City Of Tiny Lights, starring Riz Ahmed and Billie Piper, is the latest film from director Pete Travis, known particularly in this parish for helming Dredd. We met up with him in London to chat about the movie, about politics, and about Dredd…
I read an interview for City Of Tiny Lights where you were quoted as saying you wouldn’t make the film unless Riz Ahmed did it, and that he was the first choice for the lead role of Tommy. I can’t tell you the number of people I interview who say something like that and…
… mostly they’re lying when they say that!
Well, quite possibly!
There’s a rule about casting I learned a long time ago. The right person for the role is the person who stands in front of you when you say action! In this instance, that wasn’t actually the case! Patrick Neate, the writer, knew Riz through Book Slam. I’d talked to him about Tommy’s character already, and Riz was interested.
When we came back to it and decided to make a movie, I met Riz at an event I think to do with Shifty. I told him I had this thing, and he was like, yeah, send it to me. We sent him an early draft, which was probably pretty shit at that time, but he loved the idea. Loved Tommy. Loved the world. We hit it off straight away. There was something really special about what he did in Shifty to me. There was something really raw and beautiful about his performance in that film that I really loved.
Sometimes you meet people and it feels like it has to be them. This was one of those occasions.
As the script developed over the next five or six years, Riz stayed true to his commitment to want to do it. And during that time, his star was on the rise. By the time we came to make it, his involvement was one of the things that helped us raise the money. Which wouldn’t have been the case if we’d tried to make it just after he’d made Shifty. Thankfully for us, his career went stellar.
Who have you got your eye on for a project in six years’ time, just so I can go and place a few bets?
[Laughs] Good question! I’ve not thought of anyone yet!
When you came to make this film, you’ve shot this in London without doing any of the big landmarks, or hitting us over the head with over the top references to its location. Were you very keen to avoid Landmark London?
Yes. That was very deliberate. I think if you point a camera at all the landmarks in London, you end up making a tourist film. I find that version of London either Hollywood or an era when we’re looking at the past. It just feels fake to me. I didn’t want that. I don’t think that’s what London is. I lived here for 30 years, and it’s the people, the opportunities, the excitement, the loneliness and challenges of living in a strange place. But also what that can give you, if you’re open to the possibilities. That was what always excited me about London.
Look at Michael Mann’s Heat, his love letter to Los Angeles.
Collateral even more so, perhaps. There are no amazing sights in Heat or Collateral. But he seems to somehow capture the soul of the city. That’s partly the relationships of the people, and the way they seem part of the landscape. They’re not standing outside a famous building. Even the view of the hills doesn’t have the Hollywood sign in it.
There’s a John Sayles movie, City Of Hope. Interweaving stories of different people all caught up in a conspiracy that’s kind of to do with property development. It’s a beautifully choreographed homage to living in a city. I was inspired by things like that really. Where the grit of the story and the beauty of the story is at ground level. I said to everyone I don’t want to fly a helicopter over fucking Canary Wharf thank you very much! I didn’t want sights!
What did you want?
It was set in West London. I was looking for an iconic image from there. I spent a long time walking around there, and I came across the Trellick Tower, which seemed a very lonely, beautiful thing to me.
I always remembered going out in London going west at sunset, and seeing these four tower blocks silhouetted against the sky. I thought that should be in a movie somewhere! I went in search of where you could see it. It just stands there, in the skyline, a symbol of something. I thought that’d be our central image of London, and that’s what it was. All the big wide shots either feature the Trellick Tower, or are shot from it. So if there’s a landmark, it’s that. But it’s not one that’d be on a tourist card!
Can you talk about how you use light? You have key sequences, for instance, where you streak it across the screen.
Me and Felix, my cinematographer, this is the third film I’ve done with him now. We were thinking about what the story would look like. You have to embrace the fact that it’s a gumshoe movie. Tommy’s not a milkman. He’s a private detective. That comes with a genre twist. So we said let’s embrace it, and feel what that would be like in London.
I had one image in my head, that I wanted his office to be in a block of houses with a train line going over it. We were looking for an office where he could be next to a cab firm, and above some shops, with a train line. And then we started looking at it, thinking it was all going to be set at night.
But we didn’t want it to be grim. I don’t find London grim. I find it exciting. And if you look around London at night, there is a lot of neon. We didn’t add much. We had a few signs, but we didn’t artificially create it. There’s quite a lot of it around. I think we were probably inspired by Christopher Doyle’s work with Kar-Wai Wong.
He shot beautiful hymns to Hong Kong, and I thought why can’t we bring that sensibility to London? That strange strobing effect, we nicked it from Chungking Express!
Over the course over the years you were developing City Of Tiny Lights, how much changed about how you wanted to approach it?
I spent lots of time wondering about west London trying to figure out what it’s like. The development process… I got given this script just after Omagh came out, and since then I’ve made Vantage Point, Endgame and three TV movies!
Would you call this the passion project?
I think they all are to be honest. I don’t think I’m any more passionate about it than anything else. I was passionate about this because I always wanted to do a thriller, and I liked the idea of doing one set in London.
Also, when I first came to London, I remember watching My Beautiful Laundrette and Mona Lisa, and thinking I’ve not seen movies like that before. That are set in a city that seem to capture something about it. They seemed true and real, but strangely achingly romantic. Both noir and Raymond Chandler-esque in their own way, even though they weren’t written like that. My Beautiful Laundrette is a 35 year old film and the centre of it is a gay, multicultural love story. Wow. When was the last time we saw one of those, even in the last ten years?
And just this week, 35 years on, the fact that a character in a television series is gay still makes headlines.
Exactly. We haven’t had very much progress at all.
You said you wanted to do a thriller, but you have been down that road before, with Vantage Point. How do you contrast that with City Of Tiny Lights? Do they feel very different films?
No they don’t. Obviously there are no car chases and explosions in City Of Tiny Lights.
A little bit of running. A gun in it. It’s quite hard to make a noir without one gun at least! When I made Omagh, I wanted to make a political thriller, and I waited a long time to find Omagh even. That was a political thriller for me, but the politics were on the edges of the film. I waited a long time for that to come round, and when it did, I started thinking I wanted to do something on a bigger canvas. Vantage Point fell in my lap.
Omagh did very well, won a bunch of prizes in America, I got an American agent and for ten minutes everyone’s excited about you. I got sent a bunch of scripts that were all really good, and that was the best one. It reminded me of Rashomon, obviously, and it felt like it could live in the world of The Parallax View and Three Days Of The Condor. Movies that I adore. And I thought I want to do that for a modern generation.
I’ve always loved movies of the 70s. They’ve always felt very true. They dealt with the real world. Exciting films with a political edge to them. Hollywood seems to have forgotten about such things.
So this script came along from Sony. I thought if they want to make it, I want to do it. I dived in. It’s a very different thing from City Of Tiny Lights, but the process is still the same. We had a lot more money, but still have compromise.
When we were trying to set up Vantage Point in Spain, where it was set, the budget was something like $80-90m. Sony decided it didn’t want to spend that kind of money on it, as it wasn’t an obviously commercial film. It’s got politics in it! So I spent six months going around the world trying to find a cheap place to make the movie. In the end we made it in Mexico for $30m.
Even at that level, you’re having to make compromises. City Of Tiny Lights was probably only $5m. But the process is the same, the passion is the same. But I guess in a big film you get to blow shit up, and have great exciting car chases. And I love all that stuff! I’d do it again at the drop of a hat if I could, and if I had the right story. But there’s also something nice about an intimate story where there’s a love affair. In Vantage Point, most of the relationships didn’t last more than six seconds [laughs]. There’s not a lot of development in that movie – you wouldn’t call it deep. Even though it’s a lot of fun!
I enjoyed Vantage Point!
Me too! I’m very proud of it. I loved it. But also, it’s like going to Nice and sitting on the beach. There are lots of people and you can have a really nice time. But also, there’s something nice about hiking in the mountains in Nice. And I like hiking in the mountains! I like to be able to do both things. I get bored on the beach if I’m there too long, but also I get cold in the mountains!
Going back to what you were talking about with regards budgets, I was impressed at how well you balanced resources on Dredd. It was little secret that you didn’t have $200m to play with, but you all made the details count on that movie. Details such as a sign on the wall, background little touches. Can you take me through how hard you had to push to make that world work, and whether you were pushing deliberately against a previous attempt that hadn’t made it work that well?
Everybody was very passionate about the film. The detail came from everyone’s passion, to be true to the source material. Alex Garland was fanatically passionate about that, the art department too. In all of those areas, you rely on other people to carry the passion of the story, and they all did that. From the people who designed the bike and the suit to the set, everyone immersed themselves in that world, to do justice to the comics.
The comics are really beautiful. Beautifully written, powerful stories…
Full of politics!
Yeah, about politics too. And the essence of getting those things write was essential.
But then when you make a film like The Go-Between, I want to know what 1900 is like. Like in any film, the texture of the story has to be right. The set in Vantage Point is an exact replica, but it’s still a set build in Mexico. In Omagh, forensically, we looked at photographs of what really happened, and set up situations that were like the photographs we’d all seen.
That kind of detail has been in all the films I’ve done, because that sort of detail is everything I think. In City Of Tiny Lights, it was the same: getting the important details about the world, making sure the cricket allegories were right. Detail is essential to everything.
Going back to City Of Tiny Lights, what are your hopes for the film now? What do you want audiences to take from it?
I don’t know. I don’t have expectations of the audience really, except that they might enjoy it. I think it’s a bit arrogant to have expectations of people. You just see whether they like it, and go with it or not. Whatever film you make, some people will love it, some won’t.
It’s a story that maybe we haven’t seen before, about people we very rarely see on the big screen. Maybe it’ll make people realise that there are other stories in the world, that they can demand to watch, that aren’t really catered for at the moment.
We talk about diversity of casting, which is important. But the bigger issue for me is the diversity of storytelling. We talked about My Beautiful Launderette, 35 years ago being a gay multicultural love story. When was the last time we saw something like that, when people weren’t defined by their race or their class? I think there’s a long, long way to go for us to reflect the real world in movie. City Of Tiny Lights is trying to be a small movie doing a big thing, which is going London is full of all kinds of people, and movies can be all kinds of people.
I think it’s a hopeful film.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on a political thriller for ITV, called Fearless. It’s about a human rights lawyer inspired by Gareth Pierce, played by Helen McCrory.
And that’s six parts?
Six parts, six hours, yes.
You’re directing every episode?
I am. I’ve only television where I feel like I can do the whole thing. I just see this as a six hour movie. I’m not really interested in doing serial television where I only do a bit of it. I want to be able to have a voice of my own in it.
Pete Travis, thank you very much.
City Of Tiny Lights is in UK cinemas now.