“Top of the Lake,” the TV series starring Elisabeth Moss — Davis co-directed the first season with Jane Campion — was pivotal in his career progression. As was the roughly two decades as a globetrotting commercials director, whose reel “Ninja Kittens” for Toyota certainly had a fundamental formative function.
But the pre-“Lion” piece Davis seems most proud of is “Alice,” a short about an Australian family who loses their child. “I suppose it was a very little taste of where I wanted to go with my filmmaking,” he says.
Producers Iain Canning and Emile Sherman, who head British-Australian shingle See-Saw Films (“The King’s Speech,” “Top of the Lake”) thought Davis would be a good fit for “Lion,” the true tale of Saroo Brierley, a 5-year-old Indian who gets separated from his family, and manages to track them down some two decades later using Google Earth.
“We were at Sundance just hanging out, and they said they had just read this [news] article, and when they saw it they just thought of me,” he recalls. After rights were cleared to Brierley’s memoir “A Long Way Home,” the first thing Davis did was travel to India to immerse himself in Brierley’s world. He then went to L.A. and spent time with screenwriter Luke Davies, “just talking together about the structure and how we could tell the story.
“I wanted the script to come from a directorial place as well,” he notes.
“I wanted us to have a vision and an atmosphere, and I think we needed to really understand that together before the pen went to paper.”
Along with the key narrative choice of having “Lion” start from the beginning, rather than recounting Brierley’s separation as an extended flashback, came their bold decision to have the first part of the film be entirely in Hindi.
“There’s going to be lot of nervous people when you are releasing a movie that’s in a foreign language for almost [entirely] the first half,” he says. “But it had to be Hindi because we needed to see the contrast with Australian life, so we understand that he’s become something very different.”
The casting for “Lion” was also a very hands-on process for Davis, especially in selecting Sunny Pawar, the boy who plays Brierley as a 5-year-old. Pawar was chosen from thousands of screen tests, many of which Davis scrutinized himself. “With children you really have to do the work,” he notes.
Casting Rooney Mara, who plays the adult Brierley’s girlfriend in the pic’s second half, was less laborious. “Our understanding was that Rooney Mara was not available, and then Harvey [Weinstein] suggested Rooney Mara, and we were like, ‘She’s not available.’ And he was like, ‘I think she is.’”
Weinstein came on board as an executive producer at script stage.
“Lion” was lensed by Australian cinematographer Greig Fraser, who more recently shot “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” and has worked with Davis for many years.
They decided that the key was keeping the camera with Brierley. “Basically at the beginning of our movie, the audience is with that little boy, and we have to be inside his experience,” Davis says. “I thought the more I could take the audience into that place, the more powerful it would be.”
Davis and Fraser are shooting biblical biopic “Mary Magdalene” in Italy, with Mara in the title role, produced by See-Saw Films. When Davis was in post-production stages of “Lion,” he recounts, “Iain and Emile came to me and said: ‘We’ve got your next project for you!’”