Meaney and Hamm debate the impact of the Good Friday Agreement, portraying Paisley and McGuinness, a future for the Journey on a theatre stage, contemporary terrorism and more. By Greg Wetherall
A sad fortuity can occasionally add emphasis to the release of a film. On the eve of the release of Nick Hamm’s The Journey, which takes a fictional look at the true event around the Northern Ireland peace process, the second of the two lead protagonists passed away. Martin McGuinness, a one-time bomber and latterly a man who became the political face of Sinn Fein, fell victim to amyloidosis at the age of 66.
The film charts an occasion in Scotland just prior to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement that brokered peace between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein. In an unexpected twist to events, ice thawed when Democratic Unionist leader Reverend Ian Paisley had to urgently return to Ireland at short notice. In keeping with standard practice at the time, McGuinness took the journey back with him for both of their security’s sake. Over the course of that short journey, two men who had never spoken directly to one another were forced to reside in each other’s company. As they did so, they also took the biggest leap of faith and changed the course of history.
“We thought of the movie as a boxing match”, says director Nick Hamm. “This guy wins this round. This guy wins this round. Colm (McGuinness) would win 1, 2, 3, 4, and then Spall (Paisley) would deliver this massive blow! And then they’d go again. But through conflict and through that personal relationship, they found a resolution. It’s a story that we had to tell and celebrate”.
“The script was an absolute page turner. A wonderful read” adds Colm Meaney. “It was funny, and I was so pleased that these people were three dimensional human beings. They weren’t caricatures. Structurally, dramatically, it was brilliantly structured. The device of having them in the car; the device of having the MI5 guy driving the car, so you have the outside eye on them. Dramatically, it was just brilliant. By the end of it, I had laughed and I had cried, quite unashamedly in tears, because it was so moving. Then, for me, the trick, was to try and make the experience that I had reading the script a reality in the film”.
Looking back upon the finished article, he is of the opinion that the whole enterprise succeeded. “I saw it for the first time in Venice and I felt that we had achieved it. It was very emotional to see the film. Very few films achieve something where you laugh, you cry and you are moved and this achieved it brilliantly”.
The conversation unfolded animatedly, covering the screening at the Houses of Parliament less than a week after the terrorist attack in Westminster, the perception of terrorism today, and an unexpected exclusive about intentions to turn the Journey into a play.
Is it right that you did meet Martin McGuinness?
Colm Meaney: Yeah, but not whilst we were making this movie. I met him a few years before. In 2011, he ran for president and I supported his campaign. I went to see the final rally of his campaign at the Mansion House in Dublin.
Did that recollection of meeting him help or hinder your approach to playing him?
CM: I had a familiarity of Martin, because I’d known of him most of my life. I was aware of him all of my life. When it came to this, I spent time watching him. There’s a lot of footage available of the last twenty years. The earlier part of his career is not quite as public! In the same way as Tim researched Dr Paisley, I needed to do that.
It was well documented that he was quite a charmer…
CM: Yeah, yeah, yeah, and he was quite quietly spoken man. He was delightful, but there was always a bit of an edge to a joke with him. There was always a bit of a twinkle in the eye.
Nick Hamm: I think Colm did an amazing job. Often, we get criticised: are we humanising two people who were really unpopular. These were two of the most unpopular, hated men in politics outside of their own tribes. Paisley was universally loathed. To put them together and humanise them is what we wanted to do. We weren’t ashamed of doing that. The movie is now about redemption, since McGuinness’s passing, and a re-evaluation of what these men were. You reanalyse people in history who have politically complex lives.
In the current climate, why use the same phrases that we used about the IRA, 30 or 40 years later? The demonisation of terrorism or the demonisation of people who do not agree with you is not the way to conduct political argument.
CM: During the presidential campaign, he (McGuinness) was treated appallingly by the Irish press. They (the press), were constantly banging on about, ‘how many people did you kill?’
This is after twenty years of statesmanship and responsible government. I point out to people all the time that most of the leaders… if you look at any national liberation struggle or any anti-imperial struggle, most of the leaders who emerged began as fighters. We’re not just talking about Africa and South America. We’re talking about Israel… Menachem Begin (former Prime Minister of Israel), was he ever held up and asked about planting the bomb in the King David hotel in Jerusalem? Which is what he did. He was ‘a bomber’, ‘a terrorist’ – in those terms. And yet, he never had to answer that, whereas McGuinness had to answer that all of his life.
Why do you think that is?
CM: It’s about prejudice against McGuinness…
NH: We’re just filmmakers. We’re are not politicians. In our own small way, we’re just trying to say that right now this film has a massive significance that, six weeks ago, was a different kind of significance. And now that McGuinness prematurely passed away, both those men are dead. As Colm says, you now have to look about what you think of those men. If you’re going to do that, then why don’t you reanalyse what you’re doing right now when you’re looking at Islamic terrorism or any form of terrorism; look at the terminology. And that’s what I think Colm and I are trying to say: it’s more complicated and more interesting than just saying, ‘this guy’s a bomber’.
CM: And you have a chance of solving it as well.
Here’s the other key thing to all of this. The British government, for years and years, said that they don’t negotiate with terrorists. They were. But the line was that they weren’t. The thing that unlocked the peace process in Northern Ireland – apart from the huge shift by the Republicans that happened before John major was Prime Minister – was that Tony Blair came into power and said to the Unionists in Northern Ireland, “you cannot just say ‘no’. You don’t have a veto anymore”.
Because that’s all the Unionists ever did: (adopts Paisley’s voice) “Never! We will never surrender!” It was ‘never’ this and ‘never’ that. No to everything. He saw (Tony Blair) that Sinn Fein had come around. Once the Unionists realised that they didn’t have their veto anymore, that’s when they had to negotiate. And that’s when Paisley started moving and warming (to the solution).
NH: Things have shifted so radically. The whole idea of contemporary terrorism has changed since 9/11.
For one, 9/11 changed the way the IRA was funded, because they got a lot of money from out of America. It also changed the perception of terrorism. It also changed the way people thought.
That was a war (Northern Ireland) that no one was winning. It was pure and simple attrition. This is our attempt to not only redress that balance, but also genuinely say – in an entertaining way – ‘look guys, we’ve got the same thing going now and in a lot of other places and we’ve got to be careful how we talk about this stuff’. When we played the film in the Houses of Parliament the other day, that was what was really interesting.
How did you feel it played?
NH: I looked out of the window at Big Ben. I looked out of the little arched window saw the lamp post full of flowers where that idiot had driven his car (referencing the terrorist attack that claimed lives and caused injuries only a week prior to the Journey being screened to politicians) and I thought that we would never have been able to screen that film 30 years ago in Parliament. There is no way we could have put a film up with McGuinness and Paisley in Parliament about the nature of peace.
CM: McGuinness’s and Adams’s voice couldn’t be heard on TV and radio.
NH: Yeah. And number two, here we are right on the set of an incident and we’re debating terrorism and politics. It was very fascinating and emotional. They understood the maturity of the movie.
CM: This film is hugely aspirational. It gives us an ‘in’ to an extraordinary achievement, and it was all about reconciliation. It was about finding peace in what seemed like an impossible situation.
Colm, did this project feel very personal to you, being Irish and growing up in Ireland?
CM: It never felt personal. I’ve lived away from Ireland for forty years, but it felt hugely important. This is probably the most important film I’ve ever made.
Have you had any feedback from any of the families or Sinn Fein etc?
NH: I met McGuinness before I started filming. I met all the Paisley people before I started filming, but both sides have been incredibly respectful of the process. None of them have looked to have any editorial control. They weren’t shown the script. We didn’t invite them into the process. You can’t make a biographical film and invite the person you’re making the biographical film about into the process, because it’s subjective to them. You’re not looking for endorsements.
The last people you’re looking for endorsements from is either side. You’re looking to making each side feel uncomfortable; and comfortable. We were passionate about being balanced and giving each side a fair crack of the whip in terms of the debate.
We played it in Ireland. We played it to Irish people in America. We played it to Irish people everywhere. It’s a very emotional experience for people.
Did you notice a big difference between audiences?
NH: There’s a big difference between audiences in the UK and audiences in Europe and in America. They see the movie in Europe and America as aspirational. They have any of the baggage that we do about what went on. They don’t remember any of it.
Do you think that’s to the film’s advantage in those territories?
NH: Yeah, I think the film, in America, speaks in a different way. Especially right now, where demagoguery is king, this speaks to the alternative in America. I think the same is true in Europe. This film also shows the power of politicians.
Bearing in mind all that you both have had to say about this film, have you thought about putting it on the stage?
NH: We’re interested in that. We’re going to play out the movie and then we’re quite interested in that idea.
(To Colm Meaney) Would you and Timothy Spall be interested in reprising your roles then?
CM: I spent the first 10-15 years of my career working only in theatre. And then I got away from theatre for a time. I went back to the theatre about 10 years ago for Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic. We did a show that ran there for 5 months or so and then we went to New York for 6 months. It was a year of my life with a four and a half play that was a three-hander. When you do that, it’s a bit like f***ing work, you know? (laughs)
Now, I’m going to do Cat on a Hot Tin Roof here in the West End starting in June. You have to be very careful how you pick your plays (laughs again) and this is the first I’ve heard of this (the suggestion of the Journey becoming a play). Textually, this does lend itself to a theatre piece.
NH: We’ve talked about it a lot. Actually, I had yet to include Colm, so this is it here, recorded in our first conversation! (laughs)
The Journey is in cinemas from 5th May 2017