When Luke Davies first heard the story of Saroo Brierley
– an Indian man who lost his way home as a five year old boy, ended up
getting adopted by a couple in Australia, and only found his birth
family 25 years later after an obsessive search of Google Earth – the
writer had no idea that Brierley’s inspirational story would also change
his own life.
The Australian-born Davies is a published novelist (Candy,
Isabelle the Navigator and God of Speed) and poet (Four
Plots for Magnets, Running With Light and Totem). He was
also a film critic for The Monthly. Davies made the jump to
screenwriting with an adaptation of his first novel Candy, which
was filmed in 2006 as one of the final starring vehicles for the late
actor Heath Ledger.
After that movie made a minor splash, Davies moved to the
US to concentrate on his screenwriting. This led to the films
Reclaim (2014) with John Cusack and Ryan Phillippe, and
Life (2015) with Robert Pattinson and Dane DeHaan.
However, Davies’ real breakthrough was the current
feel-good hit Lion, which was based upon Brierley’s autobiography
The Long Way Home (co-written with Larry Buttrose). The film has
been a critical darling and has been nominated for six Oscars; including
Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Dev Patel), Best Supporting Actress
(Nicole Kidman) and one for Davies for Best Adapted Screenplay.
A week after he received his Academy Award nomination, we
caught up with Davies in New York for this exclusive chat.
did you learn about Saroo’s story and his book
A Long Way Home?
I read it, like a lot of people. There was a lot of
activity online about the story when the book came out. I had read
[about] it and thought: wow, amazing story. But it was a little bit in
one ear and out the other. Then, about a week later Cecil Films, the
producers, came to me and said, “We’ve optioned this book. Do you know
about this story?” I was like: yeah, actually I do know about that
story. I just read about it. Seems kind of amazing. They said, “Read
the book and tell us what you’d do if you were to adapt this story.”
So, it wasn’t a job offer, it was an offer to audition. (laughs)
Why did Saroo’s story intrigue you?
Oh, my God. It was so pure, basically. The simple
answer is it felt like an incredibly simple, but powerful, fairytale.
It felt like a really ancient myth from the dawns of time, and yet it
was so modern. It was like a modern myth, because it had this
technological aspect. Basically, this story could never have happened
before ten years ago. He could not have found home the way he did
before Google Earth was released ten years ago. That made it feel
incredibly contemporary, as well as incredibly ancient. So universal
and relevant to our times now. That’s what struck me. Imagine being
able to rise to the challenge of turning this simple, powerful myth into
a beautiful film. That was my obsessive desire in hoping I would get
Since you were telling a true story, did you feel a
responsibility to stick with the truth of the story, or did you feel as
a writer that you could take some artistic license?
I felt a very clear responsibility, almost like a moral
and ethical responsibility, to... not to stick to every single fact, but
to remember that every single person, bar one, in this story, was very
much alive and kicking.
Guddu, the brother... The three parents are still alive.
Oh, right, I apologize, I misunderstood you. I thought
you were talking about a character that was not necessarily based on a
Oh, no, no, I didn’t mean that, no. I just meant that
one of the actual characters was unfortunately dead. But, yes, so there
is definitely a sense that these are real people and there’s an
obligation not to cause pain. Yet, on the other hand, The Brierley
family was incredibly generous in understanding that we needed to make
certain changes in compression. Nothing major. The story is so
extraordinary that we didn’t have to change any of the basic elements of
what happened, how he got lost and how he found home. But within the
story, yeah, there are certain things. An example is in real life Saroo
basically drove two girlfriends, possibly three depending on how you
define it, completely bonkers with his obsessive internet searching.
For our purposes, it was just much easier and made the film less busy to
have one girlfriend through the entire film. That’s Rooney Mara playing
his girlfriend Lucy. Matters like that, the family and Saroo were
absolutely fine with. We stuck to the extraordinary improbability of
the story. It’s literally one of those things where people say, “Yeah,
if you invented this, people wouldn’t believe it.”
are Australian, so obviously the scenes in Tasmania were taking place in
an area you are familiar with. Was it more difficult to imagine Saroo’s
world in India?
Yes. Yes. The Australian suburban thing that is half of
the film, with adult Saroo, is in my bones. The chaos and intensity of
India was a completely foreign and overwhelming experience to me. But I
really dived into the research trip. When I got the job, I went
straight to India with Saroo. He showed me around all of the real
places where everything happened. The train station. The orphanage.
His hometown. The dam. The station. That was amazing, but the most
amazing part of that trip was meeting his biological mother, Kamla.
Sitting in a room with her for two hours and hearing her tell her story
through an interpreter. Just feeling the intensity of her grief and
loss and suffering for 25 years. Also, the intensity of her joy that at
the reunification with her son. It was amazing, they sat there for the
whole two hours stroking and caressing each other. It was the most
beautiful thing, the mother/son reunion. She cried. She kept crying
through the interview. I kept apologizing for asking questions that
made her cry. She kept saying, “No, no. I want to do this. I want to
help the film.” It was an amazing experience.
Speaking of interpreters, much of the dialogue,
particularly in the first half, is in Hindi or Bengali. I assume you
aren’t fluent in those languages, so how did that work? Did you write
the dialogue in English and have it translated?
Yes. That’s a correct assumption that I’m not fluent in
either language. I just wrote the dialogue in English, knowing and
trusting that the producers would, of course, get the dialogue properly
translated. (laughs) That was a long process. There were
interesting discoveries there. You learn that there are ways in which
things don’t translate well, even at a grammatical level. There are
questions that came up with the actors about, “Well, I wouldn’t really
say it like this, I would say it like this...” So, there was always an
interpreter on hand during the shoot, to deal with those questions. It
was in very professional hands. I was fascinated when I visited the set
to see the two [divided into] left page, right page versions of the
script in the two languages. It was very interesting.
How much time did you get to spend on the sets during
Very little. We thought the script was in good shape, so
it’s not like we need the writer on set because there are daily
emergencies going on. There was literally no rewriting going on once
the script was considered to be a shooting script. So I was really just
the honorary drop in for a three-day visit, once in India and once in
Australia. Just to drop in and see what was happening. It was all very
exciting, but I was kind of an outsider and an observer at that point.
It was just like, “Hey, welcome, have fun...”
Google Earth scenes were obviously fascinating, just in all the
importance that they imply to Saroo’s life and history, but there is
nothing inherently cinematic about someone sitting at a computer and
looking at a computer screen. How did you, and Garth as the director,
go about making those scenes as vital as they became?
Thanks. I’m glad you found them vital. That’s what we
hoped to do. We knew that this film was unusual, in the sense that we
all know that screens on screen is a Screenwriting 101 no-no. Try to
avoid that. Yet, we knew that the story of the actual harnessing of the
technology was completely integral to emotional journey of the film. So
we knew we had to embrace it. The way that we imagined how to make that
embrace work, and I think you see it in the film, is that I wrote into
the script the moments where we see the Google Earth screens and we
blended them in with the soaring aerial shots that orbit into the movie.
In the audience experience, you get lifted out of the screen shots into
Saroo’s imagination, essentially. Saroo’s imagination and all his hopes
and dreams and fears about whether he can find his home, find his
mother. Cinematically, in terms of the cinematography, it’s very
beautiful and full of gliding shots. We jump between the computer
screen into Saroo’s imagination via these aerial shots, which are very
fluid and very beautiful, whether they are in Tasmania or India.
How involved was Google with making the film? Have you
heard what they thought of the end product?
We did hear. It’s complex. The film producers obviously
wanted to keep – and did keep – Google at arm’s length from the
process. There’s certainly no money connection between the two. We
didn’t want any sense that this is some kind of corporate getting in bed
together. We wanted our film to feel very independent and pure. And
yet, we needed to embrace the technology. The technology was
Google Earth, which is one of the most incredible apps that was ever
released, in my mind. I love it, as a consumer. But they did get
involved in the sense that they really wanted to get the versions of
Google Earth right. They went back into what they called the archeology
of the programming. They weren’t even sure if they could retrieve that;
to recreate Google Earth exactly as it was when each of these moments
happened with Saroo’s searching, which spread over a few years. So that
worked. They very kindly made those versions of Google Earth possible.
What you see onscreen in the film is completely authentic. The answer
to your question “how did Google feel about it?” They absolutely love
it. A whole bunch of Google people came out from California for our
world premiere, which was in New York. The first moment that you see
the Google screen, there was this big cheer from this one section of the
audience, which was all the Google guys. They really liked the film a
was pretty shocking in the end chyrons when it said that 80,000 children
go missing in India annually. Saroo was one of the lucky ones who
eventually found his way home. Do you think this film can help spread
awareness of this horrible problem?
I absolutely think so. To be honest, I did not set out
writing this film thinking I was going to be part of a conversation that
emerged from this film about the scourge of child sex trafficking in
India, but also in the world. But that has been emerging, and this
extraordinary conversation continues to grow. The film, in a way, has
shown a spotlight on this issue. The producers have aligned themselves
with charities that are involved with trying to lessen this problem.
There is no instant fix, but there are directions we can head in that
make the world a better place, and that alleviate the suffering of
children, one child at a time. This film, in terms of John and Sue
Brierley adopting Saroo – the characters played by Nicole Kidman and
David Wenham – it opens up people’s minds to that issue of alleviating
suffering one child at a time. But at a wider level, it also plays into
the question of global child sex trafficking, which we a little of in
the film. We are very thrilled. One result of this film that we
weren’t really planning on is that it’s making a difference.
In the last part of the film, it shows footage of the
real Saroo with his adoptive parents and his real family meeting. Was
this an idea you always had for the film, or how did that come about?
It was. It was always an idea. One of the very first
things that I thought – and that Garth Evans, the director, agreed with
– was that it would be a powerful punch if when we’ve been through all
of this incredibly harrowing, but ultimately triumphant, emotional
journey, you’d get to the end and see the real people. This has worked
in films before. Schindler’s List. Rabbit-Proof Fence. There
are a lot of beautiful films where you see the real people at the end.
It’s always effective. I love it so much in this film. It’s just an
extraordinary moment of the two mothers and Saroo embracing. To me,
it’s a beautiful, satisfying punctuation mark that releases you from the
film, from the journey you’ve just been through. It makes you feel good
at the same time.
have written four feature scripts at this point. Over the years you’ve
had some great actors perform your work – Heath Ledger, Geoffrey Rush,
John Cusack, Ryan Phillippe, Dane DeHaan, and now Dev Patel, Rooney Mara
and Nicole Kidman. As a writer, how gratifying is it to you to see the
words that came from your head performed on screen by such fine actors?
It’s the most beautiful and exciting experience that I’ve
been fortunate enough to see some of these actors perform my words.
Perform is not the word, because [with] the really great actors, it
really doesn’t feel like performance. They’re completely living them.
I love this feeling so much. I feel very, very fortunate just that this
has happened. From the late Heath Ledger, God rest his soul, such a
beautiful person.... That was my first big experience with writing
these words and hoping that maybe this weird little film you wrote is
going to get made. Then Heath Ledger comes along and it was amazing
seeing that. I wrote a film called Beautiful Boy that starts
shooting in a few weeks’ time and Steve Carell is the lead. So, I’m
really excited about that. I’ve just been re-reading the script now
that I know that it’s Steve Carell, and imagining him saying the lines.
It’s a good feeling.
How is it different is it adapting your own work, like
Candy, from doing someone else’s story like Lion or
The experiences were very different, in the sense that
Candy was kind of my life. It was a typical thinly-veiled,
semi-autobiographical first novel. So that was deep inside me. The
stuff I was drawing on was not just the novel, but also some aspects of
the real me. Whereas, Beautiful Boy, that’s about to shoot, or
Lion, I had other obligations: to get a story that happened to
someone else right. Or in the case of Life, this film that I
wrote about James Dean that Anton Corbijn directed, that was an original
screenplay. That was just based on research. Research from all sorts
of sources and Wikipedia and so on. That was different, because I
wasn’t following the course of a book. I was just following the course
of this outline that I proposed to the producers and they said, “Yeah,
okay, let’s try that structure.”
Beyond screenwriting, you are also a published novelist
and poet – which are three very different styles of writing. Which
comes the most naturally to you, and which is hardest? Do you plan on
concentrating on your screenwriting now or continuing to juggle all
I do plan on juggling still. The novels have lost a bit
of momentum because for a few years I’ve been going with the
screenwriting momentum. Things have turned a corner. I was really a
starving artist for lot of years. I moved to LA nine years ago, and the
first five were really difficult. But I do have a couple of novels that
are floating along that I intend to finish sooner rather than later. As
a poet, I’m always still writing poetry. Poetry doesn’t have a wide
audience, but it’s the center of my being and my sense of who I am as a
writer. I just hope that the part of me that is the poet comes into my
screenplays, and makes poetic films.
You directed your own short film “Air.” Do you have any
urge to do more directing, maybe try a feature?
I would love to, when and if the right circumstances
arise. (chuckles) I’ve let people know that this is one of my
plans. All I know is that it’s good to have dreams and ambitions and
fantasies. And there’s different levels of those. Right now, I know
that I’m doing things in the world of writing screenplays that are
actually happening. It certainly keeps me really busy. I plan, or
hope, or dream of one day making the transition from writer to
writer/director. It may or may not happen. If it does, that’s great.
I’m prepared for it. If it doesn’t I’m pretty happy right now with the
world that I’m in; writing screenplays, getting back to my novels, and
How did you find out that you had been nominated for an
Oscar, and what is that experience like?
It was a very special feeling. It was only a week ago.
I really think I’m still processing it. I went to sleep. I was really
tired. I’d been trekking in the Himalayas as research for another
possible film that might be coming up. I arrived back in LA. I was
pretty tired and I just needed a good night’s sleep. I did not set my
alarm for five o’clock in the morning in LA, when the announcements
would have come through. I put my phone on silent. It felt like
Christmas. When I woke up, something interesting was going to happen.
I woke under my own steam at eight o’clock. I reached over and looked
at my phone screen. The very first thing I saw were a whole lot of
exclamation marks. That was a great moment. Then I focused my eyes and
I saw the word congratulations a couple of times. My screen showed a
few of the messages that by then had piled up from all the people in the
New York time zone who were sending congratulatory text messages, and
leaving voice messages. But, the phone was on silent. I loaded it all
in a single flood at eight AM, not five AM.
What are your plans for Oscar night?
Well, I’m thrilled that we have six nominations. I’m really happy that
in such a weird and overwhelming circumstance that I’ve never
experienced before, that I’m going to be with my little gang – my
Lion gang. Garth Davis, the director, and Nicole Kidman, and Dev
Patel, and the producers. There’s a real camaraderie and love amongst
us. I don’t know how it all plays out, or how crazy and stressful it
is, but I feel really protected and warm that I’m going to be in that
little gang. We’ll have fun.
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