Lion: Real Life and Literary Origins

Garth Davis is a novice director when it comes to feature filmmaking.  His previous experience was the acclaimed TV series, Top of the Lake for the Sundance Channel.

He says he was intrigued by an Internet story about a 5-year-old Indian boy who got lost at a railway station in Madhya Pradesh, accidentally boarded a train making the 930-mile trip to Kolkata, ended up abandoned and alone, got adopted by a couple 5,000 miles away in Australia and then, years later, after he’d grown up, searched for his birth mother in India by using Google Earth.

Davis’ producing partners, Emile Sherman, believes it was the story’s “sense of hope” that appealed to the director, alongside the use in real life of a new technology–Google Earth.

There was a bidding war to sign the life rights of a 32-year-old Tasmanian man, and then a four-month search to find the right little boy to play him as a boy.

Three years later, Lion premiered to great acclaim at the 2016 Toronto Film Fest,

The film stars Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, Dev Patel and now 8-year-old Sunny Pawar.

The core of the story is about a son’s lifelong quest to be reunited with his mom. “I kind of saw an external and an internal story,” Davis says of of his fascination with the tale. “They are kind of different emotional landscapes. I got very excited by that.”

The boy in the story, Saroo Brierley, grew up to be a businessman in Hobart, Tasmania. And after his remarkable tale was discovered and published in the local press, he found himself the most popular guy in Australia. “It just sort of snowballed globally,” Brierley recalls of the reaction to the article. “Penguin Random House, Hachette and HarperCollins were on to me to write a book. Then all of a sudden people were wanting the rights to the movie.”

But he had the advantage of being Australian. “Some of the American companies wanted the family that adopts the boy to be from America,” Brierley recalls. “That didn’t make sense to me. I was very particular to tell the story as it was.”

Sherman, along with producer Iain Canning got Brierley’s consent in May 2013. Then Sherman approached Aussie screenwriter Luke Davies (they collaborated on the 2006 film, Candy) for the script.  Seventeen months later, Davies turned in a draft that told the story in as linear a way as possible, with no flashbacks.

That meant that the first half of the movie followed a 5-year-old boy who barely spoke. “It was such an elemental and simple story,” says the writer. “Wall-E was somehow floating around in my head — that little robot wandering around that postapocalyptic landscape.”

That elemental script set off a bidding war at Cannes Film Fest in 2014, when The Weinstein Co. beat out Fox Searchlight with a $12 million offer.