Terry George at Foyle Film Festival

The Hotel Rwanda director explains how he turns the 'wine of reality' into the 'cognac of storytelling'

In 2004, Belfast-born film director Terry George adapted, directed and produced Hotel Rwanda.

The true story of hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina (an Oscar-nominated Don Cheadle) and his campaign to save lives during the Rwandan genocide of 1994, the film received a special screening at the Foyle Film Festival this November.

Following the screening, George discussed both the film and his film-making techniques at Derry-Londonderry’s Omniplex cinema.

How did you get the idea for Hotel Rwanda to begin with?

In the beginning, I didn’t really think of Rwanda at all. Near the beginning of the decade, I was very interested in what was going on both in Liberia and Sierra Leone. It was so anarchic and crazy, and received such a lack of focus in the West, that I decided I had to write something about Africa.

What did you end up with?

Something very similar to Blood Diamond. But while I was writing that script, my agent sent me a script by Keir Pearson about the Rwandan genocide. Sometimes, you read scripts and realise that the story must be told – and this was definitely the case.

What kind of an impact do you believe such a feature film can have?

I think the power of a feature can be greater than any documentary, because it allows any film-maker to get inside a situation and take the audience through the 'inner life' of a genocide, holocaust, or war. It invites you, the viewer, to become part of the story.

When I write, I always try to find a character that epitomises the audience most. In Hotel Rwanda, it tends to be Paul Rusesabagina’s wife Tatiana (played in the film by Sophie Okonedo), because Paul’s a little shady, while she’s the 'mother figure'.

In In The Name Of The Father (which George co-wrote with Jim Sheridan, and which was nominated for 7 Oscars), it’s Giuseppe, the decent everyman who goes in search of his son. Above all, I always search for a universal message in a script, similar to those that revolve around inspirational real-life figures such as Oskar Schindler.

What was the reaction to the film in America?

People came up to me and said how moved they were. For some, it seemed like it was enough that they’d given their money to see it, but I needed to explain to them that more needed to be done. Especially since the situation in Sudan and Darfur was really starting to bubble at the time of the film’s release.

You’ve worked with such traumatic material during your career. When you do that, how do you manage to protect yourself, both emotionally and psychologically?

With Hotel Rwanda, the emotional journey came about through the research and not the film-making. I went to Rwanda with Paul Rusesabagina six months before we made the film, and we travelled around, talking to survivors, visiting sites and so on. But I fed off that experience, rather than protected myself from it, because it was, ultimately, what I wanted to project on the screen.

Without being too immoral or overwhelming, I wanted to take the intensity of my experience and 'spread it out' to the audience. At the same time, I’m always conscious of the fact that ultimately, people are paying money to sit in a cinema; in some form, whether they are laughing or being moved, they are looking for entertainment. You have to find a balance. And for me, the 'entertainment value' lies in the triumph of the ordinary man over adversity. That was always my rule of thumb.

You 'broke with tradition' not too long ago...

Yes, with Reservation Road. It didn’t go down too well in the States, being an overwhelmingly tragic story about the isolated way in which Americans deal with death. But it’s a good film. I’m very proud of it.

What personally interests you in storytelling?

I’m always looking for stories that will inspire and move people in a deep way, through real life situations. There’s so many that need to be told. What I’m not very good at is writing science-fiction – the universe is too enormous for my writing style! If I’m telling a story, I want to relate to a human element, get under my characters’ skins – and science-fiction doesn’t give me the opportunity to do that.

When you’re dealing with a real-life famous figure, how do you navigate between telling a story you want to tell and telling his story?

There’s always inherent difficulties in making films about someone who’s still alive. Financially, In The Name Of The Father did a lot of good for Gerry Conlon, but psychologically, it did him no good whatsoever. His life’s been turned upside down.

It’s a similar situation with Paul Rusesabagina. Since Hotel Rwanda was released, he’s made a lot of money through speaking and motivational tours, but on the other hand, these tours kind of get up the nose of the Rwandan government.

In Paul’s case, though, I always made it clear that the film was a distillation of what took place. What I’ve always set out to do is take the essence of what a famous person is, and then embody it. I think non-fiction film-making is all about taking the 'wine of reality' and distilling it into the 'Cognac of storytelling', all while remembering that you have to tell the core truth, because the press can dismember you otherwise.

What’s next on your agenda?

There’s a film I’ve just made called Whole Lotta Sole that I hope will be released here next spring. It’s a bit of a departure for me – a black comedy featuring Colm Meaney, Martin McCann and Brendan Fraser. We haven’t got a distributor in America yet, but I’m hoping to show it at the Belfast Film Festival.

Will you be back here for the City Of Culture year?

Without a doubt.