I was five minutes late because I'm a chronic screw-up but Pete Travis couldn't have been more patient or forgiving. I'm doubly impressed by his zen calm when he tells me he starts shooting another feature in four days. I assume out loud that doing press at a film festival is the last thing he needs, but he says he's grateful for the respite from a constantly-ringing phone. Later Travis, who gives off a major Ben Mendelsohn vibe in person, will compare big-budget filmmaking to lying on the beach; if we'd ordered drinks, I would've had what he's having.
Travis came to this year's TIFF with his follow-up to the sensational Dredd, the London-set City of Tiny Lights, in tow. Starring the charming, ubiquitous Riz Ahmed, it's about a detective (Brits, including Travis, favour the term "gumshoe") whose search for a missing prostitute brings him in touch with his own tragic past. It's a conventional hard-boiled whodunit--the genre has survived by being incorruptibly formulaic, allowing it to comment on modern times by throwing into relief our changing mores and values--with one glaring exception: only one of the main characters is white. It's fascinating how deceptively fresh this makes it feel. My major complaint after the movie was over was that it retreats from those Chinatown places that would give it resonance beyond its enlightened casting (screenwriter Patrick Neale, adapting his own novel, scaled back on his book's doom and gloom considerably), but upon spending some time with Travis, I came to see the optimism of City of Tiny Lights as deeply personal to a serene and hopeful man.
We spoke on September 15, 2016 at the Azure Restaurant & Bar in the InterContinental Toronto Centre.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: I'm curious about the kinds of things you were offered after Dredd, and how that might've led to City of Tiny Lights.
PETE TRAVIS: I agreed to do City of Tiny Lights way before Dredd. I've been working on the film for eight years--
Since the book was published?
Pretty much since--actually probably longer than that. I got sent it just after Omar came out, early 2007.
Like all things with small films, it's a struggle to piece them together, financially. So is trying to get the script right, sometimes. The first few drafts of the script were very true to the book, but the past in the book is quite dark. In the book, you had a suicide bomber who blew himself up, on a bus. But the truth is, no one wanted to make a movie about a kid blowing himself up on a bus. Neither did we, really--I didn't either. But the essence of this story, which was, how do you find connections, things that might sustain you in a city--that was always what the movie was about. It's a story about a man, a private investigator, he's uncovering secrets and burying them in other people's lives, because he can't face the secrets in his own life. That was always what the film was about, and that was the reason to make the movie. So we kept that, and pretty much changed everything else. The plot, we developed, but the past we made different altogether. It was about secrets in your past, and we just decided it was going to be more romantic. And once we had that, once we figured that out, it was like it suddenly became an easy movie to make with a leading major man, about heroism. [Everyone went from] going, "Great idea but, no thanks," to, "Oh really? [And it's] about people who were young in 1997?" Obviously 1997's a very particular thing in England, because that was the year Tony Blair got elected. That was the year of hope, after seventeen years of Thatcher government where everyone's lives are miserable. 1997 felt like the beginning of a change. So that's why we set it in 1997 when he's 17. And that hope that that government had got lost, as we all know. And so doing that, suddenly we had a movie that was properly about something now, and properly about something in the past.
So I was kind of doing it before Dredd. I was even doing it before Endgame, which is my second movie after Omar.
Patrick Neale, he didn't bristle at these changes?
You know, we did it together. It's kind of like, you write a novel which is one thing, and then you realize, "What is the film version of that?" And the film version shouldn't be a literal adaptation of it. The best films from books aren't literal adaptations, they're [made by] filmmakers that go, "This is why we're doing the book." And that sometimes means leaving out quite a bit, because something extraordinary ends up on the screen. And we both felt the same thing, so Patrick was brave enough to go, "I'm gonna leave all that stuff out, because this is what the film should be." So there was never an issue for him--in fact, he was the one oftentimes going, "We've gotta ditch that. It's grim." It was great working with him, because we both knew what the film should be, which was a kind of hopeful story about, Why is a man a detective, if he isn't burying something [himself]? And also we wanted it to be about... Hope. I think if there's a thread in all my films, that's what it is.
Tell me about casting Riz Ahmed.
During that time, about five years in, it was like, Who's going to play him? And it was obvious, it had to be Riz. But even that--that was before Riz was famous. The movie he'd just done...was Shifty, so he wasn't the meteoric star he is now. And he committed to doing it because he loved it, loved what the story's about, and he was true to his word of staying with us, even when he became the star he is now. A lot of other people would have said, "You know, I know I said I'd do it five years ago but now I'm a big movie star," but he was wonderful the way he committed to it all those years ago and stayed true to it all the way through. Even when he was clearly under pressure [to take] probably better plays, better pay.
He's so charismatic.
He's extraordinary. I mean, there was never anybody else who could play it. I think Riz and Patrick were friends before I'd met Patrick. Riz was a deejay and there's thing called Book Slam in London that kind of mixes music and deejaying and people reading bits of their novel out and it became a real big hit, and that's how those guys met. So I think secretly Patrick always thought Riz would be in it. He had told him about his book and the film.
And in a way, then, we just wrote it for him. Because, you know, there's moments in it, and even on the shoot, [Riz and I] would just go out back and have a cigarette and stare out. Half the movie, like the opening sequence of the film, was one of those moments. It was like, walking into a shop buying a pack of cigarettes was not in the script. We just happened to be on that street, we liked that shop, we were doing something else, but the DOP put a neon sign on the window and I said to Riz, "Go inside and buy a pack of cigarettes." And he does it so extraordinarily soulfully.
Compared to Dredd, this movie does seem a lot more spontaneous, there's more handheld--
It's all handheld.
The slow-motion is a totally different kind of slow-motion... I was wondering if this was a conscious departure from the aesthetics of Dredd.
No, I wouldn't say it's a conscious departure, just... That was the style that was right for this film. No, I don't think I make conscious departures. I don't think I've made a conscious departure. Although, I do think that for me, I have the luxury of being able to make big films and small, and I wouldn't have it any other way. I like going to the beach, having beautiful people around and drinking piña coladas and having very expensive, rich food. After you've done that for three or four days, it starts to feel a bit like you need to go hiking in the mountains by yourself.
And that's big-budget filmmaking? Going to the beach?
Lying on the beach is like making big movies. Going hiking on your own in the mountains where you've kind of got nobody but yourself and a backpack [is low-budget filmmaking]. I need to do both those things. And the truth is I probably have more fun in the mountains, because there's a bit more truth there. Yeah, the big films are fun and I wouldn't not do them...but when I look back on the films I've made that I think will stay in people's memory as having touched them, it's the ones I've made in the mountains. Because they're journeys of the human heart, which are always more memorable than car chases or blowing shit up.
As much fun as that is.
"If you look at My Beautiful Laundrette now you think: gay Asian/white-boy love affair. That's like fucking radical. When have we done that since? Not much."
I'm wondering if the multicultural aspect was part of the appeal of City of Tiny Lights for you.
Absolutely. I mean people talk about the need for diversity casting, which is true, we do need that, but we need diversity of storytelling even more than that. There's whole stories about people's lives that never get written, never get made, because of the colour of their skin, because of how poor they might be. I think that's as big an issue as casting for me, because people's stories and lives are forgotten, and I don't like that. So I've always been interested in those stories. Omar was a story that people wanted to forget. Nobody wanted those families asking those awkward questions, they would rather they went away. I made that film for that reason: that they refused to go. I remember I met Cush [Jumbo], who plays Melody [in City of Tiny Lights], and she said to me the thing that she loved about it and the reason why she wanted to do it is it was about the stories in her world, about growing up, that she'd never seen in a film before. The same for Riz, I guess, as well. I think reason why he dug it is because he's gonna get to play a 35-year-old leading man, and he's not a terrorist--his role is not defined solely by his social problems, his past, or his race. Which sadly is the case a lot of the time.
So I think we wanted to do something where...he's a guy with a job, and his race is [not exactly] what defines him, what defines him is the secrets in his life. That he did something when he was 17 that he isn't proud of, and he's never really been able to live with himself. And obviously it's set in his community, which makes it richer, and makes it within people that we don't normally see on screen. It's the same with Avid, the young kid he played with who's Muslim, and his ma and his dad. You realize when you see a film like this how little you see of those lives.
It feels radical--and it shouldn't. It seems like it probably feels even more radical now than it would have when you started.
Yeah! I mean, you know, the things that are going in America now with Mr. Trump saying who should and shouldn't be allowed in his country--here's a movie that's got Muslims in it that isn't about blowing shit up.
There used to be a great line in the script where Tommy describes Lovely as "a Muslim with no apparent desire to blow shit up." (laughs) It never quite made it to the final cut but I always loved that line, because it always summed up the kind of nonsense that's going on in our world and in England, you know, the crackdown on British Muslims now... It's about time we had stories that said nobody's defined by their faith, they're defined by what they do, how they live their lives. Not everybody's trying to kill you just because they don't happen to have the same faith, they're not always a threat to National Security. So I guess we are coming out now with a bit of a fuck-you to that. I think it's important that we don't let people's lives get sidelined by politics or by politicians. Politicians are important but the way politicians present our lives, mostly to the right...
It's a nightmare right now. I can't believe we're living it.
So it's all the more important, that story of a multicultural London. I mean Shelley's pretty much the only white person in it. How many movies come out of England where there's only one white person in it? I'm proud of that. I think it's important that we tell stories about communities and cultures where we're not defined by what we perceive as the social issues within that community. It's about time we have more stories where people were just cast as, you know, your boss. And he could be black, he could be white, he could be gay, he could be straight. And that's not the story. It is all those things as well, but that's not what the story's about. That's where storytelling is change.
That's something I hadn't really considered about the detective genre: Anybody could be Bogie.
Yeah, yeah. Exactly right. Yeah, yeah. You could remake some of those movies and set them in a different community and a whole different story could emerge. But, no, I suppose if there's a link to this film, it's the kind of New Wave of British cinema that happened with My Beautiful Laundrette and Mona Lisa. I remember watching those films thinking, Wow, British cinema can be beautiful and moving and tell stories about people whose lives I don't normally see. If you look at My Beautiful Laundrette now you think: gay Asian/white-boy love affair. That's like fucking radical. When have we done that since? Not much.
I'm a big fan of Alan Clarke, I just got that box set of movies he made for the BBC.
I'm influenced by that as much as anything, you know? There's a truth there, with Alan Clarke. But I think also what I've been excited by is trying to find ways to use that, have that sensibility, but also not be afraid to be kind of lyrical with it, and not be afraid to be beautiful with it. In a way there's also similarities for [City of Tiny Lights] between Wong Kar-Wai's movies--again I think someone who took the genre of the gumshoe and translated it in his research to Hong Kong. And his work with Christopher Doyle, the way they told these real, raw stories of people's lives, but they weren't grim. They were poetic. But they were exciting because they were beautiful to watch, and I think, Well why can't we do that? And I guess in some ways, that was part of the inspiration from the book. I'm doing a story in London, how do I make it fucking beautiful?
It did remind me of Chris Doyle at times. Often.
Yeah, I mean we sat down, me and [cinematographer] Felix [Wiedemann] watched those films and just looked at the simple way he lit things. It was such an effortlessly atmospheric--or true, not fake, there's no fakery in any of that stuff. So we kind of just thought, well, yeah, how can we look at London? Through those eyes sometimes, or just not be afraid of romance, I guess. Sometimes we just looked at it and found out what they did was--you can paint with light. And also partly they're doing it through not much money. So we saw a light between those two light bulbs.
One thing working-class immigrants have at their disposal to improve their surroundings is colour. The movie feels aware of that in how saturated it is.
I wanted the story to capture how sexy it is to live in a city. You know, living in London is sexy. It's a sexy place to work. It's lonely and lost and all the things that are in our film, too. But it can be beautiful, even when it can be dark. There's beauty there. I've just always been interested in finding ways to tell stories where you remember the images. I mean, for me, I remember the story and the plot. But if I look at all the films I love I remember the images as much as I remember the story. And I've always wanted to do that, or try to find ways to do that. And this was always a movie that had to be colourful. That was my brief to the designer and Felix, was that I wanted colour in it. I want it to sing.
I appreciated that because I'm tired of muted colours, that bleach-bypass look.
There's a place for that, but it becomes like everybody does it then it sits there. It's supposed to be a tough story so that means it's going to be cold and blue and washed-out. I've seen that before. Don't you have colour in your life?
"City of tiny lights" is another of Frank Zappa's curious phrases. I'm wondering what it means to you.
I guess it means, I'm imagining looking out over a city. And there's lots of little shimmering lights there that may or may not be out of focus because of what your camera's looking at. And each of those lights is its own human story. Someone's house. Someone's sitting room. The hope and the life of that family or that lonely person or that happy family. And a city is all of those lives, and the city of tiny lights is all of those tiny lights all together, and that's what I wanted it to be about. I didn't know it was a Frank Zappa song [when I read it], but when I read it and read the title--that's for me what it is, which is what a city is: a lot of shimmering lights, searching for something. To be better than they are, maybe, and reaching out to find ways to make their own history better.