A Study From “Lion” – Building A Scene From The Ground Up

“Lion” opens with a loving family that gets pulled apart through one fateful step. Pictured: Abhishek Bharate (left) and Sunny Pawar (right). Photo credit: The Weinstein Company

By: Marjorie Galas

Imagine the scenario. You’re five-years-old, accompanying your brother to a train station. After a short nap, you find yourself alone on a deserted platform.  Bewildered and groggy, you wander on an empty train, curl up on a bench and sleep, only to wake as you’re being hurdled over 900 miles away from home.

This sequence kicks off the reality-defying adventure in “Lion”, a 2017 Oscar race contender for Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Score, Supporting Actor (Dev Patel) and Supporting Actress (Nicole Kidman). “Lion” tells the factual story of Saroo Brierley, born Sheru Munshi Khan, who, at the age of five, was separated from his loving family and hurdled from one side of India to the other. Unable to speak the local language, he spends weeks hustling as a street urchin until he’s ultimately captured and sold to adoptive parents in Australia.  His early youth becomes a buried memory until the touches of his lover and the smell of an Indian delicacy awaken memories, setting him on the unlikely quest to reunite with his birth mother twenty-five years later.

While the ending of the film depicts a true, modern-day fairy tale, Saroo’s initial separation from his family was a terrifying nightmare. Let’s pull back the layers of creating this sequence of Saroo’s separation from script to screen.

The Script Writer

Before he wrote a word of the screenplay, Luke Davies wrote several pages of a “free association” outline that highlighted the fundamentals of Saroo’s journey. After meeting with director Garth Davis and cementing the job, he hopped on a plane to India.  There he met Saroo and traveled him to the locations outlined in his memoir, “A Long Way Home.”  Davies observational research exposed him to the simple joys of life in Saroo’s native Khandwa and the chaos of Saroo’s final train stop in Kolkata.

Prior to digging into the writing process, Davies and Davis spent roughly ten days together developing the early outline of the story, utilizing Saroo’s book, their respective notes and Davies’ early draft. It was during this phase that Davies suggested opening the film with its most traumatic moment.

“I felt we could be bold because this was a fairy tale, and you don’t want tricky thrills on a fairy tale. They just plunge: ‘Once upon a time – bang,’” said Davies.  “I understood it would go against basic film financing logic, which is ‘Don’t begin your movie with a five-year-old non-professional actor speaking in Hindi for the first fifty minutes’.”

Production company See Saw Films agreed to give Davies’ strong vision a chance. Davies script begins with brief context illustrating the happiness of Saroo’s childhood: catching butterflies in a field, joyfully helping his mother at work in a rock quary, playing with his older brother Guddu along the tracks, drinking milk as a family.

“Then a moment happens where he steps on to a train,” said Davies. “It is a tiny moment, and his entire life, his entire future, changes.”

In the pages of the screenplay, Davies writing intentionally left the train sequence “poetically sparce” to focus on Saroo’s feelings of abandonment. The action shifts quickly from the fun and love the brothers share and the adventure that lay before them to solitude.  While he didn’t dilute the scene with directorial notes, Davies did specifically outline the visual angle of the rain tank looming above and Saroo’s perspective of looking up at it to illustrate how incredibly small he was in the moment.

The Director

Garth Davis is not a new face in the directorial world, having helmed shorts, commercials and television series including the Emmy nominated “Top of the Lake.” While this was his first foray in feature directing, his approach was no different than it had been on past projects: put in the hard work and walk on set prepared.

Key observations Davis made while visiting India both aided in that preparedness and informed the handling of this key scene. Familiar with the kinetic energy that permeates the land, he was struck by the eerie silence that greeted him during one early morning visit.  Walking through Khandwa, he was also aware of the hum of cicadas and the overwhelming abundance of birds.

“There were millions of birds! I’m really interested in nature.  Our sense of home is not just our family, it is our environment and the sounds and textures and smells,” said Davis. “I wanted to have all of that to take back to the modern story.”

The sound design, score and camera shooting style hinged on nature and the impact of the environment on young Saroo. Davis recruited capable department heads that would understand the importance of personifying the environment within the scene.  Prior to working with those elements, however, Davis recognized Sunny Pawar, the untrained, five-year-old actor portraying young Saroo, needed an authenticity that would translate through the scene.   Despite strong recommendations to shoot the sequence first, he saved it for last.

“I made the decision straight away, he needed to go on the journey and be exposed to acting and find that language and trust so we could do the scene properly,” said Davis.

Davis worked with New Zealand-based acting coach Miranda Harcourt to prep Sunny. They created a fifteen-page “children’s book” version of the screenplay Sonny could nightly review that exposed him to the highs and lows of the story. Davis also created a “triangle of trust” consisting of himself, a translator, and Miranda, that enabled Sunny to feel comfortable in his own skin.

“Because people were encouraging him to ‘be you’, I think we saw him grow as a human, and somewhere along the line he caught on to what we were trying to do and he started hitting his marks and stretching out.”

With Sunny now able to empathize with Saroo’s experiences, Davis could focus on the impact of the scene.

“He doesn’t see the scale of the platform with his brother. He is caught up in the conversations and the jalebis and the people but when he wakes up he realized his is in this enormous hole of a place,” said Davis.

Davis started with a noiseless sound design that lightly introduces the hum of cicadas. Their din swells as the camera personifies the water tanks looking down at him and the long shots of a vacant platform.

The Cinematographer

In determining camera placement, Greig Fraser started with what he calls a “golden rule”: the camera needed to be where Saroo was emotionally. The determination of eye line had to be made early on, for the route between the train tracks and Khandwa have a significant impact later in “Lion” as Saroo is searching for his long lost home.

“This is what was fun about shooting. Is it a memory?  Is it him actually traveling?  Is it him projecting?” mused Fraser.  “You can use height to your advantage as well.  You can be just above his eye with a bit more headroom for little Saroo, and suddenly he is small.  Then, go a little bit lower, cropping his head, and he feels like the king of the world.”

Using an Alexa 35mm camera and a set of Prime vintage lenses, Fraser carefully worked with camera placement throughout the scene. Wanting the audience to maintain a sense of hope for Saroo, the scene starts with him in full frame, and this ratio is maintained as he first starts to walk.  The impending danger builds as the angle expands, highlighting the water tanks, lit to aid in the impression they were looking down at him.  It then becomes extremely wide, revealing the massive, vacant platform.

Trains are the artery of transportation and business in India. Noting there are no permits that shut down services for film shoots, Fraser and Davis, along with location scouts, went to the sites well in advance to prep for the challenging sequence.  Working with a camera team from Australia and a grip and electrical team from India, Fraser and his crew were fastidious about continuity.  They were often on and off trains during the shoot, so they had to be aware of the direction the train was traveling in, the placement of the seat and the light falling on Sunny. To aid in capturing time changes, the team used color changeable LEDs that allowed them to tweak colors that fell on Sonny’s eyes.

“If the sun was going down and it there was a blue (quality to the light), we could punch a little blue into his eyes,” said Fraser.

Davis wanted the audience to experience the numb state Saroo eventually succumbs to over the multi-day duration of the voyage.  “After hours of crying he’s not hold on, he is just serenading to it, like a ghost on the train,” said Davis. “We would play with the idea of the ghost and allow the camera to do that.”  Starting with wider shots, the camera work eventually becomes more impressionistic, mimicking the quality of wind and light.

To ensure they could capture the scenes they needed in Kolkata without curious crowds stopping and gaping at the camera, Frasier’s team built camera hides made out of boxes and packing material that they carved peep holes into. As Sunny runs through the crowd, Fraser’s shots were from the hip, so onlookers were of no consequence.  In addition to capturing Saroo’s experience, Davis and Frasier determined it was important to illustrate a sense of distance.  A few exterior shots of the train snaking through the wide open landscape.  To accomplish these shots, Fraser turned to a drone.

“I made sure I had the ability to operate the camera myself,” said Frasier. “It was very important that the aerials retain a certain amount of control.”

The Composers

Davis and his team had completed the rough cut when Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran jumped on board. The cut was peppered with temp tracks of their own pre-recorded compositions, giving them a marker throughout the film of the style the director was aiming for.  As they worked with Davis to secure the right sounds, they created a few motifs for Saroo’s journey based around strings, prepared piano and classical piano.  Their primary focus was to find a temperature in the score that didn’t paint emotion over the scenes or the action.

In Saroo’s departure sequence, the team carefully wove the score around silence and the sound of nature. Music is not introduced until Saroo wakes up on the train.  At that point a violin motif emerges, emphasizing his feelings of isolation. The theme continues until he reaches the train station in Kolkata.  Here, prepare piano: a process were bits of metal and other resonant material are affixed to the strings the keys hit, merges with the sounds of the station.

“There is a lot of noise going – in a way it sounds a little random and has accidents within it,” said Bertelmann. “As the film progresses, the prepared piano disappears and suddenly there is some clarity in the sound.”

“The violin motif is one of the motifs that comes back that represents the moment when he realizes he is alone,” said O’Halloran. “It moves through the crowd scene with the sound design.  The music sort of comes out of the sound of the train station.”

During the development of the score, Davis encouraged the composers not to look at the film in a linear fashion. He wanted the music to make spiritual connections with the feelings and emotions Saroo experienced as memories emerged.  The composers enjoyed not only defining re-occuring themes, but defining these themes in a way that elevated the storytelling on a subconscious level.

“There was a lot of discussion on how do we weave these two halves of the film together,” said O’Halloran. “Can we start a motif that is later more developed so that subconsciously, when that feeling happens, like when (Saroo) is picturing his mother, or when he goes back into his heart or spiritual place, there is a sound to that.”

“It describes, for me, the way the spirit of the movie is a kind of longing, that is left after you go home,” said Bertelmann.