An interview with Guy Hibbert

on 28 February 2009. Posted in Film

In January 2009 Guy Hibbert won the World Cinema Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah for Five Minutes Of Heaven. He told us how the film was written and why broadcasters need to give writers creative freedom

guy-hibbertFirst of all, congratulations on the award at Sundance. Were you able to be there to collect it?

Sadly not. I was at the Festival earlier on for the premiere but had returned to London and was unpacking my suitcase when they phoned me. They gave me five hours notice - not quite enough to get back to Utah! As well as my screenwriting award, Oliver Hirschbiegel won the World Cinema Directing Award so it was great news for the film and for Pathé who now need to sell it.

How did the film come about?

After Omagh (written by Guy Hibbert and Paul Greengrass), I was asked by BBC Northern Ireland to write something about the legacy of violence. I wasn't sure how to approach it but then came across a BBC documentary about the Troubles in which the perpetrators of crime were to meet the families of their victims. Through this I heard about Joe and Alistair. In 1975 Joe Griffin was 11 when Alistair Little, who was then himself just 17, drove up to Joe's parents'; house and shot Joe's brother three times in the head. Joe witnessed the killing. Thirty years later both men were asked to appear in this documentary; Joe refused saying that "if I am ever in a room with that man I will kill him". I immediately knew this was my story and so set about meeting both men.

I understand that writing the script was quite a long process.

I wanted to explore the impact of that killing in 1975 on both men and my idea was to re-create the events of that evening in 1975 as my Act One and then I would imagine what would have happened if they had agreed to meet for that documentary programme. That 'what' is the basis of the film. So for two years I flew over to Belfast many times to meet Joe and Alistair separately, I then wrote the script, read it to them separately, rewrote it several times, each time reading it back to them and, then, finally, we showed them the finished movie. Three years in all.

How did you work with Joe and Alistair?

When I was developing this 'what if', I set up a 'fictional Joe' and 'fictional Alistair' with them. For instance, at one point the real Joe would only see one option for the outcome of the movie: he would take a knife to the meeting with Alistair and kill him, taking his 'five minutes of heaven'. 

I then said, "Okay Joe, what's the next scene?". He said, "I don’t know, you’re the writer". So I told him that, if we went with his scenario, we would, after the killing, cut to his living room: his wife and daughters are watching TV. There’s a knock at the door. She answers it. It’s a policeman and policewoman with bad news: ‘your husband has been arrested for murder’. We then cut to the daughters. They start crying. I then turned to Joe and said, “You know what, I really don’t want to write that scene.” So Joe and I would then spend the rest of the day discussing, sometimes arguing, the other options open to the ‘fictional Joe’. 

That’s how I developed the script, playing out the various scenarios and options with them.

Those meetings must have been very intense.

They were. I was asking them to re-live – in great detail - the most painful and defining moment of their lives and, also in great detail, examine the psychological consequences. The whole process has been very intense and very difficult for them – and I have total respect for their courage, honesty and trust. 

Probably the most difficult part of the process was when I sat down with them, always separately, to read the script to them. This took five or six hours each time. It meant that not only were they having to face up to what the one had said about the other, but they were also being confronted with the other’s experience. 

For example, one of the most difficult aspects for Joe was that his mother, in her grief, blamed him for not doing anything to stop the killing. Alistair hadn’t known any of this side of Joe’s trauma until I read the script to him. Right at this moment we are into the process of ‘going public’ with the film. The legacy of the Troubles is a very sensitive issue in Northern Ireland and Alistair and Joe have opened themselves up to public scrutiny. It requires great courage to do that.

What do they think about the film now?

It’s been so tough for them so they have mixed feelings but they both agree that the film holds an emotional and psychological truth. Alistair has told me that it was a painful but valuable process, facing up to the devastation. For Joe it was an opportunity to show how one act of violence can cause such emotional trauma lasting a lifetime. And they both hope that the film will be a force for good in that it will enable a greater understanding of the extent of this legacy of violence in the country.

Presumably your previous experiences dramatising real events was a big help.

I have spent the last 15 years researching the psychological devastation caused by acts of hatred and brutality, including extreme acts of child abuse in films like No Child Of Mine (directed by Peter Kosminsky) and May 33rd . I am still in contact with the women on whom I based those scripts and so working on these issues means they become absorbed into my life.

Did you deliberately choose to make these kind of films or was it just something that happened?

 Screenplays for me have always been a vehicle for highlighting social and political injustice and giving voice to victims of barbarity. I am in a position of great privilege in that I have access to telling stories to millions of people – I can’t think of a better use of this privilege than giving a voice to those who are not able to be heard or who have been deliberately silenced.

Were you worried that Alistair and Joe would withdraw consent for the film at any stage?

During those first script readings, I was as anxious as they were. I had no idea how they would react. It is a frightening responsibility working on something like this. I’ve written plenty of bad scripts which have been rightly rejected – but what if this was to be one of them? How could I look them in the eye? Yes, very worried! Not worried that they would withdraw consent but worried that I had let them down.

Have they now met?

No. For both of them the process was never going to be about reconciliation. This was something I learnt in the process of working with them. This script is about the shocking legacy of violence. And it is shocking. Their feelings are as raw 33 years later as they have ever been. This is the awful truth they reveal to us.

The film is being released theatrically everywhere apart from the UK, where it’s going out on BBC Two. Why is that?

This was a BBC Four commission. I asked for BBC Four because I felt that it was going to be the only way I would be left alone to write the script as I wanted to write it. I did not want any commissioning editors, drama executives or programme controllers telling me how to write it or interfering with me in any way. I also insisted on having it green-lit before I started writing. This caused consternation – as I learnt later - but I was not going to put Joe and Alistair through such an intense process if there was any risk that the film wouldn’t be made through a programme controller changing his or her job or changing her mind. 

The real problem came once I had finished the script. The German director of Downfall fame, Oliver Hirschbiegel, is a friend of mine so I asked him to direct it. We also had Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt on board. They were all working on a minimum fee but there was still not enough money in the tiny BBC Four budget to make it – and the BBC were not prepared to give us any more, big names attached or not. 

Fortunately we were working through an independent producer, Eoin O'Callaghan. He brought in Ruby Films; then Pathé, Northern Ireland Screen and others came in and we finally had enough in the budget to go ahead. But, throughout this whole process, the BBC Northern Ireland drama team led by Patrick Spence and Stephen Wright have given me nothing less then 100% support. They are the best TV drama unit I have ever worked with. 

The film will now be shown on BBC Two. No date yet but around Easter I am being told.

Creative independence clearly means a lot to you.

There is a simple truth too often ignored: if producers give writers wings, their productions will fly. Writers are too constrained by a commissioner’s vision of the sort of drama they think the public wants. Very often they are right but – and it is a big but - there must be some place in the schedule where the commissioners hand over the reins to writers and directors to create their visions. A small place will do but there must be a place. 

To my mind, one of the best things on TV in recent years was Shoot The Messenger (written by Sharon Foster). I believe that only got made because it won the Dennis Potter Screenwriting Award and so the BBC were forced to make it; I don’t know this, I’ve only heard the rumour. I believe that Award was abandoned shortly after. Did they scrap it because it was the one opportunity for writers to have a script green-lit that wasn’t under the control of the executives? Whatever the reasons for abandoning the Award, I would re-introduce it as the first step to putting more single drama and innovation and risk into the schedules.