Butterfly memories, part 1

Luke Davies on adapting Saroo Brierley's memoir into Lion.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Luke Davies, Oscar nominated screenwriter for Lion with Anne-Katrin Titze
Luke Davies, Oscar nominated screenwriter for Lion with Anne-Katrin Titze Photo: Susan Engel

Meeting up with novelist, essayist, film critic, and very famous poet, Luke Davies, to discuss his latest screenplay, based on Saroo Brierley's memoir A Long Way Home for Lion, directed by Garth Davis, starring Nicole Kidman, Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham and Sunny Pawar, we talked about the Proust moment, Hans Christian Andersen's Little Match Girl, Anton Corbijn, John Frankenheimer's The Train, Felix Van Groeningen's Beautiful Boy starring Steve Carell, Gianfranco Rosi's Boatman, Australian adoption laws, butterflies, and visual cues.

In Lion, memories are the only tools available to the hero for regaining a sense of origin. Luke Davies attaches us firmly to little five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) who gets lost on a dangerous, life-altering adventure.

Saroo (Sunny Pawar): "He describes this hedge that was filled with butterflies."
Saroo (Sunny Pawar): "He describes this hedge that was filled with butterflies."

Salvation does arrive in the shape of Nicole Kidman as Sue Brierley, who, in a marvelous scene, makes the strongest plea for adoption I have seen on screen. Sue and her husband John (David Wenham) give Saroo a new life in Hobart, Tasmania in 1987. "I'll always listen, always," she promises the child.

20 years forward, Saroo, now played by Dev Patel - with the help of a sweet taste memory, a girlfriend named Lucy (Rooney Mara), the magic of Google Earth, some luck, and a push from Mnemosyne - comes full circle. We are left to deal with the possibility of a return to a place that may no longer be there or never really existed in the first place.

Nominated for six Academy Awards - Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Original Score and Best Supporting nods to Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel - Lion is a reminder of the perceptible and often disregarded fact that people want to - and can - help each other in need.

Anne-Katrin Titze: First of all, congratulations on the Oscar nomination!

Luke Davies: Thank you. We are pleasantly surprised. It's genuinely unexpected. The last few months it's become less unexpected. We were like, oh my god! I'm not putting us down, like, we knew 15 months ago with the rough cut it was like, okay, we've done a good thing. Still, none of us expected that a film that is the first 50 minutes are in Hindi with English subtitles and a five-year-old actor. We honestly did not expect that suddenly at this point we have six nominations. So that's a good feeling.

AKT: I can imagine. Did you start the screenplay with something like - Boy runs into pale-golden butterflies?

Sue Brierley (Nicole Kidman) with Saroo
Sue Brierley (Nicole Kidman) with Saroo

LD: It was in the very first draft. In Saroo's memoir, he talks about his memories of childhood before he got lost and he describes how he used to go here and here and here. There was the green temple and there was the old wise man and he describes this hedge that was filled with butterflies. It's just a visual memory. In the book he just tells of that as one of the geographical locators. But both Garth [Davis] and I were saying to each other when we were beginning to map out the story on a whiteboard.

Actually, when I was 10 and 11 years old, we moved from Sydney to the country to this place called The Butterfly Farm. My dad, he was like a journalist and then suddenly he became the manager of this tourist place called The Butterfly Farm where families would come and have weekend picnics. There were these domes, geodesic domes filled with rainforest and butterflies and the tourists would come. So that was where I lived for 18 months at The Butterfly Farm!

AKT: So it's your personal memory in there as well? You pushed for the butterflies?

LD: No, it was a very equally enthusiastic thing. Garth said "I love the butterflies." I honestly can't remember who came up with the idea first.

AKT: The film is so much about memory. The plot, the story is structured around having to find your past through details that you remember, which is fascinating. Did you map it out according to the different senses? Because there's the taste …

Saroo (Dev Patel) with Lucy (Rooney Mara)
Saroo (Dev Patel) with Lucy (Rooney Mara)

LD: There's the Proust moment. Yeah, the madeleine moment. The primary motor of memory is the four or five visual memories that Saroo had still in his head that geographically located his home environment. The four or five visual memories that he was looking for in the obsessive Google Earth search. In the script, you know, a scene heading usually says - Ext. Road to …, Ext. -Train Platform - Day, or Int.-Train to blah, blah, blah - Night.

But we had these scene headings that were called Memory Map No. 1, Memory Map No. 2 , Memory Map No. 3, Memory Map No. 4. in the script. In the end, whenever we needed to show a quick flashback moment, all we needed to do was put in the scene heading - Memory Map No. 1 - He sees the rain tank. Memory Map No. 2 - He is playing at the dam. So it was not just a shorthand in the script, but in the film itself. You keep seeing those obvious places of his memory.

AKT: What I liked very much is that it wasn't only the visuals but also the sound of his own name and the taste of the pastry - the madeleine moment, as you call it - that are structuring this. One scene I noticed in particular was the dream sequence of the mother carrying rocks. The little boy conjures this up in his despair. That reminded me of Hans Christian Andersen's Little Match Girl.

LD: Hmm.

Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley (David Wenham) with Saroo (Sonny Pawar)
Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley (David Wenham) with Saroo (Sonny Pawar)

AKT: The fantasy of dreaming yourself into a better world that could also mean death in that sense. Reunited with the grandmother. It's very sad and poetic.

LD: Oh, yeah. I love that you felt that. I've never read the story but there's a Hans Christian Andersen film that I saw when I was a child.

AKT: The little girl keeps lighting matches because it's so cold and with the last one she imagines that her dead grandmother is opening her arms and she is so happy. Then it goes to the next day and she is lying in the snow, dead, with the last match lit.

LD: God, wow.

AKT: That's where my thoughts went with Saroo. There were a few times I thought of fairy tales. Hansel and Gretel without Gretel. Just a little boy lost.

LD: Yeah, I have often thought that. Very early on I was saying to the producers and to Garth - Garth was easy to convince - but with the producers it was a little bit more hard work - that we should believe in the strength of this story. To begin with this five-year-old boy, chronologically. No tricks, you don't begin with your stars, Nicole Kidman, Dev Patel and then flashback.

Poster for Oscar nominated film Lion
Poster for Oscar nominated film Lion

Of course, the producers were a little bit worried, like just to get a film financed when you're telling financiers that the first 50 minutes of your film is going to be in Hindi with English subtitles. No adult star actors, a non-professional five-year-old actor - this makes the finance people a little kind of nervous.

Very early on, I said to them, this film is mythic, it's powerful, it's elemental, it's like a fairy tale. And a fairy tale begins once upon a time. Right? Once upon a time a five-year-old boy stepped on a train and catastrophe began. But it doesn't begin - Once upon a time a thirty-year-old guy who was going through these kind of complex problems … You know what I mean? That you instantly diluted the power of the primal fairy tale. To me it is one of the most ancient kind of stories. Reunification with a lost mother.

Coming up - Luke Davies on the world premiere of Lion in New York, Sue Brierley, Nicole Kidman, Dev Patel, Anton Corbijn, John Frankenheimer's The Train, Gianfranco Rosi's Boatman, and Felix Van Groeningen's Beautiful Boy starring Steve Carell.

Lion is in cinemas in the US and UK.

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