Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, the drama imagines what a meeting might have been like between two men decades after one killed the other’s brother in Lurgan, Co. Armagh, during a time when the region was beset by sectarian violence.
Ballymena-born Liam Neeson plays Alistair Little, a Protestant who served 12 years in prison for killing a 19-year-old Catholic man in 1975 when he himself was 16, but who then went on to work with prison groups on conflict resolution. James Nesbitt, who was raised in Broughshane and Coleraine, portrays Joe Griffin, the victim’s brother, who is still trying to cope with the slaying he witnessed when he was 11.
Hibbert said the idea to write a film about a fictionalized summit between the two men occurred to him after he heard they were invited to take part in a meeting to be presided over by South African apartheid activist Desmond Tutu for a BBC documentary about reconciliation, but Joe declined.
“Joe said, ‘If I’m ever in a room with that man [meaning Little] I would kill him,'” the British screenwriter told the Irish Echo in a recent phone interview. “So, I thought if there was any story to be told about whether truce or reconciliation was possible in Northern Ireland, then this was the story. Because, obviously, Joe, after 33 years, was feeling as intense . . . as if it had happened yesterday. I then set about tracking down Alistair and Joe.”
With the help of civil rights activist and media producer Don Mullan, a Derry native who previously worked on the Irish conflict-themed films, “Omagh” and “Bloody Sunday,” Hibbert was able to reach out to Little and Griffin and tell them about his idea to make their story into a film. He told them that he intended to set the first act of the film in 1975, and then segue into a “what-if” scenario, regarding a meeting with Bishop Tutu.
“[I asked them] ‘What if you had agreed to go to this meeting with Bishop Tutu for this documentary? What would you have done?'” the screenwriter said. “So, I worked with the two guys over a period of two years, first of all, interviewing them, and then I went away and wrote the script and then for each re-write of the script, I sat in a room with them and read the script out to them — always separately. I would meet Joe on a Monday and Alistair on Tuesday. I would talk to them separately and I would read the script out to them and anything they weren’t happy with and any changes they wanted to make, I would then make those changes and negotiate the changes with them . . . It was a collaboration between the three of us, although Joe and Alistair, of course, were never in the same room.”
Hibbert admitted he suffered some anxiety as he prepared to present his script to the two men, who have since attended screenings of the film in separate locations.
“Probably the most terrifying moment of the entire process was sitting down with them,” Hibbert recalled. “I chose a hotel room, somewhere neutral . . . It was somewhere they could hit me if they wanted to. What I had feared most was letting them down because they had spent so much time going through this single, most terrifying or traumatic moment in their lives and then trusting me with telling the story . . . To get it right was the most important thing.”
The scribe went on to say he hopes both men, who were remarkably candid throughout the process, will be able to make sense of what happened in the past now that Griffin has talked about his feelings at length for the first time and entered counseling, and Little has been made aware of just how devastated and angry Griffin remained for so many years. Hibbert also said Little and Griffin told him they were glad to have participated in the project, regardless of how painful it might have been, and satisfied with the finished product.
“Five Minutes of Heaven,” which earned awards for writing and directing when it screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, opens in New York Friday.