“Lion gives an insight into the lives of children who have been adopted and I hope will push more Western countries to recognize the need for and benefits of adoption. There are so many kids who never end up in a loving family and there are so many loving families who want a child.”
The incredible true story of Indian-born Australian Saroo Brierley and his unwavering determination to find his lost family and finally return to his first home is now realised in all its splendour on the big screen in Lion.
Five-year-old Saroo gets lost on a train travelling away from his home and family. Frightened and bewildered, he ends up thousands of miles away, in chaotic Kolkata.
Somehow he survives living on the streets, escaping all sorts of terrors and close calls in the process, before ending up in an orphanage that is itself not exactly a safe haven. Eventually Saroo is adopted by an Australian couple, and finds love and security as he grows up in Hobart. Not wanting to hurt his adoptive parents’ feelings, he suppresses his past, his emotional need for reunification, and his hope of ever finding his lost mother and brother.
But a chance meeting with some fellow Indians reawakens his buried yearning. With just a small store of memories, and the help of a new technology called Google Earth, Saroo embarks on one of the greatest needle-in-a-haystack quests of modern times.
The Weinstein Company acquired Lion at script stage at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, where they closed the deal for worldwide distribution excluding Australia and New Zealand. Transmission Films is the Australian and New Zealand distributor. The film was co-financed by Screen Australia and Fulcrum Media Finance.
When See-Saw Film’s Emile Sherman and Iain Canning first heard the true story of Saroo Brierley’s journey to find his childhood home and birth mother, they immediately sensed that it could make an extraordinarily powerful feature film.
A bidding war was soon underway for the film rights to Saroo’s story and book which See-Saw won based on the company’s track record for quality films and the producers’ commitment to making a film that was authentic and international in ambition.
“It’s one of those stories where it is virtually impossible not to move people when you talk to them about it. It’s an incredible story that gives everyone tingles up their spine. It taps into something primal in us as human beings – the need to find home and the need to know who you are,” Producer Emile Sherman says.
Producer Iain Canning says: “It is an incredible true story. As soon as we heard it we felt that we had to go after it. Emile and I read an early manuscript of Saroo’s memoir and it has, without question, one of the most incredible endings in Saroo finally finding home.”
Iain and Emile approached Garth Davis to direct the film while at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013 for the world premiere of their television series Top of the Lake, co-directed by Garth, with Jane Campion, who also co-wrote the series. Both directors were nominated for an Emmy Award for their work on Top of the Lake.
Impressed by Garth’s stunning work on the series, Emile and Iain didn’t hesitate to offer him the opportunity to direct Lion.
“We followed our instincts. We felt Garth – although he hadn’t yet made a feature film – was exactly the right director for the film. He’s incredibly cinematic and can create real visual scope. At the same time he’s just brilliant with actors. He creates such intimacy in his work and we wanted to make sure this felt raw and real.” Emile says.
“This is a film about family, about those deep bonds that never go away, that underpin our lives. Garth feels those bonds. He is a director who is not afraid of emotions. He embraces the emotion but does it in a way that is real and fresh and edgy. He also has a spiritual side – there is a sense of fate in this film. It’s about destiny and hope and we knew that Garth would bring out those resonances in a way that another director might not have been so finely tuned to do.”
Iain continues: “On set Garth is a real leader, not just in terms of the specifics of performance but also because tonally he brings such a human warmth and energy to everything. People feel safe and very comfortable with him and are therefore able to explore the highs and the lows of the human experience.”
See-Saw Films has a commitment to ongoing relationships with key talent and their creative connection with Garth Davis continues with See-Saw’s Mary Magdalene, which Garth is currently in pre-production on, starring Rooney Mara (who plays Lucy in LION) and Joaquin Phoenix.
Producer Angie Fielder from Aquarius Films, whose previous credits include Wish You Were Here, starring Joel Edgerton and Teresa Palmer, and filmed on location in Cambodia, was invited to join the producing team. She and Emile had been looking for a project to work on together. Before Emile had even spoken to her about the film, Angie had discovered Saroo’s story in a press article and been captivated by it.
“When Emile told me he had secured the rights to Saroo’s book, it took me about two seconds to decide that I wanted to do it. And then he told me that Garth Davis was attached to direct. I had long been an admirer of Garth’s work so the idea of the film was very exciting,” Angie says.
“You couldn’t make Saroo’s story up, it’s so extraordinary. It has all of the stuff of great cinema – it has adventure and peril, it traverses continents, it travels across time. And his journey is deeply, deeply emotional. What also makes it incredibly cinematic is that the story is so ultimately satisfying. After years of being without his biological family and years of searching he actually, amazingly, like a needle in a haystack, found his way home.”
Determined to honor the truth of the story, Garth travelled to India while developing the film where he spent time in Kolkata (Calcutta) and also in Saroo’s childhood home village,. Garth was there in the village when Saroo’s birth mother Kamla and adoptive mother Sue met for the very first time. Some of the filming of LION took place in the village and Saroo’s family were welcome visitors to set on several occasions.
“It was important for me to just walk in Saroo’s reality as much as possible and so I literally retraced his steps as best as I could. I walked around his village by myself and imagined being a little boy growing up in that area. I sat on a bench at the Burhanpur train station where he woke up alone, and then on to Kolkata and the main train station, Howrah, where the full force of the story really hit me. I have my own kids and to imagine a five year old alone there, unable to speak the language…that’s when I knew this was going to be a really powerful film.”
Screenwriter Luke Davies made his own journey to India.
Iain and Emile had previously worked with Luke on Anton Corbijn’s Life and also on the filmed adaption of Luke’s novel Candy.
“Having worked with Luke on two previous films, we felt that he had the right sort of emotional sensibility to tackle this story,” Iain says.
Coincidentally, Luke had read Saroo’s story online just days before Emile approached him and he too was riveted by it: “It’s such an incredibly moving story. And it’s a primal story – the loss of the mother and reunification with the mother. At that mythic level it’s amazing, but at an actual human level of ‘this really happened to this kid’. The opportunity to take a script to some very emotional places is for a writer the most exciting thing,” Luke says.
Garth and Luke collaborated closely and intensely, experimenting with ideas, including the film’s structure. Would it be told in flashback or as a linear narrative? How do you honor the truth of the story but tell it in a way that is satisfying for a cinematic audience?
Emile Sherman says: “The more traditional structure would have been to start with Saroo in Australia, for it to be the story of a western man who suddenly has memories of the past, and to cut back and forth as he searches for home. We battled long and hard with the structure and ultimately decided to go for a more epic one – letting the audience fully experience young Saroo’s life in India upfront. Starting with his family life, through the moment he steps onto the wrong train, onto his life on the streets of Kolkata, we are with young Saroo as his story unfolds. The enormous power of this experience is then felt throughout the Australian section, and we can then fully appreciate his emotional pull back to his birth mother.
One of the great challenges of the film was to find an Indian boy to play Saroo as a five-year-old. Angie Fielder says that the Indian production team worked closely with schools and parents in several large Indian cities in their search for the right boys for the roles. They screen tested thousands of children and each child who was considered to have acting potential was filmed and the tests sent back to Australia. Garth, Angie Fielder, Australian casting director Kirsty McGregor and dramaturg Miranda Harcourt then travelled to India to work with the shortlisted children, including Sunny Pawar who was chosen to play Saroo.
“I had an emotional template for this character and, through the story, I could feel the spirit of this kid. So I knew who I was looking for but it was very sobering to think about what we had to achieve. Children generally can be good actors from about the age of eight but it is difficult to find a five year old capable of acting. But I knew it was important to have a small boy – it is visually very powerful having a tiny boy lost in the world – and a boy who had the resilience and the patience to cope with the demands of the lead role in a film.” Garth says.
“I just kept coming back to Sunny. I would put a camera lens on him and he just felt like the boy I had been feeling. I needed a boy who in his natural state could give me 80% of the performance, someone with a look behind his eyes, a history, a quality that’s beautiful to look at…and Sunny had that in spades. He could just sit in a room with the cameras on him and those of us watching would get lost in his story, in his face. At the same time there was something darker, something interesting going on,” Garth continues.
“He was one of those special kids. So then the question was ‘can we do a scene with him? Can he take direction? Can he cry? Can he scream? Does he have strength? Can he withstand direction?’ He did all of that and more.
“There was a certain point, maybe a week into the shoot, where he became an actor…where it was clear he was putting together different emotional ideas. It was absolutely extraordinary recognizing that he was bringing something to his performance that we weren’t asking him to do.”
Producer Angie Fielder says: “Sunny went from being a young boy who had no idea about acting to a total pro who understood everything about what he was doing and was completely in control of his performance. And I think you can see on screen that he’s not wandering around looking at things, he’s feeling things. I remember one important scene where Saroo’s older brother is arrested and Sunny started crying as we were shooting – they are real tears, there was no make up involved. He was genuinely crying because he was so emotionally involved in the scene.”
Production began in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata (previously known as Calcutta) in January 2015. Dev Patel, who plays the adult Saroo, arrived early in the shoot to film the scenes of reunion with Saroo’s birth mother. Dev campaigned hard to win the role, convincing Garth Davis and the producers that cinema audiences had yet to see the range he was capable of.
Emile Sherman says: “We knew we had to cast a Western actor of Indian heritage rather than an actor from India, to ensure the accent was correct. Saroo himself is very much an Australian man. We always had Dev in mind. He just blew us away in his screen test. He’s a wonderful actor, but he’s also so likeable, so warm and so much fun. We knew we were in the hands of an actor who’d be able to take the audience on a very emotional journey. Dev really embraced that and exceeded all of our extremely high expectations.
Iain Canning adds: “Dev brings an incredible depth to this role, beyond anything we’ve ever seen him do before on screen. I truly believe this film will establish him as a leading actor of gravitas and maturity.”
Garth Davis says: “Dev heard we were making the film very early on, when we were still writing. He pulled up one day at Luke Davies’ house in Los Angeles where we were working, walked in and introduced himself. He was very passionate about the role. Eventually we did a four and a half hour screen test in London – literally bare feet and a handheld camera – and I pushed and pushed Dev to see how far he could go with this character. We needed a soul that shined and that is Dev!”
Iain Canning and Angie Fielder recall meeting Saroo Brierley and their first impressions of him.
Angie says: “When you meet Saroo you get a sense of how he managed to survive on the streets of Kolkata as a five year old. There is something about him as a person that is very resilient and industrious and confident. At the same time he’s a quintessential Aussie guy with a larrikin sense of humor.”
Iain says: “I was very taken by how family orientated he is, both with his Australian family and with his birth family in India. At the time he was genuinely surprised that his journey had captured the public’s imagination and had also captured the imagination of Google.”
Having heard the vital role Google Earth played in Saroo’s search for home, the company had invited him to speak at an international conference where he met the company’s Chairman, Eric Schmidt. Google assisted the producers throughout filming, ensuring authenticity of the scenes in which Saroo searches for his Indian birthplace using Google Earth.
To better look like the real Saroo Brierley who is tall and strong after a lifetime in the Australian outdoors, actor Dev Patel embarked on a punishing weight and food regime, to add bulk and muscle. He also worked with a dialect coach to perfect the notoriously difficult Australian accent.
Dev confirms that he chased the role. He says he’d never read a script so enchanting: “It encapsulates triumph. It’s such a hopeful story about this kid’s will to survive and to find his family again. What particularly drew me to the role was that it is a very contemporary character and also that the story has complex family dynamics – it’s a beautiful role.”
Young Saroo’s close relationship with his older brother Guddu is a critical emotional thread through the film. Guddu is played by Abhishek Bharate in his first acting role.
“In casting for Guddu, I felt that the character just had to be pure light, he had to shine,” Garth explains. “When I was in India looking at locations, I was in a small village and saw a boy standing on the roof of his house. He was everything I thought Guddu to be. He had a kind of Indigenous quality, an old world feeling, and a light that shone from him. I did test this boy and although he wasn’t right for the role, he became symbolic for me in the search for the right boy to play the role. Abhishek came in and it was instant – he had a smile that just killed you. He’s like the sun on your face, when he’s around you, you just feel his energy.”
After meeting the real Sue Brierley at her home in Hobart, Tasmania, the southern island state of Australia, Garth knew he wanted Academy Award® and Golden Globe Award® winning actress Nicole Kidman to play her.
“I was spending a lot of time with Sue and one day, while she was talking to me, it just dropped into my head ‘that’s Nicole Kidman’. Serendipitously, as we were going off casting around the world we had a note saying that Nicole had managed to get her hands on the script, had read it, and was very keen to talk.
“I met Nicole in New York and we just talked and cried and talked and cried… she knew everything about Sue in the way that I knew it. It just felt great. I just loved working with Nicole and being around her. She’s super professional, super prepared. She’d ask me really, really smart questions along the way. She’s a very hard working actress. But most of all I really enjoyed how brave she was. She’s kind of wild to watch, kind of method and just really commits to the character. And then she was just really lovely on set, down to speaking to the neighbors who were peering over the fence watching us filming. She is very inclusive and very loving…and also brilliant.”
Rooney Mara, was recommended for the role of Lucy, who becomes Saroo’s girlfriend after they meet as students at an international hospitality college, by Executive Producer Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein personally contacted Rooney to talk to her about the film, and Rooney then went on to win the Cannes Film Festival Best Actress Award and to be nominated for an Academy Award® for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Carol.
“Lucy is critical to the story. She’s everything that Saroo wants in his present. But his journey pulls him away from her as he becomes more and more isolated by his search for home and by the past. Lucy of course wants to support and help him but his journey becomes all consuming and incredibly isolating. This pull between the present – his love for Lucy – and the past – his memories and pull to his birth mother – is at the centre of Saroo’s drama. Rooney brings huge tenderness to the role and the scenes of Saroo and Lucy meeting and falling in love are so alive and touching.“ Emile says
Garth says Rooney Mara is mesmerizing as a performer: “All the mystery of the story just sat on her face…when she’s quiet, it’s loud; it’s really noisy with all the subtext just ripping up to the surface. It’s quite extraordinary. I didn’t realize just how impactful that was going to be, because a lot of the stuff happening between Lucy and Saroo is unspoken. But Rooney’s an actress who manages, without saying anything, to just bring all that out. It was kind of unbelievable to watch.”
Saroo’s Australian dad is played by David Wenham, who starred, with Elisabeth Moss, in See-Saw Films’ Top of the Lake television series, which was co-directed by Garth with Jane Campion. Emile Sherman says: “When casting we were thinking ‘what human being would you want to have as your father if you were adopted and arrived in Australia?’ And we just couldn’t go past David Wenham; he represents everything that we knew our little Saroo would want. He is absolute safe harbor, he’s funny and he’s kind.”
The producers and Garth spent considerable time with Saroo and his Australian parents while preparing for the film. Saroo spoke to Garth about a butterfly coming to him throughout life whenever he was under threat, for example while facing danger on the streets of Kolkata. Saroo talks about the butterfly as being the spirit of his older brother, guiding him.
“I spoke to Emile while we were at Sundance and said ‘I think the butterfly is the spiritual totem of the film, but we don’t need to let anyone know that, it can just be a texture’. We finished that conversation, went together to a private function and five minutes later a homeless Indian man walked into the room selling butterfly pins to raise money. I looked at Emile and said ‘it’s happening’.
There are motifs throughout the film, including the sea and butterflies. Garth explains: “In much of the film, it’s what’s not said that’s interesting. But how do I get that across in the camera, how do I get that working? So the second half of the movie – when Saroo arrives in Hobart, Australia, I decided to use the sea as an element. Tasmania is an island and Hobart is on a large harbor and river. Our characters all live by the water and it’s so totally different to where Saroo came from in India, which is a landlocked world. There’s something about the sea that’s feminine, and something whereby the ocean connects all of us.”
Garth talks about the ‘mapping’ of Saroo’s story for an audience: “A lot of thought went into how to get across clearly the steps Saroo needs to take to find home. What his memories are, how to represent them, what the audience knows at each point. All so that the audience can be with Saroo on his journey, discovering home with Saroo. That needed to be very carefully worked out.
“I hope to watch the film it looks effortless, but a lot of thought has gone into the engineering of how the visual storytelling helps the layers of the story.”
Emile Sherman believes the creative team has well and truly made a film that delivers on the promise of the story: “This is a film I am very proud of. It’s an incredible story about mothers, and the primal urge to find home. I hope audiences have the same spine tingling experience that Iain and I did when we first heard the story.”
Emile also believes the film will deliver a powerful message about adoption: “The film gives an insight into the lives of children who have been adopted and I hope will push more Western countries to recognize the need for and benefits of adoption. There are so many kids who never end up in a loving family and there are so many loving families who want a child.”
Over 80,000 children go missing in India each year. See-Saw Films have been exploring opportunities to work with reputable organizations to support children in India and around the world. Using the profile and publicity that will surround the release of this moving film, See-Saw hope to shine a spotlight the need for global support to assist these organizations. Audiences will be able to find out more information and an opportunity to make a donation via the film’s website, www.lionmovie.com.
Saroo Brierley and his adoptive parents Sue and John continue to live in Hobart, Tasmania, where Saroo works in the family business. Saroo is a passionate supporter of the work of Mrs. Sood, who arranged his adoption to Australia and who runs orphanages in Kolkata, and he returns to India frequently to visit Mrs. Sood, his birth mother Kamla and his extended Indian family. Saroo is also a sought after motivational speaker in Australia and overseas.