Aspen Film Academy Screenings: Director Garth Davis on making the miracle of ‘Lion’ |

Aspen Film Academy Screenings: Director Garth Davis on making the miracle of ‘Lion’

Dev Patel as Saroo Brierly in "Lion." The drama plays at Aspen Film's Academy Screenings on Thursday, Dec. 22 at 8:15 p.m. in the Wheeler Opera House.
Mark Rogers/Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘Lion’ at Academy Screenings

Where: Wheeler Opera House

When: Thursday, Dec. 22, 8:15 p.m.

How much: $20/general admission; $15/Aspen Film members

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office;

Saroo Brierly’s story is the stuff of miracles.

As a 5-year-old in the impoverished Khandwa district of central India, he got stuck on a train that sent him some 1,600 kilometers west to Calcutta. Lost there and unable to speak the language, name his family or his hometown, Brierly lived in an orphanage, from which he was adopted by an Australian family. More than 20 years later, armed only with hope, Google Earth and his vague memories of home, Brierly reunited with his family back in India.

Australian filmmaker Garth Davis was enchanted by Brierly’s extraordinary tale and has adapted it into his first feature. “Lion,” based on Brierly’s memoir “A Long Way Home,” screens at Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings today.

“I couldn’t get it out of my soul, it was so moving,” Davis said in a recent telephone interview.

Brierly’s tearjerker of a story had a cinematic sweep built into it.

“It had this epic odyssey from India to Australia, which I found really interesting,” Davis said. “And the thing that really hooked me was trying to understand how and why this miracle occurred. As I looked closely at it, I realized that the love everybody had for each other was quite special and powerful. It engineered the miracle of this story.”

Davis’ diptych of a film spends its first half with the young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) on his terrifying journey from home to the streets of Calcutta and into the harsh orphanage, through his adoption by the Hobart, Australia, couple Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham).

“Lion” then jumps forward 20 years, as the adult Saroo (Dev Patel) prepares to leave his adoptive home. When he sets for college to study hotel management with an international crop of students, he begins pining to find out his roots. Talking about his hazy origins with his new friends for the first time, he breaks down and admits, “I’m not from Calcutta. I’m lost.”

From there, he sets off on his quixotic online journey to find his family.

Patel’s performance is entrancing. The wide-eyed kid from “Slumdog Millionaire” and the “Exotic Marigold Hotel” movies has transformed himself into a strapping Aussie bro for “Lion.” Yet that exterior belies an inner torment that only slowly boils over. For much of the film, he is keeping his search for his blood family secret — he can’t talk to anyone about it. So rather than emotive monologues, his yearning and growing desperation play out mostly in his eyes.

“Dev’s performance had to have a mystery to it and a quality to it that alluded to something under the surface,” Davis said. “So I worked with Dev to not release his energy in his performance, and to contain it. I think he did some beautiful work.”

Both Patel and Kidman were recently nominated for Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe Awards for their performances.

Davis worked closely with Saroo and both his Australian and Indian families while making “Lion.” He felt the pressure of being entrusted to tell their story, but any fears about their reaction to it were assuaged in an early screening. Davis recalled showing a cut of the film to the Brierlys in Sydney. As the closing credits rolled, he looked down from the projection room to see if they were done.

“They were all in this embrace, all hugging each other, deeply moved by the film,” he recalled. “I don’t think any of them could speak for a half hour. So I think they found it moving and respectful of their story.”

Coming into India as an outsider — and making a film that takes an unvarnished look at some of the poverty there — certainly has its potential pitfalls. “Slumdog Millionaire,” for instance, brought on a backlash and protests in India over its depiction of Mumbai slums. Davis said he simply did his best to stay true to Saroo’s experiences. As long as he did that, he felt, he couldn’t go wrong.

“I was just focused on Saroo’s story and trying to represent that in the most honest and respectful way that I could,” he said. “By respecting one person’s story, I hope that I’ve respected the greater story.”

After an auspicious debut with “Lion,” Davis has another eagerly anticipated drama due in 2017. He recently finished shooting “Mary Magdalene,” a portrait of the Biblical figure starring Rooney Mara — who plays Saroo’s girlfriend in “Lion” — in the title role.

The filmmakers have also launched an initiative to help protect the 80,000 children who, like Saroo, go missing in India every year. Learn more at