time, even just getting passports and visas so Abhishek and Sunny could come to Australia for the Australian portion of the shoot.
ES: That was a protracted process that took about six months. Sunny didn't have a passport because he was from a very poor village so we had to gather all the information to apply for that. We ended up having to re-schedule the film.
What are the challenges of telling a true story?
ES: They’re both limiting and inspiring. Our aim is to be true to the spirit of a story and in some sense to be more truthful than the people even realise. I remember on Tracks we tried to get even more deeply into the character of Robyn Davidson than she did in her book. For Lion, Garth did a lot of research with the real Sue and Saroo during the writing stage, and a couple of key moments in the film actually come out of that and not out of the book. There’s a scene where Sue tells a story about the brown ghost and her vision that wasn't in Saroo’s memoir but it became quite a pivotal moment in the movie.
How did you become producers and why?
IC: I guess we’ve all got different stories. I came into producing through the finance world of film and was involved in a couple of production companies in the UK. I was the executive producer on Control and Hunger and I ended up becoming very close to those filmmakers – Anton Corbijn and Steve McQueen – and they became people I wanted to support. My friendship with Emile brought me into the producing world and we’ve been very fortunate to tell these stories.
I can’t recall a movie with so many people crying, particularly towards the end than at Lion’s Toronto premiere.
IC: It was actually a tricky thing with the lights coming up because we do want to allow people to take in what they’ve experienced. We had screenings with friends and family and the lights went up too quickly and everyone said they weren’t ready. It’s a shock. It really affects people. People were really affected by The King’s Speech too but this has a different way of entering the heart.
"When you come across a story like Lion, you feel that this is cinema; that this is going to get people off their couches at home to go to the cinema."
How difficult was it to make an ambitious film like Lion in the current climate?
ES: It's a really interesting time to be in cinema. The challenge now is to have a story that's a must-see cinematically because there’s so much competition from television. When you come across a story like Lion, you feel that this is cinema; that this is going to get people off their couches at home to go to the cinema.
Paradoxically why there’s maybe less competition than there was before is because so much talent is working in television. Obviously Lion was not going to be made for the $100 million studio audience. But there is a growing audience who want to go to the cinema and see extraordinary, powerful, moving, life-affirming stories, complex stories about characters that take you into other worlds. We found a huge amount of support for this film.
ES: Iain and I are also in a lucky position at See Saw as we work across television as well. So the first question we ask ourselves is, “What is the best way of telling this story?”
How did you find the remarkable Sunny?
Angie Fielder: We did a big open casting with about 2000 kids and we were looking for a kid who had not come from a middle class family because we wanted him to have the essence of Saroo, who was from a very, very poor family.
In terms of preparing him, his health and emotional wellbeing were crucial because he’s a child and because he also has to carry the first third of the film. So he had to be performing to his optimum level the whole time. It was a long shoot; he’s in every scene in India, so we had a team around him. We had to create our own infrastructure because in India they don't have rules around working with children. So we designed a schedule and a nutrition programme and a sleep regime to ensure that he was always at his optimum.
In terms of playing the role, he had two acting coaches, one Hindi-speaking coach and an amazing New Zealand woman Miranda Harcourt. They started out giving him basic directions, but after the first two weeks he actually really understood what he was doing. He went from being a non-actor to being an actor and they could communicate with him in an emotional way. It was quite amazing.
You shot the film chronologically rather than showing it in flashback.
IC: We had to trust the natural storytelling. When you’d tell this story to a friend you’d say, “It’s about a five year-old boy who ends up getting lost”. You wouldn't start with, “There’s this guy in Hobart who starts remembering.” It was a less conventional way of going about it, but it just takes you through that whole sweeping journey of his life and you’re there with the child without any of the baggage of understanding who he is and you go with him.
ES: I think we may have underestimated the power built up in that India section. When you flash forward to Dev, the audience has experienced so much. In a way they’ve experienced more than Dev’s experienced because he hasn't even started remembering yet.
You like Garth so much that you have him directing Mary Magdalene now.
IC: We do. When we know someone’s talented we don't tend to let them go.
In Lion, Rooney Mara has a smaller role as Saroo’s girlfriend (actually an amalgamation of several women) and now she is the star in Mary Magdalene. How did that happen?
IC: It was because of her relationship with Garth and because she’s an extraordinary actress. Garth talks about how without even saying anything she’s saying everything. I think the Mary Magdalene role is such a powerful central performance. It’s going to be extraordinary and very exciting.
'Lion' will be out in Australian cinemas on January 19th.