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Spotlight on the Modern City: An Interview with Pete Travis

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By Tom Ue.

Pete Travis is an award-winning film and television and director. Before becoming a director, Pete was a social worker. After taking a post-graduate course in filmmaking he bought the rights to Nick Hornby’s Faith and spend £12,000 of his own money to make the film. Faith premiered at the London Film Festival in November 1997. His film Omagh (2004) premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival where it won the Discovery Award and which won the British Academy Television Award for Best Single Drama. He was also nominated by the Irish Film Academy for Best Film Director.

In what follows, we discuss City of Tiny Lights, his latest film, a crime thriller, starring Riz Ahmed and Billie Pipper. The film had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016, where it screened in the Special Presentations section.

Thanks for City of Tiny Lights, an exciting film that uses a crime story to illuminate our understanding of London’s housing crisis. What inspired this film?

Patrick Neate’s book of the same name and the desire to tell a parable about life in a multiracial city – a real city full of danger and loneliness but also full of life, vigour and hope. I see it as a direct descendant of the new wave of British films in the 80s My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Mona Lisa (1986) – movies that captured real life with a beauty and vibrancy rarely seen since.

Having lived in London for many years, I can really appreciate some of the challenges of making a film in the city. Tell us about your selection of locations. 

The clue is in the title – I imagined a cityscape of tiny lights shimmering in the night; behind each a life and a family struggling to make their own futures work. A single light in the dark but together a sea of hope. Again the drive was veracity: we wanted to show real London not the movie cliches we’ve been presented with in recent years – Notting Hill sentimentality or Mockney nonsense or the grim miserableness of so gritty crime films. London is beautiful: it’s vibrant, it’s lonely and dangerous, but it’s full of life too – and dare I say it hope.

There’s a poetic quality to the cinematography, both in terms of the colour scheme and in terms of lighting. I especially like the change to lighting following the big confrontation scene. Tell us about your decisions.

Again it’s about reflecting my experience of what a city is. Sure it’s lonely and dangerous and alienating at times. Many people struggle to survive its pressures. But despite that it’s also a city full of hope of people creating beauty in the dark, light and colour amidst the grey. There’s a delicate poetry to hope and I wanted to reflect that: colour can be both dangerous and vibrant – that clash of sensibility is what we were aiming for

The cast is consistently superb. How did you come to cast Raz Ahmed as Tommy and Billie Piper as Shelley?

It was always Riz, even five years before we stared shooting there was no one else who could do it for me. We’d meet over that time and I would tell him how the script and development was going he was always passionate in his commitment to the film and generous with his ideas for its improvement. It’s dream casting for me. I love the man.

Cush Jumbo loved the story, how it reflected her youth and growing up in South London. We met and clicked and she similarly agreed two years out and Roshan Seth the same – the real link with the British New Wave with My Beautiful Launderette – a wonderfully subtle and funny actor no one else could have been Farzad for me.

I met Billie when we’re in pre production and she blew me away, I’d always been a fan and saw something special in her; a lost, striking and vulnerable beauty like Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential (1997). She was the perfect femme fatale.

This interview comes at an especially troubling time: I am thinking about Riz’s story about typecasting in The Guardian and the racially motivated attacks in London and other parts of the UK. Can you comment on these developments?

All countries have seen an increase in racially motivated attacks and intolerance in recent years. It’s a direct consequence for me of reactionary politics and austerity economics – dividing people, looking for scapegoats, labelling people because of their race, class or sexual orientation. It’s all oppressive and should be resisted by any one who cares about freedom artistic or otherwise.

Movies can’t change the world but we can change what people think about it. We can tell stories that properly reflect its diversity, its richness, and challenge the stereotypes we are fed that divide and separate us all. We need diversity of casting for sure but we also need diversity of storytelling.

Do you think that Brexit played a role in these developments?

Any narrow minded, ethnocentric political movement is always going to pull people apart – it’s not so much part of the problem as a political reflection of it. We’re going backwards and the fact that my young kids may not be European shames and angers me.

Detective fiction can be especially useful in providing us with answers and in offering comfort in turbulent times. Did you find that so when you made this film?

When the world seems crazy and makes no sense we yearn for a hero who treads manfully through the detritus in search of the truth. Detective fiction will always provide comfort as you solve the crime: you illuminate one more step for us to follow in the dark. It’s a glorious genre ripe for continual reinvention. I love it.

How do you set the film apart from contemporaneous detective films and television series?

The film stands on its own. I’m not trying I set it apart from anything, just tell a really good story that has its own hopeful idiosyncratic, point of view. To tell a story about the London that feels real to me and people I know. To make a British thriller with real soul. Not many of us can be a handsome and effortlessly cool as Riz or a beautiful and strong as Cush and Billie but we’ve all been 17, all had hopes and dreams when we were young then suddenly got to 30 and wondered what became of them and the people we thought were special. So it’s a movie everyone can enjoy I.

City of Tiny Lights constantly plays with time: it employs two time schemes, and it makes repeated references to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843). What led you to tell the story in this way?

The past was always crucial – how our dreams of yesterday can sustain or hold us back can feed our future or our prejudices. Tommy is stuck in the past: it weighs him down but it lives with him all the time. Its ghosts haunt him as they do in “A Christmas Carol.” So I wanted to find a way visually for him literally to walk into the past and the past come knocking at the door. Our modest attempt to create an episodic allegory of life in a big city.

Thank-you so much for your time and we look forward to many more films!

Tom Ue was educated at Linacre College, University of Oxford, and at University College London, where he has worked from 2011 to 2016. His PhD examined Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of George Gissing. Ue has held visiting fellowships at Indiana University, Yale University, and the University of Toronto Scarborough, and he was the 2011 Cameron Hollyer Memorial Lecturer. He has published widely on Gissing, Conan Doyle, E. W. Hornung, and their contemporaries. Ue is the Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Toronto Scarborough and an Honorary Research Associate at University College London.

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