‘Lion’ Q&A

Alexandre De Franceschi ASE and Nick Meyers ASE


NICK MEYERS ASE: As you know a lot of great films are made through great collaborations. These aren’t a given, so in your life as an Editor, you’re very lucky to have these relationships. Spike Jonze always worked with Eric Zumbrunnen for instance, who sadly passed away last year. And Stu Linder cut all of Barry Levinson’s movies. If you’re really lucky, you could be someone like Sam O’Steen, who was both Polanski’s Editor, and Mike Nichols’s Editor.

But Alexandre has… get this… a fantastic relationship with John Curran going back many years; he’s worked with Jane Campion on a number of projects now; and now he’s teamed with Garth Davis on ‘Top of the Lake’, tonight’s film, ‘Lion’ and ‘Mary Magdalene’, which has just come out, so that’s three, fruitful collaborative relationships, and that’s pretty good, I reckon!

So I’d like you to welcome the amazing Alexandre de Franceschi.

ALEXANDRE DE FRANCESCHI ASE: Hello. I don’t know about the ‘amazing’ but thank you.

NICK: Well, I just loved 'Lion'. 

It’s got these big waves of emotion that go through the film. I think the structure’s really wonderful like that, and i’ll talk more about that later.

But the thing that I really love about it is that it’s quite Impressionistic. 

I was just flooded with images… and feelings and smells.

There’s a beautiful poetry to the film-making.

ALEXANDRE: Look, it was a film…

It was a very ambitious script: the version of the script that I read first had, I think, 260 scenes or so. It was madness! But it was a very solid script and all the characters were really developed; each had their own place and position. And still there was a lot of room left for the director’s interpretation in everything. 

The script actually evolved immensely as it was shot, on a daily basis. And then it evolved again as it came into the cutting room, because the first cut we had was 3 and a half hours. And it was all very watchable, but obviously not something we could present, so things started to come out. 

But the whole approach that Garth and, I guess, everyone involved had was a very real approach to the situations and to the feelings, so it was almost like making a documentary. Garth has a very free way of directing where he lets things happens. He shoots, he turns on the cameras, and off we run. You have to do that with a 5-year-old actor; you have to grab the moments as they come and as they are.

But I approached this film very much like a documentary in many ways, you know.  There are immense, quite long moments with no dialogue and no music. I don’t know if you noticed but the film opens with a piece of music, and then for about 12 minutes, or maybe more, there is no score. 

NICK: I didn’t notice.

ALEXANDRE: No? There you go. The first score comes in when he discovers that he’s lost in the train and that he’s up in the mountains. So between the beginning and that there is absolutely no music on the film. We’re watching real life, or what we were hoping to be like a documentary feeling. 

NICK: I also get the feeling with the dialogue scenes that you’d made them as essential as possible. I know it’s the job, but it’s…

ALEXANDRE: It’s the job, it’s what we do. We all know that.

NICK: But it does feel like there was a desire to... focus on the emotional side of things. 

ALEXANDRE: Yes, we approached the edit completely, completely at that level. If something is being said that is not necessary, or redundant, get rid of it. If something doesn’t feel - and I mean feeling when you’re cutting it, when you’re doing it, if it’s not feeling like it’s giving me some goosebumps, I’m not doing the right job.

Then in term of timing, a lot of spaces were condensed, so we had to have recourse to some special effects from time to time, you know. 

NICK: Oh, interesting.

ALEXANDRE: The second time he opens his laptop and he’s in the room, and he goes then to the bed Rooney Mara wakes up. Those are two scenes that were quite far apart, and in one he was wearing a T-shirt, in the other one he was wearing a hoodie, so we had to put a 3D hoodie to make it seem the same scene.

NICK: Oh, wow.

ALEXANDRE: You wouldn’t know, would you? It was nice. 

NICK: No, no.

ALEXANDRE: And yet, there were a good 10 minutes of script that went in that section. Because originally in the script, and in real life, he hears about Google Earth, but he’s got a very old computer and he’s frustrated by the speed. Weeks go by and he goes back to Tasmania and buys a new computer. We have scenes for that. We have meeting the mother and the girlfriend and explaining about the new computer. And then he goes back and opens it again and starts the real search. All of that took 10 minutes and was redundant so we put the two scenes together and shortened them and made a hoodie for him.

NICK: Because you can! That’s wonderful.

ALEXANDRE: Because you can! Exactly.

NICK: So can I ask, how long did it take, the process?

ALEXANDRE: It took a year. About that.

NICK: Wow.

ALEXANDRE: Yeah. Nine months to finish this version, more or less, and then there was another three months of coming and going, (I was already on 'Top of the Lake') trying to get the film down to two hours. But all up it was about a year.

NICK: So, early on when you saw the 4-hour version, there would have been big chunks where you just thought, “Alright, that’s gonna go, that’s going.” Or was it more a gradual process?

ALEXANDRE: It was more of a gradual process, you know, because it all worked. It was all very well shot.

WOMAN: Alexandre, how did you maintain your stamina, engagement with the film for that length of time? 

ALEXANDRE: Well, it’s not the first time that it’s taken me that long to cut a movie. As I get older, I get slower. But it’s very hard, very tricky to maintain that stamina. So I have a routine. I swim. Plus I’m a very in-a-box, routine person - I eat at the same time and I go to bed at the same time. I make sure we don’t go over 10 hours a day in the cutting room. But for that 10 hours… you live for the film. I think we all do, when we get into those journeys. How do you maintain perspective? How do you maintain... For me, I rely on screenings.  We had beautiful producers. Our producers were really helpful and very enthusiastic and good for us, including the Weinstein Company. Despite their reputation, they were really on the case.

NICK: So you take it out of the cutting room and throw it up on the big screen somewhere?


NICK: Where did you go, by the way?

ALEXANDRE: We were cutting at DDP in Melbourne. And at the time we had the luxury of the theatre downstairs available to us. So every Friday we would have a screening.

NICK: Once a week?

ALEXANDRE: Once a week.

NICK: That’s wonderful.

ALEXANDRE: It was really, really wonderful.

NICK: So you were away from home for a year, nine months?

ALEXANDRE: About nine months, yeah. That’s hard work. 

NICK: Really hard.

NICK: How was it working with Garth? Does he like to be there a lot?

ALEXANDRE: Garth was there every day, yes, and I ask about two hours for myself. He works very fast so there’s a lot of work that happens on the go and so you have to come back and fix things a little bit. 

He’s a really enthusiastic director. He’s a beautiful, beautiful, persona, you know. He comes into the room every morning and he opens the door and whatever image he sees on the screen he goes, “Look at that picture. Isn’t that beautiful? Isn’t that gorgeous? OK. Let’s start,” and off we go. We work, we break for lunch, we work, you know. And he’s very wise, he’s very savvy in the cutting room. He knows his business very well. 

There was a lot of organisation to be done. We had 250 hours of footage more or less. So I put a lot of work into organising: all the flashbacks, all the India stuff, all the Tasmania, all the Melbourne. And then when we get into the journey, he wanted access to everything very quickly, so I would have big sequences with big stories. Really like you would do on a documentary - you have all the date stuff, all that stuff on the bridge, all the stuff from the fields, all the stuff from the house.

NICK: Do you put them in bins or in timelines?

ALEXANDRE: I put them in bins AND in timelines. I have... (LAUGHS)

NICK: Many ways.

ALEXANDRE: Many, many ways on this one. Many ways. It was a big job. And I had a great Assistant, I had Maria who was very helpful.

NICK: I saw she was the VFX Editor as well.

ALEXANDRE: Yes, she did all the effects. She was with us on ‘Mary’ as well, and she gets an Associate Editor credit, and she is about to cut her first movie. I love when things like that happen.

WOMAN: Can I ask a question about flashbacks? What kinds of considerations... You know, what emotional... I mean, obviously, there are some visual parallels...

ALEXANDRE: Connections? Yes. Being on the bridge with the mother, being on the water. 

ALEXANDRE: Garth put a lot of thinking on those flashbacks. And then there were others that were lost and there were others that were put in and grabbed from all places. They moved a lot.  I don’t know if anybody has worked on movies with flashbacks beforehand but you can certainly play with them. And I was prepared for that. A few years ago I worked on a movie that was made of flashbacks as well, ['Painted Veil'], and it gave me a taste of how things can be shuffled around. It’s one of the reasons it took a bit of time, because we kept shuffling.

NICK: There’s so many different ways.

ALEXANDRE: So many different, and all for good reasons, but at the end of the day you go, “Which one feels good? Which one is giving me that bit of emotion that progress me forward and ones that keep me going?” 

No reason, no rhyme, you just keep on trying until they work. 

NICK: What I thought was interesting was that there’s a long period without any flashbacks. You hold off for a long time, and then there’s more and more until there’s almost a flood...

ALEXANDRE: Again, very, very carefully done, but how it happens, I don’t know. You get in there and you put things in, and then you shorten them, you lengthen them, you move them around, you try them.... Especially on this particular film because, again, it was very free, you know? There was not really a structure other than the journey, as such, so finding it was a little bit, um...arduous.

NICK: I really liked that first flashback, actually.

I’m gonna talk a bit about the structure now because I think the structure is interesting. I’m often curious about the middle of the film. I always think, “What happens right in the middle?” What’s the midpoint? If you’re looking at classic three act structure, well, there’s four, really because there’s the Midpoint. 

And so I had a look in the middle of your film, and, actually, I’ve got it here.So I just did this, I went to the middle. And what is it?  There it is. That’s the middle of the film.

ALEXANDRE: There you go. How amazing. (LAUGHS) In the middle he discovers... You’re right, he discovers it. 

NICK: And you’ve been with him for a while as an adult, and then you hit this scene.

ALEXANDRE: You come back to India right in the middle. That’s interesting, I’ve never noticed that. 


ALEXANDRE: Not on purpose. I’ve never looked at the film in that way.

You have the beginning, 40 minutes purely in India, and then we discover a new world…

A lot of things change, I don’t know if you noticed. The camera handling is quite different once we’re in the wide world. Up until now, it’s been quite handheld, more documentary mode, and then we are in film mode from those 40 minutes on. Sound-wise also, we have changed quite a bit. Up until now we took a lot of care, especially in India, to hear the world through the ears of a child, so that the sounds are not quite how you normally listen to them - more heightened, more specific, especially when it comes to trains. The trains are very present all through the film, including in the score. 

Anyway, coming to the middle of it, he rediscovers his jalebis, the food that he was longing for in India comes back,

NICK: It’s a very interesting sort of midpoint. Not long after this, he winds up in bed with the girl, which is a traditional thing that often happens in the middle of a movie.

ALEXANDRE: Exactly, we’re in a real film now, you know, we have a love story...

NICK: And this makes it much more interesting because, the relationship with the girl develops, but there’s this tug. He’s tried to put it aside but it’s there and he’s got to make a choice, or he can’t help but make a choice, it’s calling him. 

ALEXANDRE: Correct. Interestingly enough as the film stands, you haven’t heard from India, or you don’t know that he’s even been thinking about it until now. Originally, as a child, when he comes to the house, they put a map of India on his wall. So India was present in his life but we chose to take it out to give this more strength. 

NICK: That works very well.

ALEXANDRE: But, you know, one of the criticisms we’ve had from time to time was, “Oh, so it all happens and he’s never thought about it.” He had thought about it...

NICK: I could see that today when I was watching it again. When he comes out of the water, when we first meet the older Saroo, there was something there, a dissatisfaction, perhaps. 

ALEXANDRE: It’s not there as finger-pointing but it’s there in the feeling. Everything is there.

NICK: And then, just to talk about this three act thing a bit more, because it’s not obvious, for me where the first act turns into the second act. It wasn’t where he gets off the train, because that’s quite early, and it wasn’t the obvious second phase of the film where he’s an adult in Tasmania… that’s very late, (also it’s not dramatic - he just gets older.)

It’s an interesting one because it comes for me emotionally. You know when the little boy is taken away at night in the orphanage, and the children sing a song, for me that was kind of it. Emotionally I felt, “Oh, this is wonderful.” You sort of slowed it down there…

ALEXANDRE: Yep. And then he has the big conversation with the adoption lady.

NICK: And you had opportunities to slow it down at other times, like, there’s other chapters, like when, I guess, he decides that he’s stuck there. Because you have like “Three months later”, and he’s under the bridge, but you kind of let that happen.  And then you let that moment have its big, you know, pause. And then the next scene is a new life, an opportunity for a new life.

ALEXANDRE: Correct, correct. Those are your waves. This are the pace in which we can handle those emotions. Because if it was all happening too quickly, it’d be all over and done too soon. And then if you delay too long, you would get bored. So how you choose those moments and how you decide when to slow it down and when to pace it up, it’s an instinctual thing. I don’t think it’s like intellectually thinking, “Are we going too slow here? Are we going too fast?” It’s like, “It feels like we’re getting boring here,” or, “It feels like we need to move again,” you know. 

NICK: And what I like, it wasn’t based on, say, a change of location or a major change of age. It was all in the timing and the waves of emotion. It was the shape, which is beautiful.

ALEXANDRE: Entirely out of feeling it.

NICK: And I thought, there’s storytellers, and as Editors, we’re story-shapers.

ALEXANDRE: Yeah, completely. And you’ve got the feelings to go by. You can intellectualise, you can explain things, but I follow, much more, instinct. And the directors I work with are pretty much like that as well. John Curran can be more cerebral. Jane works totally by instinct and what feels good and what doesn’t, and so does Garth.

WOMAN: Hi. Love your film.

ALEXANDRE: Thank you.

WOMAN: You know the point in the story where he does find his home on Google Earth? It’s pretty witchy. Is that how it really happened?

ALEXANDRE: It’s quite truthful. He’d lost faith. He’s broken up with his girlfriend. His brother’s on drugs. He doesn’t talk to his mother anymore. And in real life, he came back home, he got drunk, smashed everything up, and then did exactly that: sat down and started going through the computer and went over the line, and that’s where he found home. It was quite extraordinary, you know.

MAN: The initial track of the film, it was in Hindi so was the language barrier sort of a challenge?

ALEXANDRE: Yes, it was. And it came about quite suddenly because the whole script was written in English and from time to time it would say, “This is spoken in Hindi.” And about five days before the shoot, it struck me: “They’re gonna be talking in Hindi. How are we gonna sync the rushes? And what are we gonna do here?” and all of that. So we had a bit of a panic moment and we had to find very quickly a translator that was able to come to the cutting room at rushes stage, so it was subtitled before we started cutting. 

MAN: How do you go about feeling the emotions when there’s that kind of language barrier?

ALEXANDRE: It wasn’t really a barrier. Because you listen to the dialogue as music in many ways. You know what they’re saying, obviously, but the dialogue becomes almost a musical thing.

MAN: What was the most difficult scene to edit?

ALEXANDRE: Well, there were several scenes we came back to many times. Getting lost in the station was one of them, that was a difficult one to find the right balance. The train, him in the train, screaming and yelling was a difficult scene too. The dinner scene towards the end, when the brother... That dinner scene was hard. There was a lot of dialogue that went, a lot of dialogue that came back, a lot of dialogue that was added until we found a balance. 

NICK: That scene works wonderfully, the way they’re not talking and not saying things. So Anglo-Australian!

ALEXANDRE: Exactly! But just keeping the essentials, you know. 

NICK: Nicole’s big scene, the mother’s big scene where they talk, it’s all in close-ups.

ALEXANDRE: That’s all there was. 

NICK: Oh, really?

ALEXANDRE: Amazingly, yeah. There were 10 takes, I think, not even that, eight takes, probably. All amazing, she was really extraordinary in that. 

One little wide at the beginning when he enters and everything else was shot, as I said... Two cameras - one on him, one on her. We didn’t end up using the same takes for him and her, so there’s a lot of split screens to keep her in sync when we’re on him, but other than that, that’s all I got.

NICK: Well, it’s fantastic. It’s gripping. And I realised it’s something of a mirror to that other scene I talked about earlier, the sad song in the orphanage - it slows down, you just let it be, and then it’s into the next act. And I noticed tonight there was the Ganesh transfer very close to these moments, so I’m starting to see the structure now!

ALEXANDRE: You need to see it a few times to see those things. And that scene was particularly interesting. At some stage, I think, and I was looking at it tonight, we were on her for about 90 seconds without cutting, and I think it’s probably the longest talking shot in the whole film. But she does it, she gives us this extraordinary performance so why ruin it with cutting?

NICK: I hate to say this, but I think we might have to wrap it up to stay in the good graces of the film school, so they will let us come back for another one of these sessions.

ALEXANDRE: Well, it was a bit short. But I was curious. I mean, Nick asked me a week ago, saying, “Oh, there’s two versions that we could screen, which one do you want?” And for a minute I thought, “Well, the shorter one’s going to give us more time to talk, but the longest one might be a good thing to see,” so...

NICK: It is, and it’s very interesting to compare them. And to that end, I’ve got some giveaways. I’ve got three Blu-rays of the film to give away, and they’re special ones that have both versions.

ALEXANDRE: Oh, there you go, watch them both and compare them!


NICK: Come back for the next one which will hopefully be... Well, we’ll see. We don’t know yet.


(As the time for the Q&A was so limited, Nick and Alexandre still had things to discuss. Here are highlights from  follow-up questions to both Alexandre and his Assistant Editor, Maria Papoutsis.)


NICK: Have you worked in documentary?

ALEXANDRE: Oh, yes, I cut many documentaries in my early years. Basically you get a lot of footage and you have to make the story in the edit. Sometimes you follow a chronology and sometimes an emotion, or you weave both of those things, which was the case for Lion. We wanted to have the “real life” feeling but yet be immersed in the child’s emotional journey.

Garth is also a great fan of John Cassavetes and his “cinema verité” approach to film-making. We borrowed some ideas from his films.


ALEXANDRE: It was a very civilised end-of-the-week glass of wine and watch what we've done. I make it sound like a luxury, but it’s not. Weekly screenings have always been part of the process and should be mandatory, whether they’re on a big screen or in the cutting room.

Public screenings came later, after we finished the first pass. The only complicated thing was that we were dealing with 2 different lots of producers (See-Saw and TWC). Keeping track of notes in those situations can get complicated.

NICK: So this is something you push for on all films?

ALEXANDRE: Of course. Don't we all? Pushing for ideas or cuts or sound or music is part of our every day life. Everyone pushes, everyone has a different vision on how things should be put together. It's a bloody nightmare out there!

The trick for me is who to pay attention to, who makes sense and who doesn't. What is possible to achieve, given the material, and what is not. There is the old saying, "listen to the problems, not the solutions", which I kind of agree with. Often by fixing 1 problem, you fix 3 of them. Most importantly, I listen to my director's instincts - and my own - because at the end of the day we are the ones that know the material best.


NICK:  Have you ever just thrown it all aside and gone for broke?

ALEXANDER: Yes, more than once. Start by cutting the end of the movie. Put the middle in the beginning. Throw a whole scene up in the air and pick-up the little pieces from the floor …(so to speak) and see what’s left. No rules, sometimes a necessity when editing.

NICK: Yes, but for me, all that earlier preparation comes into play here as well. You’ve done all that sorting and cataloguing, it’s really a way to get the material into your mind. Then you can free-associate, and it’s like dreaming, were all sorts of ideas get placed next to each other, but is still make sense.


NICK: Did you have the computer images on set? or where they added later?

ALEXANDRE: All the computer screens in the film where shot on camera.

NICK: Wow, that’s great.

ALEXANDRE: A tremendous amount of work went into the homework and the making of those screens. Little details were added in post (banners, signs, etc) and we altered in CGI the water tower so Saroo would recognise it, but it was actually Dev Patel himself driving the mouse, and in the rushes you can hear Garth directing: "stop there," "zoom in," "move forward," etc.

I don't know if you noticed, but the background for the opening credits is made of aerials. Each one of those aerials is a clue, and they all re-appear through the course of the film. Garth called these "the astro travel", the unspoken visions Saroo would have when searching for home.

NICK: Yes, I did notice that! My first thought was Google Earth, and I wasn’t paying close attention, you know, reading the credits, but the second time, I saw a journey in there, from Australia to India. Very cool!


MARIA PAPOUTSIS, First Assistant Editor, on screenings

When we did 'Lion' DDP Melbourne had a direct link from our edit suites to the theatre downstairs, and because we were the only team working out of the suites at the time, we could have impromptu screenings whenever we wanted.

In the latest bin of the latest cut, Alex usually has all the reels listed in order and then before a screening either he joins them or I would join them (mostly he did because he's very organised and likes to do as much himself as possible).

In Avid we put an In & Out point at the start and end of each reel, then click and drag all reels into a new sequence. The reels are named "Cut 10 Reel 1". "Cut 10 Reel 2", "Cut 10 Reel 3" etc, so they go in sequentially, and it’s really very simple.

Alex likes to put a marker on the first frame of each reel naming the reel, so once linked I would then jump to each marker and play a little before and after to make sure it has joined together properly.

The theatre was connected via TeamViewer to my computer and I was able to work my Avid remotely from there. This was handy as I could rewind and skip scenes if Garth wanted to watch other bits as well.

The fact that it was linked directly meant that it wasn't too disruptive - Garth and Alex could just get to a point where they felt satisfied and we'd head downstairs to view it. As the film got longer and longer (I think our first Director's cut was 2 hours and 45 minutes), it just meant we had to finish earlier and earlier each Friday to be able to watch the full film right through before 6pm.

When we screen every Friday to ourselves we don't really consider it a screening, it's more just viewing our week's work on a large screen.


MARIA PAOUTSIS on Working with Alexandre

I got to do a lot of assembling on 'Lion', which I think was partly out of Alex's generosity to train me - he cuts very fast and didn't really need the help, but he was keen to teach me. So each day he asked me to pick a couple of scenes and cut them, then at the end of the day he would critique my work. If he liked what I did he didn't change it and kept it in the Assembly edit (Cut 0), but if he had notes he would either get me to do them or change them himself (depending on time).

On 'Mary Magdalene' I earned the Associate Editor credit because I ended up working directly with Garth a lot. There was a two-week period where the schedule for MM had blown out and Alex had things to do back in Sydney - so I was cutting with Garth.

Then later I wound up doing the music editing with Garth. I think I got really lucky because on 'Lion' we - Garth, Alex and I - were just a three-person team for almost a year, so I got fairly close to Garth and he trusted me with a lot of tasks that normally an Assistant Editor wouldn't get.



Lion DCP courtesy of Chris Hearn, See-Saw Films
Recording & Photography: Adrian Barac
Transcription:  Alison Myers
Thanks: Danielle Boesenberg
Extra Special Thanks: Jenny Hicks