Interview | Garth Davis on Google, ‘Lion’ and ‘Mary Magdalene’

The Oscar contender says his upcoming biblical drama 'Mary Magdalene' is "something nobody’s ever seen before."

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

When your first feature film is a major Oscar contender, you might want to luxuriate in the spotlight a bit. That’s not even an option for Garth Davis, the director of the acclaimed drama Lion. Audiences are cheering for this based-on-a-true story about Saroo Brierly (played by Dev Patel), who fell asleep on a train as a child in India, woke up in all alone in a new country, suffered through unthinkable situations, became adopted by a kindly Australian couple, and as an adult spent years searching Google Earth for clues about where he came from, and where his birth mother might be.

And yet, when I spoke to Garth Davis about Lion over the telephone, he wasn’t in the middle of a glamorous press tour. He was fresh off of production on his follow-up, the biblical drama Mary Magdalene, and right about to enter the editing room. No rest for the weary, but he was cheerful and eager to talk about the process of bringing Saroo Brierly’s unusual life story to life on the big screen, and to tease what could very well be an exciting new interpretation of Mary Magdalene’s story.

Lion is now playing in theaters.

The Weinstein Company

The Weinstein Company

Crave: Lion is an interesting film on which to make your feature debut as a director. Was it only ever going to be this film, or were there other ideas that intrigued you before you decided on Lion?

Garth Davis: You mean were there other projects that intrigued me?

Yeah, did it have to be Lion for you…?

Oh no, it didn’t have to be. Look, it’s just one of those things in life, you know? I always want to work on things that really scare me and interest me at the same time, and you know, I definitely had some projects in the past that did that but the stars never aligned in getting them up. So Lion was another project that really interested me and the stars did align on this one. It just happened to be my first film! [Laughs.] It’s just fate.

What was it about Lion, as opposed to those other projects?

Well, I mean I do love all the other projects that I’ve been looking at as well, by the way, but Lion was just… I do love the fact that it was a true story, an incredible miracle of a story. I love the epic scope of it. I do love odysseys and I do love those kinds of epic journeys when you got to a cinema and can’t believe where you end up and where you go. So I loved all that, the ambitiousness of it.

But the thing that really got me was the emotionality that was sitting under the surface, and there was this incredible love that everybody held for each other despite the challenges and the distances. I felt that that was engineering the miracle of the story, and I found that a very exciting thing to expose as a filmmaker. So it wasn’t just the story, great story, it had something more spiritual and emotional going on that I got really excited about.

The Weinstein Company

The Weinstein Company

I think I’ve lost track of how many films I’ve seen about people who were adopted, who are trying to find their birth parents. But in Lion it feels like it’s not about Saroo, it’s actually about something greater than that. It’s about his family as well. What are your thoughts?

Yeah, I think through Saroo’s story, it just proves that home can be love, and even though of course we all want to be with our biological parents, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be any less off if you’re adopted. And I think we see through Sue that the love she gave to those children is one of the greatest gifts that we can give anyone. So I think there are a lot of broader messages going on here, and I think it’s just an incredible portrait of love, really, and the power that that has, and the power that we all hold, really. So it does broaden right out, for sure.

And yet, even though it’s all about love, it never feels saccharine. In fact a lot of this movie is very brutal, emotionally. Was that a concern for you, that you might make it unpleasant?

No, because it has to be truthful otherwise I’m not going to make it. [Laughs.] Number one. But number two, I think you’re right, like if there was no truth then the love is saccharine, but if the love is there in an honest world, I think then it’s very relatable and powerful. I mean there are so many people I’ve seen in the audiences that you can just feel that they’ve had trouble in their lives, even in the Q&A’s, you know? They can relate to all sorts of stories and see themselves in this story. Even mothers who haven’t had a great relationship with their sons, in this movie, just watching the family love each other and hug each other after everything they’ve been through, I think people just relate to that. I mean there are so many facets of the film that they relate to. But I had to tell it truthfully. It’s also based on what the family wanted from the movie as well. They didn’t want it to be sugarcoated so I just think that’s the way it should have been done.

The Weinstein Company

The Weinstein Company

One of the interesting things, I thought, from your end was the amount of time you spent on Saroo’s journey as a child. It would have been possible to tell this story much more quickly and just sell the plot point that he is separated from his family, but you really dedicate a huge portion of the first half of the movie to his isolated journey. Was that a point of discussion, in terms of structuring the film?

[Laughs.] Yeah, there was lots of discussion about how the film is structured, how the story should be told. But it’s one of those weird alchemies, this movie, because we were going for something that was emotional and I suppose had a sense of spirituality as well. There’s all of these kind of emotional cobwebs that are joining everything, and it’s very fascinating. If you shortchange an element of the story it just loses something. It’s just a peculiar thing.

So we just found that the film became a deck of cards when you truncated it too much. It lost something, and I think I’m really happy that we spent the time with little Saroo because the audience really experienced his journey and could empathize with children being sexually abused, through the other children in the orphanage. They can understand what it’s like to be lost, in his shoes in a world that doesn’t see him. And you take that into the contemporary story. So I think all those lessons for the audience are important. Of course you cut a movie in half but I think you lose the magic in this case.

I also think that by eschewing a very conventional three-act structure, in terms of Lion’s pacing, it lends the film a more epic quality. 

Yeah.

It really takes you on a journey that’s not typical.

That’s right, and look, to be honest this is not about a modern guy who is trying to remember something. He totally remembers everything. It’s all there, every day of his life. Every night of his life he imagines going home and saying hello to his mother. It’s not like amnesia, or “I wonder who my real parents are?” He knows everything. He’s just lost. So it didn’t really lend itself to a more predictable structure, starting modern day, remembering things and going backwards.

And also if you talk about this story everybody says it’s the story of a little boy who gets trapped on a train, and you tell the story in a linear way because it’s the most powerful way to describe the story. Because people can’t believe how a little boy in India ends up in Australia, ends up this modern guy that you wouldn’t even look twice at down the street, and then suddenly finds his way home 25 years later. I mean it just seems to lend itself to that kind of odyssey, that kind of epic narrative.

The Weinstein Company

The Weinstein Company

Tell me about the relationship with Google. This is a film that relies upon, essentially, a product’s existence in order to tell the story. Did you have a close relationship with the company or did they just say, “Yeah, we did that, you can do whatever you want?”

Look, we did have a relationship with Google, but in a way that was… I mean obviously we needed their approval to use their software and show it in a movie, so that was the first step. And the second step was really, technically, they were helping us in getting the older versions of the software, because I wanted to have exactly the same software that Saroo was using at the time because it was slower and the imagery was more low-resolution. So I just wanted the authenticity and they helped us completely in that way. And that was the extent of their help, really, was just making sure that things we were filming were accurate.

And yeah, it’s a tricky one because it’s an integral part to how he found home and you can very quickly get labeled in this industry – like I’m learning – that if you have a product in a film that… you know? [Laughs] You’re advertising their product. But for me I just focus on the story I’m telling, and this is the wa he found home, and I just tried to show it in a way that I felt was cinematic.

I think you can avoid getting pigeonholed. It’s going to be hard fitting a lot of products in Mary Magdalene, for example.

[Laughs.] Thank god! That’s right.

What is Mary Magdalene? Is it going to be a big historical epic or are you going for something a little different?

I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about it but it’s a very humanistic portrayal of the story, so I think it’s going to be something nobody’s ever seen before. So I think that’s very exciting.

Considering how many times biblical stories have been told, the idea that hasn’t been seen before is an intriguing element.

Yeah.

Do you think it’s just because you’re the one telling the story now, or – and I know you can’t tell me about it – do you have a particular idea that you’re do very differently?

Well, I just think for me it’s a very relatable version and I’m quite excited to share it. So I get into the edit room soon, so I can’t wait. I literally just walked off the set about a week ago.

The Weinstein Company

The Weinstein Company

So what’s coming next, after that? What are you looking for, whether or not you’ve made your decision?

I can’t see that far. [Laughs.] I can’t see that far. I mean there’s things in the pipeline but I just need to honor and serve the film that I’ve got in front of me at the moment, and so I’ll pop out of that wormhole at some point and see how I’m standing.

Is it difficult to keep your eyes on the ball, and stay focused on Mary Magdalene when you have to do all this publicity for Lion?

Yeah, well, it was definitely tricky. Obviously I’m kind of new at all of this and they trusted [me with] two movies, one after the other. I mean a lot of the same people that were involved in Lion were involved in Mary Magdalene, so there was an understanding that that was going to happen and there was some movements made in the schedule to support that process. So that was lucky. But it’s really tricky but we did it, so that’s the main thing. Essentially it just means I’ve missed a lot of Lion’s premieres. I only went to Toronto and I had to forgo the rest of them, unfortunately, so I’ve just missed out on the fun.

Has the reaction to Lion been… I guess “satisfying” is the word I would use? Is it what you were hoping you would achieve?

Look, there’s no doubt that Lion is an audience pleaser. I mean I went to a lot of research screenings all over, in London and America and Australia, and the results were ridiculous and the crowds were… they just loved the movie, so for me, my job is done. I’ve made a film that audiences adore and clearly it’s done very well on the festival circuit in America, with audiences. The critics either love it or hate it but I can definitely go home at night knowing that I’ve told a story that is going to move real people.

Top Photo: George Pimentel/WireImage

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most CravedRapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.