A call to spy
During World War II, Prime Minister Winston Churchill put a network of spies behind enemy lines to aid resistance in Nazi-occupied countries. The SOE (Special Operations Executive) was set up to train women for the role. A Call to Spy, an IFC release that opens in cinemas on October 2nd and upon request, follows three women who played a pivotal role in the SOE in France.
A Call to Spy is the first solo feature for director Lydia Dean Pilcher after directing Radium Girls with Ginny Mohler. As a seasoned producer, Pilcher has worked in a variety of screen and television genres. She has worked with director Mira Nair on 12 films, most recently on the HBO series A Suitable Boy, the closing event of this year's Toronto International Film Festival. She spoke to the filmmaker by phone in New York City.
Filmmaker: Why did you choose this project?
Pilcher: Sarah Megan Thomas (actress and producer of A Call to Spy) approached me with her script about three incredible women and their experiences during World War II. Noor Inayat Khan (played by Radhika Apte) whom I had read about but hadn't heard of Vera Atkins (Stana Katic) and Virginia Hall (Thomas).
The script takes place when Hitler occupied almost all of Europe. Churchill chose this moment to train civilians in sabotage and subversion tactics. Under the Ministry of Economic Warfare, SOE selected people who spoke French fluently and could easily fit in. Some officers believed that women would be less conspicuous on this mission to undermine the Nazi infrastructure.
The script addressed my own creative path, which was mainly characterized by multicultural storytelling in a global landscape. Stories that explore the human condition. When I first read the script two years ago, it felt like a cautionary story about a world we might now venture into. With authoritarianism, extremism, and racism on the rise today, the film feels hauntingly more relevant and perhaps more inspiring as these women have been driven by a sense of intent to deal with issues bigger than themselves.
Filmmaker: What are you interested in historical stories?
Pilcher: Even if you know what the end of a story will be, you can get drawn into the emotional journey. I'm a fan of Craig Mazin, the creator of Chernobyl, who talks about how he was inspired by the characters' experience as they navigated through the crisis they were in. Here I look at our three women and ask what influenced their decisions at the moment. How can their stories affect the way we think about our experiences today?
Filmmaker: As a producer, you knew you were expecting a lot of work with A Call to Spy, a historic war drama with locations in multiple countries.
Pilcher: Yes! But I felt that it was a challenge to face. I've made a lot of historical films over the course of my career, and I'd just done Radium Girls, which is set in the 1920s and has an even smaller budget. It was exciting to find ways one by one to shape this world in New York State.
When asked to spy, I knew France would be the hardest to find out at this time as so much was lost during the war. I traveled to Lyon and visited the Resistance Museum (Center D & # 39; histoire De La Resistance et De La Deportation), which became a cornerstone of my research. The museum building was used by Klaus Barbie to torture members of the resistance. I explored the terrain of town and country, all the places where our stories took place, and I really just walked in these women's shoes and imagined what it was like to be them.
Then I met with Ildikó Kemény, a partner in Pioneer Films, a female-owned production company. You produce many of the films shot in Budapest and wanted to support me as a director. I let them know that as an American indie we needed this to be like a local Hungarian film, not an international production. They were key to creating the outside world of France.
Filmmaker: You set the time with strong visual details: Nazi banners hanging on buildings, trucks and tanks, costumed extras. How do you do that on a tight budget?
Pilcher: What I wanted to convey was the haunting, emotional experience of these three women. I've studied other films that have created a sense of space within the frame without a budget of millions and millions of dollars. One that inspired me a lot was Son of Saul. László Nemes was able to convey the scope of the story in the way he built depth into the frames, placed frames in frames, and witnessed these horrific events firsthand. It turned out that most of our crew had been working on the film in Budapest and it was interesting to hear their stories.
Filmmaker: You also shot outside of Philadelphia.
Pilcher: Yes, we filmed in many places in Philadelphia that supported our French world and created an English world there that was visually more linear and controlled. The Ardrossan property on the Main Line is very similar to the Scottish mansions the SOE has used for agent training bases in the UK. We used every corner of this place.
Our production designer Kim Jennings and I worked closely to integrate the Philadelphia and Budapest locations into the unique world of our film.
Filmmaker: How did you work with Sarah Megan Thomas?
Pilcher: Sarah worked on the script a long time before I got on board. I've read over 50 books about the SOE and this special time of World War II. I also researched the archives of the Imperial War Museum Archives in London. In preparation, we were able to add layers to the story based on what we learned. For example, Vera Atkins made notes from her post-war interviews with German soldiers. Those who expressed guilt and regret forced me to include not only brutal Nazis that we have seen so often, but also moments when they are individuals who find their place. Sarah and I have also been very prepared for how we will portray Virginia Hall's experience as a spy after we lost a leg earlier in her life.
Filmmaker: As a producer, did you warn her that some scenes in the script could be too expensive?
Pilcher: It was actually the opposite. Her experience had been with lower budget films, and at times I would convince her that we could go for something that seems out of reach. The idea of filming in Budapest, for example, was ambitious. Mira Nair and I have a saying: “We cut our cloth,” but we take on this challenge without compromising our vision.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about working with your DPs?
Pilcher: I'm drawn to DPs who paint with light, and also to the rhythms of camera movement. Robby Baumgartner had shot a few features, including blindspotting, but before that he was one of the industry's preeminent chief lighting technicians. He has an exquisite eye. In Budapest we deployed the South African DP Miles Goodall. I worked with him on additional units for Amelia and Queen of Katwe. Miles has a very intuitive, emotional style. Both complemented my desire to be visually immersed in a scene and their styles balance beautifully on screen.
Filmmaker: There is a long sequence in which German soldiers search a train. Noor sits with a radio that would mean her death if discovered.
Pilcher: First of all, I should say that cell phone operators had a life expectancy of around six weeks at the time. This scene originally took place in the railroad car. I was inspired by a photo of Nazis ordering everyone off a train. Luggage and belongings are scattered everywhere. It was terrifying. I moved the setting outside to add German Shepherds for excitement.
As we were shooting, I realized that we could increase and amplify the danger for Noor. So at the moment I added a beat that caught another spy and was shown right in front of her.
Filmmaker: How does this affect your recording list?
Pilcher: Right, I added an unplanned story beat that has a very tight schedule. But we only needed two camera angles to get that beat. Your brain has to make decisions all the time to hit the plan and make the day happen, but you always want to save space for the magic and inspiration that comes with creating a scene.
Filmmaker: So despite the changes you kept on schedule?
Pilcher: … If you only knew what else was filmed that day, you'd like to take a nap! We shot all the scenes at the train station, at the ticket office, and on the platforms, then the crew got on the train and we filmed Virginia as we drove back to the train station. Meanwhile, the extras changed on the train. We had about four hours of daylight near the train station to shoot the scene with Noor. After that, we went to a platform and filmed Virginia getting off the train at dusk in Perpignan as she begins her escape. We had two cameras the whole time, but it was still a great day!
Filmmaker: Was there a conscious choice to increase the violence throughout the story?
Pilcher: Our characters' emotional arcs are tied to the stakes of war, and the violence increases as the war progresses. I don't really like to see violence on the screen. My goal was to operate mainly on a psychological level. Sometimes fear of violence alone adds enough tension to the audience. Jean-Pierre Melville did this masterfully in Army of Shadows.
Filmmaker: Was it difficult to switch from producing to directing?
Pilcher: In a way, my entire career path has been a step towards here. Directing was an opportunity to use my skills and explore some of the ideas that are very close to my heart. I've always been very camera-driven. I made documentaries early on and the second unit for a lot of the films I made. I've also had the privilege of producing for many directors who inspired me: Mira Nair, Katja von Garnier, Anthony Minghella, Gina Prinz Bythewood, Kathryn Bigelow, Barry Levinson.
Before A Call to Spy, I worked with director George Wolfe to produce The Immortal Life by Henrietta Lacks for HBO. When he got out of the theater, he was very focused on this close connection between actors and what's going on in that room. Perhaps he was less interested in the world-forming aspect of creating connective tissue and transitions. I ran the second unit at Henrietta Lacks, and George gave me a lot of license. I was inspired by the way his deep understanding of humanity influenced his approach to character.
Filmmaker: How would you describe your aesthetic?
Pilcher: I'm drawn to the emotional spaces of a frame. I had a background in painting, then I discovered photography. The photography focused my painting on a frame. I'm interested in texture, the edges of the world, the ironies, the beauty and ferocity of the human mind. I also love deep, saturated colors and the juxtaposition of colors and shapes.
Filmmaker: You talked about perspective, about female storytelling. How do we see that in your work?
Pilcher: I'd say my first thought is to appreciate each character by considering how they're feeling and see if the script allows us to understand the story through their experience. This is something we have not understood about female stories for many years because men naturally spoke from their experience as men.
Appreciating underrepresented experiences and stories is critical to the pursuit of authenticity. I taught a Masters series for graduates at NYU on Cultural Strategy and Audience. We talk about how our brains handle stereotypes and how bias affects our own storytelling. We can expand our audience by being more authentic and finding those universal chords amid all of our differences. If you can achieve this, it's gold.
Filmmaker: How far were you on A Call to Spy before the pandemic?
Pilcher: We had finished the film and started the festival round. I went to India to produce a six-hour miniseries based on one of Mira's favorite books, Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy. We wrapped up and did the mail on four continents in December 2019 because it was impossible to be together in London. Mira and I sat in front of our computer screens every day in New York and learned that workarounds were possible. It was the Wild West – we even recorded our orchestra from a distance in Budapest! I am sure that our industry will never be the way it was before.
Filmmaker: What does it take to feel good on set again?
Pilcher: With three shows coming out this fall, I won't be on set until 2021. But I watch my friends go through this and it sounds really hard.
All of us who love to make films, who love to be in production, are like gypsy junkies. Who in their right mind would ever go to work in the morning and have no idea what time to get home at night? Those of us who do what we do could never have a desk job. Never.
What is particularly painful about this pandemic is that at a time when we need each other more than ever, we are forced to be apart.
Filmmaker: It's also worrying that the pandemic is forcing us to abandon many environmental measures.
Pilcher: I'm a co-founder of PGA Green. We have a longstanding initiative with eleven Hollywood studio partners called the Green Production Guide. We have worked very hard on a protocol that incorporates sustainability into return to work policies to reduce waste along with our changes to work rules. On our website you will find “Covid-19 Return to Work Resources”, which support strategies for reducing CO2 emissions.
Filmmaker: How about a return to theaters?
Pilcher: I'm following that very closely! Radium Girls was due to open in theaters on April 3rd. We had our trailer in the cinemas. The New York lockdown began the week before we opened.
I've watched independents and studios handle the uncertainty in sales, with all the flexibility, tradeoffs, and new ideas that come with it. We're now opening on October 23 in theaters and virtual cinemas. I find the new model of direct ticket sales exciting because we have a film that is suitable for a campaign with a social impact. We can target a wide range of affinity groups that can also benefit from it.
The way people watch content now – it's a new world. When the pandemic ends, we will likely never be the same again. Hopefully we can use this disruption to find more meaningful ways to get our stories out.