Liam Neeson and German director Oliver Hirschbiegel in Belfast filming “Five Minutes of Heaven”

“It’s not very often that a director gets to knock around Liam Neeson,” Oliver Hirschbiegel, the German director of the Irish actor’s latest film “Five Minutes of Heaven” tells the Irish Voice and IrishCentral.

And it’s not very often you hear a director say something like that.

Hirschbiegel refers to one of the most dramatic scenes in the new political thriller about two men from opposite sides of the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland starring Northerners Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt.

The scene features a knock-down fight between Neeson’s Alistair Little, a real life Loyalist killer, and Nesbitt’s Joe Griffin, the real-life brother of a man that Neeson’s character has shot dead.

“Both Neeson and Nesbitt are trained street fighters. I had to get that sense of them going for it. A dirty, rough fall down fight,” Hirschbiegel said.

“We didn’t have the time to rehearse it and sometimes that’s an advantage because we just let them loose. It’s not very often that a director gets to knock around Liam Neeson. There were real bruises the day after we filmed that scene.”

“Five Minutes of Heaven” features a flashback to 1975, in which we see the then 16-year-old Little assassinate Griffin, a murder that is witnessed by his horrified and helpless 11-year-old-brother Joe. The impact of the callous shooting destroys Joe’s life, and his family never comes to terms with their loss.

Then the film moves from a powerful reenactment of those tragic, real events to a fictional but completely believable interpretation of what might happen when these two men finally come face to face for the first time 30 years later. 

German interest in Northern Ireland's legacy of Troubles

Oliver Hirschbiegel is the second European born director to helm a remarkably powerful film about the legacy of Troubles in Northern Ireland in recent years, and the first in many years to offer a glimmer of hope about the North’s future. The film deservedly won Best Screenplay and Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah earlier this year, and it is certain to appeal to a broader audience unfamiliar with the North and its troubled past.

But what attracted a German director famous for his films about his nation’s own troubled past to a country he had never visited before filming began?

“When I read the script it didn’t take me a long time to decide I wanted to direct it. It just dragged me in right from the first page and I just knew I had to do it,” he told the Irish Voice and IrishCentral.

“Of course it’s set in Northern Ireland but it’s a universal tale about the human condition. It’s about how we live now; it’s about what’s happening all over the world. I liked the characters too, although one is a murderer. There was no question about it for me. I needed to tell the story.”

Not taking sides

There were many surprises and discoveries made along the way. When Hirschbiegel did the research and talked to people, lots of things he did not know -- like what had really gone on, what people had done to each other -- astounded him. But he fought every impulse he had to take sides.

“From the beginning I decided I did not want to meet either man the film is based on. Instead I would send a messenger to either one of them when I had a question. They were surprisingly smart with their answers,” the director reveals.

“Whenever I thought I had solved a problem with one guy the other one had a point that would complicate it. It got to a situation where they were saying, ‘If he says that then I’ll say this.’ And you know what? They were always right. Both were always right.”

Hirschbiegel’s decision not to meet the two men kept him honest, he feels. 

“As soon as you meet someone you start getting emotionally involved. You become influenced. I didn’t want to have that happen to me and neither did Liam Neeson; we wanted to keep our perspective,” he says.

“But Jimmy Nesbitt had to meet Joe in order to really get him and all of his quick-wittedness and his funny moves and his Lurgan accent that nobody really understands. But I knew if I had met him he would have had the better cards, if you know what I mean.

“Aside from the fact that he is also the victim, I would have liked him. But I wanted to like them both. I wanted to be a fair story teller, not taking sides.”

Neeson on board

Nesbitt came on board to play the role of Joe first. He had met Neeson for the first time two months before they started filming together, and there was an immediate rapport between them. Soon after Neeson came back and said he wanted to do it too.

“With Neeson on board funding went from a low budget film shot on video to the kind of backing that lifted the TV movie into the big leagues. And I was very much interested in the Irish theme of the film,” says Hirschbiegel.

“I had never been to Belfast before but I immediately connected with it. I was expecting a dark, bleak city, but it was a bustling European harbor city with cafes and very good food. I liked everyone I met there.”

In reality the two men the film is based on refused point blank to meet face to face, because the wounds were simply still too raw, too hard to overcome. But that hard reality would have made for a very short film, and thankfully Hirschbiegel’s movie is based on very real suggestions about what might have happened if they had met made by the two men who know best.

“Whatever happens in the film was first suggested or commented on by the two men, Alistair and Joe. Joe said in the beginning, ‘I would just get out a knife and kill him,’” says Hirschbiegel.

“But the screenwriter Guy Hibbert (who won Best Screenplay at Sundance) would reply that that was not a scene he wanted to write, never mind that it would bring the film to an abrupt end.

“Hibbert would tell them that they’d have to give him something better to work with than knifing each other, and then they started coming up with suggestions. By doing this the two men started to get to know each other through intermediaries.

“Joe actually said he felt he had met him already, just by hearing his words, if not in person. And in a way that made him understand the other man much more than before.”

A German in Belfast

Being German in Belfast was actually helpful as Hirschbiegel directed the film, he says.

“If I’d been French I don’t know if I’d have been as well received there. Germans have our own share of atrocities and in this case we are absolutely neutral.

“I was neither Catholic nor Protestant, I’m not Christian. I was never pulled in any direction. I just saw them as people, which is the most important thing as a director. Make them transparent and get them to the screen in a way that people can connect, you know?”

In recent years high profile films about Northern Ireland like “Omagh,” “Hunger” and “Bloody Sunday” have all dealt with the past, reconstructing what went on in minute detail. The films show cruelty on both sides, but they also show collusion between English soldiers and Protestant paramilitaries, for instance. In the process, Hirschbiegel says, they can create and in a way they renew the anger.

“I think its necessary to do that but its dangerous as well because the solution is to draw a line, move on, look to the future. It’s the only way out of that spiral of violence,” he feels.

Hirschbiegel believes the contrast between his own background and the film he made was productive. The Germans, he says, are a radical people and there’s a certain coldness to them.

They are obsessed with perfection, and on the other side of that they have that craving for romance, they love classical music, poetry and the arts.

The "macho" Irish

Says Hirschbiegel, “The Irish are not like that. Northern Irish men are very macho, they drink a lot and they don’t bulls***, they play straight down the line. They have big, big hearts too. They’re not cold.

“But in violence someone who plays straight and gets angry they’re probably even more dangerous. The Germans have done quite a good job in dealing with their history, they had to, there was no way out, it was the worst crime in human history.

“In Northern Ireland -- a completely new place for me -- I found that the questions of my own cultural background allowed me to enter into Ireland’s. People now come up to me and say, ‘Man, you made a real Irish film. That’s cool, isn’t it?’”