The historical understructure of Nick Hamm’s The Journey came as news to me. Your humble correspondent Mr. Ugly American must have been at the movies the week Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall) and Sinn Fein politician Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney) united their rivaling factions. The thought of being a fly on the backseat of a hatchback, eavesdropping on a fictionalized conversation between the two failed to entice.
Shame on me. With precious cargo like Spall and Meaney to transport, even Freddie Highmore behind the wheel — and the occasional narrative detour — didn’t give sufficient cause to incite road rage. If anything, the three made for very pleasant traveling companions. Spall takes up residence inside the violence-inciting, homophobic (and cinephobic!) religious leader, and once again makes a monster stimulating and compelling to the eye. Historians may find room to complain, but this is one jaunt that brought this duffer even more satisfaction the second time through.
BAFTA award-winning British director Nick Hamm (Talk of Angels) sounded like a proud papa the morning he called to discuss The Journey. The film opens Friday at Landmark’s Ken Cinema.
Scott Marks: You took the long road to directing movies.
Nick Hamm: I went into the theater first. I was in the theater for a long time. I love it. Love watching theater. I always wanted to be a director, so that’s where it started. I did ten years doing that. And quite a few years at the Royal Shakespeare Company in London. And Stratford, just directing plays, plays, and plays. Ten years of doing theater kind of educates you well enough to move beyond that into cinema.
SM: Given your theatrical background: just for the heck of it, was there ever a point when you thought about setting the entire film from inside the car?
NH (Laughing): No. I always knew the film was divided up into three distinct acts. There’s an intro — setting up the ground rules, setting up the peace talks. That’s about 10 or 15 minutes. And that gives you the context of the film. I always knew you couldn’t do everything you wanted to do…you couldn’t tell the entire relationship just in the car. I needed to derail them. I didn’t think they would get to the point (in a good way) if they weren’t deterred.
Act I was the car. Act II was nature, in the forest and in the church. And Act III was the King Lear scene, as we called it, in the harbor and the final reconciliation in the airplane. We always knew there was a journey within the journey. Going against the clock; the audience knows it going to finish. There’s only a certain amount of things you can do in a car to delay the event of them getting there.
SM: I never thought I’d say this, because generally I’m all about opening up potentially stagebound one-set affairs for the screen, but I was a bit saddened when they got out of the car. To your credit, you kept both the exterior and interior action fresh and ever-changing. Unbeknownst to his passengers, but not the audience, Freddie Highmore is a government agent, so there’s also a dashcam reporting back to mission control.
NH: Thank you. But don’t forget, they both sort of wanted to speak to each other as well. They half wanted a private conversation, but they sort of didn’t want to. McGuinness is the first one to talk. Paisley doesn’t speak to him for ages. He can barely look at him. It was necessary to break it up.
SM: I read that Liam Neeson and Kenneth Branagh were originally attached to star.
NH: No. That’s just nonsense. They weren’t. That was all put out ages ago. I’m really glad you asked about it because that was never our intention to go there. Suddenly, there was this kind of announcement and then there was talking, but we never ever got in any way serious about that and didn’t really engage with that at all.
There was only ever one person I thought could play Paisley. I couldn’t have done the movie without casting Paisley first. And I couldn’t think of anybody, truthfully, who had the kind of power to morph into that character with such kind of authority and commitment as Tim. Someone said to me the other day that he’s turning into a contemporary Charles Laughton. (Laughing) He really is! This is a man who completely transforms himself…he’s a 5´8˝ guy from South London playing a 6´5˝ Irishman.
SM: It always puzzled me why they didn’t cast him to play Hitchcock in the biopic.
NH: My God, you’re right. He would have made a brilliant Hitchcock. Look, you’re talking to a huge admirer. It was always only Tim for the part of Paisley. I went after him. I never thought anybody else had the real strength, the real acting ability actually to do it. He didn’t initially want to do it. We worked together. He didn’t think he could pull it off. I mean, you weren’t casting a normal role. The guy was pretty odd looking: he had an enormous head, long legs, big ears.
SM: I’m not sure Paisley was a guy who laughed very much — the only time he went to a movie was to stand outside and protest.
NH: [Paisley] loved laughing at his own jokes. He thought he was personally hilarious.
SM: Spall’s nailed the laugh. Like steam escaping from an asthmatic radiator. What goal did you have in mind by bringing these two characters together on a fictional ride?
NH: I sort of went into this really trying to learn. What I wanted to do was celebrate this completely unique situation that had in real terms — never mind the fact that we fictionalized the relationship — but in real terms had changed the way Irish politics had been conducted. If those two men had not had that relationship and had not come together, people would still be killing each other.
SM: How much of this is fact and how much is fiction? Was there a plane to catch to transport Paisley to his golden wedding anniversary party?
NH: There was a plane ride. After the peace conference, Paisley insisted on going home to Northern Ireland. The British government hired a jet and McGuinness decided to join them. That is all true and that is one of the first times they came together, talked, met, and started to communicate. Up to then, they had refused to acknowledge each other. It’s like The Odd Couple in the back of a car.
SM: Given the current political climate, the timing of the release couldn’t be better. At least here in the States.
NH: Exactly. We’re completely fascinated by what’s going to happen.
SM: So how about a sequel with Trump and Mrs. Clinton sharing a helicopter ride to Goldman Sachs?
NH (Laughing): You’re on. Let’s do it!