In adapting Saroo Brierley’s memoir A Long Way Home into the screenplay for Lion, Luke Davies knew his greatest challenge would be writing honestly about an experience—that of an Indian boy who gets lost and finds himself far from his family—so extraordinary and far removed from anything in his own life. But the bigger, more important part of writing the script, at least by his words, was tapping into a concept that wasn’t necessarily foreign to him or anyone else who would watch the film: the reunification with a lost mother. “We all have that experience, where at some point you become a separate human being from your mother,” he says. “And at some point, you begin to experience a reunification with your mother and you begin to appreciate her for all the sacrifices she made.”
That universal message earned Lion critical and box office success, and eventually propelled the Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman-starring film to 6 Oscar nominations, including one for Davies himself. Co.Create caught up with the screenwriter, who told us what made Lion roar—and what he would’ve changed.
Co.Create: Congratulations on the Oscar nomination. How do you feel?
Luke Davies: I feel ridiculously excited. Because to be honest, with the first 50 minutes of the film in Hindi with English subtitles and a 5-year-old non-professional actor, this did not feel like the recipe that would make a film get into these Oscar conversations.
It’s pretty incredible that Lion is getting recognized this way. What do you think it is about the film that people are connecting with?
There seems to be a trigger somewhere deep inside people’s hearts or guts that unlocks this emotional floodgate, and it’s something to do with everyone’s experience of mother love. It seems to be doing something to audiences that unlocks something and makes them cry; it makes me cry still when I see it. People are really liking the experience of sobbing.
But it’s not heavy. It’s a good cry, a release.
It’s a healing release. And a triumphant feel-good ending.
Speaking of that ending—while watching the movie, I’d forgotten about the title. It didn’t occur to me to ask, “Why is this called Lion?” while watching. And then the end punched me in the stomach.
That’s exactly what I wanted you to feel. I’m so proud because that was my idea. The book is called A Long Way Home, and there are too many films with titles similar to that. So we knew we were going to change the title, but we didn’t know to what. And it was a tiny anecdote in the book that [Saroo] mispronounces his name and that it was actually Sharu, which means “lion.” Saroo wasn’t making a big deal of that in the book. It was tiny, but I thought that could be a big moment.
What was it about Saroo’s story that made you want to bring it on screen?
I like challenges. And certainly the challenge of portraying India and this Indian kid who gets adopted, it was nothing in my experience of life. So I like a good challenge of “How can I use my skills to tell a story that’s completely foreign to me?” But the bigger part is that it feels like this mythic fable or fairy tale about reunification with a lost mother—and I related to that. We all relate to it.
As you said, you were dropping yourself into an experience that wasn’t yours. How did you ensure that you were giving this part of the world, these stories, and these experiences the proper respect they deserved?
Well, it was a few things. One is that I went on a very extensive research trip where I wanted to immerse myself not just in the world and the physical places—I did all that—but in the people who we were going to have the sacred duty of portraying. That wasn’t just Saroo, but also Kamla, his biological mother, as well as his adoptive parents. But the second part of that are the guys I work with: Garth [Davis, the director] and an incredibly respectful group of people. They have such great heart and they created an atmosphere of respect where there was no way we were going to do some easy, emotionally manipulative Hallmark Movie of the Week. We were raw and authentic and didn’t make India look like a Bollywood movie fantasy. It wasn’t about that; it was allowing this very simple story to play out in a very realistic landscape and not morally judge the poverty or the chaos of India.
The first part of the film has minimal dialogue and centers almost entirely on Sunny, the little boy who plays young Saroo. How did you translate his confusion into the script without using many words?
It was always intentional that the first hour of this film wouldn’t have much dialogue. Because the little kid’s experience was very animalistic; it was purely survival. From the moment he steps on that train, every single thing that happens for him is black and white. Left, right. Yes, no. This, that. Everything is a survival decision, so there’s not much depth or emotion. He just misses his mother, he’s distressed, and he needs to survive.
A lot of screenwriters in your position might not have the privilege of working with their real life subject. Did Saroo affect your creative process at all? I can imagine you might want to take some creative liberties, but is that hard when he can fact check you at any time?
To be clear, he knew we were going to take liberties. He just didn’t know what they were going to be. We told him we weren’t going to be able to fit in all the amazing things that happened into a two-hour movie. But he was very much a part of the beginning of the process when I was doing all my research. After that, I always felt I would be respectful to him and his family, and if there were any problems with the portrayal, they would come later when they read it.
Were there any big changes?
He completely accepted that we made changes. For example, in real life, there were two girlfriends who he drove crazy, not just one. Sort of three. Put it this way: his love life in real life was a little more complicated than the one we portrayed in the film.
Was anything cut out of the film that you would have wanted to stay?
There are a couple of scenes they shot that are not in the movie because of time reasons, ones that are beautiful and I wish were in there. One of them is this magnificent scene where Saroo and Lucy [Rooney Mara] are falling in love and they go to this underground dance party. It’s just a great dance sequence. They’re almost kissing but not quite. It’s a beautiful scene and I miss it.
Is there anything you wish you’d done differently while writing?
At the New York premiere, [Saroo’s mother] Sue told me an incredible story that, if I had known it when I had written the script, it would’ve gone into the scene between Nicole and Dev—the scene, where Nicole is crying. And that was this: she was 17 when she married John. And from the very beginning, they knew they were going to adopt, even when the Australian law said back then that you have to prove infertility to adopt. So they stuck to their vision and waited 16 years for the law to change, and then Saroo came into their life. So if you think about it, in the 16 years that the law prevented them from doing what they wanted to do, little Saroo was born, lived for 5 years in that town, got on that train, and got lost. And it took all of those things happening for him to become the kid who came into their life like that. I wish I had known that. I don’t know what I would have written, but I would’ve found a way of getting it in there.