'The Journey' Director on the Comedic "Political Road Movie" That Forged History's Most Unlikely Friendship

The Journey  - Still 1 - H - 2016
Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival

Nick Hamm's feature — which dramatizes the start of the improbable yet vital union between former IRA commander Martin McGuinness and firebrand loyalist Ian Paisley — had its world premiere in Venice.

After being sworn enemies for decades, the friendship between former IRA commander turned Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness and firebrand Protestant politician Ian Paisley (who died in 2014) was, without doubt, one of the most unlikely to ever be forged. But it was this friendship that also become one of the essential foundations that enabled the peace talks in Northern Ireland, ensuring the bloody "troubles" that dominated headlines for 40 years are now a thankfully closed chapter in contemporary history.

In The Journey (which bowed in Venice on Wednesday and now moves onto Toronto), director Nick Hamm explores the origins of this improbable yet vital union, putting the two in the back of a car for a comedic road movie. Starting out as each other’s arch-nemesis, Paisley (played by Timothy Spall) and McGuinness (Colm Meaney) soon find that the bitter exchanges make way for comedic tones, leading to a relationship that would soon see them dubbed “The Chuckle Brothers.”

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Hamm discusses how he hopes the film will stimulate debate about the need to talk to one’s enemies, and the minimum prosthetics needed for Spall to become Paisley (a fake chin, basically).

I guess the first question has to be, did this journey ever actually take place?

Well, it’s always an interesting question. The short answer is, yes it did happen. But the longer is, not in the form that we’ve presented it in.

How so?

I was aware for many, many years that politicians in Northern Ireland had had a sort of unwritten rule that when they traveled abroad, they traveled in the same plane or same boat. Even if they were mortal enemies, they traveled together. That’s very simple – they did it because they didn’t want the plane to get blown up. Even if they hated each other and wouldn’t talk to one another, they still traveled together. And I thought, that makes a really good idea for a movie, where you could put people in one place, confine them, and make them get along.

So was a trip like this made with Paisley and McGuinness?

There was one particular journey, which dovetailed with this notion that I’ve always wanted to tell the story of the friendship of Paisley and McGuinness, I always thought that was one of the most unlikely, not only political friendships, but friendship friendships, in modern history. Here was the head of Sinn Fein and the Republican movement and the head of the right wing most fanatical protestant movement. And yet they became friends, legitimate friends. McGuinness went to Paisley's funeral, he went to the body lying in state and was emotional, and so I thought, what happened? How did that come about? And then I found out that during the 2006 peace talks, they had shared a plane back together from Scotland to Belfast. Myself and Colin the writer were fascinated by this. So we said, rather than put them on a plane, which is fundamentally un-cinematic, we put it in a car, because I wanted to do a political road movie. So it became this journey from St Andrews to Edinburgh, which is about a 45-minute to one-hour trip, interrupted by various things on the way. And that was our conceit for the film.

So sadly the car journey never happened?

No, but what we do know is that they did get on that plane, which they do at the end of the movie. And that was the first time they ever spoke in 30 years, and after that moment they did form a friendship, they started to talk to one another, started to engage. Effectively, we’ve dramatized the 20-year friendship within a one-hour cinematic journey. It’s based on truth.

Did you speak to both sides about making the film?

I spoke to both parties, I saw McGuinness and Paisley’s son. If you’re doing this subject matter you want to make sure that you’re getting it right. I didn’t need either of them to endorse the movie, and I didn’t need either of them to condemn the movie. We just told them what was happening and we had people that said, look you’re going to like some of it and dislike other bits of it.

And did they support it?

You don’t really want to go and shoot in Northern Ireland unless you’ve got semi permission to do this stuff. But they were both completely supportive of the project because, ultimately, what it’s doing is celebrating peace and celebrating something that they achieved. We were saying, let’s remove the tabloidization of politics, let's debate this notion that you shouldn’t talk to terrorists, you shouldn’t speak to your enemies. The world has changed and we need to engage. The movie is a testament to that. That’s the most important part of it for me. I think cinema can stimulate that debate more than anything.

The two of them were labeled "The Chuckle Brothers." Is humor a major element of the film?

We were actually thinking of calling the movie The Chuckle Brothers for a while. But everyone felt it was too lightweight. The basis of their relationship was humor. In private, both of those men were very, very witty. And so I brought two actors who had comedic chops, they can really play those moments even though they’re very serious.

How easy was it to cast two somewhat iconic figures from contemporary history?

Well, you can’t start doing the movie until you find Paisley. He’s not the easiest guy to cast. He looks a certain way, he had certain physical characteristics. People remember him as an archetype. He was pretty much who I centered on from the beginning. And with Tim, he’s one of our greats. Turner was amazing… he grows in each role. He’s one of those actors who literally consumes the part and becomes the role. He had very little prosthetics done – just a chin we put on him. And he had some teeth, and obviously some hair stuff. We went into a rehearsal room in London before we’d even decided to do the movie, to play with the idea of him playing the character. Because he wanted to know he could pull it off – for him it was a big step. Once I’d got Tim, then it was about matching him and then I knew I had to cast someone from Ireland, someone who can find that mercurial lightness of touch that McGuinness had. And that’s Colm. Once I’d got those two set, I was off.

Did Spall nail Paisley’s voice from the off?

Yeah, from the outset. We tested it. We recorded him and then played the tape in his office in Belfast to a bunch of people from Northern Ireland, and they all said it was extraordinary.