(l-r) Angie Fielder, Luke Davies, Dev Patel, Garth Davis and DP Greig Fraser on-set.
Aussie screenwriter Luke Davies lives in LA with director David Michôd, and is repped by UTA's Bec Smith. Both are former IF editors, and Davies himself used to contribute DVD reviews to the magazine. We spoke with the honorary old boy on the phone from Bondi, where he was staying on a layover in Oz late last year.
Your path into screenwriting began with Candy, is that right?
Yeah. I was always obsessed with film but didn’t know how to break in. So I said to Margaret Fink, the producer, that she could option the book if I was allowed to try my hand at the first draft of the screenplay. That was the beginning of the path that led to here.
Had you been reading screenplays before that point or did you just learn on the job?
No I was really obsessed. There was actually a screenplay store in Sydney that lasted for about ten years. Honest to God, they must have lived on a shoestring, those guys. But I was one of the faithful customers. It was pre-internet, mid-90s, in the city. It was down near Darling Habour. I used to obsessively buy screenplays of films that I loved and I'd watch the film and try and work out what had changed. My first draft of Candy was very much of its time (laughs). Wall to wall voiceover. Very Goodfellas-esque, like a lot of what people were writing back in the late 90s. Gradually over the years of working on the screenplay with Neil Armfield, we stripped most of the voiceover out of it. We were all busy living other lives, doing other things, the years passed and it really was hard to get that film financed. But then Heath Ledger came along and got it financed very easily. It was a five year period [of writing] where I was learning, and Neil Armfield was a real mentor.
When did you move to the States?
After Candy I went to America to have a little exploration. I really don't know what I was thinking. I thought maybe I’d get an agent or something. It wasn't a grand plan. In April it will be ten years I’ve been in LA. The first five years were really difficult. I was poor and I really didn’t know if it was going to pan out. In 2009 I started sharing a house with Alex O'Loughlin (Hawaii Five-0). Then David Michôd, who I had been friends with for some years, and his girlfriend, Mirrah Foulkes, started coming to LA around the time that Crossbow was suddenly leading to all this buzz and to David making Animal Kingdom. They’d be going to Sundance, or whatever, and they would stay at our place. We all got on and we became fast friends. At a certain point we were like, 'Why don't we all get a bigger house? We come and go a little bit, and if there's four of us it's cheaper’. We started doing that six years ago and two houses later we're still doing it. It’s a lovely house that's kind of an oasis in Koreatown. It's like a mature share house and it works (laughs).
How did Lion come to you?
I had a pre-existing relationship with See-Saw Films and Emile Sherman, who along with Margaret Fink was one of the producers of Candy. Emile met Iain Canning on the Candy shoot. Iain was the European sales agent and exec producer. They became friends and formed See-Saw Films and went on to make The King's Speech. We had maintained a working relationship and fiddled around with a couple of things that never really happened. So then they gave me Saroo’s book and asked how I would approach adapting it. I got the job, then went to India to meet Saroo and see the real places where everything happened: the train station, the orphanage, his home town. And then to Tasmania with Saroo to meet Garth and Sue and John, Saroo's parents. And Saroo's friends. Everything mattered at that moment. That's how it began; a really intense two-and-a-half week research trip.
At what point did you start writing?
About two weeks after that trip, Garth came to LA and he and I sat down with a whiteboard for about a week or ten days. Very casual, cups of tea all day long, filling up his whiteboard, throwing ideas around. From that point I sort of disappeared into the cave and started writing and by then it was September or October. I wrote the very first draft in less than twelve weeks and then there was feedback and notes and I wrote another draft. That draft was what See-Saw Films took to Cannes in May 2014. The Weinsteins won a bidding war, and the money that the Weinsteins paid to secure international distribution rights became a portion of the budget. So then the film went into pre-production and it was shooting by the beginning of 2015. There were still more script changes going on right up until shooting but essentially the first two drafts after the research session were done in this really compressed six month period. Six months, two drafts, with gaps in between.
What do you think of the finished film?
I cry every time I see it. I shouldn't, because I wrote it, so I know everything that happens, but I do and I think it is because Garth's a magician and he made me an observer again. We've been doing all these Q&A screenings and it's really, really nice to be promoting a film that you actually love. There's no feeling of fakery about having to push the thing. Garth's identified the different kinds of criers now; people who start weeping in the first minute, the people who hold off and have muscular tension for the whole two hours and then cry at the end and then there's all these gradations in between. We love the fact that it connects with audiences.
* This interview has been edited and condensed.