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The Journey director Nick Hamm: 'It was a story that had to be told'

 

By Noel McAdam

Nick Hamm, the Belfast-born director of The Journey - a film about how the 'chuckle brothers' formed an unlikely friendship - discusses how the project came together, why he never wanted to make a movie about the Troubles and why Northern Ireland is at the centre of a new golden age of cinema and television.

Q. The Journey tells the story of how Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness came together to serve in government, and includes a little-known plane journey between the two after the St Andrews talks. How did you find out about them taking the plane together?

A. It was a little-known fact that, during the Troubles, opposing politicians, when travelling to the UK, would often travel together.

The idea of arch-political enemies sharing buses and planes together and then resuming normal hostilities was fascinating to me.

There were several incidents over the years that bordered on the hilarious. I remember Jon Snow telling a friend of mine about a particular journey involving Paisley, Gerry Fitt and a bride who had to get back to Belfast for the marriage.

Another such journey involved Chris de Burgh's jet, with Paisley and McGuinness flying back from the peace talks at St Andrews. This was the first occasion that both characters sat in the same private space and talked. It was a story that had to be told. So I went to Colin Bateman and he fictionalised the event.

The Northern Ireland Office used to rent private jets, and we knew the one that McGuinness and Paisley shared had been rented from Chris de Burgh. That was hilarious in itself.

What happened on that journey we don't know, but what we do know is that very soon after they sat together in Stormont, privately and started to make sense of the peace agreement.

Q. You went to the Paisley and McGuinness camps and got two versions of what happened?

A. During pre-production of the film, we had the opportunity to meet with both McGuinness himself and Ian Paisley Jnr.

Everyone agreed that the atmosphere on the actual flight was quite witty, full of jokes and lots of banter. This, both camps agreed on.

What they didn't agree on was how much or little was said between the two main protagonists.

It was the fact that they couldn't agree on what happened that not only says a lot about how history comes to be written, but which really allows us to imagine what could have happened because nobody can agree on what actually did

Q. Did Martin get an opportunity to see the film before he died?

A. I don't know for sure, but I believe he watched it with his family. What's important to state is that at no point in the process did McGuinness or the Paisley family ask for or demand any editorial control.

I didn't show either party the script, and neither party asked to see it.

My job was not to make a biopic of either man, but to fairly represent their arguments and give them space to express their grievances to each other.

Q. Did you get the impression either or both of them were interested in the film and how they would be portrayed?

A. Who isn't interested in how they're portrayed on film?

Q. Did you have difficulty in getting the project financed?

A. It was a very offbeat idea for a movie. Imagine going to market with a story about two old guys stuck in the back of a car.

It was a buddy movie, but it was also a political road movie, not something you see every day. Something really extraordinary happened with this project. Colin Bateman's script was so good and was supported so well by Northern Ireland Screen that we found ourselves in a position where there were several offers on the film.

In IM Global, a US-based studio, we found a great partner. It's ironic that one of the most unconventional projects was so readily embraced.

Q. At what stage did Colin Bateman come on board, and how important a role did he play in putting the film together?

A. Put simply, the film wouldn't exist without Colin Bateman. He took a simple idea and dramatised it beautifully. I went to him because his work has a unique mix of the comic and the tragic. He could make you laugh and then, within the same scene, make you cry. This is a great gift that eludes many writers.

I didn't want the story to be a portentous, heavy event. I wanted to explore the tension in the argument through humour. Bateman successfully did this.

Q. You were born in Northern Ireland. Whereabouts and when and why did you leave?

A. I was born in Belfast, but my parents left to go to London almost immediately. My grandfather owned a chemist shop on the Cregagh Road, and I returned to Belfast to attend Campbell College.

Q. What was life like for you and how much would you say Northern Ireland remains an influence?

A. If you're from a place and know it culturally, it informs everything. I wouldn't have taken on this kind of film unless I understood the particular nuances of Northern Irish life.

I've shot two movies here and I look forward to working more here in the future.

People like Mark Huffam have done great work in building a premier industry, and we need to be careful about how we maintain it and allow it to grow.

Training crews and encouraging creative talent is the lifeblood of the film business, and Northern Ireland should be very proud that it's right up there with the best.

People choose to film here because the crews are great and the environment is film-friendly. It's a golden time for the film and TV-business, and Northern Ireland is at the very centre at that.

Q. Was your experience as a youth here an influence behind wanting to do The Journey?

A. I wanted to make a story about Northern Ireland without retreading old ground.

I never wanted to do a movie about the Troubles. I didn't want to make a film about masked men, guys with guns, terrorist acts, rioting. I always wanted to find a way of doing a story that celebrated the peace that has been achieved.

Many films have been made about the conflict, but few have focused on the achievement of peace. It's a genuinely uplifting and remarkable story that needs to be shared. It's hard to win the peace, but harder still to keep it. Maybe a film that documents that achievement can help us remember it.

Q. How did you come to cast Timothy Spall as Paisley and Colm Meaney as McGuinness?

A. For obvious reasons, Paisley was more difficult to cast than McGuinness. He was a very distinct individual. His physical characteristics alone were almost impossible to replicate.

I focused on Tim from the beginning. He's obviously an extraordinary actor, but more than that he's one of those artists who morphs into the role. His physical transformation is remarkable. He's really the only one I ever really wanted for the part.

We went into a rehearsal room together for a day with the script, before he said yes because he wanted to experiment with the accents, the walk, the mannerisms.

We wanted to see if this man from south London could take on this firebrand leader. It wasn't an acting job, it was a piece of acting surgery. I didn't think anyone else had the power that Tim could bring.

Colm as McGuinness was a natural fit, another great actor that fit the role like a glove. I did want someone Irish to play the role - I didn't want to do the film with two English actors.

It was a similar process. I worked with Colm in a rehearsal room and, while he has a close physical appearance to McGuinness, he is also incredibly witty and has a great sense of comedy.

Q. How would you say that The Journey compares with your earlier work?

A. More mature. You learn as you get older to get simpler. To just watch the actors, build on what they do and allow that to be the heartbeat of the film.

Q. You won a Bafta for short film The Harmfulness of Tobacco. Looking back on that, did success come too soon, in a sense?

A. One award doesn't make anyone a success. I worked for 10 years in the theatre before that, and in the end any recognition that you get for the work just helps finance the next one. I like telling stories, and sometimes I tell them well.

Q. Killing Bono in 2011 also had a large amount of humour and was a notable success. Can you tell me a little about that?

A. Killing Bono was a movie that celebrates failure. I knew when I took it on that it was tricky to pull off. I enjoyed making it, am proud of the movie and learned a lot from doing it.

Q Is it because it is a relatively difficult climate for independent film-makers that you moved from the big screen to focus on television projects including US series Rogue and Full Circle?

A. In a word, yes. A lot of talent associated with the film business has migrated to TV.

The market for indie movies almost collapsed as the cable and streaming business took off.

The distribution of entertainment has radically changed in the last five years. People get their entertainment in many different ways, but in the end it's just about storytelling. The platform it goes out on doesn't matter that much. If it's good, people will find it.

So I make no distinction between television and film. I believe cinema is coming back. People don't always necessarily want to watch 10 or 20 episodes; they want to go out and experience something for 90 minutes.

Q. The Paisley family - Lady Eileen in particular - appears to have been critical of the film. Do you intend to try and get her and the family to watch it?

A. Ian Paisley Jnr just hosted a packed screening at the House of Commons. I am hopeful that he and his mother will both be at the premiere in Belfast.

We were clear when we set out we wanted to make a fair, balanced film, but that doesn't mean we were going to be anodyne - we were prepared to make both sides feel uncomfortable.

We wanted to be respectful of both parties' ideologies. You can watch this film as a nationalist and feel equally uncomfortable and celebratory as anyone from the unionist side. Otherwise, we are wasting our time.

  • The Journey opens in cinemas on Friday, May 5

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