MM: On the other hand there seems to be a prejudice against emotional films, an accusation that they don’t have intellectual heft. Were you concerned about that with this film?
LD: Yes this is true. I happen not to care for the prejudice. The movies that matter to me are all fairly deeply emotional experiences. Not in every case of every favorite movie in my personal pantheon—there’s a handful that are kind of intellectually cold and I still love them in some weird way. 2001: A Space Odyssey is not an emotional experience, other than the fact that the experience of watching great art is an emotional experience. But yeah, I’m more of the sort of Lars von Trier Breaking the Waves school. The movie is primarily an emotional journey, and the movies that matter to me, you experience them here, in the heart and the gut. They’re not such intellectual exercises as visceral and emotional experiences.
MM: Did you worry people might think the film was manipulative?
LD: We certainly don’t want to be accused of being manipulative. I feel that the movie is very measured. It’s restrained. It doesn’t go for the big obvious tropes that are designed to milk you. We just wanted it to be tight and narratively coherent. And we knew it was moving. We knew that when you get to the end you’re going to be feeling some feelings. But I don’t think any of us knew that on a scene-by-scene level it would begin to open people up. People tend to sob suddenly in this movie. They’re not slowly building up toward having a cry, because they’re in a public place, a theater. They’re trying not to cry, which itself is an interesting and uncomfortable experience. But that there are these silent moments when a sob escapes from you and it is unexpected. For me that’s the genius of our beloved director, Garth Davis. It’s something in the magic of his vision of how he made the film that creates that. I still cry every time I see it and since I wrote it, I ask myself, “Why should I keep crying when I know everything that happens?” And the answer for me is that because Garth made the experience anew. He created a brand new experience and I love him for that.
MM: How challenging is it to write a screenplay that’s not overburdened with dialogue? In the production notes, Garth said, “It’s what’s not said that’s interesting.” I was thinking this is not exactly what a screenwriter wants to hear.
LD: It was a pleasant challenge. As a screenwriter, my problem is that I over-write. The anxiety of the screenwriter as a default position is that you want to get your message across. You want it to be clear, so you tend to over write. During the first movie I wrote that got produced, Candy with Heath Ledger, Heath came to me one day with Neil Armfield, the director, and he says, “You guys have written some pretty good stuff here, you know. But you do know, though, that a lot of it is going to wind up on the cutting room floor. Don’t you?” And Neil said, “Yes, yes, but I still want you to deliver the lines.” And he shrugged and delivered the lines. The final scene of Candy was two pages of dense dialogue that was supposed to bring everything to its climactic resolution. But the final scene of the film is so minimalist, because the actors are amazing. So what I learned early is that often, actors are so great that you as a screenwriter can be sparing with your words. They’re going to find the spaces to create the emotions without necessarily needing the words.
For the first 50 minutes of Lion, we knew it was going to be extremely dialogue-lean, because this kid’s alone in this frightening environment. But that was not a problem for me. I love the challenge of making the big print of the script really poetic and haunted. I think, fingers crossed, if I can do that, whoever’s reading the script—production designer and cinematographers, actors and financiers—hopefully they’re all having a similar experience.
MM: How did you decide on the structure of the film? Instead of flashbacks with the adult Saroo looking back at himself as a lost kid, you’ve told the story as a linear narrative. Dev Patel as the adult Saroo doesn’t even come in until the second half of the film.
LD: Garth and I collaborated and it was very deliberate. It was my suggestion that this story was strong enough that we could just let this first 50 minutes or hour play out. And the producers had a moment of like, “Um,” but then they were like, “OK, try it. You can try this method. If we think it’s not working we can revisit things on the second draft.” But from the very beginning I tried that. Garth thought it was a great idea, and the producers ended up thinking it was a great idea and we never turned our backs on that structure.
MM: According to the production notes, Dev Patel heard you were writing the screenplay and pulled up at your door to campaign for the role. The director happened to be there as well. Is that how he got the role?
LD: It was one of those slightly awkward moments. Various agents sent him there as a look-see hire. It wasn’t like a knock at the door from a stranger—“Oh my god, it’s Dev Patel!” It was like, “Dev’s coming to you guys’ house just to meet.” It’s a bit weird because we were only at the whiteboard stage, and so there was a pleasant awkwardness to the moment. Like, “Hi! Nice to meet you!” [laughs] We’re in the middle of trying to figure out the structure of his film and it was awkward because you couldn’t say, “We hope it’s you.” You can’t really say that, but everybody knows why we’re meeting. It was a funny moment, but Dev’s so sweet and that made it less awkward.
MM: You’ve written four books of poetry and won numerous poetry awards. Are you the only poet who’s been nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay, do you think?
LD: I don’t know. But I’m the only poet who’s won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award who’s become an Oscar-nominated screenwriter. Maybe I am. It’s possible! MM
Lion is currently in theaters, courtesy of the Weinstein Company. Photographs by Mark Rogers.