Fall/Winter 2016-17

Seeking Humanity in the Schematic

Director Garth Davis opts for emotional immediacy


Director Garth Davis (Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Drawn from the memoirs of Saroo Brierley, the Indian-Australian businessman who used the internet to forge a globe-crossing path back to his birth mother 25 years after their accidental separation, The Weinstein Company's Lion is a story of finding advanced technological solutions to an essential human problem. In bringing it to screen, meanwhile, first-time feature director Garth Davis had to resourcefully deploy a range of cinematic techniques to make Brierley's quest, with its wide geographical and chronological span, emotionally intimate and immediate.

In 2013, fresh from his work on the acclaimed New Zealand-noir miniseries Top of the Lake—for which he earned an Emmy nomination—Davis was pitched Brierley's tale by Lake producers Iain Canning and Emile Sherman. The connection was immediate: "I just became obsessed with the story," Davis says over the phone from Italy, where he's already shooting his second feature, the religious drama Mary Magdalene. "It was a very instinctual thing: I just felt drawn to it in a way I thought I could really investigate."

But while the emotional pull of the material was obvious—and given force by a painstakingly selected cast, running the gamut from the director's Aussie compatriot Nicole Kidman to luminous young Indian discovery Sunny Pawar—the formal challenges of dramatizing Brierley's quest, much of it undertaken via a mouse and monitor, were trickier.

"Computer screens can be incredibly boring, so I had to find the poetry in it," Davis explains. "I had to reduce it to its core essence, to make sure all the Google Earth scenes were emotionally charged, that the audience was making discoveries in that imagery at the same time Saroo was."

In yin-and-yang fashion, Garth Davis treated the Indian scenes in Lion as "an external story," versus the Australian locales as "internal." (Photo: Mark Rogers/Long Way Home Productions)

His efforts yielded the most striking scenes in a visually rich film, as the adult Brierley (played by Dev Patel) is shown walking the streets of Canberra and the virtual landscape of his Indian homeland in dreamlike tandem. "It took a lot of designing," says Davis. "I started to see a lot of rhymes, a lot of patterns in the story. India is like an external story, while Australia becomes an internal one. It was like a mirror, like yin and yang. That was my way into visualizing it.

"For instance, the scene where Saroo and his girlfriend Lucy go for a run in Australia, that location had to echo India much like his real world was echoing the world on the computer or in his mind. That engineering of the locations was key to the look of the film."

Davis' key ally in this regard was a friend of over 20 years' standing, cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, Foxcatcher), with whom he had collaborated in his days as an accomplished commercials director. "This was a very special reunion, because I'd lost Greig to his big projects in L.A.," Davis says. "But this project was just an extension of the way we've always worked. Both of us use a lot of lighting. My whole approach is very much about using the locations as a world, trying to find the beauty in the time of day we shoot•or the ugliness of it, in cases. We never wanted it to feel designed or contrived, but at the same time we had to push the story forward."

As for the leap from small to big screen, Davis took it very much in stride. "With a feature film, it's complete. A TV series is like a novel, in that you can meander with characters. But this had to work as one artwork. And you have to make tougher decisions, because you don't have that room to wander."

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