The Journey is a fictional account of the extraordinary story of two implacable enemies in Northern Ireland – firebrand Democratic Unionist Party leader Paisley and Sinn Féin politician Martin McGuinness – who are forced to take a short journey together in which they will take the biggest leap of faith and change the course of history.
Shane Hennessy caught up with director Nick Hamm to explore the journey behind the film.
What was it about this event that made you want to make a film about it?
What was attractive to us was making a film about two politicians who initially hated each other and then came to like and respect each other and together achieved peace because of that relationship, we thought about how we could dramatize that. And we found that there was a particular journey that occurred at St Andrews where McGuinness and Paisley shared a plane, and during that journey they began communicating and eventually achieved friendship. That’s the reason we did it.
Did you get a chance to meet McGuiness or Paisley in preparing for the film?
Colm Meaney had supported McGuinness in his 2011 Presidential campaign and a good relationship with him, I had met him (McGuinness) before production as well. He didn’t ask to read the script, neither did Paisley’s people. They were both very respectful of the process and we were very respectful towards them in return.
The film is a drama/comedy, did you feel it was risky approaching such a delicate subject comedically?
Well comedy is a staple of Irish culture, North and South. If you don’t address that, and allow it be part of the storytelling, then you’re wasting your time. You can’t do something this serious and not allow the audience to laugh. And also, these two characters were just very funny together. They had a strange relationship and enjoyed each others humor.
Timothy Spall’s performance as Ian Paisley is outstanding, but considering he was playing one of the biggest and most caricatured figures in Irish culture, did you need him to tone it down at times?
Paisley’s a tricky part to play, not many people could do it correctly. Tim and I worked on it a lot before even filming. But Tim’s one of those actors who genuinely becomes the characters he’s playing – it’s wonderful to see. This wirey Englishman who becomes this bombastic 6ft 6 Irishman. He was always my first choice.
Halfway during the film the car crashes and the two characters are walking around the forest, key scenes take place in a torn-down church and a cemetery. At what point did you decide that the entire film would not take place in the car?
What we wanted to do was set everything up in the car, the confined space makes them deal with each other and forces a relationship. After you’ve had that moment you can take them out of the car and they’ll still be together. The movie is about stripping away all of the artifice of democracy, all paraphernalia and political discourse and you just have two people dealing with each other, and in that environment you often share more than you don’t share. That’s what we wanted to show – that if these two people can find peace, then anyone can.
Can you talk about the role of the driver, what role you wanted him to play both narratively and thematically? From the outset he comes across as a sort of everyman moderator between the two.
That’s a good way describing it, actually. He’s part of a younger generation, that does’t know anything about these two guys. So by him not knowing, he shows us the way they behave is fascinating and idiosyncratic. He had to be a figure who is completely benign and without any agenda.
You obviously weren’t to know that Martin McGuinness would pass away so closely to the film’s release. Has the film’s reception been affected by this?
Well, we screened the film in parliament the other day, which was a fascinating experience. I think the film now becomes about redemption and remembrance. 30 years ago McGuinness was a hated figure in English culture, so in that sense the re-analysis of what he became is what the movie is studying. Is this man a terrorist or a freedom fighter? And this is true about Paisley too, he was every bit as loathed throughout Ireland for his actions in the same way McGuinness was. So the message is to look at history, with all the terrorism that is happening everywhere now, and to use history as a means of correctly judging the present.
On that point, is it more accurate to look at this film as a homage to peace, or as a warning of just how tenuous peace is?
This film is a celebration of concession, of people sitting down and talking things over rather than fighting. It’s also a tribute to two politicians who changed the course of history, and should be recognized for doing this.
What were the biggest challenges with directing?
The challenge was keeping the story moving and opening it up enough so that the audience didn’t feel too confined, that was the real test.
I thought the sound editing was masterful…
I’m absolutely thrilled you said that, make sure you print that loud and clear so that they get some love.
In terms of the interchanges between the two characters, McGuinness is the more open and humorous initially, Paisley at one point admits he doesn’t accept that change is possible either in himself or in other people. Was he always meant to be the more belligerent one?
Paisley didn’t like McGuinness at all, so the first twenty minutes is just McGuinness doing most of the talking because Paisley thinks the journey will be over in 30 or so minutes so he can get on the plane and go home. It is a fictional account, but it’s sort of how this exchange might have played out based on historical facts.
Is this sort of subject matter something you’d like to revisit again?
No, I’ve done enough on peace. I need to do something on war.
Ian Paisley asks are we Martyrs or Men Of Faith. Themes like this would appeal to the wider world in its current predicament; are you happy with the general reception it’s been getting?
I think the press we get in the UK will be a lot different from everywhere else for somewhat obvious reasons. But I’m okay with that.
The Journey is in cinemas from 5th May 2017