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Can ‘Lion’ Find Its Way Home With Moviegoers in Post-Election Climate?

As Sunny Pawar, the 8-year-old Indian star of “Lion,” struggled to get permission to attend the film’s premieres in Los Angeles and New York, the hard-charging indie mogul Harvey Weinstein tapped his network of Beltway power-brokers to try to secure a visa for the boy and his father, Dilip.

Weinstein knew the leadership of the Homeland Security Department from his work producing a 9/11 benefit, so he worked the phones. To press his case, he tapped David Boies, the high-profile attorney who successfully lobbied the Supreme Court to legalize gay marriage. He even reached out to an industrialist friend in India to see about using his private plane to ferry the Pawars into the country. After they missed the film’s Los Angeles kickoff, Weinstein was able to convince authorities to expedite the boy’s petition to come to the U.S. just in time to catch the Manhattan premiere.

“If I didn’t have those relationships, this kid doesn’t get in,” says Weinstein, who sees what happened to Pawar as part of a larger shift toward isolationism and xenophobia. He expects that troubling trend will continue with the election of Donald Trump, a man who Weinstein, a die-hard liberal, has little time for.

“What they did to Sunny galvanized me,” says Weinstein. “I’ve been busy building the company, and now I said, ‘Screw that — I’m going to work on this movie like no tomorrow and go wherever I have to go and do whatever I have to do.’”

Jake Chessum for for Variety

Of course, this being Weinstein — a deft manipulator of the fourth estate — the saga of Sunny Pawar also provided an opportunity to earn free publicity. The boy’s visa battles were covered in the press in vintage Weinstein fashion, and his visit to New York City received glossy coverage in Us Weekly.

In the past, Weinstein has lobbied the British Parliament, arranged papal visits, and set up White House screenings, all to draw attention to minority groups or unjust laws. But these events also served to bang the drum for his Oscar contenders, such as “The Imitation Game” and “Philomena.” That kind of showmanship paid off brilliantly, pushing those movies to awards glory and box office success. It remains to be seen, however, if Weinstein can will “Lion” — a film with a first hour that unfolds entirely in Hindi — into the Oscar race while convincing audiences to turn out.

The movie business is increasingly dominated by superhero adventures and animated offerings, leaving little room for intimate dramas like “Lion.” This year, there have been a stream of mid-budget casualties, as “Rules Don’t Apply,” “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” and “American Honey” have all been rejected by multiplex-goers.

“There’s no guaranteed turnout for these films, even with good reviews,” says Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “They don’t cost much, but they’re not doing anything in the theaters.”

The Weinstein Co. certainly hasn’t been immune to changing audience tastes and habits. The studio has released several flops recently, including the Bradley Cooper comedy “Burnt,” the musical comedy “Sing Street,” and the boxing drama “Hands of Stone.” Even “Carol,” a critically adored period drama, and Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” weren’t able to break out in a big way.

Weinstein admits that it’s a more challenging landscape than the one he navigated during the heady days of the 1990s, when “Pulp Fiction” and “Shakespeare in Love” cemented his legend as a Svengali of the Sundance set. “It’s got to be really great to get people motivated to come out, with ‘The Crown’ on TV, or ‘Transparent,’” he says.

Yet Weinstein believes that “Lion,” which recounts the true story of Saroo Brierley, a man raised by adoptive parents in Australia, who uses Google Earth to reunite with his long-lost family in India, is the kind of uplifting fare that can capitalize on the post-election malaise.

“I defy anybody to not feel triumphant after watching this movie,” Weinstein says. “You’re always worried about a movie like this because it’s not commercial on paper. But the reaction has changed since the election — people are more euphoric watching it. We were getting good reactions before, but now we’re getting standing ovations and bursts of applause throughout.”

There are larger reasons “Lion” feels like a repudiation of Trumpism. The film is pan-national to its core. In addition to Pawar, its cast includes British (Dev Patel), Australian (Nicole Kidman), and American (Rooney Mara) actors, with the action unfolding on two continents. The first part takes place in India as Brierley, a 5-year-old accidentally separated from his family, struggles to survive alone on the streets of Kolkata. The second half is set in Australia as the adult Brierley tries to piece together his fractured memories of the home he lost decades before, in order to reunite with his biological mother. It’s a story about ties that transcend oceans, borders, and language barriers.

Jake Chessum for for Variety

The international flavor of the story was clear near the start of filming when director Garth Davis assembled the entire cast, along with Brierley and his adopted family, for a barbecue in Australia. Mara made hummus, Patel took a drive with Brierley to find out what music he liked, Kidman munched on Indian food, and the actors kicked soccer balls around and played games with their real-life counterparts.

“There was a surreal moment of looking over at the beach and seeing this cricket game going on between Nicole Kidman, Dev Patel, the real Saroo, and little Sunny,” recalls producer Iain Canning. “That’s the whole timeline right there. That’s reality and fiction all blending together.”

Patel recounts how he almost missed his chance to be on that beach. It’s the afternoon after the film’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, and the actor is sitting on a long couch, flanked by Kidman and Mara. As Kidman searches for a spoon to trim excess froth from her cappuccino, and a sleep-deprived Mara stifles a yawn, Patel talks of the lengths he took to land the part — showing up at the doorstep of the screenwriter Luke Davies to lobby for the role.

“I was way too early,” remembers Patel. “They were like, ‘We haven’t even finished the script.’ It was super awkward.” He ended up staying for what he describes as “the most amazing” cup of homemade ginger tea.

Despite Patel’s persistence, Davis wasn’t convinced that the slender star of “Slumdog Millionaire” was right to play the broad-shouldered Brierley. To win the director over, the actor endured a series of auditions and, after getting the part, spent eight months preparing: He trained with weights, grew his hair long, cultivated a beard, and worked with a dialect coach to develop an Australian accent.

“Garth used the word ‘alpha,’” says Patel. “He said you’ve got to be a bit more Aussie. I was as fortified as a wet paper bag before. It was lots of going to the gym and just eating. I felt like my liver was foie gras’ed as part of the process.”

Patel admits that “Slumdog Millionaire,” the film that launched his career and won the best-picture Oscar in 2009, overshadowed his subsequent work. He worried that his performance, as an impoverished game-show contestant who gets the girl, typecast him.

“It’s a blessing and a curse, that film, for me,” says Patel. “It put me on the map and did great things, but you’re fighting against it. To lots of people, I’m the dude from ‘Slumdog.’ You have to go out there and earn your stripes and prove more than that.”

Patel wasn’t the only one with something to prove. “Lion” marks Davis’ feature film debut. He is best known for his commercial work and for overseeing a few episodes of “Top of the Lake,” a mystery thriller spearheaded by Jane Campion, who made “The Piano.” “Top of the Lake” was also produced by Canning and Emile Sherman, the partners who had secured rights to Brierley’s autobiography.

“We knew it was the sort of film that could get an A-list director, but we just had this feeling about Garth, having worked with him,” says Sherman. “We felt he’d bring a different perspective and the truthfulness needed to create the spell that the story deserves.”

“It’s about saying, ‘You and I were meant for each other, however we came together — whether it’s through birth, whether it’s through adoption— I’m your mother.’”
Nicole Kidman

Davis infused the first hour of the film, told from the perspective of 5-year-old Saroo, with a neo-realistic quality that calls to mind Roberto Rossellini, while eliciting one of the great child screen performances from Pawar, an untrained actor who was discovered in Mumbai. “Lion” is unapologetically a tearjerker.

“I’m a big lover of Cassavetes,” says Davis. “The people in his movies are so alive and expressive. Too many movies these days are afraid of emotion. There’s a lot of crying in my life, and a lot of human expression in the people around me.”

The “Lion” cast describes Davis in almost shaman-like terms. He encouraged dancing on set and would roam around playing music to put them in the right mood for pivotal scenes. A portion of the film focuses on Patel staring at a computer screen as he uses Google Earth to take him across India’s sprawling topography, through its bustling train stations, and around its remote villages in the hopes of finding some image that will remind him of his boyhood home. The actor was looking at a blank screen, so Davis would narrate what Brierley was meant to be seeing on his computer.

“He’ll sit really close to the action,” recounts Patel. “He’ll talk to you as the shot progresses. That can be invasive if you’ve got the wrong director — it can completely bring you out of the moment. But with Garth, he’s got this wonderful energy about him. He’s so in it with you. There’s an element of play.”

The looseness of the “Lion” set spills over into the actors’ relationships with each other. They tease, finish each other’s sentences, cackle at jokes. At one point, Mara complains that after staying up all night, she’s not able to articulate her thoughts. Kidman pipes up with support.

“Even when you say nothing, you’re mesmerizing,” Kidman consoles. “‘I’m going, ‘I love this girl.’ ”

Publicizing a movie is clearly a task that Mara struggles with — she’s earnest, sincere, and articulate, but she seems to be editing herself, fearful of saying the wrong thing. As Weinstein puts it, “You work with Rooney on a movie, and she’ll sweep the set. She’ll do anything. But if I ask her to do ‘Jimmy Fallon,’ she’ll hold my family hostage.”

She may not love hawking “Lion,” but Mara was so taken with Davis’ approach to directing that she has signed up for his next project, the spiritual drama “Mary Magdalene.” She credits him with keeping “Lion” from descending into maudlin territory.

“There’s something about Garth that is unlike anyone I’ve ever met,” says Mara. “He’s a special human. With any movie, there’s a right way to make it and a wrong way. I just knew after five minutes talking to him that he was going to make the right version.”

For Kidman, the film — and her role as Sue Brierley, an Australian woman who took Saroo into her home — had a personal resonance. She is the adoptive mother of two children with her ex-husband, Tom Cruise. One key moment in the film, during which Sue tells Saroo about a vision she had of holding the hand of a dark-skinned child, tugged at her emotions.

Jake Chessum for for Variety

“It’s about motherhood,” explains Kidman. “It’s about saying, ‘You and I were meant for each other, however we came together — whether it’s through birth, whether it’s through adoption — I’m your mother.

There’s an unintended irony to “Lion.” The film celebrates the power of technology to traverse borders and bring people together despite long odds. After all, without Google Earth, Brierley’s search for his family would likely have been fruitless. At the same time, the rise of the internet is the very thing that’s leading to sweeping changes in the movie business and making smaller, personal movies like “Lion” something of an endangered species.

“It’s just harder to get them seen by people in a theater,” Mara notes. “It’s not the way people are watching things; they’re watching on their phones or their computers or their televisions.”

The actors seem torn about the impact of technology. Kidman says she never googles herself but has used Google Earth to look at her backyard.

“I love where technology is taking us, but you need a balance,” she says. “I love nature, and I love the slow life as well. The instant gratification of technology can mean you’re missing out on life.”

As the indie business has been battered by the rise of Netflix and streaming services, Weinstein and his company have seemed more vulnerable. There have been layoffs, reports of cash crunches, and speculation about the future of the studio.

But Weinstein isn’t having any of it. “It’s the biggest joke in the world,” he says.

He notes that the company has been putting a greater emphasis on television projects, signing deals for shows from Matthew Weiner (“Mad Men”), David O. Russell (“The Fighter”), and Jay Z.

“The TV company pays the bills,” he explains. “There are two separate companies. One is a bonanza, and one is a movie company. It’s slow, and it’s an old-world business, but at the end of the day [The Weinstein Co.] has 515 films in its library.”

Clearly, one thing Weinstein isn’t ready to do is turn his back on the movies. In addition to “Lion,” he has awards hopes for “The Founder,” a biopic starring Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, the man who brought McDonald’s to the masses.

“There are four or five movies a year I’d like to do,” he says. “It gives me the time to concentrate. I’d rather do less and do it just as well.”

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