Lion writer breaks down Nicole Kidman's most emotional scene
In the lead-up to this year’s Academy Awards on Feb. 26, EW is taking a closer look at some of the screenplays honored in the original and adapted categories. The nominated writers will break down select pages that were essential to the stories they were telling.
Lion may be the story of a young man, Saroo Brierley (Dev Patel), and his quest to find his birth family in India after being separated from them as a child, but writer Luke Davies and director Garth Davis found its heart elsewhere.
Two women — Saroo’s birth mother, Kamla (Priyanka Bose), and adoptive mother, Sue (Nicole Kidman) — form the “emotional pillars” of the Oscars-nominated film. In Kidman’s most emotional scene, she explains to Saroo, who withdraws from daily life as he becomes consumed by his search, that he doesn’t understand her original intentions for adopting him and his brother, Mantosh.
Here, Davies explains how the scene developed and what amazing real-life detail didn’t make it in.
I had a little bit of reservation, in the early days of writing the script, when we were discussing this scene or mapping it out as a bullet point basically. I said to Garth, “For me, the meat and bones of the scenes is that he says, “I bet you’re sorry you had us. We weren’t blank pages. We had a lot of baggage.” I said to Garth that the vision of the brown child anecdote, we didn’t need it. We could be leaner and cleaner and get in and out of the scene with more compression.
At the time John and Sue got married, Australian law said that you could not adopt if you could not prove infertility. For whatever insane, archaic reasons, that was the law. John and Sue didn’t accept that, so they waited 16 years for the Australian law to change. At the moment it changed, when she was in her early 30s, they immediately began the adoption process. Saroo ended up being the boy they adopted.
I often get my knuckles rapped by producers and directors because of a tendency to overwrite and over control and be the annoying kind of screenwriter who puts too much stuff in a script that’s a little borderline directorial, but if I had been chided for those things, they probably wouldn’t be in the final scripts that you’re reading. It’s really clear that there are moments of emotional intensity and importance where it’s completely ok to use that supposedly, slightly Screenwriting 101 no-no.
I didn’t know the full story until afterwards. I don’t know if it would have changed how I wrote that speech. I think it would have changed it a little bit. I probably would have put something in the speech about being 17-years-old. It blew my mind, that story. I was there in Hobart [Australia] 18 months earlier with a tape recorder, like, “Oh my God, why didn’t that story come up?”
In this scene, it’s so critical to follow the emotional pulse at this juncture of the film. It affects what happens to Saroo next. Those emotional pulses are jumping like sparks backwards and forwards between the two characters. I just tried to elegantly create those pulses and sparks without the scene feeling overwritten. That was my aim and hope in a scene that’s very quiet. It’s not a big fireworks scenes. It’s extremely closely held and restrained.
Nicole’s not just amazing in that scene. The cutaways to Dev are incredible because his character at that moment is going through profoundly shocking changes in his own understanding of the meaning of his life. He’s learning his stuff about what his mother’s intentions were.
We had many instances where we would argue back and forth. He would say, “You’re right. Do it that way,” and I’d say, “You’re right. I submit to your directorial will.” In this case, he said, “This is non-negotiable, so make sure you write that scene well about the nervous breakdown and the alcoholic father and the vision.” Once I had written it, I stopped having doubts, and once I saw what Nicole did in the film, it completely blew my mind, the power with which she delivers that part of the speech.