The Journey: 'It's a story that needed to be told'

Belfast-born director Nick Hamm on making the Northern Ireland peace process, with its polarising figureheads, into a movie the world could enjoy

Colm Meaney as Martin McGuinness and Timothy Spall as Ian Paisley

How did the idea for The Journey come about?

I found out that when politicians in Northern Ireland used to go abroad, they would travel together, for mutual safety and other reasons. I was always really interested in that, the idea that two individuals who would otherwise, in normal circumstances, be at each other's throats then get on a domestic flight from Heathrow back to Belfast. Once [screenwriter] Colin Bateman started to think about that as the grounding for a film, we liked it. We changed the plane for a car and cut the DUP and Sinn Fein delegations down to just Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness. It worked.

Put the film into context. When did this ‘journey’ take place?

It’s 2006 and multi-party discussions are taking place at St Andrew's in Scotland. That’s when Paisley and McGuinness’ whole relationship kicked off. Colin and I began to talk about that and to fictionalise the drive from St Andrew's to Edinburgh Airport airport. It was fictionalising a vaguely true event but in a way that people would recognise the characters. It was about the conversation these two men might have had in such a situation. What the world doesn't need right now, especially, is another movie about men in balaclavas. I think we've had enough of that.

It’s a pretty hard sell – a movie about the Northern Ireland Troubles and peace process and the two polarising men at the heart of it. Did you ever worry about finding an audience?

I like doing things that are a challenge. I never thought it was a bad idea. But I did think, on occasion, "Gosh, this is a film about two grumpy old guys, not exactly attractive men, sitting in the back of a car. I don't know how this is going to appeal." Therefore, you needed someone like Colin to bring a humour to that, otherwise you're wasting your time. You can't write political diatribes as movies. The audience just won't be there to watch it. So to get a theatrical release in cinemas in Europe and across North America, you have to play with the convention. 

Variety praised the film for its ‘buddy movie structure’ – not something you would expect of a film about Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness. But does it fit?

Cinema works in broad genres. I would describe The Journey as a political road movie. I've never seen a political road movie before, so for me it was great to take that really simple buddy movie structure, which is really easy to pull off because it's been done 100 times in Hollywood – from 48 Hours onwards – and make two people who hate each other end up liking each other. The audience know that formulae. If you can get that to work in a more sophisticated way, and have the characters have proper arguments, then it seems to me a way to make what is a very boring subject to most people on the planet – the Northern Irish political story – interesting and accessible.

Despite the context and the real life characters, the film has quite a comedic tone. There are laughs throughout…

The script was really good from the beginning. There aren't too many writers who could pull off a concept like this, but Colin did. I didn't want it to be too dark, too heavy. I wanted it to have a lightness of touch because you're dealing with two people who were pretty heavy individuals, polarising individuals. Both Paisley and McGuinness demanded a lot of affection from their own constituencies, but outside of those constituencies, their own tribes, they were universally loathed. That was part of the attraction. How do you take two people who really represented, in many respects, the Irish situation but do it in a way that was cinematic?

Ironically, if you were to put the current DUP and Sinn Fein leaders in a car with one another today, it’s arguable that the atmosphere would be even frostier…

[Laughs.] You’re right. People forget how hard it is to get to a peaceful situation, to compromise. This generation shouldn't be scared by all the nonsense and the violence and the bulls**t that went on before, but they can forget about it real easy, forget just how horrible that situation was for everybody, how both sides suffered terrible lose and the consequences of that. It was a very troubled and conflicted society.

Within that context, Paisley and McGuinness’ friendship was iconic. I think around the world, it was genuinely viewed as one of the most unlikely and surprising political friendships ever to exist, in any context, and I think, when you live through it in Northern Ireland, you kind of accept it as normal. Paisley and McGuinness are getting on. But just think about that statement for a second. Cut back to 1979, 1980, 1990 and just imagine saying that to yourself, or anyone else in Northern Ireland: Paisley and McGuinness are getting on. They would have laughed you out of court. Right? What's remarkable, what's completely stunning, is that this is a friendship that forged one of the greatest political acts of our time, and that has never been celebrated, really. The ultimate truth is, they succeeded. It’s a story that needed to be told.

What was it like to work with Timothy Spall as Paisley and Colm Meaney as McGuinness?

Tim is extraordinary because he morphs into the character. He's 5"7, he's not a tall man, he's from south London, and here he is playing a 6"5 Ulsterman with massive ears. There's actually nobody who I wanted to play the character other than Tim. When I first sent him the script, he said, "Oh my God, I would love to play that character but I don't think I can. I don't think I could pull it off." So we went into a rehearsal room and we worked. He spent the afternoon improvising and reading the scenes and putting on suits and becoming the man, and we were witnessing an amazing part of his career. In his later years, as he matures as an actor, he's going to be get bigger and bigger. It was a pretty big transformation to go from Turner, a little English painter, to the leader of the Ulster community, but he lost weight after Turner for health reasons, mainly, and he just kept the weight off.

You could never have done this movie unless you had the Paisley character cast. It's not like there are three or four actors who can play that role. So we cast that first, that anchored the film, and then it was very easy to find Colm as McGuinness. It made sense. He looks like McGuinness, he's a bloody brilliant actor, he's part of that Republican tradition, culturally and politically, and I wanted that respected in the movie. It was always incredibly important to me that there was that balance, that both sides were represented equally and were both given the opportunity to express their sentiments.

The Journey

Director Nick Hamm (centre) with Colm Meaney and Timothy Spall at the Venice International Film Festival

Have you watched the film with a Northern Irish audience yet?

I have, a few times. It's been quite emotional, actually. [Ahead of its premiere in Belfast] We made sure that the test audiences who saw it in Northern Ireland were well represented by both sides of the spectrum. The most interesting screening for me is an upcoming school screening, with two or 300 hundreds students. They are the generation who haven't lived during the Troubles. It will be interesting to observe that.

The Journey is now on general release. Check your local cinema listings to find out when it's screening near you.