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Behind the scenes: Jackboots on Whitehall

churchill puppetJackboots on Whitehall has been called the "British Team America," countless times for its use of puppets, but there's a lot more to the film than that.

It gives us an alternative World War II scenario, in which the Nazis managed to invade Britain. The debut writer/directors, brothers Ed (25) and Rory McHenry (22), have managed to entice an impressive array of stars into lending their voices to the film, including Ewan MacGregor, Rosamund Pike and Alan Cumming as a very camp Hitler.

The production is something of a family effort, as the brothers' dad, David McHenry is on production design (his credits include Love and Death on Long Island (1997) and Becoming Jane (2007) among much TV work), their two younger brothers Dom and Jack are helping with the puppets and mum, actress Maureen Bennett is often on set.

The movie is being shot at the Three Mills Studio in Bow, East London. When I visited the set last month, the crew were pretty busy blowing up Hadrian's Wall, the site of a spectacular battle between the Brits - led by MacGregor's Chris, a farmer with exceptionally large hands - and the Nazis, who are copying the invasion tactics of the Romans.

Producer Karl Richards gave us a tour of the set and workshops, before we got the chance to sit down with the McHenry brothers. The sets are full of background details that will reward close watching, as famous London streets get a German-style makeover, whereas Scotland is portrayed as a mysterious, tribal nation that provides the backdrop to a showdown with the Nazis.

chris and co

Props include handmade tanks and period cars, and the costumes have been intricately sewn by the costume department to avoid large seams showing up on the small-size outfits. The crew aren't keen on having too much revealed about the puppets, but the emphasis is "not making a joke about these being puppets. You believe it's about real people," as co-creator, Ed, puts it.


Firstly, though, a chat with Karl about the film:

Netribution: What was your reaction to the project?

Karl: I came onto the project quite late. The director/writers had been trying to make this film for about 3-4 years. It came to my desk around the start of the year, probably January. They first approached us to put in a small amount of money into the film. When I saw the project, I was very, very impressed. I really thought that we could add something to this.

My first thoughts on the film were creative rather than commercial. Then as we progressed, we realised that there was an opportunity to do the film, and quickly. So we financed it almost 100% in a matter of months, because it was so impressive. The cast, combined with the unique concept that the boys had, really impressed us. All the cast were on board before we were. It couldn't have been made without us, but I don't think we can take a lot of credit for getting it off the ground, that really was the boys.

My first reaction was, what a wonderful script. What a wonderful cast. What a refreshing perspective Ed and Rory had. They're inexperienced as filmmakers, but their perspective is very impressive when you meet them. It's a joy to work with them.

churchill's office


N: So how do the puppets work then?

K: There are three techniques in the puppetry. There's this really old-school method, a very contemporary technique and something that is unique that we've created. It's a combination of animatronics, basic puppeteering and also very innovative post-production techniques. The facial expressions will be put in afterwards. The head is the most complicated part. You could easily do a film like this in full CGI. However, we're using techniques that retain the charm of the puppets.

With one viewing of the test that we did for them, one investor went from "we're interested," to "we must do this." We did a test with Winston Churchill, who is voiced by Timothy Spall, and he is addressing the nation, advising them that the Nazis have invaded, and we have lost. The Nazis are on their way to London. He's hoping that one day we will a great nation again, it's a wonderful speech, as Churchill had so many. It's set in his bunker. After we showed it to the investors - they signed up very quickly.

Small-scale, small crew, but it's so expensive, this stuff. The faces don't do anything when they're filming, they're in fixed positions, which are modelled on their most extreme expressions, or their most characteristic.


N: What happens in the film?

K: It's a WWII satirical comedy with puppets. We pick up the story just before the Nazi invasion. Once that happens, Churchill has to leave London, and the country's only chance of survival is a young farmer from Kent called Chris, played by Ewan McGregor. Chris has got these extraordinarily large hands, hands so big that he wouldn't be able to join the army. He has a chance to be the soldier that he always wanted to be, and he saves the day, basically. The film is a pastiche of 1940s, 50s and 60s war films, of romantic films, like Zulu, Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge over the River Kwai: big British films.

N: What do you think of the Team America comparisons?

K: There are similarities in terms of demographics with films like Team America. There is similar humour, but Jackboots is not quite in line with the vulgar comedy there.

N: How did you get such a starry cast onboard - or at least their voices?

K: The cast came on quite early in the process. Ed and Rory sat down one weekend and wrote their wishlist and not a single person rejected it. I think that gives you some idea of the strength of the script. So that was in place by the time we came on board. Rosamund was the first person to say yes and Ewan was the last. We're trying to get a very big American actor for the character of Fiske. He's a very politically incorrect American character.

A lot of the actors did their voices together and worked off each other. The script went through some rewrites because of ad-libbing. The Nazi boys, in particular, were amazing, they just went off on one! They added some beautiful little moments. Goering in particular is very funny, especially when he talks about Himmler. Hitler meets an interesting end in this - Alan Cumming is very funny.


in battle


Jackboots on Whitehall is the first full-length feature from the McHenry brothers. The oldest of the four siblings, Ed, studied fine art at the Ruskin School of Drawing in Oxford and graduated in 2006. He has worked on a number of short films, and had his art exhibited. Rory has worked on cinematography for the short film, Nobody's Business. They gave Netribution some time out of their precious lunch break to answer a few questions.

N: Did you write any of the parts with certain actors in mind, and did you manage to get them?

Rory: When we were writing the first draft, we were coming up with ideas for who we wanted for the characters.

Ed: We couldn't write the character of the vicar without thinking of Richard E Grant. So it was more like fantasy football. Rosamund Pike is a fantastic actress, the best British actress at the moment, she has a fantastic voice. They've all got amazing voices. We just drew up a list of our favourite British actors and actresses. This is who we were basing the characters on as we were writing. The characters all sort of grew after we did some voice recordings. Ewan MacGregor burst out laughing when he read the script.


ed mchenry

N: Where did the idea for Jackboots come from?

R: We've done short films sort of in this style before.

E: Not on this level.

R: No, no. The idea for this one just came up...

E: We'd written the script on based on our short films-

R: Kind of a Vietnam war film-

E: We ended up deciding to write something more British.

R: It was something we knew more about. It's a comedy on different levels - there are in-jokes for people who know their history.

E: I always really liked British movies from the middle of the century, and a lot of those are war movies, WWII.

R: Pressburger & Powell stuff too.

E: Ealing comedies too, The Lavender Hill Mob... all of those films had a really big influence, on the general charm and style and characters. [Vicar's daughter] Daisy is like a typical 1940s English Rose who we based on characters from those films. We're not war freaks! What we started to learn, as we got through principal photography, and a lot of the prep, up until 6 months ago, the nebulous concept of the film was going to be the characters and the love interest between Chris and Daisy, and everything around that, tanks, guns, explosions, is just background and to make it an exciting movie, but the main thing in this is that the puppets are becoming real people.



N: Did your cinematic family encourage you to get into the film business?

E: Our two younger brothers are working on the film too! Dom is the main puppeteer on set, and Jack, the youngest brother, he's kind of on work experience. Dad's been in on it since the first page of the first draft, so he knows the story better than anyone.

R: We were around our parents' sets when we were little, so it all seems kind of natural. We started off making films with camcorders. Puppet movies, but no animatronics! It was much more basic. They way they move is still very basic.

N: What's been the hardest thing about making your first feature film?

R: You just have to go and do it. You just keep with it.

E: You have to keep rewriting, I'm rewriting the script every day. You've got to just stick with it.

Jackboots on Whitehall is slated for release next year