The Road to Peace: Nick Hamm's 'The Journey' imagines a fateful encounter between two Northern Ireland foes

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Bing Crosby and Bob Hope surrendered their American Express Travel cards 55 years ago with their seventh and last “Road” movie—advertised “to Hong Kong,” that road actually went to the Moon—but the two-for-the-road formula has continued to rack up cinematic miles as a viable construct. The latest case in point is The Journey, a short 50-mile hop from Edinburgh to Belfast but a huge leap for Northern Ireland.

Director Nick Hamm’s new picture is light years removed from the Crosby-Hope slapstick of yore, but a figurative form of hope is very much onboard The Journey, opening June 16 from IFC Films. It’s a film that chronicles a reluctant, begrudging but ultimately triumphant meeting of minds (the rigid, religious Democratic Unionist Party leader Sir Ian Paisley on the right vs. the pragmatic Sinn Fein MP Martin McGuinness on the left). At Journey’s end, “The Troubles” that had plagued Ireland for almost four decades were over.

Prior to the 2006 St. Andrews summit, these two hard-headed, head-butting politicians wouldn’t even stay in the same room together, so screenwriter Colin Bateman is pretty cheeky to get them to share the backseat of the same car. That’s a lot for an audience to swallow, but the truth is that these implacable adversaries, once they got to talking, emerged from the trip (and from subsequent encounters immediately after that) dubbed improbably by the press “The Chuckle Brothers.”

Neither Hamm nor Bateman pressed their luck that far, but they did let the acting do the heavy lifting. Timothy Spall, all snorts and blusters as the humor-withholding Paisley, and Colin Meany as the mischievously needling McGuinness have a field day.

For Hamm, the accent is on the acting (no pun intended). “I think there’s nothing else that matters as much as the performances,” he believes. “I spent a long time working in theatre at the Royal Shakespeare Company. I like actors. I like working with actors. I suppose that’s the best bit of the process for me, the most enjoyable.”

He’s especially happy to have along for the ride Spall, who, after Secrets & Lies, Topsy-Turvy, Denial and Mr. Turner, is starting to loom like a latter-day Laughton.

“I think he’s one of those actors who morphs into a character,” Hamm contends. “He just becomes the character, which is really fantastic. Tim is five-foot-eight, an English guy from South London; Paisley was six-foot-five—a big guy with a very distinct physical presence—and here Tim is not only portraying this person but getting away with it. Not for one second do you think he hasn’t got it right. It’s fascinating to watch him do that. He had a slightly false chin, a little prosthetics on the chin, some special teeth and dyed hair—and then he just became that character completely.”

Similarly, he praises Meany for being a perfect sparring partner for Spall. “They’re pretty good, aren’t they?” he asks lightly, with genuine pride in his inflection.

This pride extends to a couple of key supporting portrayals—Toby Stephens as Tony Blair, the U.K. prime minister who brought the Catholics and the Protestants together (if not in the same room), and John Hurt as Harry Patterson, the British Intelligence MI5 supervisor. Straining credibility more than a mite, scripter Bateman enlarges both roles by having them monitor the backseat “negotiations” via a hidden camera manned by a young MI5 operative in the driver’s seat (Freddie Highmore).

Hurt, who died last January, managed to log up five more film credits after The Journey (the priest in Jackie, for one) but was not well during the filming. “When John first walked onto the set, he said to me that he had made over a hundred movies,” Hamm remembers. “I knew John had cancer before he did the role. He was very open about that. His health wasn’t a problem. Getting insurance for him was the problem. I had to give certain guarantees as to how I was going to do this.

“I’ve always loved and admired John. Because of his illness, he wasn’t really taking on a lot, but he really wanted to do this movie, and I just thought to myself, “We sort of owe it to people like that. They have put their down payment down.”

Hamm maintains that the premise of his picture is not that much of a stretch. “For years, unbeknownst to most of us, Northern Irish politicians—when they were traveling abroad or traveling to the U.K.—often traveled together. They would get on the same plane or the same train. I think, basically, they needed mutual security.

“It occurred to me that this was a very interesting idea for a movie, and I talked to Martin McGuinness about it. He told me that during the peace break during that particular conference that Tony Blair organized at St Andrews, they did make such a trip. They had no agreement when Paisley decided to return home for his 50th wedding anniversary. The Irish government office hired a private jet to get him there, and McGuinness went on that jet with him. There were two or three other people on the flight—I’ve seen video of it—so I took that idea and made it a car ride rather than a jet trip. It was more cinematic that way. But, in reality, the jet trip happened. They hadn’t spoken at all before then, and they got on like a house afire.”

Once these two titans started defrosting, the opportunity for the peace process began to flourish and subsequently spilled over into other harmonious meetings.

Traveling by car instead of plane proved only slightly less confining in scaring up some visual variety along the way. “In reality, that’s only about an hour-long trip maximum, so I created problems along the way,” confesses Hamm. The torrential thunderstorm that brought the two together in the first place subsided soon enough, allowing them a head-clearing walk in the woods—even to an abandoned chapel.

“You have to do all that because if you left it all in the car, it’s not going to play. You have to buy into the conceit of the movie. Basically, it’s The Odd Couple in the back of the car and you have to cut out of that as much as you can. At the end of the day, what the audience is watching is the changing relationship between the two men.”

The movie was made quickly and cheaply. “We shot it within six weeks. Most independent film budgets these days don’t allow you really to go beyond that amount of time. You’re lucky if you get that, in fact. We filmed it in Northern Ireland, outside of Belfast and then all around Belfast. The movie was set in Scotland, but the landscape in Scotland is pretty damn similar to the landscape in Northern Ireland.

“Our base was Northern Ireland, so we decided to shoot it there. We changed the signposts on the roads in Ireland. There was this one funny moment where there was this married couple driving by and they thought they got off in the wrong country because the sign said ‘Glasgow, 6 miles’ and we were in Northern Ireland.”

Four or five weeks before the cameras started turning, Hamm met with the Paisley family and with McGuinness, who passed last March. “I didn’t show them the script. I just wanted to tell them what we were doing—that we were showing what these two guys did and celebrating their remarkable political friendship. At no time did they ask for any editorial control. They were incredibly supportive of the movie.”

The Journey took the film-festival route to the marketplace, stopping last year first in Venice and then in Toronto. The director, himself a Northern Ireland native, admits that he was fretful about how the picture would play with subtitles to a thousand Italians at the festival. “I thought to myself, ‘How the hell are they going to get this? How’s the comedy of this movie going to come out? How’s it going to work?’ Well, they started laughing within the first few minutes and gave us a standing ovation!”

Toronto vigorously seconded the motion. “Those Canadians really went for it. There’s a big Irish community in Canada—but, even if there wasn’t, people understand what the movie says. The movie is a celebration of the art of compromise—in a world where that’s not exactly celebrated right now.”

Hamm dedicated The Journey to his mother. “My mother was born in Belfast, and I went to school there from 13 to 18. She was a remarkable woman who taught me a lot. She died when she was quite young. If ever there was a movie that should be dedicated to her, it’s this one. It’s about making peace and moving forward.”