Growing tension and conflicts over opposing political beliefs in recent years have glorified extremism, and has led to many enemies becoming increasingly unwilling to compromise with each other. But there are certain officials who have eventually realized that accepting and implementing widespread peace is the only way to truly improve everyone’s way of life. Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, the two real-life leaders who serve as the drastically different protagonists in the new drama, ‘The Journey,’ powerfully showcase the benefits of compromise and concession. Director Nick Hamm grippingly showcases the Northern Irish leaders’ ability to eventually overcome their mutual hatred and mistrust of each other, in an effort to unify their country.
The script for the biographical drama, which is based on historical facts, was written by Colin Bateman. After screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, the Venice International Film Festival and the Belfast Film Festival, the IFC Films drama is now playing in select U.S. theaters.
‘The Journey’ follows the account of how two men from opposite sides of the political spectrum came together to change the course of history. In 2006, amidst the ongoing and decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland, representatives from the two warring factions meet for negotiations. One of the officials is Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall), the deeply conservative British loyalist. The other leader is Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney), a former Irish Republican Army leader who has devoted his life to the cause of Irish reunification.
Opposites in every way, the two men at first seem to have little chance of ever finding common ground. But over the course of an impromptu and detour-filled car ride through the Scottish countryside, during which they’re driven by the young and idealistic Jack (Freddie Highmore), each begins to see the other less as an enemy, and more as an individual. The breakthrough between the two political leaders promises to at last bring peace to the troubled region.
Hamm generously took the time recently to talk about directing and producing ‘The Journey’ during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the filmmakmer discussed how he wanted to tell the story about the relationship between Paisley and McGuinness, and celebrate the fact that they had achieved peace in the North Ireland conflict, in large part because of their friendship. The helmer also mentioned that he decided to cast Spall and Meaney as Paisley and McGuinness because both actors were naturally able to embody their respective characters’ emotions and physicality.
The conversation began with Hamm mentioning what was it about the story that interested him in directing a movie about the Northern Ireland peace talks, and how he become involved in the film. “Well, it was an idea that I initially had, and then commissioned the writer to write the script. I wanted to tell the story about the relationship between these two men. I also wanted to celebrate the idea that they had achieved peace in the North Ireland conflict, in large part due to their relationship,” the helmer explained. He also pointed out that “Their relationship hasn’t been celebrated in film. It was a unique political partnership, and I thought it would be a unique story to tell.”
The way that Hamm decided to showcase Paisley and McGuinness’ relationship “was through one journey in the car. That part of their relationship actually existed over many years, and they found a friendship over that time. They were actually mortal enemies during the beginning of the whole process. But we choose to fictionalize the beginning of their friendship, and put it into one journey.”
The filmmaker then explained that when politicians from opposing factions in Northern Ireland traveled abroad, they often traveled together, in order to ensure their mutual safety. “So that gave us an idea that this was a conceivable idea that we could use to effectively make what some people have called a buddy movie. That’s what it is-a formal Hollywood buddy movie.”
Hamm then explained how Bateman became involved in penning the screenplay for the drama, and what their collaboration was like on the story’s development. “I went to Colin with the idea for the film. There’s a natural idea of conflict for the story, and I thought he would be one of the best writers” to bring that tension between Paisley and McGuinness to the screen. The scribe “was able to combine a comedic ability with the drama. He has a natural sense of humor, and can be very entertaining. I didn’t want the film to be too heavy or preachy. One of the ways to do that is to work with a writer who can take a serious subject, and treat it with a sense of humor,” the director emphasized.
“Once we discovered that these two men had taken several journeys over the years. But we found out that Paisley and McGuinness took one particular journey during their talks and negotiations peace process. On that journey, a jet was hired for them to go back to Ireland, and they both got on the jet. During that trip, they really started talking things out,” Hamm revealed.
“Once we found that out, we talked to McGuinness before he died (this past March, 2017). We also spoke to Paisley’s family. Colin pretty much then wrote the script. To a large extent, what he wrote is what we shot. We really didn’t need to have anything written. He just has a natural flair for” screenwriting, the filmmaker noted.
Like Hamm mentioned, the movie is a fictionalized version of Paisley and McGuinness’ relationship. He then divulged how much creative freedom Bateman and he took in the development of the drama’s story. “The relationship was real-they did have a friendship. That relationship formed between these two people who completely oppose each other on every level. So their friendship is true, as well as the fact that they did fly back together. They didn’t speak to each other during, and for several years after, the first flight they took together. In fact, on many occasions, Paisley even accused McGuinness of trying to kill him,” the helmer divulged.
One true aspect that’s included in Paisley and McGuinness’ at-times fictionalized journey home in the film is that “Paisley was planning on going home. So the British government hired a private jet. McGuinness said, ‘I’m going to go with you on that jet,’ and he did. So that journey did take place, but we decided to take the story out of the plane, and instead set it in a car. Setting a story like this in a plane would be uncinematic,” Hamm shared.
“So the basis for the story is real, but we don’t know exactly what they said to each other. When we spoke to both sides and asked them what was said, they came up with different answers. But what they did agree on is that Paisley and McGuinness did start a relationship, and they also started to talk. Since both sides couldn’t agree on what was said, that gave Colin the freedom to write a fictionalized version of what Paisley and McGuinness’ journey might have been like,” the filmmaker also disclosed.
As Hamm began preparing to direct ‘The Journey,’ he did some research into Paisley and McGuinness’ relationship, as well as their careers, politics and overall lives. “I’m from Belfast, and Colin still lives there, so we both lived through a lot of the” events that occurred during the political conflict in Northern Ireland. “When you’re a part of what’s culturally going on, your research is very different than if you were researching from an outsider’s point-of-view. I don’t think this is the type of movie you can make without having an understanding of the cultural complexities and nuances of what goes on in Northern Ireland politics.”
After Bateman wrote his initial draft of the script, “we then did additional research, and met everybody. It is true that the British government used to record a lot of conversations during that process. It’s also true that they would turn up the television when they wanted to speak, like what we showed in the hotel room scene. So the element of being recorded was all there in the film,” the director explained.
“But the actual journey that we described didn’t occur in the way” that’s shown on screen, Hamm admitted. “What we did was emphasize what happened over a 10-year political friendship over the course of an hour-and-a-half narrative. So there was a huge freedom” in creating that aspect of their relationship. “But the arguments they had are pretty accurate and representational of each side’s position.”
The filmmaker then divulged what the casting process was like for ‘The Journey,’ especially in deciding to hire Spall to portray Paisley, and Meaney to play McGuinness. “The process of casting started with Paisley, because he’s such an iconic individual. He had unique physical characteristics; he was 6′ 5″, and had a large head and body. He’s known to the UK audience and public,” Hamm noted. “So I couldn’t make the movie without casting someone who looks like him.”
The director realized that “There was only one option for who I could cast as Paisley. Timothy can change the way he walks. He really becomes the characters he plays, so it’s fascinating to watch him undergo the process of becoming” the people he portrays. “We also put some prosthetics on his chin, gave him some false teeth and dyed his hair.”
Before Spall even officially signed on to play Paisley in the biographical film, “he and I rehearsed, just to make him comfortable with the part,” Hamm also revealed. “Then once I did lock him in, it was pretty easy to put the rest of the cast together. He’s such a strong actor that a lot of actors want to work with him,” the filmmaker added. “Colm, who’s a great Irish actor, looks like McGuinness. He also wanted to play the role,” the helmer then noted.
“John Hurt also wanted to play (the role of Harry Patterson) before we knew (the actor) was quite ill. John actually had cancer while he was playing the part,” so Hamm and his crew helped make the late Oscar-nominated performer as comfortable as possible while he was acting on the set.
“Toby Stephens also jumped at the chance to play Tony Blair. Freddie Highmore was also the natural choice to play the driver. For that role, I wanted someone who was young, and had that innocence about them, and could also have a friendly attitude to both” leaders, the filmmer also divulged. “So the casting process came together relatively simply.”
Once the actors were they were cast in their respective roles, Hamm was able to collaborate with them like, in order to build their on-screen relationship, as well as their physicalities. Paisley and McGuinness “are both really well-known, in terms of English political life. So both Timothy and Colm did a lot of their own research on how to play their parts. They listened to tapes and watched television interviews. Colm also knew McGuinness personally, as Colm campaigned for McGuinness…When you cast actors of this level, they take care of a lot of research themselves,” the director indicated.
While ‘The Journey’s plot is driven by the conflict between Paisley and McGuinness, the story also offers a humanity to both characters. Hamm also revealed that including that humanity to the characters was an important aspect to the development of the story. “The point of the film is that if you take two public figures, and you strip away the artifice that they have-meaning that you take them out of their public life-you’re left with two human beings who are forced to get along and deal with each other. Then the humanity of that is what you watch. This is like an ‘Odd Couple’ road movie, as it follows two dysfunctional human beings who become functional while they’re sitting together in the back of a car,” the filmmaker explained.
“I think when you put people in this type of situation, it becomes interesting. They’re not in a public situation, and are instead in a private situation. So they have to deal with their public issues privately. Normally, politicians have to deal with their private lives publicly. But these two men, who disliked each other, were dealing with their public differences in a private setting,” Hamm noted.
“They initially hated each other, and represented totally different sides. So we used almost a conventional Hollywood formula-a road buddy movie, where we put two people who didn’t like each other in a car together in the beginning of the story, and see what happens. The nuance of their behavior is what we end up watching, and that becomes interesting,” the helmer also emphasized.
Hamm then discussed what the experience of bringing the movie on the festival circuit was like, and how audiences have reacted to the political film. “In Venice, there were 1,000 people watching the movie, which was subtitled into Italian. we were thrilled to go to Venice, as it’s a real honor to be accepted into the festival. But I was also nervous at the screening, as I was waiting to see how Italians took to the movie,” the filmmaker admitted. “But the audience began laughing within 10 minutes, so I knew they were going to love the movie. The reception was the same in Toronto. We received standing ovations, and people were so moved by the film.”
Then this past May, ‘The Journey’ screened for both sides of the political conflict at the Belfast Film Festival. “People from both sides of the conflict came, and it was a remarkable experience,” Hamm admitted. “It allowed people to see what was achieved.”
The director added that screening the drama “has been an enjoyable and emotional process. It’s also been interesting to see people recognize the fundamental truth of the movie. The film is an emotional celebration of compromise.”