City of Tiny Lights, backed with National Lottery funding through the BFI Film Fund, is in cinemas from 7 April 2017
“I have lived in London going on 30 years now, most of my adult life, and very rarely do I see the London I know up on the big screen,” explains British director Pete Travis, whose film City of Tiny Lights opens in UK cinemas this week.
A world away from Travis’ last feature, Dredd (2012), an adaptation of the 2000 AD comic strip, his latest film, based on the book by Patrick Neate, stars Riz Ahmed and Billie Piper, in a noirish thriller set in contemporary west London.
The story takes place in areas little seen on the big screen, including the locals of Kensal Rise and Acton Town, where characters navigate mosques, clubs and pubs, as silhouettes of London’s Westway and Ernő Goldfinger’s brutalist Trelick Tower dominate the skyline. It is in west London where we meet private investigator Tommy Akhtar (Ahmed), a born and bred Londoner, who becomes embroiled with the disappearance of a Russian sex-worker, drawing him into a world of corruption and religious fanaticism.
Sitting down with Travis ahead of the release we asked him how he set about crafting a film that captured a London that reflects the reality he has experienced. He offered up some advice for making films set in London: “I think that when you are making a film about London, it isn’t so much what you do with a camera, or if you do or don’t fly it over Canary Wharf, it is about the stories of the people.”
Reflecting on making City of Tiny Lights, Pete Travis gives us the films that inspired and shaped how he set about capturing the city for the big screen.
My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)
Director Stephen Frears
“When I think of London, I think of films like Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette,” begins Travis on his first choice of films. The 1980s breakout hit for Frears was a film that revolutionised how peopled viewed London, telling a story of a gay, British-Pakistani man played by Gordon Warnecke, alongside a fledgeling performance from Daniel Day-Lewis. “It was a film that revolutionised what I thought films about London could be. It made me think, wow, London could be an exciting place to live if it is like this,” explains Travis.
The fact that Frears’ film breathed life into his characters rather than their circumstances was a notion that can be seen in City of Tiny Lights. His aim was to capture the lives of people, and not stereotypes, stripping them of the assumed problems that audiences have come to expect, or, as he put it: “It is important to me we don’t assume the social issues all too often automatically attached to characters.”
Mona Lisa (1986)
Director Neil Jordan
For Travis, Neil Jordan’s story of an ex-con played by the great Bob Hoskins who, due to his sentimental, romantic streak falls for the charms of a straight-talking prostitute that he has been assigned to chauffeur by his mob-boss, was another influence.
While he accepts that there is a romantic element to the film, he finds it also “tough, and not a glamourous or fake version of the strip clubs in Soho,” while also admiring how devoid it is of the miserablism of other films showing London’s criminal underworld. More importantly, he found a sense of hope in Mona Lisa. This was a notion he wanted to inject into City of Tiny Lights, showing that London, like any large capital city, is a place that “reflects the true reality of living in a vibrant, multicultural, sexy, scary, exciting place”.
Director Michael Winterbottom
“I like films like Notting Hill (1999), but it isn’t what London is, it is just a bit of London. Or [films] become very grim and slightly miserable, and that isn’t true either. London can be a scary, lonely place to live with many challenges, but it is also a happy, fun, vibrant place,” says Travis as he approaches his next choice of film.
He lands on Michael Winterbottom’s London-tale set over Bonfire night weekend, Wonderland, which captures the lives of three sisters as they try to navigate their lives admits the grubby reality of city life. “I remember enjoying how real and true that film felt,” explains Travis, who like Winterbottom aims to always find the characters and their story, trying to come as accurately as possible to the reality of life here in London, as he explains. “I would like to think that with City of Tiny Lights we approached the story in the same way. Of all the flickering lights of London, all too often we only get to see behind the middle-class ones, or the dead ones when it is a period movie.”
The Long Good Friday (1980)
Director John Mackenzie
Another film featuring the talents of the late Bob Hoskins, The Long Good Friday captures London before the glittering towers of Canary Wharf came to define the skyline of the capital. Hoskins plays Harold, a mob boss looking to develop the docklands area of the city, who becomes stuck in the middle of new American investors and the IRA. For Travis, this is a film that captures London on screen in a successful way, but he notes that along with good examples, such as Mackenzie’s 1980s classic, there have been plenty of others that haven’t been as successful. “We are constantly trying to appeal to America, and what they think London is, and are a little bit scared of the richness under our feet,” he explains.
Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
Director Stephen Frears
Set in the underbelly of London, Stephen Frears’ film about illegal immigrants having to find a way to survive was a film that Travis felt was “a beautiful story about London”, that “did something very truthful about that world”. Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor in a career-launching performance as a Nigerian illegal immigrant and former doctor who is forced to perform back-room operations, it was a film that pulled back the curtain on the plight of immigrants in the capital. For Travis, this film was authentic, but he is keen to stress that the state cinema is now in is very different. “I think diversity is an issue beyond just casting. It is about the stories that we decide to tell, but if the roles are still defined in a certain way, then audiences will only be used to seeing certain characters and will expect that. It is about putting people in different positions. It is important to me that we don’t assume the social issues all too often automatically attached to certain characters.”
Watch the cast and crew of City of Tiny Lights interviewed at BFI Southbank