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Lion’s jump from page to screen

Lion director Garth Davis, producer Emile Sherman and stars Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel discuss working in Australia and taking Saroo Brierley’s story from page to cinema.

Four years ago, producer Emile Sherman was at Sundance Film Festival with Top of the Lake when he came across the story of Saroo Brierley.

As told through his memoir Lion: A Long Way Home, Brierley was just five years old when he became separated from his family in India and was eventually adopted and raised by a couple in Tasmania. Some 25 years later, using Google Maps, he began his journey to try and find the loved ones he lost.

For Sherman and producer Iain Canning – who together founded See-Saw Films in 2008 – there was the same spark in Saroo’s story they had seen in the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech, Oranges and Sunshine and Tracks.

“If we can find an Australian story we feel has the scope to be an exciting story internationally, that really is the Holy Grail for us,” Sherman said in Sydney.

“And the minute we heard about Lion we knew this was one of them. So we went pretty voraciously to try to get the rights to it and assemble a great team.”

When it came to finding the perfect director for Lion, Sherman didn’t have to look further than the team who had travelled to Sundance with him for Top of the Lake.

Among them was Garth Davis, who co-directed the acclaimed television series with director Jane Campion and had previously been lauded for his work in commercials.

Davis says transferring the story of Lion onto the big screen was a delicious opportunity to get his hands on and explore a singular piece of filmmaking.

“I was quite relieved to do a film in many ways because TV is like a novel – it’s expansive and a complete marathon, whereas a film… I got excited about doing something that had its own form. It was its own complete thing.”

Joining Davis in the Lion team were Angie Fielder from Aquarius Films as producer and Luke Davies as writer. Screen Australia came on board with production funding toward the end of the scripting stage, before the stellar line-up of Nicole Kidman, David Wenham and Dev Patel had been cast.

“Even the early draft script was a fantastic rendering of the extraordinary true story on which Lion is based. We could see the potential for a top-quality film with real scale and commercial prospects, that could bring together diverse talent from all over the world to create this universal story,” Screen Australia’s Head of Production Sally Caplan said. “There was also the exciting prospect of seeing what Garth Davis would deliver in his feature film debut, especially after seeing him in his element in Top of the Lake.”

The result is a unique, heart-warming film that is universal in its story about family, identity and belonging, and yet also very Australian, with half the film set and shot in Australia.

And according to Kidman and Patel, those two landscapes – the visceral yellow-lit India and the blue-tinged Tasmania – are significant.

Sunny Pawar as Saroo in Lion/Mark Rogers

“The way in which Garth has shot it… you see Tasmania and Melbourne, but when you see that juxtaposed against the Indian landscapes, they’re both very important (as means of) emotional storytelling,” Kidman says.

“You have India contrasting with the kind of vast tranquillity of Tasmania,” Patel adds. “And you’ve got a boy who is born in India but is raised in Australia and is going back there, trying to connect to something dormant in his past.”

The actors are already garnering high praise, along with Davis, for their work in Lion. The film received four Golden Globe nominations – for Best Score, Best Supporting Actor and Actress and for Best Drama. While it didn’t take home any gongs, Sunny Pawar, who plays the young Saroo, lit up Twitter with his appearance at the ceremony and there’s buzz circulating for Oscar nods.

When it came to casting the older Saroo, Davis says London-born Patel already had the Australian larrikin personality “in spades”, but the role required him to bulk up and master the Australian accent.

In order to create a believable mother-son bond between Patel and Kidman, Davis also made sure the actors had a lot of rehearsal time together.

“I’m a big believer in rehearsing relationships, so it’s not so much about rehearsing scenes, I don’t do that. It’s all about relationship building.”

Patel says there was a lot of relationship building during his time filming in Australia – so much so, he is keen to come back to work here.

“I’m all about colliding with interesting people and I think the crews here, they’re just so positive. There’s such a great camaraderie on a set in Australia and I’ve so enjoyed it,” he says.

It’s something Kidman knows well – and is one of the reasons she keeps returning here as well, whether it’s to film Lion, or 2015’s Strangerland, or upcoming Top of the Lake series 2.

“It’s the industry that made me,” she says.

“I was given my start here. I was built here and it’s just an honour to be able to come back and contribute.”

Lion releases in Australian cinemas on January 19 with advance screenings on now. Visit www.lionmovie.com.au for more info. Lion is distributed by Transmission Films.