Garth Davis’s directing credits include the acclaimed TV series Top of the Lake, but the remarkable true story Lion is the first big cat he has tamed.

The Australian filmmaker certainly didn’t take on the Cowardly Lion’s traits when helming his first feature film, which tackles some pretty devastating themes. “I suppose I’m not afraid of going to those places if you know what I mean,” Davis says. “I think really, as a director and an artist, anything you work on, you put yourself into or you explore things that you’re interested in. I like exploring honesty and obviously in line [with that] we had to go to some dark places and circumnavigate that in an interesting way.”

Moving into feature films from television and short documentaries is a big leap for a director, but Davis recognised Lion as the perfect project to make that transition. “It was just such an incredible story,” he notes. “It was epic in scope, it was deeply­ emotional and I thought it was a story that the world needed – I had to make it.”

 

Lion is based on the true story of Saroo Brierley, an Indian boy adopted by Australian parents who, as an adult, attempts to find his biological family using Google Earth. In adapting Brierley’s book A Long Way Home, Davis had to carefully tread the line between his own creativity and the facts.

“I just basically focused on the bits that I was excited to expose and tell,” he explains. “And one of the things I loved about the story was its spiritualism. And having a great story and so much momentum underpinned with the spirituality I thought was really exciting, and something I really love to explore.”

Knowing the story was only the start – Davis devoted a considerable amount of time to engage with Saroo’s world prior to bringing it to the screen. “I did a lot of pre-pre-production on this,” he recalls. “I spent a lot of time on the ground in India, I spent time in Hobart, meeting as many real people and going to as many real places as possible. It was totally immersive.”

Davis’s research uncovered finer details that weren’t apparent through studying the book. “Just lots of little things, like the way that Kamla was very tactile with people,” he notes. “The way she just held faces and patted people. And also the locations do that as well, like sitting at Saroo’s village, sitting on the dam wall for an afternoon watching the new generation of kids playing and just understanding what it must have been like for Saroo. All of that detail is in the film.”

Shooting in the actual locations added authenticity and emotional weight to Lion, but it also raised more challenges than anticipated for the filmmaker. “India is hard enough but obviously the story is set on trains, train stations, riverbanks,” explains Davis. “[It’s] really super complicated anyway and doing that in India, it was really ambitious.”

This ambitious nature got Davis through some difficult moments when setting up the train scenes. “You had to choose a platform, you had to choose a train and hopefully that was that train that arrived at that time,” he recalls. “Sometimes you’re given three hours, sometimes you’re given five or one, and then anything could go wrong. I mean we could have been faced with the notion that you weren’t allowed to shoot on a train station at all. So it was a massive undertaking to make it work, it really was.”

Lion is in cinemas January 19.