Director Oliver Hirschbiegel rose to international prominence with his hugely successful Hitler biopic, “Downfall”, tracing the final days in the life of the Austrian dictator. The director then faced intrusiveness and controversy over his Hollywood remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, simply called “The Invasion”. It is no surprise that for his next film he chose to do something more introspective but nonetheless powerful with the Sundance favourite “Five Minutes to Heaven”.
The film begins in Lurgan Northern Ireland, 1975. A low level civil war has been underway, with the IRA targeting British loyalists and the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force exacting revenge on Catholics they claim are militant republicans. Alistair Little, 16 is the leader of a UVF cell, eager to be blooded. He and his gang are given the go ahead to kill a young Catholic man, James Griffin, as a reprisal and a warning to others. When the hit is carried out, Joe Griffin – the 11-year old little brother of the target – watches in horror his brother is shot in the head.
Thirty years later Joe Griffin and Alistair are to meet, on camera, with a view to reconciliation. Alistair has served his sentence, and peace may have been agreed to in N. Ireland, but Joe Griffin is not coming on the program for a handshake. Unbeknownst to the production team, he intends to stick a knife in his brother’s killer – live on air. The two central characters are played by Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt.
The director spoke about the film and the lessons he learned working on “The Invasion”, with PAUL FISCHER
Question: I guess this is such an interesting, very Irish story. And I’m wondering, as a German filmmaker, what the attraction of this was, and what unique sensibility you give it, as a non – you know, basically as an outsider, I guess.
Hirschbiegel: Well, I don’t know whether the German-ness of mine is – I think it helps that I’m not Irish. And you must say – it’s a northern Irish film. It’s very important, because it’s a northern Irish conflict, so it’s a northern Irish film, and made. I think that basically what helped is that I was not French, and certainly not northern Irish, being able to do this from a neutral perspective, right?
Question: What was the attraction of this story, for you?
Hirschbiegel: That it was not just a tale set in northern Ireland, but it has all the ingredients for a universal tale, really. And certain moments, it felt to me it was like a Greek drama, even. So, that intrigued me. And then, it’s – you know, all my films in the end are about the human condition, and about humanity. And I just – there’s so much in this, that – I think it – I felt after ten pages that it had my name written on it.
Question: I presume it was a relief for you to do something like this, after the experience you must have had with The Invasion. I mean, was it, for you, a way of relieving you of that experience, and doing an English language film that has – that is free from studio politics, but deals with issues that are of interest to you?
Hirschbiegel: Well, it’s so different, that it’s hard to describe the two films. One is genre. I mean, even that, you can strive to do – you know, be honest with the characters, and try to have humanity in that. But obvious this one, if you will, is more something about something that really matters, right? And so in a way, it was – yeah. In a way, it was a relief, to have a tale like that to be told, in northern Ireland, with northern Irish actors in original locations.
Question: Talk to me about the casting process for this. I know that when I interviewed Liam at Sundance, he’s resisted doing films that deal with northern Ireland, since – I mean, he’s already done — he’s done one. He really did resist doing any more. What persuaded him that this would be the right film for him to do?
Hirschbiegel: Well, the thing is, this one is not like all the other films, and probably the other scripts that he was offered. It is not just looking – it’s not like just looking backwards, you know? Re-telling tales of cruelty, incredible violence, and hence recreating anger in people. This is, I think, the first one that deals with the Troubles, but does that in a way that looks onward into the future, offering some kind of a perspective of – you know, possible ways how you can move off a situation like that, and move on. It’s a very good script. And then I think – well, maybe it helped a bit, too, that I directed it. [LAUGHTER] We met, talked, and we got along well. We had – we had a very good understanding, and it didn’t take him a second, really, to think about it. We just – we met in Milan, we spoke about it two hours, and then gave each other a good handshake and agreed that we would do it together.
Question: Jake Nesbitt has a very difficult role in this. I mean, Liam’s character is much more controlled, I guess. Emotionally controlled. What did James bring to the party?
Hirschbiegel: Well, James was already attached when I read the script. I knew that he wanted to do it. So as soon as I had said, ” Yes, I want to do this,” I flew over to Belfast, met the people there, had the first look, got an impression what it was, and then flew over to London to meet with Jimmy. And we just – yeah. Same as like with Liam. We just connected. We got along very well, we had a very good understanding about the whole thing. And so that was that. So, the whole casting was – it all came together within three weeks, really.
Question: Clearly geography plays a vital role in this. How much were you able to shoot on location, and what surprised you the most about working in northern Ireland?
Hirschbiegel: Originally, I intended to shoot all the Lurgan bits in Lurgan, but it turned out to be too complicated, because of transport for the crew, and the costs that the hotel would have meant. Because this is a very low budget operation. So, I wanted – I reduced it to certain scenes that needed to be shot in the original Lurgan. And then I chose other places that felt like Lurgan, but I shot them closer to Belfast. And I think that worked really well. Even – the people from northern Ireland didn’t really recognize all the places. They took certain bits for Lurgan which I’d shot somewhere else. And the experience was – it was just – it was plain wonderful, really. I was expecting a certain kind of friction, maybe. Trouble. Some kind of – you know, whatever. We were shooting a lot in the street, so I was just – I was ready for some kind of trouble, and there was nothing. The people supported us. They helped us. And we were shooting in this – in this Protestant neighborhood. And turned that whole – with their agreement, of course – turned that whole area into a Catholic neighborhood, including the painted curbstones. And people went with that. Like – because they knew what we were doing. And of course, it helps to have Liam Neeson on board, and Jimmy Nesbitt, of course, is quite some help if you shoot in northern Ireland. But it was really – it was a wonderful experience, to work with those people. They – all these people. The crew, as well as just people I spoke to in the streets. They appreciate the fact that I was not northern Irish, not English doing this. And they just took me in like a brother, I must say.
Question: As a filmmaker, how important was it for you to do as much research on the politics of the 1970s aspect of the conflict? I mean, was it that relevant for you to do that, or did you just focus on the script?
Hirschbiegel: No – for me, research of that kind, when it comes to political issues and sociopolitical issues, I have to do massive research. I tried to get a hold of as much as possible, which is, like, magazines of the time. It’s photographs, it’s news footage. And then I spoke to quite a bit of people asking them what it was like, what it felt like. Because I grew up in the same time, in the ’70s. And I had a certain – I have a certain experience, made certain experiences then. And for me, it wasn’t a particularly happy time. I wasn’t very much at ease with those ’70s years. I didn’t like it very much.
Hirschbiegel: Because it was something – you know, this whole movement, the ’68 movement, the hippies, something new had kind of settled down, or died down, and had been replace by rather dogmatic political groups, who fought viciously for what they wanted, but in a very dogmatic way. And on the other side, there were just people smoking weed, you know? And that was basically it. And I felt – I didn’t feel connected to either of these two factions that were basically there. Plus, the music was not very good. I didn’t like it very much, really. It felt stale. It felt somehow bleak and empty, and I asked people about it, and they said it was very much like that in Belfast, only ten times worse. That’s what they described.
Question: Why, then, did you want to become a filmmaker, given those experiences? What attracted you to filmmaking in the first place?
Hirschbiegel: Well, I didn’t ever really think about becoming a filmmaker. I always thought I would be an artist. And so I went to the art school and became an artist. First a painter, and then I moved more and more into doing room installations and performances, and then I founded a performance group and we toured and did performance festivals and theater festivals. And eventually, for some reason I thought that as part of doing all of that, it would be interesting to do a feature film, a narrative film. Because I realized that I’d used so many narrative elements in my pieces, that that would be only a logical step. So, eventually I wrote a script and before I knew it, I had sold it to one of the major TV stations in Germany. Made – convincing them that I would direct it as well. I shot that film, and while doing it and finishing it, I realized that that was really what I wanted to do. I was happy as an artist, but this was better. I felt much more at home doing a film with a lot of other people involved, than what I did before. That was that. That’s how I became a filmmaker, really. I never went to any school or something. I just kind of taught myself. Learning by doing.
Question: Downfall, I guess, was the film that kind of established you internationally.
Question: How surprised were you that yet another film about the demise of Hitler ended up reaching such a broad audience, and hitting such a nerve, both within and outside of Germany?
Hirschbiegel: Well, I didn’t expect this to happen, really. We knew it was a risk. And everybody in Germany told us, ” Guys, be careful. They are going to rip you apart if you follow up with this approach.” And we did it nevertheless. And the audience told us that we were right. Because it was tremendously successful in Germany. And then it just took off. Wherever we went with the film, the audience came, and people appreciated it. It’s just something that – I don’t know. It was pretty tense, really. I couldn’t really enjoy it. But of course, you’re proud.
Question: Now, it’s interesting, though, that a film about Hitler would lead you to Hollywood. How reticent were you, and how cynical were you, of dealing with the Hollywood establishment?
Hirschbiegel: I think once you start becoming cynical, you’re lost in that system. I think what you have to try to maintain – and that, of course, is easier for a European director, in a way – certain innocence, you know? The ability to say, ” Well, you know what? I walk away from this. It’s not really my thing. I don’t really need to do this, because I come from somewhere else, and that might be better, you know?” The freedom we have if we come over. On the other side, the disadvantage that we have is, we are not embedded in that system, so we kind of have to learn how the clocks tick over there. I mean, they had approached me after Experiment already, and I’d spoken about projects, so I was kind of prepared, in a way. It was not like that was my first experience with Hollywood. It was just after Downfall, after the Oscar nomination, that I did the rounds again. And then that time, I met, like, all the bosses of the studios. All the bosses of the departments, right? But it was not entirely new things.
Question: What did you learn about the politics of Hollywood?
Hirschbiegel: Well, it doesn’t really have so much to do with the politics of Hollywood. It was a thing that you just must, must do. We started shooting with a script that wasn’t ready. And that, of course, had to do with the politics of Hollywood. Nicole was only available at a certain window, so there was no way out, really. We had to do it. And then you think, ” Well, no, I can manage this. I can do this. I’ll just fix it while I shoot it.” But that didn’t quite work out.
Question: Have you learned from that experience? I mean, would you resist doing anything like that again?
Hirschbiegel: Next time, I would go, ” Guys, this script is not ready.” No matter that. I’d go, ” We cannot shoot this. This will not work.” I would say that.
Question: Are you still attached to this movie The School? Are you still working on that film?
Hirschbiegel: No, unfortunately the plug was pulled on that one, because to renew the rights would have cost, like – I think, two or 300, and another substantial amount to get the script right. So, they pulled the plug on that one. That’s not gonna happen. At least, not now.
Question: Are you working next still in Europe, or are you looking at another American project?
Hirschbiegel: Well, the thing is, I’m getting scripts from the States, just as well as I’m getting lots of scripts from the English, actually, which is an unusual thing. The English, if they don’t give it to English directors, they usually approach Americans or Canadians. It’s a very unusual thing that they offer English scripts to Germans. So it’s quite a privilege. So I’m getting stuff from there. And then, it seems I’m going to do a German-Italian co-production, which is a project developed in Germany. It’s about a young German man, who becomes a Mafia killer in Italy. It’s a true story. It’s a novel that was published in Germany.
Question: Do you have a title?
Hirschbiegel: It’s called something like ” Angel Face?” Or, ” Face of an Angel.” Because the guy looked so innocent, that everybody trusted him. And then what we are seriously talking about after that, with this English company of Nick Roke and Luke Roke, The Battle of Agincourt.
Question: Oh, wow. I’m a huge history buff.
Hirschbiegel: So you know about Agincourt, then.
Question: I do know about Agincourt, yes.
Hirschbiegel: Did you read the novel?
Question: No, but I’ve heard of it.
Hirschbiegel: I think it’s not out yet in the States, right? But it’s been published in England. It’s a beautiful piece of writing. The man definitely knows how to write.
Question: How close to history are you going to make sure this is?
Hirschbiegel: Well, the thing is, he – like, his writing is based on that wonderful book of Julie Barker, called Agincourt. He did tremendous research on all levels. Like, what were they eating? What was the weaponry like? How did they fight? How did they look? Who was who? She’s just a wonderful historian. And Cornbull befriended her, and used a lot of her information and put a very, very intense novel together that’s not having all the lords, and the king in the center of the thing, but a 19-year-old archer boy.
Question: Now, is Henry the Fifth going to be an integral character in this?
Hirschbiegel: He’s going to be there. Of course he’s going to be there.
Question: But some historical films of this nature are from the perspective of a fictional character. So, you are going to examine the film from both perspectives? From the English perspective?
Hirschbiegel: Well, it’s rather going to be from the English perspective, because it becomes too much of a history or television piece if you tell the French side a bit too much. There is a great French character in that novel, that will be there, of course. And then, the woman our young hero engages with, she is a French girl. But basically, what we see is the English side.
Question: And when do you hope to start that?
Hirschbiegel: Well, this is an expensive one. I don’t know. It depends on when we get the financing together. So, in my ideal world, I do Boy Soldier, that project that fell apart and led to this one, actually. To Five Minutes of Heaven. Then I do the Italian-German film, and after that I prep the big one.