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Interview with THE JOURNEY director Nick Hamm

June 28, 2017

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I’ve developed a growing fascination with movies that are set in or are about The Troubles – the violent and volatile ethno-nationalist conflict that occurred in Northern Ireland during the late 20th century, fueled primarily by two polar-opposite political and nationalistic perspectives. To name just a few, there’s the Paul Greengrass film, “Bloody Sunday” from 2002, which focused on the 1972 Bloody Sunday shootings in Derry, Northern Ireland (which inspired a famous U2 song) and Steve McQueen’s 2008 film “Hunger” which revolved around the Irish hunger strikes, a five-year protest by Irish republican prisoners in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. But who was behind this war between the Protestant Unionist/Loyalists and the Catholic Irish Nationalist/Republican? “The Journey” the new film from director Nick Hamm, states that Dr Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness were The Troubles.

In the film, which premiered last year at the 73rd annual Venice International Film Festival and then went on to the 41st annual Toronto International Film Festival and is now getting a limited theatrical release, English actor Timothy Spall plays Democratic Unionist Party’s Dr. Ian Paisley and Irish actor Colm Meaney plays  Irish republican and Sinn Féin politician Martin McGuinness, two important politicians who had opposing view for thirty years.

After decades of violent war between Catholics (McGuinness’ side) and Protestants (Paisley’s side) in Northern Ireland, the two leaders agreed to begin peace talks in 2006 at St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland (known as the St. Andrews Agreement). Working from a screenplay by novelist/screenwriter Colin Bateman, director Hamm (“Godsend” and “Killing Bono”) places these two figures in a fictional situation inspired by those peace talks, that forces them to confront each other.

Paisley’s 50th wedding anniversary is occurring the night of the talks, and the bad weather could rain out his flight to Belfast. He decides to get an early ride back to the airport, and sensing an opportunity to talk to the opposition without entourages messing up the works, McGuinness decides to accompany Paisley on the ride. They are driven by an unassuming twentysomething named Jack, played by Freddie Highmore (“Bates Motel”) and monitored closely back at St. Andrews by a surveillance team led M15 chief Harry Patterson, played (the great late John Hurt), and over the course of their journey, the two men eventually chip away at decades of hatred and resentment to find a common ground, an understanding and a starting point for peace.

I had a chance to talk to Hamm recently over the phone about his film and found him to be quite an informative and patient fellow, divulging quite a bit about his two lead actors and the characters they portrayed. He even tolerated my odd mention of one of my favorite movies about The Troubles “Five Minutes in Heaven” by Oliver Hirschbiegel and talks about his journey while making “The Journey”.

 

 

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DAVID J. FOWLIE: The setting for the film is just over ten years ago, yet there’s certainly a timeless message of peace, compromise and understanding that’s communicated. Was that the main draw of a project such as this for you?

NICK HAMM: Yes. In that sense, you’re right. The movie is a celebration of the art of political compromise in a world in which that is not celebrated. In fact, it’s actually not even practiced at the moment. It seems to me a pertinent statement of fact that this is actually what we need. It’s these two guys, who – trust me – hated each other, much more than any other contemporary politicians hate the other side in our political world we live right now. If they can find compromise and if they can come together, after thirty years of fighting, then anybody can. It seemed to me there were two reasons for doing the movie. One was that and the other was celebrating this pretty unique political friendship that existed and had not been celebrated, I suppose. It was real. That actually did get on and actually achieved something.

DJF: Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney are brilliant and fascinating to watch here. Did you know right away that they absolutely had to play these characters?

NH: Yes. You can’t really make, as you’ve seen from the real footage of Paisley, you can’t really make that movie unless you find somebody to play Paisley, because he’s quite an individualistic character. They’re both quite odd men. They’re both strange men. And the movie really is sort of like, you know, The Odd Couple in the back of a car. It’s like a buddy movie and it’s a sort of political road movie at the same time. I knew going into it that I could never make it unless I could find somebody who could actually play Paisley with a subtlety and a kind of nuance that is needed. Otherwise, you’d just be in trouble because he was a known figure. Tim was actually the only person I ever really thought who could do it. The only person I thought could pull it off.

DJF: Well, he is an absolute chameleon….

NH: Exactly right. He morphed into his character. You know, he’s a 5′ 8″ English, London-born actor, who’s playing a 6′ 5″ Irishman (both laugh). You know, so we gave him some help with a little prosthetic and we gave him some teeth and died his hair, but he kind of morphed into that character. We did some rehearsal work way before we started shooting, when we were debating whether or not to do the film and he said he was nervous about being able to pull it off. But once he realized, you know, once he showed up for rehearsal in character, we realized he could pull it off and there was no going back.

DJF: Was there much convincing involved with these two actors, to get them on board?

NH: Well, Tim at the beginning was really nervous about trying to do it and he was also nervous about who he was playing. Paisley is such an unpopular person in British, in UK culture. Very unpopular. Was not liked at all across Europe. Was not liked at all in the UK. You know, both of these men were pretty detested individuals in many respects. Many people saw McGuiness as nothing more than an ex-IRA terrorist who was indirectly or directly responsible for setting off bombs in the UK and in Ireland. Doing the movie was about two people who were, you know, they weren’t popular. These guys were far from that. Both very very very from the militant side. So, Tim was worried about that and whether or not he could actually pull it off as an actor. That was the main deal. But when he went into rehearsal and we all saw that he could. Well, it was just fantastic and after that he just took off with it. And then we cast Colin, because Colin comes from that tradition. He knew McGuinness. He also looks like McGuinness. In that sense, that was a no-brainer.

 

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DJF: The characterizations of the two leads, they kind of go from cold to warm as the film progresses, yet it feels like McGuinness was a bit more open to these peace talks than Paisley was – at least, that’s how I saw it. At one point, McGuinness even asks Paisley why he’s even there and his reply is, “I don’t know”.  Is that something that was true in real life, that McGuinness was more open or interested in starting a dialogue, whereas Paisley was something of an immovable object?

NH: To be blunt, yes. As you saw in the beginning of the movie, Paisley couldn’t even speak with him for the first ten/fifteen minutes. He looks out the window and McGuinness does all the work. McGuinness was the one who wanted to get this thing going. McGuinness had the most to gain. McGuinness was the one who could prove that it would work. Don’t forget Paisley thought he was the one who was going to lose everything with these talks. He had everything to lose. They had a Protestant majority. They were governing in Northern Ireland. So, what did he hope to gain?

But, we got to remember, the reality of that event in St. Andrews was that botyh political parties – you’re gonna be stunned by this – never sat in the same room.

DJF: Wow.

NH: Alright? Never ever ever sat in the same room together. The DUP would never sit with Sinn Féin. Never. Never even say “hello” to them or physically shake their hands, physically meet them. That provides context as to where those guys were coming from. Alright? That’s why both parties went into two different rooms in the movie and the Irish and British government worked between them.

 

 

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DJF: Can you talk about the characters that John Hurt and Freddie Highmore play? I feel like they offer a unique perspective to the story – one character has been around forever and the other is kind of new or unaware of the political history that Paisley and McGuinness represent. Yet, both serve as our guide during “The Journey”. Can you talking about those two characters and specifically casting those two actors in these roles?

NH: That was a device I used in order to extend the length of the actual physical journey both men were on in the car. The actual physical drive would be no longer than an hour, but we also knew that we were representing a friendship that had taken ten years and it wasn’t gonna happen in forty-five minutes in a car.  What would happen is if you started to break it down and put obstacles in their way. So, we took a very known fact, which is that the British government would basically bug every accommodation they could. The intelligence services would bug and record many conversations that they could possible get a hold of from both sides, predominately Sinn Féin.

They would constantly be in a situation where they were being overheard or overlooked and that was common practice, to the point where Sinn Féin never went in a government car even when they were elected to be in government. Martin McGuinness never traveled with a government driver. He traveled with their own drivers. They would not trust government drivers, because they just felt that they were gonna be compromised. So, those were all facts and we used those facts to basically make a fictional event happen.

We cast Freddie because Freddie was fresh-faced enough and young enough to not threaten either guy in the back of the car. You know, instead of being a kind of burly soldier driving them or a bodyguard or anybody like that – they would’ve both been suspicious. Whereas, Freddie played it quite innocent. Because he was young, they sort of forgot him. He became more like a hotel driver, really.

To put the movie in context, specifically for a non-UK audience. The Irish audience knew all this, but also I wanted to give a context to what was going with how they were responding to terrorism. So, I cast John and his speech about 9-11 and how terrorism has, you know, moved on and has Hollywood-ized itself, possibly looking for the next big thing. The big thing that is louder and bigger and more aggressive and horrible and horrific than the last thing.

That speech, I think, needed to be made in the movie because that was also the context. Don’t forget, after 9-11 happened, the funding for the IRA from America stopped. That’s one of the reasons why they went to the peace table. They were many many fundraisers here, but there was a constant stream of cash coming in from America and after 9-11 that stopped…essentially stopping terrorism with terrorism.

 

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DJF: What kind of unexpected journey did you yourself experience with this project, both during production and since its premiere in Venice last fall?

NH: I think during the process of filmmaking and getting ready, I just found out so much more about who these men were. I knew so much more at the end than I did at the beginning. I think there were so many more preconceptions that were changed in me by the time we had finished. I honestly really believe in both men much more than I did at the beginning of the process. I thought at the beginning of the process that this was a great idea for a movie, it would celebrate the friendship, but I didn’t really know either men that well. I didn’t know what they were and I didn’t really have a lot of time for either of them, to be honest with you. I had sort of the same view of them as most people.

I spoke with McGuinness before we started working on the movie, before we started shooting. I went down and spent time with him with the writer and sat with him in Derry. He talked about his relationship with the British government, negotiations of the peace process, the decommissioning of the arms, the relationship with the IRA and his friendship with Paisley. And I met Paisley’s family and became quite close and developed an understanding from their side. You get a good sense of both sides. You also really get an understanding of what it meant for both of them, you know, here were two men bathed in conflict, whose whole life was about conflict and war. And when they’re stuck in the back of a car together – there’s no assistance, there’s no media, there’s no TV, there’s no Parliament, no nothing – they just realize they have the same characteristics. And the realized that both men were teetotalers, both men were big family men and both men were very very religious.

I was just so delighted to see international audiences really accept the film, in a funny way, more than the UK audience. They’re not so weary of the context of the movie. An American audience receives it in a completely different way. A Canadian audience receives it in the same way as the American audience, they’re very receptive to the film, because they’re not burned by it.

DJF: That’s understandable. This film kind of reminded me of a film from 2009 called “Five Minutes in Heaven”, have you seen it?

NH: Ah, yes. I did. That’s the one with the ex-paramilitary….

DJF: Right, with Liam Neeson played former UVF member, Alistair Little, who had killed the younger brother of James Nesbitt’s character, when they were younger, during The Troubles. It’s once again two people coming together years later to reconcile, so it felt like a perfect double feature with “The Journey”. There’s so much scar tissue for so many in Northern Ireland and in the UK, but it’s really no surprise to me that audiences outside of that geographic area are responding or embracing this film more positively. So, that’s not so much a question as it is an observation. I liked that movie and felt that your movie was almost like a perfect bookend, capping off these themes to a peaceful place.

NH: Great. Great, thanks for that.

DJF: I appreciate the film and look forward to your next film, “Driven”, with the same screenwriter. 

NH: (laughs) Yes. Not as heavy.

 

 

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“The Journey” is distributed by IFC Films and opened in New York on June 16th and will receive a Chicago release on July 7th. 

 

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