Lion: Garth Davis–Director to Watch

Australian director Garth Davis made his feature debut this year with Lion, the highly acclaimed biopic, which is the Weinstein Company’s Oscar card.

Nominated for Best Picture-Drama Golden Globe by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Lion boasts a strong ensemble headed by Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman, both of whom received Supporting Actors nominations.

Hailing from the world of TV and commercials, Davis co-directed with Jane Campion the first season of “Top of the Lake,” starring Elisabeth Moss. Before that, Davis was known for his commercials, including the reel “Ninja Kittens” for Toyota.

Davis is proud of “Alice,” a short about an Australian family who loses their child. “I suppose it was a very little taste of where I wanted to go with my filmmaking,” he says.

Producers Iain Canning and Emile Sherman, who head the British-Australian company See-Saw Films (“The King’s Speech”) thought Davis would be right for Lion, the true tale of Saroo Brierley, a 5-year-old Indian who gets separated from his family, and manages to track them down some two decades later using Google Earth.

“We were at Sundance just hanging out, and they said they had just read this news article, and when they saw it they just thought of me,” he recalls. After rights were cleared to Brierley’s memoir “A Long Way Home,” the first thing Davis did was travel to India to immerse himself in Brierley’s world. He then went to L.A. and spent time with screenwriter Luke Davies, “just talking together about the structure and how we could tell the story.

“I wanted the script to come from a directorial place as well,” he notes. “I wanted us to have a vision and an atmosphere, and I think we needed to really understand that together before the pen went to paper.”

They decided not to recount Brierley’s separation as an extended flashback, and to have the first part of the film entirely in Hindi.

“There’s going to be lot of nervous people when you are releasing a movie in a foreign language for almost the first half,” he says. “But it had to be Hindi because we needed to see the contrast with Australian life, so we understand that he’s become something very different.”

The casting for Lion was also a very hands-on process for Davis, especially in selecting Sunny Pawar, the boy who plays Brierley as a 5-year-old. Pawar was chosen from thousands of screen tests, many of which Davis scrutinized himself. “With children you really have to do the work,” he notes.

Lion was lensed by Australian cinematographer Greig Fraser, who recently shot “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” and has worked with Davis for many years.

Fraser and his director decided to keep the camera with Brierley. “Basically at the beginning of our movie, the audience is with that little boy, and we have to be inside his experience,” Davis says. “I thought the more I could take the audience into that place, the more powerful it would be.”

Davis and Fraser are shooting biblical biopic Mary Magdalene in Italy, with Rooney Mara in the title role, produced by See-Saw Films.