Making a film about Roger Stone almost killed Christoffer Guldbrandsen.
Guldbrandsen told The Washington Post he had learned that Stone had secretly agreed to sell the exclusive rights to his story to a rival production company in the United States. Guldbrandsen and Stone had been working without such a contract, and Guldbrandsen said he — having remortgaged his home and raided retirement savings to help finance the film — was in no position to pay.
That evening, Guldbrandsen, who was then 48, stepped off a treadmill at a gym in Copenhagen. He began to feel dizzy, bent over and fell to the floor. Everything went dark.
“My heart stopped beating for three minutes,” Guldbrandsen said in an interview with The Post. “I was brought back to life by a doctor who was working out at the gym. Lucky me.”
The filmmaker said his doctors described stress as a factor in the heart attack, and he said the Stone project was the source of that stress.
After the heart attack, Guldbrandsen and director of photography Frederik Marbell convinced Stone to let them back into his inner circle for several more periods of filming over the following year. The rival company eventually abandoned its project, Guldbrandsen said.
The Danish team’s film, “A Storm Foretold,” follows Stone as he worked behind the scenes to aid Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election. The filmmakers shadowed Stone inside the Willard hotel in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, when pro-Trump rallies spilled into violence at the U.S. Capitol, and then as Stone lobbied for Trump to grant preemptive pardons to his high-profile allies and “the America First movement.”
In advance of its expected release later this year, reporters from The Post reviewed more than 20 hours of video filmed for the documentary. The footage was used as the basis for a detailed Post account about Stone’s activities during this period.
Stone declined requests for an interview. In response to questions, he said in an email that The Post’s reporting contained falsehoods, and he suggested that the video clips of him reviewed by The Post could be “deep fakes.” He did not provide specifics.
Stone said he had no involvement in illegal acts on Jan. 6. “Any claim, assertion or implication that I knew about, was involved in or condoned the illegal acts at the Capitol on Jan 6 is categorically false and there is no witness or document that proves otherwise,” he wrote.
Guldbrandsen trained as a journalist at universities in Denmark and the U.K. and previously made acclaimed films for Danish public television. Remarks by a Danish government minister captured in a documentary he made in 2003 caused a diplomatic incident with Germany. His disclosure in 2010 of a government leak was partly credited with causing the resignation of Denmark’s defense minister. Guldbrandsen’s work has won several prizes, and he was part of a team that won a Peabody Award in 2012 for films on poverty.
He told The Post that in 2018, he and his team set out to document the forces that were upending American politics and tearing through government under the Trump administration.
“Something is happening in your democracy that looks like a significant change and that we don’t understand,” Guldbrandsen said. “If the mightiest democracy undergoes these changes and is challenged in this way, how will it affect the rest of us?”
They began contacting people who could shed light on how “the essence of power in the Western Hemisphere had turned into a circus show.” Stone, a friend and adviser to Trump for more than three decades, seemed an obvious target.
During his nearly half-century career as a Republican operative, Stone has made himself synonymous with the type of populist showmanship and scorched-earth political attacks that propelled Trump’s 2016 bid for the White House, for which Stone served as an informal adviser.
On Sept. 7, 2018, the Danes emailed Stone, asking for an interview and outlining the basic details of their project.
“Tell me more,” Stone replied later that day. They exchanged additional emails, and Stone soon agreed to be interviewed.
The filmmakers attribute Stone’s willingness to their status as total outsiders. “I think that it was refreshing to him that we met him sort of like a blank slate,” Marbell said.
Guldbrandsen flew to meet Stone in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where Stone lives. The interview went well, and he decided Stone should be the focus of the film. But Stone was initially skeptical. He wanted to be paid for participating in the documentary, and was wary of the Danes’ plans for fly-on-the-wall footage, Guldbrandsen said.
“He didn’t want to do anything observational, where he lost control of the situation,” Guldbrandsen said. “He wanted interviews and staged situations, which of course from my perspective is very boring and uninteresting.”
Yet after what Guldbrandsen calls a “game of inches all the way through,” Stone relented.
The filmmakers explained to Stone that they could not pay him, particularly because funding they had received from a Danish public broadcaster came with ethical guidelines. Stone also yielded on the documentary’s observational format, accepting that he would have no say in how the movie turned out, they said.
Ultimately Stone said “that if the film was [only] 60 percent negative, he would be overjoyed,” Guldbrandsen said.
He and Marbell went on to spend days with Stone at his home and office and followed him across the country for fundraising events and speaking engagements. In November 2019, they were with him in Washington for his trial on felony charges that he impeded a congressional investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, a case brought by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Stone was convicted, but Trump pardoned him.
The filmmakers captured dozens of hours of footage as Stone strategized with Republican allies and tried to wield influence in conservative media and politics. They recorded Stone working to lobby Trump’s White House for pardons on behalf of convicted criminals, one of whom said he was prepared to pay Stone $100,000 for the advocacy. Such payments are legal.
Sometimes, the Danish team’s cameras caught clear views of the screens of Stone’s iPhone and computer, offering glimpses of his communications with associates. On other occasions, Stone’s side of calls with high-profile friends, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Infowars founder Alex Jones, were picked up on the filmmakers’ microphones.
The documentary is ultimately a story of “loyalty and betrayal,” Guldbrandsen said. “Loyalty toward country and friends — maybe even accomplices — and the betrayal of the same,” he said.
Stone stayed loyal to Trump even as Mueller’s investigators pressed him on whether he and Trump had discussed WikiLeaks’ release of hacked Democratic emails in 2016. Both denied they had, but witnesses contradicted them. Stone was filmed telling a friend in October 2019 that he could “easily” have avoided prosecution by cooperating with Mueller and making damaging allegations about Trump.
Yet after Jan. 6, 2021, Stone felt badly betrayed by Trump, who had rejected Stone’s plan for him to preemptively pardon Stone and others for trying to overturn the election. Though he is now once again a supporter, Stone denounced Trump in an Inauguration Day phone call with a friend, saying he should be impeached a second time and lambasting members of Trump’s family in an expletive-laden tirade. “F--- these people,” he said repeatedly.
The rant was one of many the filmmakers captured as Stone angrily revisited grudges against those who he perceived had wronged him over the years, including members of the Republican establishment. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has an “IQ of 70,” according to Stone, “plus he looks like Yertle the Turtle.” When Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) voted to impeach Trump after the insurrection, Stone blasted her father as a war criminal. “They should dig his a-- up and try him,” said Stone, perhaps forgetting that former vice president Richard B. Cheney is still alive. Spokesmen for McConnell and Cheney did not respond to requests for comment.
Stone took a more favorable view of Trump’s father, whose arrest at a 1927 Ku Klux Klan parade in New York he discussed with an associate. “I think he was connected to a lot of far-right groups. That doesn’t make him a bad person,” Stone said. “He was a great man, Fred Trump.”
During some unguarded moments, the filmmakers recorded Stone making potentially offensive or cynical remarks about minorities, nicknaming his staffer Enrique Alejandro “Mongoloid” and referring on one occasion to “the Negroes.” In one interaction, after describing himself to a Jewish supporter as a Zionist, Stone told a member of his entourage, “That ‘Zionist’ line always gets ’em.”
Alejandro told The Post it was an “affectionate nickname that has no racial connotation whatsoever.”
Stone did not respond to a question about those comments.
Over the span of more than two years, however, the filmmakers also saw what they call an “easygoing” and generous side to the notoriously ruthless operative. When Stone learned of the birth of Marbell’s daughter, he telephoned Marbell in Denmark to offer congratulations — and to suggest that the baby girl be named “Rogina.”
“There is a human behind all of these characters, and the public persona often is a Frankenstein creature that doesn’t exist,” Guldbrandsen said.
Like most documentary subjects, Guldbrandsen said, Stone presented a facade that had to be chipped away. “All observational documentary consists of 80 percent of people performing in front of the camera, not even intentionally, but just because we are aware of its existence,” he said. “So of course, Roger did that, and he is, of course, also a person who wants to control his messaging.”
The filmmakers recorded Stone exchanging routine off-the-record texts and calls with national media reporters, even as in other moments he echoed Trump’s complaints about fake news. (While being filmed on Jan. 6, 2021, Stone called The Post “the single worst newspaper in the country.”)
At times, Stone’s unpredictable behavior and disregard for scheduling left the Danes exasperated.
“We would agree to meet in Washington, D.C., because he was going to give a speech at a demonstration in front of the White House,” Guldbrandsen said. “Frederik and I would leave our families in the middle of the summer vacation and travel to D.C., and he would not turn up, and we would travel back again empty-handed.”
Despite Stone’s reputation as a cutthroat operator, the filmmakers said, they were surprised to learn he shied away from personal confrontation. Their film shows Stone to be a more complicated character than the one he has lodged in the popular imagination, at times revealing vulnerability behind the bravado.
Early in the production process, the filmmakers said, Stone placed himself in a potential bind by talking on camera to them about the charges Mueller had brought against him. The federal judge in that case had barred Stone from discussing it publicly — especially with the media — after a photograph of the judge beside what appeared to be crosshairs was posted to Stone’s Instagram account. “He was accidentally forced to trust us, and then learned that he could trust us,” Guldbrandsen said.
It meant that in the end, Stone’s only surviving demand was that the Danish team not publish anything before the gag order was lifted. “Because if we published, he would likely go to jail,” Guldbrandsen said, adding: “We were happy to accommodate.”