Keep ’Em on the Edge of Their Seats: For Lion Screenwriter Luke Davies, Movies Must be Visceral and Emotional

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Luke Davies is a critically acclaimed poet, novelist, screenwriter and essayist born and raised in Sydney, Australia—and now the up-and-coming filmmaker (at the age of 54) can add Academy Award-nominated screenwriter to the long list of his accomplishments.

Davies has just received an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay for Lion, only his fourth feature film.

Directed by fellow Aussie Garth Davis, who is making his feature film debut, Lion is based on Saroo Brierley’s book A Long Way Home. It is the real-life story of a five-year-old—played by the adorable scene-stealing Sunny Pawar—who gets lost in the chaotic and scary streets of Calcutta and is adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) who whisk him away to a new life and continent. When he reaches adulthood, Saroo (now Dev Patel) yearns to find his birth mother and siblings, and uses Google Earth to search for his original home in India. (Rooney Mara plays Saroo’s long-suffering girlfriend who encourages him in his quest.)

Lion received a stunning six Academy Award nominations, including for Davies, Patel and Kidman. The Weinstein film has also earned $38.6 million so far at the box office, proving audiences still like to see well-made films that make them sob in dark theaters.

Last week I spoke to the boyish-looking Davies in Manhattan, where he was a little late for our interview because of the frigid weather. He had just flown in from L.A. and was just getting used to the idea that the words “Academy Award” would now always precede his name. During out brief interview, we chatted about his future projects, how an emotional film can avoid being manipulative, and what it felt like getting that Oscar nomination.

Paula Schwartz, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Congratulations on your Oscar nomination.

Luke Davies (LD): I keep forgetting that it is a big deal.

MM: How can you forget that?

LD: Not “forget,” but it keeps striking me in little mini waves, moments of like, “Oh, this is good. It does feel good.” [Laughs]

MM: How did you hear about your nomination? And please don’t say you were asleep and your publicist called to tell you the news.

LD: It’s true. Absolutely true. One of the publicists, the night before in L.A., was like, “What are you going to do? You setting your alarm.” And I said, “I’m not setting my alarm. When I awake it’s going to be either a moment of disappointment or a moment of elation.” And she said, “Are you serious?” And that’s when I realized, like, “Oh, really? A whole lot of people actually setting alarms?” I had been a bit sleep-deprived lately, and I just thought, when I awake I’ll know.

I was picturing that on my phone screen, I was going to see the home screen with the little message thing with the little red circle that has the number of messages. In fact the screen was filled with actual messages, and the very first thing I saw was a whole bunch of exclamation marks, and then when my eyes focused I saw the word “congratulations” a few times, so that was the moment of like, “Yes!!! That’s amazing! That’s great!”

Yeah, I was amazed at how specific the time [of the nomination announcement] was. I got an email saying, “The announcements are at 5:18 a.m. L.A. time,” and I was like, “That’s so weird. I’m not going wake myself up at 5:18 a.m.” I switched my phone on silent. All these calls and messages began at 5:40 a.m.

Lion screenwriter Luke Davies

MM: How did you celebrate?

LD: No celebrating, not yet. Replying to everybody’s emails has been a pretty nice experience, but it’s just a period where my roommates are away, so I’m alone in the house and I’m extremely—this sounds dumb—I’m very focused on the next thing that I’m doing because it’s at an exciting point, with this adaptation of Catch 22 that I’m working on.

MM: The 1970 Mike Nichols film of Catch 22 didn’t work, I recall. It just didn’t have the same satiric bite as the Joseph Heller book. But in our crazy political and social times, it’s a good time to revisit the warped logic of the book. What made you want to make this your next project?

LD: It’s very much of its time, but first of all—and that’s 46 years ago, that movie—it’s been a long time. Catch 22 was part of my high school curriculum. Everybody back then in Australia tended to read Catch 22 in 11th grade. Anyway it’s certainly resonant and relevant right now, especially the Milo Minderbinder character, and that relationship between war and capitalism.

We’re doing six episodes. We don’t’ know who it’s for yet. It’s with Anonymous Content here in New York, the True Detective producers. I just delivered the first episode and right now I’m midway through the second episode, which is keeping me busy. The Oscar nomination pleasure is a really great thing, but it’s not really operating as a huge distraction from the fact that I’ve got episode two of Catch 22 to finish. It’s so exciting and I just love waking up every day and getting back to continuing on with that, because we’re about to go out and find out who is it that Catch 22 is going to find its home with.

MM: Have you cast the protagonist, Yossarian, yet?

LD: No casting yet, but discussions are happening, so we’re about to give it to someone and then began that process… Literally last night [director] David Michôd and I rejigged the ending of the entire series, and so I wrote that up in. We’ve got this 40-page series proposal and so I’m waiting for David to wake up in Sydney. It’s still 6:30 a.m. in the morning in Sidney but in the next couple of hours, I’m waiting for him to answer my final question, then I’ll change that paragraph and then it will start to go out to actors and Netflix, HBO, the obvious contenders of possible people who might be interested.

MM: Did David choose to stay in Australia while you decided live in L.A.?

LD: We share a house in L.A. There are four of us. It’s a little Aussie gang, so I call it a kind of mature frat house. Somehow there are four of us. There’s David, his girlfriend—Mirrah Foulkes, she’s amazing, she’s an actor but she’s becoming more and more a writer and a director. Right now she’s just been shooting some stuff. She’s got a little role in The Crown. And then the fourth guy is Alex O’Loughlin. He is the star of that CBS television show Hawaii Five-0, so he pays his rent on his room, which he uses like one month of the year. All of his stuff and furniture is still in the house. He and I shared a house eight of the 10 years that I’ve been in L.A., but he lives in Honolulu with his wife and kids and shoots that show for 10 months of the year. And so it’s this little Aussie gang. We all come and go.

MM: You’ve been writing the screenplay adaptation of David Sheff’s memoir Beautiful Boy: My Journey Through My Son’s Addiction, and Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines by his son Nic Sheff, which has been adapted as a film for Brad Pitt’s company Plan B. How is that going?

LD: It’s totally finished. It starts shooting March 27. Steve Carell is the star. They’re casting the boy right now; they’re down to the two possibilities. [Timothée Chalamet was just announced for that part.] I am excited. Felix van Groeningen, the director of that beautiful film The Broken Circle Breakdown, will direct. I’m beyond excited and they start shooting in six weeks.

MM: Will you be on set when they shoot?

LD: We think the script is in pretty good shape, so I won’t be on set in any emergency way, like needing to be there to do rewrites. But a lot of the interiors will be at Red Studios, where the Plan B headquarters are in Los Angeles, and that’s a seven-minute drive from my house. [Producer] Jeremy Kleiner said I should just drop by and visit the set, watch things being shot, so in an honorary way I hope to drop in and see some of it, but not in a formal, “we need the writer there” way.

Nicole Kidman, David Wenham and Sunny Pawar on the set of Lion

MM: Let’s talk about Lion, which I saw with a regular audience instead of critics. The line for the film was a block long. It’s been holding strong because of strong word of mouth, and it’s one of the few movies I’ve gone to recently where no one was texting or talking. What do you thing is the power of the film?

LD: It’s deeply gratifying, the experience you’re talking about, and the effect the movie has had on audiences. In some ways that has taken all of us by surprise. Twelve months ago, when we were beginning to see the rough cuts, it was like, “Oh my god! This is good!” We knew that at the early cut stage. All of this other stuff that’s happened, the lines, the screen averages, the various prizes, the Oscar nominations, that’s the stuff that’s really surprising. It’s gradually happened over the last few months. But in the darkness of the cinema, the times that we’ve been sitting there with audiences, their experience is so gratifying. Not just the experience, yes, of hearing people cry, and yes, this movie makes people cry a lot. It’s the experience of feeling people move forward in their seats and get deeper into the tunnel. You know, when you physically move forward on your seat, because it’s an instinctive human thing; you move forward because you don’t want any distraction whatsoever. You’re in a zone in front of the people beside you. I noticed this happening in this movie quite a lot: people slowly, as if in a trance, hunching forward in their seats, away from the back of the seat.

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