Interview with Luke Davies: Writing the award-winning screenplay for Lion
Luke Davies has just jetted to LA for the Academy Awards after his epic win for Best Adapted Screenplay at the BAFTA Awards. We spoke with Luke ahead of Hollywood's big night:
Congratulations on your Academy Award nomination and for your BAFTA Award win for Best Adapted Screenplay for your work on Lion. How does that huge international recognition for your work feel?
It’s pretty awesome. It’s very heart-warming. I felt very good about the script and a year later, I felt good about the film from seeing the earliest rough cut, but I don’t think any of us ever thought that we’d be at this end of the process, with BAFTA and Oscar nominations.
It always felt like we had made a beautiful film that had an art house element to it, with subtitles and a five year-old non-professional actor. All this Oscars stuff is a real pleasant surprise and it’s great that people have reacted to the film the way they have
What is it about the story in Lion that you feel has resonated with audiences?
The obvious answer sounds a bit corny, that is that the universal theme of mothers and unconditional love is touching a heartstring with audiences, it’s about the relationships we have with our mothers. For most of us that relationship is the deepest relationship we have. Lion touches something of that.
When I was five years old, I got lost for a few minutes, and it was a completely traumatic experience. It’s hard to imagine what that would be like if it happened in the same dramatic fashion that it did for Saroo. Lion imagines that experience for the audience, it takes you on the full journey and that is what resonates.
At what point did that theme of universal love for the mother leap out to you as intrinsic to the script?
When I first read the book that Lion is adapted from I said to See-Saw Films that this is a really powerful and primal fairy tale about reunification with the lost mother. Early on, the director, Garth Davis, said to me that he sees the two mothers as the central pillars that hold up the film. He said that Saroo’s journey is the visceral part of the story, it’s completely gripping. That passes through the two pillars of the story but that the two mothers make up the spiritual centre of the film. When I met Saroo’s biological mother in India on the research trip, and I saw in her all the grief and sorrow and loss and suffering that she had gone through in 25 years, and the joy of reunification, I knew how the film had to feel at the end.
You met with both Saroo’s mothers during preproduction on the film; can you tell us if those meetings influenced the script?
It did. Meeting his biological mother gave me such a strong sense of the intensity of her loss and how the reunification scene needed to make us all feel at the end of the film. Meeting John and Sue was really helpful too because they are truly amazing people. Sue Brierley is incredibly nurturing and loving. Meeting her made me turn her supportiveness into a large aspect of the film.
Saroo feels this kind of guilt because he has been assimilated into his life in Hobart with a loving family and he wrongly thinks that if he searched for this other life that he had lost that he would hurt their feelings. I love the fact that it wasn’t the case at all. Sue wasn’t threatened by Saroo having two mothers, she always wanted him to find his mother if he could. In real life she tried to help him a lot more than in the film, and in pre-internet days none of that was easy.
How have the mothers reacted to the film and have you been in touch with them recently?
I’ll see Sue next week at the Oscars and I have been in touch with Saroo since the BAFTAs. I’m taking my mother to the Oscars and I’ve been talking to Saroo about Sue’s plans so we can bring our mothers together I’m not in touch with Kallu, that is logistically too hard. Saroo talks to her once a month on the phone with an interpreter and he’s been back to India about 12 times since 2012. This week will be a big reunification for all of us, it’s going to be fun.
Did you play any role in casting the mothers?
No I didn’t. I was part of the conversation. For the role of Sue Brierley it would be preferable to have an Australian, with the Australian accent, so Nicole Kidman was always a choice and she really wanted the role and really fought for it. She said she loved the script and would do anything to play the role.
I didn’t have anything to do with the casting of Kallu.
The script has two distinctive timelines. Can you tell us why you chose to take the path of an overlapping story. What was your process?
There was talk at the beginning about getting the film financed and cast with big stars like Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman - film financing logic says we should establish them as close to the beginning of the film as possible - and yet it just seemed to me, very strongly, that if we could make a bolder decision and begin with five-year-old Saroo, at the moment that the catastrophe begins, that would be a more powerful way to create the film. That way we would be with a little kid in the middle of all his danger and peril and vulnerability. For the first half of the film we set up this concrete objective that he has to find his mother, find his family and be unlost. If we did that successfully, when we reached the second half of the film - that is 25 year later on the one hand - but on the other hand it’s only two minutes in the audiences gut.
If we successfully found little Saroo’s subconsciousness in the first half then in the second half the audiences still has the same question inside them which is “how is he going to find home, how is he going to find his mother?”
I put forward that notion to the producers to start at the beginning to tell it chronologically and they said we could try it. We never changed direction, and once we set up that structure there were flashbacks. In the first half of the film little Saroo has flashbacks to his very recent life, to visiting his mother in the quary. In the 2nd half of the film Saroo has flashbacks that inform his interior state. Some of those flashbacks aren’t really from his point of view, some of them are imagining the point of view of what his family went through.
Nicole Kidman also has a fabulously huge perm in the film - can you tell us about the wig and was that in your script?
No, not at all. As you can see at the photos at the end of the film that is what Sue Brierley hair looked like I the 80s. They were just going for a realistic portrayal of what she looked like. I find it quite delightful when you see those photos of Sue and John and Sue has that amazing perm and then you realise that Nicole’s wig was just an imitation of her hair. I like that moment.
Were you familiar with Saroo’s story before See-Saw approached you with the project?
Before the producers came to me I had read about it online only four days earlier. Maybe it wasn’t such a coincidence, because the reason I read about it online was because the book had just been released - See-Saw Films had just optioned the novel. Emile Sherman came to me and said “have you heard this story about the kid that got lost?”, he asked me to read the book and asked me what my approach to writing it into a screenplay would be. So that’s how it started, it was a serendipitous moment.
Writing the screenplay was a very emotional experience, at some very basic level, because when you imagine what it would be like to be separated from the person who is your main carer and protector, it’s a painful situation to imagine. It took me to a very emotional place and I found those emotional beats without too much difficulty. The end result is really satisfying, people cry in this film and it’s the most beautiful feeling to know that we have opened peoples hearts in that way.
What are you working on now?
I am doing a couple of things. A six-hour miniseries adaptation of Catch 22 with David Michôd . That is early to middle days. We are hoping to find someone to buy that from us soon. I might be doing another film for See-Saw with Jennifer Peedom who made Sherpa, a film about Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary climbing Everest in 1953. I went trekking in the Himalayas in January with Jen and her husband and kids for a research trip and that was amazing. There are other things floating around but those are the two definite things.