“Lion,” the true Story of Saroo Brierley, who used Google Earth to reunite with his long-lost family in India after being raised by adoptive parents in Australia, is one of the most hotly anticipated projects at this year’s Toronto Film Festival. Sight unseen, the inspirational drama — which will be released Nov. 25 in the U.S. by The Weinstein Co. — has already been labeled as an awards season front-runner.
The feature-film directing debut of Garth Davis, who earned his stripes overseeing buzzy television like the miniseries “Top of the Lake,” “Lion” is expected to draw Oscar attention for Dev Patel’s transformative work as Brierley — a man who never stopped dreaming about the family he left behind.
Davis spoke to Variety about, among other things, Google’s response to the film, pushing Patel to the limit, and what it’s like to be in the Oscar race.
What attracted you to the project?
It was a miracle of a story. I loved how it traversed India and contemporary worlds like two worlds. It was fascinating how technology helped Saroo find home. It’s so much like the mythical tales of the little boy that leaves a village, learns about the world, and then comes home. In fact, when Saroo returned home, some of the people in the village felt that he was delivered by God.
Did you reach out to Saroo and his family while you were making the film?
Before I even started imagining what the film would be, I felt I had to go and visit all the real people in the story. I retraced Saroo’s steps in India and met his adopted family and all his friends in Australia. It was important that I honor all of their stories and hear from them firsthand what it was like, so I could earn their respect and trust. You have to do that legwork.
Dev Patel seems to have undergone a major transformation for the role. Did you really make him gain weight?
I sure did. Dev definitely had to do some physical work to become an Australian guy. He was very thin, and I wanted to get him into a performance space that he’d never been in before, which is complete cinematic realism. He put on a lot of weight, he did a lot of training, a lot of accent work. I gave him the challenge, and he embraced it.
What does Google think of the movie?
They love it. It’s a wonderful advert for them.
Do you use Google Earth?
I do. I used Google Earth to find a lot of the locations for the film.
Do you believe that technology can be a force for good?
It depends on who’s behind the wheel. It certainly is true that Saroo would never have found his family without it.
The film has already been anointed as an Oscar front-runner. What kind of pressure does that sort of handicapping put on you?
I don’t even go there. I just wanted to make the most beautiful and moving film that I could. I just wanted audiences to be affected by it, and have a little bit more hope in their lives — and a little more courage, too.
Your next project is “Mary Magdalene.” Do you think it will be controversial?
I’m sure it will. It’s impossible not to be. I’m just trying to approach what I make with as much respect and research as I can, and just make it with a good heart. But people find controversy in everything. What’s really exciting about “Mary Magdalene” is we’re going to be telling a biblical story from a human perspective.