“Stories about people searching for possibility in their lives is the constant for me,” says Pete Travis, just before his latest film “City of Tiny Lights” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, seemingly aware at this particular moment he might sound a little more like one of his protagonists than usual. A director with an unusual knack for infusing visceral action with palpable emotion, the British director was not surprisingly courted by studios after honing his chops on television and a pair of compelling feature dramas, “Omagh” and “Endgame,” that led to large-scale thrillers, “Vantage Point” and “Dredd,” yet all the while, he was nursing an adaptation of Patrick Neate’s novel about Tommy Akhtar, a South Asian private eye in London whose search for a prostitute’s missing friend leads to a far larger cover-up in the city that would ultimately become an antidote to films where it could likely feel as if he were simply directing traffic. By the time the stars finally aligned for “City of Tiny Lights,” the desire to find his way back to the intimate, unexpected dramas he had made his name on had revealed itself.
“’Omagh’ was about a family destroyed by a terrible tragedy and the search for the truth was the first step towards finding a reason to live in the future without somebody they’d lost. ‘Endgame’ was a love story between William Hurt and Chiwetel [Ejiofor] about two people from opposite sides of the racial divide who saw the humanity in each other, and in a way, ‘Vantage Point’ was [about] how you have to see the whole picture to put the truth of a story together,” Travis says of where his love of a good hunt, often as internal as it is external. [‘City of Tiny Lights’] is a story about a guy who’s unraveling a mystery and he doesn’t see that the real mystery is in his own life. Like [Tommy] says, he digs up other people’s secrets and buries them because he’s too scared to dig up and find out what his own secret is.”
Travis – and Neate, adapting the script for “City of Tiny Lights” from his own novel – give Tommy (Riz Ahmed) plenty of reason to be afraid, cutting between the past and present, showing how the detective’s investigation could involve things he’d rather nor remember and friends he had as a teenager, including Shelley (Billie Piper) and Lovely (James Floyd), who now hold prominent places in the community. Yet his investigation comes to require a full examination of himself as well as the metropolis he lives in, where cultural shifts that have radically changed the face of London have given new motives for nefarious activity and birthed previously unthinkable alliances. Taking a cue from the novel’s title, Travis is keen to flood the city with a full spectrum of light, each corner lit with a different color as Tommy becomes immersed in varying moral shades of grey, reflecting all the potential promise as well as danger that is ever-present.
With the film making its hometown debut this week at the London Film Festival, Travis spoke about his visual influences for the film as well as reflecting his personal experience of the city and how the story dramatically changed over the eight years he and Neate spent getting the adaptation right, all the while holding onto rising star Ahmed, whose commitment was key to making “City of Tiny Lights” a reality on the big screen.
How did this come about?
Our producer Ado [Yoshizaki Cassuto] gave me the book eight years ago and asked me if I was interested and I loved it — I loved the title, and [how it] seemed to suggest if you look out on a city of lots of tiny lights, there are lots of souls and people’s lives all mixing together and finding ways to bump and bang into each other and maybe create chaos but also maybe beautiful things as well. I really loved the hopefulness of it and it felt like a hymn as to what living in a city could be.
The film is very different than the book in plot terms, but I liked that the book was about voices that don’t get heard and I think that was always Patrick [Neate]’s concern – to tell a story of ordinary lives that normally are ignored in the movies. This is the story of a young, 30-something Asian man and he’s not a terrorist, he’s not in an arranged marriage – he’s a private detective who’s a bit messed up and a bit lost, and I loved that it wasn’t a story about social problems, defined by your class or your race or your sex, which too often sadly is the case. Because when people talk about diversity of casting, it seems to me what they should really be talking about is diversity of storytelling. There’s a whole bunch of people whose story cinema mostly ignores and I remember when I met Cush [Jumbo], who plays Melody, she said what she loved about the script was that it captured what growing up in Southeast London, where she lived, was really like and the people she knew who said they never normally get seen on the screen.
There’s a scene at the end of the film, which has been in pretty much every single draft of the script that we wrote over eight years, and that’s the reason why I made the film really – this ridiculously dysfunctional Christmas celebration, with the strangest family you can imagine sitting around carving a turkey and eating it together. There’s something beautifully poetic about [how it] feels like a metaphor of what living in a city is like. That you might think you know who your family is, but when you live in a city, you might bump into somebody tomorrow in the street that becomes your friend forever or a sequence of events might occur that might eternally connect you to that person in a way that you never would’ve imagined before. That’s why cities are vibrant and I wanted to capture that vibrancy.
You certainly live up to the title with the beautiful color palette that’s on display – how did you go about creating the lighting scheme for this? Every environment feels different.
We were very influenced by Wong Kar-Wai’s work because he took the American noir thrillers of the ‘40s and made them very much his own in his own country. His work with his cinematographer Christopher Doyle had a very particular beautiful, lost quality that seemed to capture what life in Hong Kong was like, but it was never grim. Even though the stories were about people’s lives you’d never really seen before, it wasn’t miserable. There was hope and excitement, even though some of them were tinged with tragedy, and I always loved that. Too often I find stories about working class people or poor people, certainly in England, tend to be a bit grim and I don’t understand why if you want to tell a story about someone struggling, the way you tell that story visually has to be lifeless. Because for me, living in London or any big city is really exciting. It’s fraught with danger and darkness, but also with possibility.
Felix [Wiedemann, the cinematographer] seems to effortlessly be able to make things look beautiful, and I think in somebody else’s hands, this could’ve been a grim, bleak, cold, grey story shot in cool blues, the usual cliched ways [of showing] the city, but for us, it was always the vivacity of life in a city. If you walk around London at night, it looks like how it looks in our film. It has that vibrant quality to it. It’s so boring and unimaginative [to be] filming London [and think] we’re going to fly a helicopter over Canary Wharf. That’s not what the city is. The city’s not those visuals. It’s the human stories inside it that make it. Michael Mann’s “Heat,” which is one of my favorite films of all time – captures what living in Los Angeles is like, not because of the shots of [the city] but because of the loneliness of it and the searching for connection.
It’s not since Neil Jordan did “Mona Lisa” or [Stephen Frears’] “My Beautiful Launderette” that I think someone’s captured London. There was a moment in British cinema back then when [those films] came out when we actually thought there was a new wave of British cinema that was beautiful and poetic. When I was younger and I saw those I thought, “That’s what I want to do” [since] I felt like I hadn’t seen it before. So this was strangely connected to those. Rebecca O’Brien, who’s my producer, was actually the location manager on “My Beautiful Launderette.” and Roshan Seth, who plays Farsad, was in it and not looking a minute older.
To compliment your location manager, there’s a number of great locales in the film, but was it a challenge shooting in that many places?
Yeah, shooting in London is tricky on a low budget, but we were clever Like Tommy’s flat, I knew I wanted a flat that had the railway near it — again, that’s a kind of homage to “My Beautiful Launderette,” and once we found a couple of key locations like that, we would generally put other locations near it, so we wouldn’t have to move too much, which meant we could keep all our money on the screen. You’d be surprised how much money gets wasted on films by moving the crew and having a different base for the unit every day, especially in a big city like London. Rebecca, because she worked with Ken Loach for 25 years, developed a style of working in cities where they know how to keep locations close together to save money. That really helped us.
Was it an adjustment after working on bigger-scale films like “Vantage Point” and “Dredd”?
There’s certainly a period of my career where I loved blowing shit up and car chases. [laughs] That’s a lot of fun and exciting. But in a way, I wanted to not do that in this. Making big films is a bit like staying by the beach where there’s lots of beautiful people, nice food and you can have a lovely time, but after about four or five days of doing that, I get a bit kind of bored and I want to go walking in the mountains by myself. “City of Tiny Lights” is the walking by yourself in the mountains type of movie where it’s the nooks and crannies of the human heart that you can explore, rather than the big things happening in the “Vantage Points” and the “Dredds” of this world. So it’s nice to be able to have the chance to do both things.
You’ve got an incredible lead in Riz. How did his casting come about?
It was always Riz. He was a friend of Patrick’s – there was a bookslam scene in London where indie people go and read their work out loud and I Patrick and Riz met through that. Riz was always interested in the book, and I would meet him a few times and say this is where the script’s going, and this was four or five years before we ever shot it, so nobody else was ever going to be in the movie for me. To a certain extent, we tailored it around him. He’s effortlessly cool, which makes him perfect for a private detective. But that’s not why I wanted him. I wanted him because when you look in his eyes, he looks tough, but really vulnerable, and that’s an extraordinary quality in a male leading actor. He’s got something very, very special – the qualities that people like Russell Crowe and Denzel [Washington] have – and there’s not many of them around.
And Riz was a real trouper. He got wet quite a lot because it rained and he actually got quite ill. He got a really bad cough and he was smoking those herbal cigarettes, which [have a] really disgusting taste. He barely had a scene where he didn’t have one in his mouth and because he’s a guy that had actually given up smoking, that was quite a lot for him. He never complained once and he would come in, and he had a bit of the flu because he got soaking wet the day before, but he just got on with it.
What was it like working with Patrick, adapting something that he had written in novel form?
At the beginning, I was never quite convinced that a writer could write a screenplay of their own book, but he was so desperate to have a go and he did a first draft and it was really compelling. We worked very, very closely together on it through those eight years, trying to raise the financing. And in the end, the film’s screenplay is very, very different to the book, but the essence of the film is the same. It’s hard to imagine now, but the past with the [main characters] as young kids wasn’t there in the original draft and it’s not in the book. We wrote the first few drafts of the script, which were true to the novel, but Tommy’s past was quite dark, and that was a point where we met the BBC and they basically said to us, that they loved Tommy and his relationship with Shelley, but they felt like it was a movie about terrorism, which is never what it was supposed to be.
Patrick and I looked at each other and thought, “They’re right.” The past in the book is keeping it somewhere where we really don’t want the story to be, so we went away and had to think about it. Patrick came up with this idea that the tragedy in the book could actually be a tragedy that happened to [the main characters] when they were younger. I think the thing he wrote in the screenplay is better than the book because looking at what your life is like when you’re 17 and then what you do with it when you’re 35 is a universal story and universal stories are always more exciting because not everybody comes from where Tommy comes from, and not everybody comes from where Shelley comes from, but everybody had dreams when they were young and when you get to your mid-thirties, everybody wonders what happened to those things. Once we did that, that’s when people wanted to finance it.
With eight years working on this, does this resemble what you thought it would be when you first started?
It seems silly to say it’s everything you hoped it would be, but that’s the truth. The thing that surprised me the most is how I was able to hold onto Riz for so long because the longer it took to get it together, the bigger a star he became. He said five years ago, he would do it and Riz’s commitment was extraordinary, even though by the time we got to shooting it, everybody in the whole world wanted him. We worked forever and we were indebted to him for that. But the other thing is that the young kids who played the young Tommy and the young Shelley made the past [something] you had to put in the film. In the script, it was always a side show really. I thought we’d cut it out, but what they did with it was so beautiful — their love scenes are so tender and so what it feels like to be 17 and to kiss someone for the first time that they made it impossible to not put those things in the film. They made it magical. It’s one of those films I feel a very special part of my heart. When you’ve worked on something for that amount of time and have done other things in between because it’s never ready to go, when you finally get to do it, it feels quite special.
“City of Tiny Lights” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play at the London Film Festival on October 13th at 9 pm at the Picturehouse Central and October 14th at 2 pm at the Odeon Leichester Square.