“A Hundred Streets” opens with a soaring, panoramic view of the Chelsea borough of London, just along the River Thames, a majestic view suggesting the possibilities are endless not only for the those inside the frame, but as director Jim O’Hanlon says, those creating the story from the outside.
“I had this notion that you are going a bit like, ‘eeny-meeny-miny-moe’ … whose story are we going to pick?,” says O’Hanlon, shortly before the film’s recent debut at the Los Angeles Film Festival. “Because everyone has their interesting stories, and they’re all walking about.”
Together with screenwriter Leon Butler, O’Hanlon finds four to hone in on in the ensemble drama, which stars Idris Elba as Max, a celebrated rugby captain whose private life is falling apart with his wife (Gemma Arterton) eager to get a divorce after his suspected philandering, Charlie Creed-Miles and Kierston Wareing as George and Kathy, a husband and wife frustrated in their attempts to adopt a child, and Franz Drameh as Kingsley, a low-level drug dealer with acting aspirations who’s given an extra nudge to course correct by a gravedigger (Ken Stott) he comes across while doing community service. Still, as “A Hundred Streets” finds, there is an opportunity for life to change direction around every corner and the film effortlessly traverses a community where wealth and poverty reside alongside each other all too comfortably, with chasms too complicated to bring up in polite society making them all too easy to ignore.
Yet this bigger picture is only built in “A Hundred Streets” with the equally complex personal portraits it crafts for its individual characters, all of whom are eager to move onto the next phase of their life and one feels whether Butler and O’Hanlon wanted to take that next step in their careers, they have with the film, given its verve. After the two, along with Drameh (on a break from filming the CW series “Legends of Tomorrow” in Vancouver), crossed the pond for the world premiere of “A Hundred Streets,” they spoke about the inspiration of the location, the loneliness of big cities and the choice of a particular monologue from a recent Aussie noir for a crucial scene in the film.
Leon Butler: I’ve lived in London for 20-odd years, and I was very keen to tell a story unique to London, so I thought about [how] the government had looked to bring communities together, calling it the “Big Society,” but it didn’t really happen. I had five or six stories based on characters I knew, and [imagined how they] brushed past each other because of the way London is. It’s not ghettoized. There’s a big public transport system, so people brush past each other all the time from different paths of life. Rich and poor, black and white. I was keen to tell these stories, and I love multi-layered coincidence movies – if you see “Crash” or “Amores Perros,” there’s a moment where they collide, so I realized they should live in the same area, just one square mile – 100 streets – that brought them together.
Franz Drameh: The whole idea of interwoven stories I always find very, very interesting – to see separate stories that touch upon each other and how characters who don’t know each other [have] lives that are so connected in ways that they wouldn’t have imagined. I feel like [this] would be familiar to anyone who’s spent time in London with the kind of situations that are going on [with these] contrasting areas and lifestyles that cross each other on a daily basis – my character of Kingsley, this young man who isn’t happy with his lot in life, going down a path he doesn’t wish to as a drug dealer and aspiring actor, is living side by side to a rich family.
Was there any significance to choosing Chelsea, the neighborhood you set the film in?
Leon Butler: I live there, so I could walk to set everyday. [laughs] But it’s an interesting area, because Chelsea’s very wealthy, but within Chelsea, there’s a lot of council estates because of bomb damage, so you’ll get a 10 million pound house and an estate opposite each other. Then you cross the river to Battersea, which was always a bit rougher as a place, but it has the beautiful park and it’s come up hugely in the last 20 years, so now there are 10 million-pound houses in Battersea. With the river, it’s beautiful, but it hasn’t really been seen on screen. We’ve seen a lot of East London gangsters and a lot of the Houses of Parliament, but we haven’t really seen that area, which is surprising because visually, it’s so cinematic.
The film moves so effortlessly through it, even though you cover so much ground. Was that challenging visually?
Jim O’Hanlon: I wanted it slightly to be a love letter to London, because although these people are having existential crises, I’ve been there for 20 years – I’m Irish originally – and it’s a city that has amazing energy. It’s a dynamic city where you can be anything you want to be, and I wanted to capture that feeling of the energy of London. But I felt that color is part of what’s sometimes missing from films about London, so I was very keen to get the color and energy of London to make it real and poetic. For instance with Kingsley’s flat, rather than the traditional, slightly hackneyed gray tower block, there was a beautiful blue tower block because when I first read Leon’s script, I thought, there’s a poetry about this, so I wanted it to have a sense of poetry, as well as the gritty realism because the emotions are real, [and that’s where] the performances [come in], which are honest and raw and truthful, so there isn’t a false note, I hope.
Was it crazy shooting this many locations?
Jim O’Hanlon: Yeah, it was. We were in a different place every day, even though we’d spend sometimes three or four days somewhere. I hope that that adds to the texture of the film, the feeling of energy. We were out there on the streets of London getting the feel of what it’s like to live in a city of 10 million people.
Was there something you wanted each of the characters to represent in a certain way when you were developing them?
Leon Butler: I wanted to have the whole strata of characters and it’s often lonely being part of a crowd, and each character had that. It wasn’t about color, necessarily, or ethnicity as such, but their loneliness. Idris was this huge rugby star, and all ex-sportsmen can relate to that [feeling of] where do you go from there? He’s got a wife and children, but he’s on his own. Kingsley was in a gang, and all his mates everywhere, but ultimately he wanted something else and he’s on his own. And George and Kathy [are like the] life and soul of the pub, but when something really bad happens, without spoiling the film, they’re on their own, as well, so that was a key thing – that a city can be the friendliest and the greatest place in the world, but also the loneliest. I think we really captured that, because a lot of those characters spend a lot of time on their own, despite being in love, having children, having their mates.
Jim O’Hanlon: What’s great about them, as Leon wrote them, is that they aren’t types. Yes, you have these three different social groupings – Max and Emily are well-off, and they live in this million pound house in Chelsea; Kingsley comes from the estate, and George and Kathy are somewhere in between – but they never felt like types to me in the script and while I hope it’s very specific to London, it should also speak to people in big cities across the world, big cities, from Beijing to Belfast to Boston. Snsnns
Leon Butler: It can be any story in any city – you can pick anybody, right now, out there, and find their stories.
Jim O’Hanlon: We just land on Kingsley’s story, and he’s the one who then brings us through the film.
Kingsley seems like such a tricky role to play, because it seems like you could so easily fall into a certain stereotype. How were you able to figure out how to distance yourself from that?
Franz Drameh: That was one of the main things that I didn’t want to do with the character – to make it cliched and stereotypical and that was a feeling that Jim as well as Leon had as well – to make it as real as possible while also keeping the whole cinematic vibe and feel. It would have been easy to fall into an area of black and whites [like], “Oh, he’s a drug dealer, so he has to be this kind of tough.” But he’s not a bad guy. He’s not a good guy. He’s just a young man who’s put in certain situations and makes certain choices that unfold in a way that [inform how] he does what he does. What really drew me to the script was just how beautifully written it was. I thought it was great that Kingsley got to have [a] philosophical outlook, which shows that this is more than just some hoodlum kid. This guy has a head on his shoulders.
Leon Butler: Writing it was difficult, because there are a lot of teenager-become-hoodie films in London. There’s no positive message from them. I wanted something positive and I didn’t really want to have it as this guns and gangster thing originally, but obviously for a movie, you need obstacles where you can’t just walk away, so I hope we did that in a non-cliché and stereotypical way.
Jim O’Hanlon: What helped was you knew that kid, [in real life], right?
Leon Butler: Yeah. And the Ken Stott character I knew, as well. They didn’t know each other in the real world, but I was the person between, so I just put those two together and nixed me out.
Jim O’Hanlon: We were also completely blessed with Franz. He was 21 when we shot it and he’s just got such a mature head on him. It was written as quite an articulate character, and anyone we saw at that age just didn’t have the maturity to play that part and still feel like a 21-year-old. Franz came in and just blew us away in being utterly transcendent. That really helped us pull off what is a very tricky part.
You feel that particularly in the scene where Kingsley goes to audition and he performs a monologue from the David Michod film “Animal Kingdom,” of all things. How did that come about?
Leon Butler: Oh, it’s a film I love. I was looking for a monologue that worked on both levels. There were early drafts of the scripts, and some of the people I spoke to were like, “That’s going to be really tough to do that,” but I wanted something that collated both those stories and I was watching movie after movie, and there was a scene [with] Guy Pearce, talking to the young lad about getting him out. It just felt right.
Jim O’Hanlon: It also needed to be a film that Kingsley’s character would have seen and liked.
Leon Butler: But a film that you wouldn’t expect him to have seen. You’ve got to be into your movies and intelligent to find a film like “Animal Kingdom.” Obviously I changed the monologue a lot, but by him saying “This is ‘Animal Kingdom,’ I hope you like it,” it gave a nod.
Franz Drameh: That was my first day on set, actually. That was the scene we did first and I thought it was great they allowed us to use that piece and give it a little tweak. “Animal Kingdom”’s a brilliant film.
Jim O’Hanlon: It’s also important for Kingsley’s character that he’s at the beginning of [his journey as] an artist, and what you do at the beginning of a career in art is you imitate people, and you start in their style. My 9-year-old writes stories in the style of the stuff she’s reading, so for Kingsley it was about not quite having the confidence to write his own stuff and say his own things, but wanting to start with something he heard, and develop that for his own particular situation. That’s the beginning of him becoming an artist, I think.
“A Hundred Streets” opens on January 13th in limited release, including in Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center, in New York at the Village East Cinemas, in San Francisco at the Roxie Theatre, and in Chicago at the Facets Cinematheque.