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Inspired by a true story, Five Minutes of Heaven touches on the deepest aspects of human nature, the complex emotional and psychological storms of guilt, revenge, forgiveness and redemption. And it came about by chance.

In 1975 Belfast, Alistair Little (Mark Davison) is a 17 year old leader of a British loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force cell; he and his gang are given the go ahead to kill Jim Griffin (Gerard Jordan) a young Catholic shipyard worker who refuses to give up his job for a Protestant - as a reprisal and a warning. Jim’s 11 year old brother Joe (Kevin O’Neill) watches the tragic event, which destroys the lives of the whole family. Some 30 years later a TV program has arranged a meeting between the grown up and conflicted Joe (James Nesbitt) and the tortured Alistair (Liam Neeson), to be broadcast live. But for the two men, this truth and reconciliation approach is a double edged sword. Alistair has spent 12 years in jail for the crime and Joe feels incapable of forgiveness.

"a chance meeting"

It was a chance meeting that triggered the idea for Five Minutes of Heaven. Producer Eoin O’Callaghan’s wife was working in Holloway Prison researching a stage play and had encountered Alistair Little. He had served time in prison for a murder he committed when he was a young man. At the time Alistair was working with prison groups on conflict resolution that entailed asking difficult questions and inviting individuals to confront their past. He did this by primarily owning up to his own past and accepting responsibility. “My wife insisted I meet this man,” says O’Callaghan.

The next step was to find a well versed writer who understood the sensitivities of approaching a project of this kind. “Guy Hibbert was the obvious choice for screenwriter,” says O’Callaghan. “We wanted someone who was an expert in the field of telling stories about real people. Guy is a writer I had admired for many years, particularly for his work on Pete Travis’ Omagh, which he wrote over a long period of time with the real-life victims, gently recording their stories. When Guy was approached, he was at first reluctant to go back to face the pain of Northern Ireland. But I felt he was the right person to tackle the difficult and sensitive issues surrounding the film which, it has to be remembered, is essentially a fictional story albeit inspired by two real lives.

Hibbert has written many films based on interviews with real people: the victims of the Omagh bombing; victims of extreme abuse in No Child of Mine and May 33rd. He had also based films on interviews with snipers in the Bosnian war – Shot Through The Heart - and a project looking at the experience of boy soldiers in Sierra Leone.

“With Five Minutes of Heaven we thought that it was a good starting point to visit Alistair,” says producer O’Callaghan. Alistair told us his story following which we decided to contact Joe Griffin, the brother of the man he had killed 33 years earlier. Along with Stephen Wright, an executive producer for the BBC and Don Mullan, our associate producer, who had worked with the families on Bloody Sunday and Omagh, we made contact with Joe and the film began to take shape.”

"to look at the connections"

Guy Hibbert takes up the story – “The BBC approached me after they’d seen Omagh. They were working on a project exploring some of the issues surrounding Northern Ireland’s past and the challenges of the future. My idea was to look at the connections, no matter how difficult, between the victim and the perpetrator and vice versa, and so a two year process of separate interviews and discussions Alistair and Joe began.”

At the outset, Hibbert had to tackle the question of how he would write their stories and represent their complex feelings about each other. “I decided that the first act of the script would be an accurate account of that evening in 1975 in which Alistair killed Joe’s brother,” says Hibbert. “After that, we would explore completely new territory. The rest of the story would be based on a fictional idea: what would happen if they agreed to meet each other? And so, collaborating with them, I developed the story from there.

“I would travel from London to Belfast and meet Joe on one day and Alistair on the next day, spending several hours with each man. I did this journey many times over two years. The method I used was to ask Joe and Alistair how they thought they would react to each other in any given situation that I presented to them. Then I would propose other possible reactions they might have, using the concept of a ‘fictional Joe’ and a ‘fictional Alistair’. So we had two possible scenarios: how the ‘real’ character might react and how the ‘fictional’ character might react.

“When we all felt that we had exhausted our thoughts and ideas, I left them in peace, still having never met each other, and wrote the script. I then came back and sat down with each man, separately, and read them my script. Each session took about five hours. This was the first time that either had seen what I had written about them. Not only that, but also what I had written about the other. Joe, for the first time, was reading what Alistair thought – and vice versa. I repeated this reading process so that they could properly absorb the script. I took their comments on board and came back to them several times with rewrites.”

"emotional journey"

During this process, Hibbert pushed Joe and Alistair to remember painstaking (and painful) details of the night of the killing and to face tough questions about themselves. They went on this emotional journey with Hibbert, with what he regards as: “the greatest of courage and dignity.”

Eoin O’Callaghan describes how extensive Hibbert’s research was with the real Alistair and Joe. “The reason the film took four years to come together was because Guy works fastidiously. He wanted to be sure Joe and Alistair would approve what he had written and were completely on board. Only when we were at the stage where they were comfortable that their story, part real, part fictional was being told properly, honestly and purposefully, did we move forward.”

“At this point,” says O’Callaghan, “we had some very good luck. A project that Guy Hibbert and award-winning German director Oliver Hirschbiegel had been working on was postponed. Oliver had a three-month gap in his schedule. Simultaneously, Liam Neeson had just been shown the script by James Nesbitt. Liam had a three-week gap in filming. If we could meet this gap, and if Oliver was on board, Neeson would do it. It meant prepping the production in double quick time and getting the appropriate financial backing.”

Published March 18, 2010

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