The announcement that Luke Davies is writing the next Tom Hanks movie has topped off a whirlwind few months for the Oscar-nominated Australian screenwriter.
The achievement is all the more impressive given how close he came to squandering his talents.
By his own account, Davies is lucky to be alive. During a near-decade of heroin addiction in the 1980s, he overdosed several times, contracted hepatitis C and left a trail of destruction in his wake.
“Any number of things could have happened that might have led to me being dead or in prison or just a sort of a zombie,” he told Australian Story.
The story of Davies’ heroin addiction and his mutually destructive relationship with his first wife, Megan Bannister, has been documented in unflinching detail by Davies himself.
In his early years of recovery in the 1990s, he wrote Candy, “a typical thinly veiled semi-autobiographical first novel” that in turn became a movie starring Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish.
But such achievements seemed a long way off on January 2, 1990, the day Davies staggered into a detox unit, shattered from those years of addiction.
“That was a terrible, terrible day,” he said.
“But it was also the beginning of me actually getting my life back and becoming the real me.”
Over the next few years, Davies pieced his life together. He did a Diploma of Education and got a job as a teacher, but any idea of realising his childhood dream of being a writer seemed too much to hope for.
“I kind of guessed the creative stuff was tied in with the addiction and I would never write again,” he said.
“And that was something I was completely willing to accept as my destiny in life.”
But, tentatively, Davies did begin to write. Poems at first, then fragments of prose that would eventually become the chapters of Candy.
Davies a ‘big fish in a small pond’
Davies took a bold risk in moving to the United States to pursue screenwriting. (Australian Story)
The following decade established Davies as a significant literary voice in Australia.
He published several volumes of poetry, Candy became a best-seller and he won an AFI award in 2006 for his script for the movie adaptation.
He was a “big fish in a small pond” but that was about to change dramatically. Licking his wounds from a relationship breakup, Davies relocated to Los Angeles in 2007.
“It was an incredibly bold move,” Academy award-winning movie producer Emile Sherman said.
“He wasn’t an established screenwriter. He’d done Candy but hadn’t done a huge amount else.”
The early signs were not auspicious.
“The initial year or two was just abject failure at every turn,” Davies said.
Australian actor and Hawaii Five-0 star Alex O’Loughlin, with whom Davies has shared a house for the past eight years, saw that first-hand.
“I watched him struggle financially, I watched him struggle emotionally,” O’Loughlin said.
“It’s rare to hear Luke say, ‘I don’t know what to do — this is really hard’. And I heard that a couple of times.”
The long road to Lion success
But Davies’ luck began to change. In 2012 he won the Prime Minister’s Literary Prize for Poetry. The $80,000 prize money allowed him to clear his debts.
Slowly, small jobs led to better jobs. He wrote the script for the movie Life, which did not set the world on fire but got him noticed.
Then came Lion.
“That was a kind of explosion in my life,” Davies said.
The story of Saroo Brierley, the Indian boy raised in Tasmania who tracked down his birth mother using Google Earth, attracted attention around the world when it first became public.
Sherman, who produced both Candy and Life, wanted to adapt it and immediately thought of Davies.
“We understood his ability to not only crack a story but to bring out the poetry that may lie dormant in it,” Sherman said.
Australian director Garth Davis, who was already attached to the project, was similarly impressed with Davies’ work.
“I read Life and there was a beautiful sensitivity in it — a subtlety and a humanity that I felt could work for Lion.”
In researching the script, Davies travelled to India and met Brierley’s birth mother, Kamla.
“Every single question I asked about the past just made her cry so deeply and profoundly and it was in that room that I knew how the end of the film had to feel,” Davies said.
Lion director Garth Davis says Davies brought a “beautiful sensitivity” to the movie. (Supplied: Mark Rogers)
Dev Patel desperate to bring Davies’ ‘delicate’ words to life
Meanwhile, actor Dev Patel had heard of Brierley’s story and told his agent that if a film was being made, he wanted to be in it.
When he discovered the script was being developed, he turned up on Davies’ doorstep to plead for the role.
“Dev Patel runs into the loungeroom and it was just a weird moment,” Davis said.
“We hadn’t even finished the script and here’s Dev Patel fighting for the role.”
Patel admitted his interest was very premature, but when he saw the finished script he was even more determined to score the part.
“I went to bed and I literally prayed that one day these words pass my lips,” he said.
“They were so precious and delicate. Luke, you know, he’s really lived a life and it reflects that on the page in such a beautiful way.”
Lion has been a huge success. It has taken more than $US140 million ($189 million) at the box office worldwide and is the fifth highest-grossing Australian movie of all time.
The film won Davies a BAFTA award, saw him nominated for an Oscar and has made him hot property in Hollywood.
“Lion is a massive game-changer for Luke,” Sherman said.
“If you’re nominated for an Academy Award, your quote, as they say in Hollywood, has gone up dramatically and massively.”
Davies’ redemption after drugs
Davies has certainly been busy. His latest script, Beautiful Boy, is in production with Brad Pitt’s company Plan B and he is developing a TV version of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 with Australian director David Michod.
And now there is his adaptation of the Paulette Jiles novel News of the World, which is set in 1870 and will star Tom Hanks as an itinerant newsreader on a road trip through America’s untamed West.
It was announced on Friday that Davies would adapt the story for screen.
“Tom Hanks is like an American folk hero to me,” Davies said.
“Embarking on this adaptation, knowing I can picture Hanks delivering the lines as I go — it’s a pinch-myself kind of moment.”
Davies is having the kind of meetings with Hollywood heavyweights that he could have only dreamed of a few years ago.
But he is philosophical about the way his life has turned around.
“I get that my story is a story of redemption. And that’s great and it’s beautiful. But for many people getting clean is the redemption story,” he said.
“Not being beholden to a drug habit — it’s ridiculously good. That’s more the story for me.”
Watch part one of Australian Story’s ‘Candy Man’ two-part exclusive 8:00pm on ABC TV.