Into the Storm (2009): Starring Brendan Gleeson as Churchill and Janet McTeer as his Wife

For five years, Winston Churchill played the single most important role in thwarting the Nazis during WWII, his intrepid leadership and rhetoric inspiring millions of Britons and other members of the free world to fight Hitler’s Germany to the bitter end.

Following the Allies’ success, Britain went to the polls in 1945 to decide their post-war prime minister and ruling party, taking nearly a month to tally all the votes.  Incumbent Prime Minister Churchill went on holiday to France with his wife and daughter in anticipation of the election results. 

The HBO drama INTO THE STORM uses that time as a framework for the story, beginning as Churchill awaits his fate, and looks back at the war years as he heroically guided his beleaguered nation through this difficult and challenging period.
Continuing the story told in HBO’s Emmy winner “The Gathering Storm,” INTO THE STORM is set against the backdrop of World War II and offers an intimate look at the making of a nation’s hero, whose prowess as a great wartime leader ultimately undermined his political career and threatened his marriage to his lifelong supporter, Clemmie.

Starring Brendan Gleeson (the “Harry Potter” series; Golden Globe nominee for “In Bruges”) and Janet McTeer (HBO’s “As You Like It” and “Five Days”; Oscar nominee for “Tumbleweeds”), INTO THE STORM was directed by Thaddeus O’Sullivan (“Proof 2,” “December Bride”) and written by Hugh Whitemore (HBO’s “My House in Umbria”; Emmy and WGA winner for HBO’s “The Gathering Storm”).  The film also stars Len Cariou (“Flags of Our Fathers”) as FDR, James D’Arcy (“Master and Commander:  The Far Side of the World”), Iain Glen (“Kingdom of Heaven”) and Patrick Malahide (HBO’s “Elizabeth” and “Five Days”).

HBO Films presents in association with BBC a Scott Free Production and a Rainmark Films Production of a Thaddeus O’Sullivan Film.  Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, David W. Zucker and David M. Thompson executive produce; Frank Doelger, Tracey Scoffield, Julie Payne and Ann Wingate produce.

One of the most charismatic wartime leaders in history, Churchill was widely considered a visionary.  Often controversial, frequently antagonistic and notably eloquent, he enjoyed a remarkably long career spanning more than 50 years.  He became British Prime Minister at the onset of World War II and is regarded as one of the most successful and brilliant PMs Britain has ever had.  INTO THE STORM is the story of how his premiership surprisingly came to an end.

“This film’s had a very long history,” says producer Frank Doelger.  “Following the enormous success of ‘The Gathering Storm,’ it became very clear to us that Winston Churchill is as fascinating today as he was to his contemporaries, and we all felt that, having mined one section of his life to great success, perhaps we could take a look at the war years and see if there was a way to examine Churchill’s life, saying something about his life and something about the man, that has never been done before.”

The filmmakers were intrigued by the fact that Churchill won the Second World War and was voted out of office eight weeks later.  Here was a political figure who seemed to be the perfect man for the job at the perfect time, but somehow the English public sensed that once the job had been done, perhaps there wasn’t a role for him and he was ousted.  It seemed that a lot of the qualities that made Churchill a great war leader came into question with his role as a peacetime leader.

The challenge of mining all this information on the pre-war and post-war Churchill fell to Emmy-winning screenwriter, Hugh Whitemore, who wrote “The Gathering Storm.”  “Churchill interests me,” explains Whitemore.  “And the more I read and write about him, the more fascinating and complicated and attractive he seems as a character.  Despite his stubbornness and selfishness, he was also compassionate and generous.  I really wanted to show him as a human being, to show him flawed, to give him a sort of depth and sympathy.”

While the war and world events were key elements in Churchill’s political life, his wife, Clemmie, was the center of his emotional life.  INTO THE STORM looks at the interesting dynamic between the couple who spent less and less time together as the war proceeded, showing how the war years affected their marriage and the rest of Churchill’s personal life.

Director Thaddeus O’Sullivan says his Irish upbringing gave him a unique approach to the famous figure, since Ireland is independent of Britain and maintained neutrality throughout WWII.  “Growing up in Ireland, I had a different view of Churchill, so it was necessary for me to stand back and reevaluate my thoughts.  The more I looked into the man, the more interesting the project became for me.”

O’Sullivan’s new appreciation of Churchill, coupled with his admiration for Whitemore’s script, convinced him he wanted to helm the film.  “Hugh’s script instinctively defined the characters through contrasts in their nature and their behavior and the unpredictability of their actions,” he notes.  “His ability as a dramatist allows him to put the contradictions together and make an amazing story out of it.”

Like O’Sullivan, actor Brendan Gleeson recognized the cultural differences between his own upbringing in Southern Ireland and those of the man he was asked to portray.  “It was a very interesting challenge,” explains Gleeson.  “I had to ask myself if it was possible, or was it a bridge too far to cross with the age difference and the accent and the voice?”

Despite his self-admitted terror, Gleeson tackled the camera test with gusto and determination, thoroughly enjoying himself in the process, noting, “I found the camera test so interesting dramatically that I thought, ‘It’s impossible not to do this, if it arises.  It’s too interesting an opportunity and too fascinating a challenge to turn it down.’ ”

Says producer Tracey Scoffield, “Clemmie was the most significant role to cast next to Churchill.  Several aspects had to be considered.  We were looking for someone who could match him in terms of age and in terms of strength – strength of ability, as well as strength of character.  Another significant factor was finding someone who would be believable in period detail.  The way Janet looks, the way she moves and, of course, the way she speaks are perfect for this type of drama.”

When asked about taking on the role of Clementine Churchill, Janet McTeer cites a preference for playing real-life characters to fictitious ones, saying, “It’s much more fun than playing an imaginary character, because with all the research and all the personal history, it’s lots of things you wouldn’t necessarily think of.”

McTeer immersed herself in two books by Lady Mary Soames, the Churchills’ daughter:  “Speaking for Themselves,” a collection of letters her famous parents wrote to each other over the years, and a book about Clementine.  “You just try to get into their heads really,” says McTeer.  “You try to work out what they really thought about each other, how they really felt…what she was like as a person and how she sounded.  You look at the photographs, and see all the choices she made in the way she looked and how she chose to dress herself and do her hair, and psychologically what that all means, or what you can infer from that.”

McTeer particularly appreciated the fact that Clemmie was not just “the quiet little woman behind the man.”  On the contrary, she was strong, opinionated and outspoken. “She had very strong political feelings and beliefs,” explains McTeer.  “She was a woman who hugely believed in duty – duty to your country, duty to your husband, duty to your friends.  She did not shy away from telling Winston when he was wrong or if he was making a mistake or missing something.  She wasn’t afraid to fight with him.”

In addition to showing Churchill’s personal life, the filmmakers gravitated to his speeches, not just the content and his great facility for words, but the rhythm and cadence with which they were delivered, as if spoken by a great actor.  His uncanny ability as a speechwriter and speech maker revealed much about his character and suited his role as a wartime leader.  Like an actor on the world’s stage, Churchill played his part, delivering his well-written lines for all to hear.  His speeches galvanized a nation and changed the course of history.

Churchill remains one of the most-referenced politicians of modern times.  His speeches are constantly quoted, new books are still being written about him, and documentaries continue to be made.  He remains the most popular Prime Minister in Britain.  He is clearly someone people admire because of his honesty, his oratory and his heroism.

Says Whitemore, “I, personally, respond to his love of words and love of England.  He is a very English hero and we wanted to celebrate that in our film.”

The task of recreating wartime and post-war England fell to Academy Award-winning production designer Luciana Arrighi, who cut her Churchillian teeth on HBO’s Emmy winning film “The Gathering Storm.”  Unable to film in the actual buildings depicted in the story, Arrighi began her work by spending days in the Imperial War Museum, where she viewed numerous documentaries for ideas.  Determined to make the production as authentic as possible, she received immeasurable help from Lady Mary Soames, Churchill’s daughter, who was available for consultations and questions and shared her vivid memories of the various locations with the filmmakers.  Arrighi’s production design team had to recreate such places as 10 Downing Street, Buckingham Palace, the War Cabinet Rooms, Greenwich, Chequers, the House of Commons, and the Treasury Building’s annex, used as a bomb shelter for Churchill and his family, as well as FDR’s White House, the Livadia Palace where the Yalta Conference was held and the French chateau where Winston and Clemmie awaited the election results.

Instead of building most of the interiors on studio sets, Arrighi believes actors benefit from working in existing buildings that offer a palpable sense of real locations steeped in tradition and decorum, which is not possible with breakaway plywood walls and the casual atmosphere of a soundstage.   One of her most difficult challenges was recreating the chateau in France on the Spanish border.  As luck would have it, her locations department found a Spanish fortress-looking mansion in Frome, England, and Arrighi set about adorning with hints of French décor, including blue striped awnings, brightly colored props and accessories, and a garden filled with Matisse colors.  The beach scenes were shot at another location and seamlessly matched in the editing room to the French chateau set.