Writer Luke Davies first came into film by adapting his first novel, Candy, a thinly-veiled autobiography of his disastrous relationships with his then-wife and heroin in his early 20s.
Davies is not just a screenwriter, he’s also a novelist, film critic, journalist, childrens’ author and winner of the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Prize for Poetry in 2012. With that $80,000 he was able to clear all his debts from years of poverty as a struggling writer.
He also turns out to be an excellent speaker around his specialty of adapting works for the screen. At the BSS he played to a full house, people standing at the back to hear the Oscar-nominated writer for Lion (2017, adapted screenplay).
The story is taken from the autobiographical A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley, the Indian boy who as a five-year-old became separated from his brother, forced to live on the streets in Calcutta luckily escaping from clutches of child-traffickers (so far, so Slumdog), before being adopted and raised in Tasmania. In his 20s Saroo discovered Google Earth, and spent an obsessive three years using it to track down his birth mother.
In discussing the how scenes were modified from Saroo’s book simply because of shooting practicalities, Davies described how the fleeing five-year-old’s near miss with the train was turned into a near miss with a bus. A river swimming scene would’ve been too difficult, too long to shoot – not to mention too dangerous in a polluted river in today’s stricter regimes of health and safety. Lots of scenes in the little boy’s first days in Calcutta were dropped after being written.
His producer’s question was always: What is essential, what is expendable?
Over his three years of searching, Saroo actually had three girlfriends, with each relationship being destroyed by his obsession with finding his mother. This was all compressed into six months and one girlfriend.
Other changes were made for less practical reasons, such as making one of the leading child traffickers a woman rather than a man. An element of the unexpected.
A big problem for Davies was how, and to what extent, to incorporate into the screenplay Saroo’s brother Mantosh – the Brierley family’s second son, also adopted from the sub-continent. Mantosh was essential to the telling of the story, Davies believed, but the adult Mantosh is very unwell – the illness, a serious case of post traumatic stress disorder caused by abuse in a childhood orphanage in India.
He understands the essential need of a screenplay to be kept lively and visual.
Hence the intercutting of the adult Saroo “travelling” over Google Earth with his memories of himself as a child running through the wastelands of rural India.
When asked what was his biggest challenge, Davies said that it’s to create a document that reads fast, that would excite producers, actors and others.
Treatments: “I hate them!” – but he works hard to make them as detailed as possible.
Davies was asked how he felt about the notion of cultural appropriation, in regard to Lion. “I felt that because of the mythic nature of the story – the narrator’s manic search for the mother – I felt that I knew the essence of it, and what the audience needed to feel at the end… I was attracted to the primal, elemental nature of the story… it’s like a fable, a fairytale. “So I felt okay about it for myself – but for others?”
He was poor for years. Now he can pay someone $20 an hour to type as he leans back on the couch and dictates. Previously he was work-evasive, but this not only frees up his head, it also provides discipline. Lion has completely changed everything for Davies. “I’m still struggling to come to terms with this ‘explosion’ in my life”.
Once, he couldn’t pay his rent in Los Angeles; now it’s “Get the guy who makes you cry!”
His biggest problem now is to find out how to say No!
He finds it an amazing experience to sit in screenings and hear and feel people weeping. In a typically Antipodean self-deprecating way of expressing himself, he adds “I love this shit”.
When he played the scene where Saroo discovers his birthplace of Garesh Talai on Google Earth, Davies confessed to crying every time he sees the scene with an audicence – and says he would really like not to cry today!
As the clip ended the woman next to me said quietly, to no-one in particular: Wow!