Very rarely you come across a directorial debut so accomplished you can hardly believe its maker really is new to filmmaking. Take Lion, the story of Saroo Brierley, a rural Indian boy who, in an extraordinary series of events, gets lost and separated from his family. He ends up in Tasmania as an adoptee (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham play the new parents, Dev Patel the adult Saroo) and years later tries to find his original family.
In 2013 the story became the basis for Brierley’s bestselling autobiography, A Long Way Home, which was adapted for film by Luke Davies and directed by Garth Davis (unrelated).
It’s billed as Davis’s first feature. But watching the long, electrifying opening sequence, where Saroo is separated from his older brother one night and ends up trapped on a train to Kolkata, I wondered about this “debut” tag.
A film this skillfully directed could only be made by a director (with a substantial catalogue of work in visual media behind him, if not movies per se, and/or be backed by a highly experienced cinematographer and editor.
The answer, unsurprisingly, is both. Davis tells SBS Movies he’s been working behind the camera for 22 years, mainly in commercials (his major awards include the Cannes Gold Lion) but also TV, where he worked on Jane Campion’s acclaimed New Zealand crime teleseries, Top of the Lake, and years before that, Love My Way.
As for his close collaborators, the editor Alexandre de Franceschi, has 16 years feature film experience including Campion’s Bright Star, while director of photography Greig Fraser shares the Campion connection, having also worked on Bright Star, and now has a fast-rising Hollywood profile. Before Lion, he shot Snow White and the Huntsman, Zero Dark Thirty and Foxcatcher and afterwards went onto Rogue One: a Star Wars Story. The pair grew up together, says Davis. “I've known him for 22 years and all of the first things we shot we did together, so there’s a very instinctive and deep relationship there.
“Look, I’ve just had some bad luck on developing movies, so I’m a bit of a late bloomer. But this film felt very me and I just felt ready to do it. I was offered a lot of movies along the way, but they just didn’t interest me. I don’t want movie making to be a career, I want to make movies that are special. I want movies to move people, to make people talk about it afterwards or think about it. They’re the movies that I remember and I just think there are not many of them any more. “
"I like a bold cut. I like throwing the audience really deep and into a totally different place."
The odd critic has complained the film feels broken-backed when it reaches Australia – it’s like viewers are abruptly dropped into a different film. But that of course was deliberate. The adult Saroo’s physical disconnect from his Indian past and his quest to rediscover his biological family are the major theme. Says Davis, “I like a bold cut. I like throwing the audience really deep and into a totally different place. Also the second half of the movie was an internal story so it was almost like the removal of texture and movement, and it helped bring out what he was hiding, what wasn’t being said. It all helped the story, in many ways, I think, that visual shift.”
All the performances are excellent, but especially the unknown Sunny Pawar, cast from an extensive search of unprofessionals. Davis says he never rehearsed the scenes with the cast but instead used unconventional exercises of his own devising based on relationships between characters, using outlines of the actors drawn on butcher paper.
When Davis goes into detail about the technique’s emotional effects, he might strike some readers as a bit pseud’s corner - “it’s a bit embarrassing sometimes,” he confesses. But the important thing is that it worked. “They’re just exercises that get outside of the head. That’s one little exercise just deepens something. I also had a big BBQ in Hobart where I got all the cast to meet the real people (their characters are based on), and have a big day together. That was really good.”
Saturday 14 November, 8:30pm on SBS World Movies
Sunday 15 November, 7:05am on SBS World Movies
Monday 16 November, 5:30pm on SBS World Movies
Director: Garth Davis
Starring: Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, David Wenham