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Vantage Point - Pete Travis interview

Pete Travis directs Vantage Point

Interview by Rob Carnevale

BRITISH director Pete Travis talks about the long road he took to directing Vantage Point from his days as a community worker and the influence that Paul Greengrass has had on his career.

He also talks about casting Vantage Point, securing access to The Secret Service and Bill Clinton and his next movie – a political thriller and true story based around the end of Apartheid in South Africa.

Q. You career to this point has been a tribute to persistence and determination….
Pete Travis: Yeah. But I think you don’t get what you want unless you work hard. No one in my family or where I come from ever dreamt of making movies. I used to be a community worker and one year I just decided that I wanted to try something different and managed to find myself where I was in a position where I was on a course that taught you how to do films and totally fell in love with it. From there, the only way to do it was to do it yourself. You know, no one was going to give me money to make a short film and I didn’t want to sit around and wait for that to happen. So, I spent a lot of time saving up and trying to do it myself and getting actors and a crew to do it for nothing.

I was very lucky that I managed to persuade Nick Hornby to let me have a short story of his [Faith] for next to no money. I’d saved up about £12,000 at that point and managed to persuade a producer who said he’d match my investment pound for pound. I don’t think he realised I’d saved that much! [Laughs] So, we got to spend all that money on the short and that was the beginning. But I think you have to want to tell stories. A lot of people want to be in the film industry, but I think it’s about really wanting to do it with a passion and feeling like you live and breathe it. You then become compelled to do the things you want to do. It’s like breathing for me now. I have to tell stories.

Q. Had you always been a film fan?
Pete Travis: I’d always loved cinema but the idea that I’d want to be a director or make them was never in my horizons. I can honestly say that I was not remotely interested in making films when I was a kid. I just got into it by accident in a funny kind of way. I always loved cinema as an audience member but then I got the chance to do a post-graduate course studying film and when I got there I realised I had to make something and that was a bit scary because I’d never done that before. But I actually loved it and there was something about it that was compelling. I felt like I could never go back once I’d got my hands on a camera.

Q. Omagh was then the feature film that shot you to prominence and introduced you to Paul Greengrass. Is it fair to say that some of his influence rubbed off on the way you approached Vantage Point?
Pete Travis: When Paul sent me Omagh he’d seen my previous work in The Jury and Henry VIII and I think saw someone he felt he could trust with his story. We got along really well. Omagh and Bloody Sunday kind of bookend the Irish troubles but they’re very different films. They’re both shot in a realistic way but they both have a different sensibility. But it’s no coincidence that this studio [Sony] were looking for a European director to make an action movie in a realistic way because Paul had just turned The Bourne Supremacy into a huge hit. So, they were looking for the next thing and luckily enough it was me.

But I think we’ve both come from a tradition where we love to use the camera in a realistic way – we’re both influenced by directors such as Alan Clarke and Costa Gavros. And I think we’ve both come up telling stories in a way that’s true – but also that the truth of the story can be told by the way the camera can tell its story and the fact that by putting the camera and making it feel like it’s really there and what you’re seeing has a realism to it, it also has an emotional quality. I think a lot of people don’t get hand-held cinematography – it gets used in a kind of gimmicky, ridiculous way most of the time. But I think it’s an emotional tool and both Paul and I recognise that it’s a tool that can tell an emotional story in a powerful way. In the same way that Paul used it on United 93 and I used it on Omagh, on big movies like Vantage Point and Bourne it’s also a tool that can be very, very exciting. You can make the action more exciting. You can really feel like you’re in the car during the car chases and the explosions really feel like you’re caught up in them.

Q. From a logistical point of view, how much of a headache was piecing the various stories in Vantage Point together and making sure that every one had a cliff-hanger ending?
Pete Travis: You have to keep all of those stories in your head and when you’re shooting it everyone’s looking to you, as the director, to know where every character is supposed to be at each particular time. You have to keep that time frame in your mind all the time so that when you’re shooting Dennis [Quaid]‘s story you don’t suddenly jump out of it and film something that Forest [Whitaker] is doing that Forest, in his story, hasn’t done yet – or show something that someone’s seen that they really couldn’t have seen because it hasn’t actually happened. So, keeping that time frame in your head was the big puzzle.

But I have to say I loved the challenge of that. I’ve always loved mental puzzles and although I had the whole movie storyboarded, I also kept all of it in my head. That said, it was a serious military operation. You’ve got to be organised. I had a great crew that planned everything. It was all broken down so that we’d spend three days doing Dennis Quaid’s version of something, then three days with William Hurt, three days with Eduardo Noriega, three days with Forest and then move on in the story and do the same thing. It was important for me that the camera could get under the skin of the characters and reveal something – that their point of view is not just about standing in a different place but being in a crowd and how you are as an individual; what you’re feeling like that day; what you’re going to notice and not going to notice. So the camera is trying to be subtly different in each of the stories.

Q. Is it harder now that there are so many internet sites devoted to spotting mistakes?
Pete Travis: It’s totally merciless. In Vantage Point there is no hiding place; you have to get it all right. We had to be very thorough with it. My editor says that it messes with your head but I loved that. It’s like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle that people keep turning upside down.

Q. How easy was it to attract a cast of this calibre – which includes Forest Whitaker, Dennis Quaid, Sigourney Weaver and William Hurt?
Pete Travis: It’s ridiculous to say it but it was very easy. You don’t get these kind of actors normally in action movies because they’re all hugely intelligent actors who do very serious work. So I think they were all attracted to the idea of an intelligent thriller – a thriller that was exciting and intense but kind of about something. They wanted to explore the idea of point of view; that you would basically be following the truth in their story but from someone else’s story they would basically be a background player. Dennis once said to me: “So, basically I’m going to be the star of my version of the truth but then I’m going to be an extra, aren’t I?” And I replied: “Yes, you are.”

William Hurt, for instance, on the first six weeks of the shoot walked into the plaza, stood on the platform, got shot and fell over. He never said a word in six weeks. He was basically the background person in everybody’s story because everyone was seeing it in a different way. But then when you come to see his story you suddenly realise that the man who walked out into the plaza is a different kind of a man to who we see later on. And that was what was really exciting for the actors – to find ways of acting their stories differently. For example, when Dennis is playing the truth of his character he plays it in the way that he sees it. But when he’s in someone else’s story, he’s playing it slightly differently. I also think the cast was drawn to the idea of working with a director who’d made a film like Omagh. I think they see the realism and the power and the honesty of the acting there and they want to be a part of something like that. So, I was just blessed with people that were willing to go to the end of the earth for me, basically.

Q. I also gather you pushed hard to get access to organisations like the Secret Service to increase the authenticity?
Pete Travis: We had a Secret Service adviser who kind of organised a Secret Service boot camp. One of the funny things for the actors was that he set them a game where he put all the kind of good guys in one team and all the bad guys in another and they all had to find something hidden and chase each other in the studio where we were rehearsing. It was really quite funny because I’d be rehearsing with some actors and Dennis Quaid and Matthew Fox would run through the room chasing Said Taghmaoui and Eduardo Noriega trying to find something. But he really got them into the whole notion of how to work as a team, what they had to do, how to hold a gun, how to speak to each other on the radio. All the dialogue that you hear Dennis and Matthew say is exactly the way the Secret Service speak – it’s all real lingo.

William Hurt spent a lot of time speaking to Bill Clinton to get an idea of what it was like to be the president, where you’re making huge decisions about the whole world every day and potentially people love you and hate you at the same time. Sigourney spent a lot of time talking to news journalists and going into news-rooms. And Edgar Ramirez was trained by a Special Forces operative. So everyone took the reality of what they were doing really seriously and I think that’s a tribute to them as individual actors. And I think it really pays off in the movie.

Q. Does the president really have a body double?
Pete Travis: [Smiles] We asked the Secret Service that question and they wouldn’t deny it or confirm it. So who knows…

Q. How important was it to have an American president that was shown to display good values?
Pete Travis: I wanted a president in the movie that was neither left nor right but was an intelligent man that you could believe in. You have to care that he gets shot and you have to believe that what he’s doing is good. If I was American, I’d vote for William Hurt. Unfortunately, life doesn’t always imitate art, so I wanted someone who wasn’t a Republican or a Democrat – he’s just an intelligent man that has something passionate he wants to do that is kind of good.

Q. How did you approach shooting the car chase?
Pete Travis: What’s great about the car chase is the way that it’s shot. That is really an Astra being driven that fast by a driver and it is really that close to those crowds. The camera really is inside the car behind the driver when it gets hit and the window gets smashed. There’s no CGI in that – it really happened. And when it goes down the steps, it really goes down the steps. But it’s all about realism. A car chase is a ridiculous vanity for a director. You sit and watch all your favourite car chases and we’re all so ridiculously competitive that you say: “I’m going to do it better than him.” Or: “I want to make it as good as that.” So you sit down, literally, with these little dinky cars and plan out everything, storyboard it and then go off and have a wild time for two weeks smashing a lot of cars up.

Q. You’re working on another thriller next called Endgame – can you tell us a bit about that?
Pete Travis: It’s a very exciting political thriller set in South Africa about the secret history of the secret talks that helped bring down the Apartheid regime. It’s kind of like The Insider, where there are enemies on both sides who have to learn to talk to each other. But by talking to each other they’re putting their lives in danger because that wasn’t supposed to happen. So, there were secret talks held in England in a country house in Somerset between the ANC and the African government that nobody knew about – so, this is the story of how that happened and the amazing relationships that were developed there that helped to bring down Apartheid.

Q. Has it been cast yet?
Pete Travis: I’m looking to cast some of the people that I might have worked with already and we’re getting close to people saying they want to do it – but until they are I don’t want to jeapordise it. I can say that it’s going to be a pretty spectacular cast.

Read our review of Vantage Point