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INTERVIEW: Alex von Tunzelmann Historian and Screenwriter of Churchill

How does a historian become a screenwriter you ask? Alex von Tunzelmann, a London-based historian, explains the challenges of writing her first feature film, 'Churchill.'

Lisa McFadden is a screenwriter and essayist living in Los Angeles. Her short scripts have placed in the semis in the First Glance and Blue Cat competitions, and a 2nd Rounder at Austin Film Festival. Twitter: @CrispyPhoenix

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 Alex von Tunzelmann, writer of Churchill. Photo credit: Graeme Hunter Pictures © Salon Churchill Ltd

Alex von Tunzelmann, writer of Churchill. Photo credit: Graeme Hunter Pictures © Salon Churchill Ltd

Book and historical adaptations are in hot demand by Hollywood’s decision makers these days. If it’s true that we should write what we know, who better to tackle the subject matter of Winston Churchill than a historian? That’s probably what the producers of Churchill were thinking when they tapped Alex von Tunzelmann, a London-based historian, to write the script.

How does a historian become a screenwriter you ask? It was a natural evolution and a deep fondness for films for von Tunzelmann. Writing for The Guardian's “Reel History” where she analyzed the accuracy of historical movies helped guide her in the direction of screenwriting.

“I was extremely conscious of the compromises and choices that must be made whenever history is brought to the screen,” she said.

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Alex is the author of several bestselling 20th Century history books including Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire (2007), Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder and the Cold War in the Caribbean (2011) and Blood and Sand: Suez, Hungary, and Eisenhower’s Campaign for Peace (2016).

Film and television adaptations on the life and work of Winston Churchill are not scarce. However, given the extensiveness of his contributions, it seems both difficult and simple to choose an area to focus on during his lifetime.

“I wanted to focus specifically on [the] profound concern Churchill had for the men he would send to war; how a leader deals with that responsibility and guilt, especially when in the past it has gone badly wrong.”

Alex dug deep into the man behind the public persona to reveal the lesser-known side; the Great Prime Minister who remained utterly focused on his duty while coping with extreme doubt and severe depressive episodes at a moment when the fate of the world depended on him.

“My priority was to get to the character of a man who acknowledged his lifelong struggle with depression and yet who could inspire a nation; who lived with the guilt of his failures and yet could push through that to victory.”

She added, “He [Churchill] wrote beautifully about his depression. He referred to it as the ‘Black Dog.’ There were days where he couldn’t get out of bed, and yet he achieved so much. I thought this might be inspiring to people struggling with [similar] issues.”

 Churchill meets with Eisenhower, Brooke and Montgomery. Photo credit Graeme Hunter Pictures. © Salon Churchill Ltd

Churchill meets with Eisenhower, Brooke and Montgomery. Photo credit Graeme Hunter Pictures. © Salon Churchill Ltd

The film takes place as Churchill wrestles with his own demons and fears on the eve of D-Day, a pivotal Allied campaign he initially opposed that would prove to be the turning point of World War II. Also, given more attention than in most other films regarding the Prime Minister’s work, is his marriage to Clementine “Clemmie” Churchill. Here her presence as someone other than the ‘woman-behind-the-man’ is well-represented and beautifully acted by Miranda Richardson.

“The film does explore the strains that Churchill put on his marriage, and Clemmie, as in real life, is no silent ‘angel in the house,’ but a woman of remarkable character, holding strong opinions which were quite independent of her husband’s.”

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As you can imagine, the road from ideas and research to completed shooting draft was no quick path. Von Tunzelmann began writing the script in 2013. “My apartment was covered in index cards written in different colored Sharpees all across the room.” Over time as she reached completion of the script, the index cards slowly disappeared and her “apartment returned to normal,” she added laughing.

As far as building a habit or routine we agreed that nothing ever goes as planned. “I worked in the library a regular day nine-to-five, but I did slip from that sometimes waking at three a.m. with the answer and needing to write that down.”

If you would like to catch up on von Tunzelmann’s contributions to The Guardian’s “Reel History,” her pieces are collected in the 2015 book Reel History: The World According to the Movies. Her writing can also be seen on the Netflix drama Medici: Masters of Florence. Churchill is Alex’s first feature.

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