On set for the making of The Truth Commissioner

Belfast author David Park's hit 2008 novel The Truth Commissioner has been adapted into a film starring Roger Allam, Sean McGinley and Conleth Hill. Shot on location throughout the north, David Roy visited the set to speak to the cast and crew of this post-Troubles drama

David Roy
25 February, 2016 01:00

IT'S late March 2015 and shooting is under way on BT9 Films' adaptation of David Park's acclaimed novel The Truth Commissioner, a slow-burning tale of intrigue involving a fictional post-Troubles truth and reconciliation filmed in Belfast, Derry and Dublin.

The Irish News visits the production in action at a south Belfast grammar school, one wing of which has been painstakingly transformed into the interior offices of Truth Commission HQ.

In a nearby playground, the film crew are set up for an exterior scene: group of extras brandishing TV cameras, digital SLRs, dictaphones, notepads and other journalistic paraphernalia loiter outside the school gymnasium: a mock press pack, lying in wait for as-yet-unseen prey.

The director calls 'Action'. Suddenly, the gym doors burst open and the pack pounce – on actor Sean McGinley (Love/Hate, Republic of Doyle), dressed in the inoffensive monotone garb of a politician, as he emerges into a barrage of gabbled questions and strobing camera flashes.

A minder ploughs a shocked looking McGinley's path through the scrum, bundling him into a waiting car which speeds off down a service alley.

The shot is declared a success and The Truth Commissioner's transition from page to screen comes that much closer to completion.

The Declan Recks-directed drama stars Roger Allam (The Thick of It) as titular 'truth czar' Henry Stanfield, a career diplomat parachuted into Belfast by the government and tasked with giving closure to the hundreds of families in the north still seeking answers about dead or disappeared loved ones.

Of Anglo-Irish extraction himself, Stanfield's job is hampered by players on all sides of the still delicate post-Troubles situation; the police, British intelligence and a power-sharing Sinn Fein headed by 'former combatant' Francis Gilroy (McGinley) are all nervous about what this South Africa-styled probing of past atrocities might unearth.

Gilroy in particular finds his status as a peacemaking constitutional nationalist politico under threat from Stanfield's investigation into a 'disappeared' Belfast teen, much to the chagrin of party colleague John Rafferty (Conleth Hill) and security forces keen to maintain the fragile peace.

While there may be some similarities between this former IRA man and certain real life senior Sinn Fein figures, it seems that Co Donegal native Sean McGinley did not draw on them as inspiration for the part:

"No, absolutely not," said the Dublin-based performer, who features alongside Brid Brennan, Ian McElhinney, Tom Goodman Hill and Barry Ward, during a break in filming.

"I've stuck to the script and steered clear of any connections like that, because I think it would reduce the story. It would be an unnecessary distraction."

According to screenwriter Eoin O'Callaghan (Five Minutes of Heaven), condensing the multiple perspectives of David Park's 2008 novel into a tight 90-minute screenplay was a big challenge.

"It was pretty difficult, especially because the impulse of the film is to give the principle role to the eponymous hero," he told me.

"The book is quite a symphonic novel. It's a real ensemble piece with four individuals who are affected and connected by an incident in history, so you need to give them some equivalence.

"To condense all that into something rather more compact while maintaining it as a thriller was the trick, and it did take a long time to write as a result.

"I was a bit worried about the actors going off and reading the book, actually – I kept thinking they'd come back with my script and go 'who wrote this piece of trash?'"

Happily, it seems author David Park gave the film-makers his seal of approval early on in adaptation process.

"He's such a gracious man," said O'Callaghan of the Belfast-born author's reaction to the script.

"He told us not to worry about changing things and he actually came to visit us when we were shooting up at Stormont.

"I think he was just really thrilled to see his book being made into a film."

"I loved the novel," said Roger Allam when asked about what drew him to the role of Henry Stanfield's troubled Troubles truth-seeker.

"It's a very involving, intriguing, exciting and melancholy story. Eoin O'Callaghan's film script necessarily shortens and simplifies the novel but I loved them both.

"Also, it was a chance to play a 'leading man' kind part – a Carey Grant part, if you will."

Yet, with his fondness for the 'company' of eastern European prostitutes and strained relationship with his angrily estranged Belfast-based daughter, Henry Stanfield is not exactly your typical 'white knight'.

Indeed, he seriously contemplates resigning his role when potential cost of 'the truth' becomes dangerously high for him personally.

"It's high stakes drama," enthused McGinley, who is of the opinion that The Truth Commissioner's story is resonant enough to draw in even viewers with only a limited understanding of the Troubles.

"It's almost Shakespearean in some ways, in terms of the size of the ideas and all that's at stake for the present and the future of the whole country.

"We're dealing with characters who have a lot of responsibility and power, but it reduces down to the human drama of the decisions that people make.

"It's definitely a bit of thriller."

According to director Declan Recks (Eden, Pure Mule, Scup) it seems that The Truth Commissioner may not have made it to the screen at all without the unswerving support of BBC Northern Ireland, who helped fund the production along with Northern Ireland Screen, the Irish Film Board and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.

"BBC Northern Ireland insisted on being involved even after the BBC in London passed," he revealed.

"They loved the fact we had the rights to the novel and were determined that it be a film."

Was it worth the struggle? Almost a year on from our set visit, viewers are finally about to discover the truth about The Truth Commissioner.

:: The Truth Commissioner is scheduled to be broadcast on Sunday March 13 at 9pm on BBC Two NI (details correct at time of press) and is in Irish cinemas, including QFT Belfast, from Friday February 26. See for details.

25 February, 2016 01:00 Arts