Danish filmmaker Cristoffer Guldbrandsen, director of the documentary A Storm Foretold, has been on a journey into the heart of darkness of American politics.
His voyage over several years put him in close contact with Trump whisperer Roger Stone, landed him in the middle of the Select Congressional Committee’s investigation into the January 6 insurrection, and, at one point, almost cost him his life.
More from Deadline
Guldbrandsen says his mission began with a desire to understand what was going on in the U.S., formerly a paragon of democratic ideals that had tilted dangerously toward nationalism and authoritarianism under President Trump.
“That was my motivation was to try to understand it, to charge at it,” he tells Deadline. “The knee-jerk reaction was, ‘What is going on with the Americans?’ It’s obviously not my fight. I’m not a part of it, but there’s no question of what is going on in the States in terms of national presidential politics — that affects every modern democracy in the world.”
Who better to accompany, if you want to understand the malevolent shift in our political culture, than Stone? The self-described political dirty trickster groomed Trump as a potential political candidate for decades. When Trump finally decided to run for president in 2015, Stone served as his adviser (he was eventually fired from that position, but no relationship with Trump ends so long as your fealty to him remains unquestioned). Among other things, Stone allegedly played an intermediary role in 2016 between Russian intelligence agents who hacked Hillary Clinton’s private email server and Wikileaks, which disseminated the damaging content.
To get in with Stone, Guldbrandsen says all he had to do was ask.
“I had introduced myself as a Danish filmmaker,” Guldbrandsen says in voiceover in the film, “and Roger Stone had immediately accepted.”
By 2018 the director was in Florida where Stone lives, observing the man up close. He filmed him in what passed for moments of leisure – Stone preparing stiff cocktails for himself and puffing on cigars as fat as jumbo hot dogs. He was there during Stone speeches and meetings with like-minded (mostly white, inevitably) Trump die-hards. He recorded as Stone spoke in violent and apocalyptic terms about what he claimed was the existential threat to America posed by the left. And his camera rolled as Stone spent time with Joe Biggs, a leader of the Proud Boys, establishing visual proof of the connection between Stone and the neo-fascist group that would spearhead the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
“As it turns out, as the story progresses, some of the people that Roger hangs out with turn out to be violent and actually participate, of course eventually in January 6th, and also in the protests leading up to January 6th,” Guldbrandsen says. “Roger Stone is not personally violent, but the people that he is using this violent rhetoric and encouraging violence to — they are violent. And I think that’s where it gets very disturbing.”
(We spoke with Guldbrandsen at the Camden International Film Festival in Maine, where A Storm Foretold was set to make its U.S. premiere on Saturday. Alas, another storm — Hurricane Lee, by then a post-tropical cyclone — knocked out power to the venue where the screening was to happen, and the director’s premiere had to be canceled. Guldbrandsen says he will work on an alternative plan for the American debut).
About 35 minutes into the film (I saw it on a screener), the narrative takes a fateful turn: Stone abruptly pulls out of the project.
“After we’d filmed for a year… he wanted $50,000 to participate in the film,” Guldbrandsen tells Deadline. “I said no. And then… he turned up with another film crew and had sold the rights exclusively behind my back to them. I have never experienced anything as cynical as that. So, working with him was experiencing all the extremes you can come across, both in terms of [him] being open to collaboration, but also in the level of betrayal I experienced.”
Crestfallen, the filmmaker went back home to Denmark, the documentary project apparently moribund. Shortly thereafter, while at a gym, he suffered a near fatal heart attack. A doctor who happened to be working out at the same time performed CPR on Guldbrandsen. With the help of a defibrillator, he was resuscitated. His medical team would attribute the heart attack to stress brought on by the Stone project.
Stone, in the meantime, faced stressors of his own. He was indicted as part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election and convicted in late 2019 of a variety of charges including witness tampering, obstructing an official proceeding, and making false statements. Never having turned on Trump, however, he could count on the president’s help, who duly commuted Stone’s sentence days before Stone was to report to prison. Trump later handed him a full pardon.
Stone’s other documentary project withered away, and he let Guldbrandsen back in. The director returned in time to capture Stone laying the groundwork for how Trump would respond if he lost reelection in 2020.
He filmed Stone saying, “I really do suspect [the election] will still be up in the air [as final returns come in]. When that happens, the key thing to do is to claim victory. Possession is nine-tenths of the law.”
He also captured Stone saying (in jest?), “Fuck the voting, let’s get right to the violence. We’ll have to start smashing pumpkins if you know what I mean.”
Both of those clips ended up being played as exhibits in the House Select Committee inquiry into the January 6 insurrection. Few if any documentary filmmakers have ever found their work incorporated into such a momentous governmental investigation.
“We were subpoenaed by the January 6th committee. We had FBI knocking on our door in Copenhagen,” the director recalls, adding that he felt ambivalent about being drawn into the high-stakes situation. “I started out in journalism and then I ended up in making films. So, it was a mixed experience because you want to stay in your own lane as a journalist, but as a filmmaker, I think you move into the realm of being an artist where your personal values make all these decisions more complicated and nuanced. But we ended up in Congress in this historic hearing room [where the Watergate hearings were held], and one of our clips was used while a member of the committee announced, to our pictures, that Donald Trump would be subpoenaed by the January 6 committee.”
He adds, “To be honest, I had an impulse of pride about it, and seeing it as an achievement, but also a complication because I want the film really not to be partisan. I think what’s going on in America and what the film observes and describes is actually nonpartisan. I have no opinions about Republican policies or Democrat policies. I really tried to narrow it to being about democracy and the rule of law and all the basic, fundamental pillars that uphold a well-functioning modern democracy.”
Former Pres. Trump faces four felony charges in connection with the Jan. 6 insurrection. Stone has not been indicted in that matter, but A Storm Foretold shows him – leading up to the insurrection — in close contact with figures who took central roles in the assault, including Stewart Rhodes, head of the far-right Oath Keepers who was sentenced in May to 18 years in prison for seditious conspiracy over his involvement in January 6, and Enrique Tarrio, leader of the Proud Boys, who was sentenced earlier this month to 22 years in federal prison for his role in the attack.
Tarrio, as seen in A Storm Foretold, served as a volunteer assistant to Stone in the period before the insurrection.
“[Stone] was the link between the Proud Boys and the White House and Trump,” Guldbrandsen asserts. “That’s the closest you can get to what role he [occupied], with the information we have now.”
Does Stone merit indictment?
“I didn’t make this film for him to be charged,” Guldbrandsen says. “I think the primary function of this film, I hope — apart from the cinematic qualities — it’s a question of enabling the people who watch the film of making up their own minds, drawing their own conclusions.”
A deal for U.S. distribution of A Storm Foretold remains a work in progress. With Trump running again for president in 2024, the film could not be more timely or important. Trump has threatened to “terminate” parts of the Constitution, and he has said if elected he would pardon a “large portion” of convicted January 6 rioters.
“The ‘Storm Foretold’ of the title is because these things that we have seen happen in the last couple of years, at least to me, exceeded anything I could imagine would happen in the United States,” Guldbrandsen observes. “And yet everything that happened, everything they did, they said they would do again and again, before they did it.”
Best of Deadline