In The Journey, Irish director Nick Hamm imagines how Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley and Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness came together to unite Northern Ireland and create peace. The film was based off an anecdote heard that the two very different leaders met each other on a plane before the peace talks began, striking up an unlikely friendship between a very controversial politician and former IRA member, but imagines their conversation taking place in a car ride through the countryside to the airport.
Irish actor Colm Meaney, best known for his roles in Layer Cake, Hell on Wheels, but most significantly as Chief Miles O’Brien in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, portrays McGuinness as he works to understand the mind behind the Unionist Party. The film explores the complexity behind each man’s personalities and beliefs while offering some commentary on today’s political culture all across the world. Though Timothy Spall, who portrays Paisley, was unavailable, Flickering Myth was able to sit down with Hamm and Meaney at the Toronto International Film Festival and speak to them about the project, filming in such a cramped space and the message they hope to spread with the film. You can also check out our review of the film here.
And for those of you wondering, yes, I did manage to get a Star Trek question in.
Ricky Church: My first question is to you, Nick. You grew up in Belfast and got to see a lot of the events of the IRA and protests firsthand. Did any of your own experiences inform your filmmaking process with this movie?
Nick Hamm: I don’t think you could make this movie unless you understand the culture it’s coming out of. That’s first and foremost. I wouldn’t have attempted it. I wouldn’t have known the intricacies or subtleties of how things work. You needed to know that in order for it to function. But that doesn’t have anything to do with your process as a filmmaker. That just gives you a better reference. Our reference or reason for doing the film is we wanted very much to, if you like, dramatize that political relationship between two extraordinary politicians that had not been dramatized. It had not been seen and in doing so, we wanted to find a way into that story. How do you do this, how do you tell that story of those two men and their friendship which underpinned the peace process, but not in a linear, normal way. That’s where I got the conceit of the movie.
RC: Colm, you supported McGuinness before you started this movie so what was it like to actually portray him?
Colm Meaney: It was a challenge. I thought long and hard about it before and I read the script and loved the script. I was pleasantly surprised at how well the story was told, it was a complete page-turner, and how funny it was. I really loved the fact that Nick and Colin Bateman, our writer, really got the essence of them. I was aware that they’re referred to as ‘the Chuckle Brothers’ and they had this very unique relationship that was captured beautifully in the script.
As far as playing him, yes, I’d met and supported his campaign for President of Ireland in 2011 or 2013. When it comes to playing an iconic character like this, it has its advantages and disadvantages. I mean he’s known so you have to try to look as like him as you can and also sound as like him as you can, but that’s a very much superficial aspect of it. You’re not doing an impersonation, you’re trying to create a well-rounded character and give an idea of who the man really is as a human being. In that sense it’s like playing any character. We’re telling a story and he’s a character in the story so you have to find the character in the context of the script and story you’re telling.
RC: You just brought up the humour of the movie which I found really good. Just the little bits injecting Timothy’s dry humour and slow chuckle or John Hurt’s few comments when he starts getting really panicky. How did you guys work in the humour between you and Timothy or on the other side of the movie with John Hurt and Toby Stephens?
NH: You’re right, the movie is a balance between a drama and a comedy and we wanted to, if you like, navigate that because it seems important. The Irish have a great sense of humour above everything else and we wanted to try and import that into the movie in some way. It’s such a horrific period you’re talking about and so many really interesting movies have been made about the period, but that wasn’t our intention. We didn’t want to make a movie about balaclavas and rioting and guns because we thought that had been so covered. We were interested in making a feel good movie about peace. If we make a movie about peace, well guess what, you better have the range of emotions that an audience needs in the cinema. We’ve seen that now when we watch it play, how people literally laugh and cry and celebrate it.
Humour was really important and the humour comes out of something which is real. It was never put on the movie. It’s inherent in Colin’s writing, he’s a very funny writer. He finds the humour in situations and it was also inherent in Colm and Tim’s performance. Bluntly, they’re very good comedians as well, they’ve got great sense of comedic timing and they both know how to do that. I think if you have actors like that who understand where they can feel the comedy, but don’t reach for it, that’s why I think the movie is probably more funny. They’re not selling the comedy, they’re not trying to be funny, their situation is humourous and then I think those actors are allowing the audience to laugh. I think there are many actors who would have played those parts in a completely different way and not found that humour and without it the movie would have been much poorer for it. I don’t apologise at all for making things funny. In fact I think it’s the only way for people to see things sometimes.
RC: For a large part of the movie, you play a lot with space. Colm, you’re stuck with Timothy in the car for a bit, but then you’re out in the open, back in the car, shifting back and forth. What was it like for you, Colm, to be acting in such a small space and for you, Nick, to film around that?
CM: Well most of the time was spent… we were two weeks in the car, I think?
NH: Yeah, about two weeks in the car.
CM: It was an extraordinary thing. The rig on the car, looking at the van from the outside was quite a monstrosity. It was a whole scaffolding literally built over the car in order to give light and rain. We constantly had the rain falling.
NH: It depended on what microclimate we were in.
CM: Yea, so we’d just get in the car and just drive around for a few hours playing the scene over and over and over. I mean, it was mentally and physically kind of tough, but it was such a pleasure as well because this is what made the project so enjoyable. To be playing those scenes with Tim as an actor was such a joy. You didn’t notice the difficulties as much.
NH: I mean that was kind of the point of it. They’re almost hostages themselves in the movie. What you’re always watching in the movie is the minutiae of their behaviour. That’s what we were looking for, we were looking for those little signs. I remember Colm saying “I’m going to try engaging him here with eye contact” and we had a whole debate about at what point Paisley would look at him. I think Tim held back for about two or three scenes before he even acknowledged your existence in the car.
The way we rehearsed it was like a boxing match. The way I always said to the guys is this: it’s round one, round two, round three and that’s how an audience sees it. I think McGuinness wins one, two, three, four because he’s, frankly, a normal individual trying to have a conversation. And then Paisley would put a sucker punch in and knock him to the floor and they’ll go back and forth. I think what the movie was trying to do is say it’s two A-List politicians having an A-List fight, a political boxing match, to see who wins.
RC: Speaking of Timothy, his portrayal is great. You could really tell he immersed himself in the role with his accent and posture. What was it like for you to play off of that?
CM: It was wonderful. It was like he was channelling Paisley. It was extraordinary. I’ve described to some people here how I grew up watching Paisley all my life. I’d listen to him on TV, he was present in all our lives with his bigotry and religious intolerance. Like, he did call the pope the Anti-Christ and did say seat 666 in the parliament is reserved for the Anti-Christ. I mean, what kind of lunatic was he? That’s the way I grew up, listening to that kind of lunacy. There were moments and scenes playing with Tim where I actually got an insight into why Paisley came up the way he did and that was the first time that had ever happened to me in my life. It was extraordinary.
NH: That’s what we were trying to do. Most politicians speak in soundbites. I’ve said this before, but they speak in terms of soundbites that reinforce their own constituency. What we were trying to do was actually just remove all that and show them just as people. I think that’s what Colm is saying when he saw things in Paisley for the first time because it was the first time Tim was making him human. He wasn’t presenting a version of this dude, he was literally engaging him and making him a human being which is why Colm had the reaction he did. We all did. He necessarily made someone who was unsympathetic sympathetic.
RC: One thing I liked from John Hurt’s character when he’s talking to Freddie Highmore over the radio in the car, he made a statement that really stuck with me. He said “Since 9/11 terrorism has become a Hollywood spectacle”. Did you intend to subtly examine the ways terrorism has evolved in the last 10 – 15 years with these peace talks?
NH: No, we didn’t want to do that, but what we did want to do is say this and this is what John was saying: the world has become increasingly more intolerant. We are witnessing this weird phenomena going on right now and we all seem to be happily walking towards it where fundamentalism, in whatever form it takes, whether its political or religious, it doesn’t really matter, seems to be the name of the game. It seems to be where everybody is, you kind of plant your flag and stand around it and everyone else can go hang. You’re going to have your beliefs.
Now the consequences of that are there are direct human costs to all of that. You can see it everywhere around us. You see it in immigration, you see it in civil wars in the Middle East, you can see it. It just doesn’t work like that. So our film is an attempt to say ‘Look, if you don’t do something about this, if you don’t start to engage and work and deal with the left and actually compromise with people and talk to them, the escalation of violence is going to be so extreme we won’t be able to function in a normal functioning society.’ And that speech John has in the middle of the film, we thought long and hard about keeping it in or not keeping it in because it’s outside of the film. It’s not inside the story. It’s a comment at that moment, but I kept it in because it’s true. I think the way terrorism has morphed and changed, it doesn’t really matter if you blow up one or twenty people, but it has morphed into a situation where its now horrific and acts of terrorism have become even more horrific.
Let me tell you something: the same arguments are paraded now as they were when the IRA first started many years ago in the first bits of the conflict. Don’t talk to the terrorists, don’t speak to any of them, which is nonsense. I think Colm and I felt the same way about that. You just can’t behave like that.
CM: You have to talk to your enemies. There’s no point just talking to your friends, you have to talk to your enemies.
RC: Now a moment ago I mentioned Freddie and we talked about how you and Timothy acted just with each other for most of the movie, but Freddie was also there. What was it like to have almost a three-man show since Freddie is your driver?
CM: Freddie was wonderful.
NH: You’re like the odd couple in the back.
CM: Yea, Freddie was a pleasure. He’s a terrific actor. He’s a great, funny guy. We had a bit of a side thing going on where we’d be fooling around off camera. Our character names were Pinky and Perky. He used to text me like “Hi Pinky, Perky here!” Just foolishness, you know? It was fun and he’s a terrific guy.
NH: He’s a really nice person to work with.
CM: He really is. He’s very sweet.
NH: He’s a very bright, young man. He gets it and understands it. He’s very simpatico because he knew he wasn’t the centre of the movie and the poor boy had to drive around literally for hours listening to absolutely everybody in the back of the car doing take after take. That’s a very selfless actor that does that and didn’t say to me “Look, do you really need me for this shot?” They did need him because we sort of had our own stage in that car.
RC: One of the other things about the movie is you interject archival footage, just little bits and pieces, throughout the movie, so why did you feel it important to put in all that archival footage?
NH: I think it’s a good question and I think the real reason is that I felt that the footage we put in is really, really provincial when you look at it now. It’s small, it’s tiny, but I wanted to remind a younger audience who had not lived through that at all and did not know what that meant, it hadn’t existed that level of civil turmoil in the United Kingdom for a long time. I think that was a way of punching it with giving them some sort of historical reference I suppose.
CM: It was also hugely effective, I thought. There’s one in particular that is an illustration of how I felt it was effective. I think it was Tim says the word ‘bomb’ and then literally as he says bomb, boom we have an explosion. It sort of, you get what a bomb is. What a bomb did. It’s not just a word, it’s a visceral experience. I thought it was tremendously effective.
RC: One last question for Colm. Now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about this because I’m a big Next Generation and Deep Space Nine fan and O’Brien is one of my favourite characters.
CM: You have very good taste.
RC: With the Star Trek franchise just celebrating its 50th anniversary a few days ago, what does that mean to you as a member of the Star Trek family and playing O’Brien for 12 years?
CM: Wow, was it that long? My experiences on Star Trek were great. We had a great bunch of guys. I was recurring on Next Generation, I was never really part of the main cast there so it was really seven years on DS9. Again, a really great bunch of guys over there and we had a lot of fun. It was great writing, for the most part. To get 26 episodes out every season and keep the standard of writing up was quite an achievement. I was very fortunate during that period because I was allowed to do other things. The producers promised me at the beginning of DS9 when I agreed to go as a regular on the show that they would let me out to do any features that I really wanted to do or they thought I should do.
They kept to that promise for all seven years I was on the show. I was very fortunate and they’d write me out of a couple episodes or write me to be in the last day of an episode or the first day of another, back-to-back so I could come in for two days and go off again. It was a tremendous experience and I’m privileged to be a part of that. It is a phenomenon. Its 50 years of extraordinarily good television and film.
Thank you again to Nick Hamm and Colm Meaney for talking with Flickering Myth. The Journey will be released later this year. Again, you can check out our review of the film here.
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