Sarah Megan Thomas is an award-winning actress, producer, and writer. A graduate of Williams College, Sarah trained at both RADA and Drama Studio London. For her latest feature, “Liberté: A Call to Spy,” she wrote the script, plays WW II spy Virginia Hall, and produced the film. Her previous film was the groundbreaking “Equity,” in which she created the concept, co-wrote the story, produced, and starred. A first of its kind, “Equity” is a female driven Wall Street thriller that premiered in Dramatic Competition at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. “The New York Times” made “Equity” a Critic’s Pick when it was released theatrically nationwide. Sarah was honored with a Women’s Image Network Award, The Creative Coalition Spotlight Award, and the Voice of a Woman Award for “Equity.” She also starred opposite James Van Der Beek in the romance-drama “Backwards,” and has appeared in various other films and television shows. She also starred in numerous Off-Broadway productions, including playing Berowne(a) in a gender-bending “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”
Lydia Dean Pilcher is an Academy Award-nominated and two-time Emmy-winning producer, with over thirty-five feature films under her belt, with directors including Gina Prince-Bythewood and Mira Nair. Her credits include “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Queen of Katwe,” “Amelia,” “Vanity Fair,” “The Darjeeling Limited,” “Cutie & The Boxer,” and HBO’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Pilcher began her career directing documentaries and recently co-directed “Radium Girls,” a feature that’s slated for release in early 2020.
Tara Karajica caught up with them at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, where their film “Liberté: A Call to Spy” had its world premiere.
How did Liberté: A Call to Spy come about?
Sarah Megan Thomas: My general mission as a filmmaker is to tell untold female-driven stories in commercial genres, so my last film was the first female-driven Wall Street movie, Equity, and when I was thinking about what I wanted to do next, I went to the spy genre. I love spy films. I love James Bond. But when I see the women in these movies, it’s usually a romance as opposed to being about the female spies. I studied WWII in college and I played Eva Braun in a Scottish play off Broadway, so I knew the time period and I started researching and found out about the women in Churchill’s secret army. When I started looking into the ones in France, there were thirty-nine female spies and as I researched them, I thought: “Anyone of these people could have a biopic,” but I chose three who were the firsts in their field, so the first female wireless, the first female field agent and the first spy mistress in charge of finding them. They’re all from different religions, different nationalities and different backgrounds and I thought by having a film about all three of them, it would allow a larger conversation about how people can resist in different ways.
How did you come to work with Lydia Dean Pilcher?
S.M.T.: I knew Lydia’s work as a producer, which is incredible, and she obviously has a very long resume. What really attracted me to Lydia as a director is that she’d co-directed a feature called Radium Girls. It’s a period piece about strong women that I saw and thought was beautiful and exceptional. I think what also stood out to me about Lydia is that she clearly likes to tell international stories about strong women, so I felt like she was the right director who would understand the international component of these women and their stories.
What made you say yes to the project?
Lydia Dean Pilcher: Well, I have spent a lot of my career working with female directors and working with auteur directors and really just being interested in female storytelling and it came naturally. It was automatic. I wasn’t thinking about it the way they’re thinking about it today. A lot of the body of my work is made up of female-driven stories and I think that it was because I do work a lot internationally and I was interested in the period. I also saw the parallel between the events of national extremism during that time and what happened and the conditions that were starting to be revealed now for similar possibilities, which has become scary, but I think it was really an opportunity to delve into it with really powerful women.
How was the casting process? How did you put the team together because there are a lot of women in key positions behind the camera?
S.M.T.: We have a shared mission, Lydia and I, to put more women in front and behind the camera and so, it was really a team, joint effort in terms of putting together an international cast of individuals. Radhika [Apte] was our first choice, which is lovely and amazing and she is very, very talented. I know Lydia knew Radhika through a film called Parched and Radhika was the star of Parched and I saw that performance and felt like she really would be perfect for the role. That was the only one that, for me, came through a film I had seen as opposed to an audition or a tape.
L.D.P.: I had been on a jury at Tribeca where we gave her Best Actress for an international film she had done with a director called Anurag Kashyap. She’s terrific and she’s a real star in India that was excited to do something else outside of India. With the casting of the crew, I think that because we’re women, we gravitate toward women and I am very keen about the fact that if we’re telling female stories and we’re really talking about their experiences, then you want a creative team that can also connect to what that experience was like and you can bring a sensibility to telling a story. I also think that women have more interest in telling women’s stories and that was the case when we went to look at Budapest as an option for our French exteriors. There was a company called Pioneer and Ildikó Kemény is our producer and she was really instrumental because there are a lot of production servicing companies in Budapest. We were a small film and I kind of just begged her to get on board. It wasn’t hard because she loved the script and the story and they all decided they wanted to support a woman director and it fit between two big things they were doing and they really bent over backwards to deliver a fantastic crew and an A-game performance with the production team. It was an awesome experience and it felt really supportive that it was a company of women helping us.
Can you talk about how you, Sarah, see the characters especially Virginia Hall because you play her, and you, Lydia, as a director? How did you work to combine your two visions of her?
S.M.T.: For Virginia Hall, I found her completely fascinating and what I was so inspired by was her utter strength overcoming her disability. When she was in her twenties, she shot her leg off – it was an accident. So she went from being a fully able bodied human being to not having part of her leg and that limited her opportunities. She wanted to be a diplomat and everyone said no to her in the U.S. Government, so she ultimately spied for the British. She was just someone who didn’t take no for an answer in 1940-1941, so I felt like she was ahead of her time. She was a real leader. When you’re playing a real life character, it’s very challenging because you want to honor their spirit but, at the same time, it has to connect with you as a human being or it doesn’t work. Specifically, with Virginia, she didn’t talk about her wartime spying even to her own family that I interviewed. Her personality is a little bit of a mystery, so I just hope that through the performance, you honor the individual.
L.D.P.: I think that what’s interesting if you’re telling a story about spies, it’s that the spies have an external persona and an internal personal. The external one is who the world is perceiving them to be – they’re not really who they are. I think the challenge for a director and working with the actors is how to not betray their façade, but how to indicate their moments of vulnerability, their private moments, and to really be able to show that duality of a character. I think that those moments are what really keep you emotionally involved and attached to the characters. Vera had that as well; she had to be this kind of tough taskmaster and spy mistress at work, but she had those moments where you could tell that there was just a lot going on for her internally and that there was a real person with a real vision that was suffering as well. I think Noor’s character is very interesting because she is creative and she is an artist and she really just had this persistence of vision to go out there and do this thing. And, in some ways, she used her charm to push into arenas where other people might not have been able to. They’re all different. Each one of them had the same mission, but different motivations.
S.M.T.: And that’s, hopefully, the global appeal of this movie and that’s that we’re showing – real women that young girls can look at and say: “I relate to one of these three women and they’re from different nationalities, different religions and different backgrounds!” That just makes it a much more international film and that really that was the goal. You can resist in your own way, whether you are a pacifist, a fighter, or someone who is being discriminated against because they’re Jewish, which was the case for Vera.
How was the research process? Did you have a historical consultant? Who did you talk to?
S.M.T.: There were so many individuals who helped with the research. First of all, I had the SOI and the OSS files. I had the support of the CIA Spy Museum and individuals within the CIA. In fact, some of our investors are former spies, which is very interesting. We also spoke to living relatives. But, in some ways, there was too much research and the end goal was to try and take the “Wikipedia” facts of these people’s lives and boil them down to the essence of their arcs and put them in the film together. As an example of how things kind of became fiction would be that Virginia Hall did this huge prison rescue and that would be a film in and of itself. I wanted her to have that prison rescue in the story, but not to take up too much time. What I found really interesting was that they used to use Monopoly games to smuggle prisoners out of prisons in WWII and I was like: “I’ve never seen that in a movie!” So I took that fact from WWII and put it into the story of the little prison rescue in this film. While there was a ton of research, we had to boil it down to who these people are and how the audience is going to connect to this story.
There has been a lot of talk about the situation of women in film the past almost two years. What’s your take on the matter?
L.D.P.: Well, I founded the Women’s Impact Network at the Producers Guild of America and I had co-written with Melissa Silverstein of Women and Hollywood something called “The Ms. Factor Toolkit,” which was a big data summary of the progress of women over a certain period of time. I think it’s a good time to be a woman. It doesn’t mean that the door’s wide open and it’s easier. I think that women have to catch up a little bit. I think a lot of women have been opted out of the industry because it felt too hard or they felt it wasn’t going to work and now, we need to get them back. I also think younger women are more practical than we were and they also have to believe there are opportunities and that they can succeed, but I think we’re seeing it slowly shift. It’s happening. I think the surge of television has also been a big push because there are more opportunities for directors. There are certain categories where women are starting to surge more. I think with the zeitgeist and with what’s happening with #MeToo and Time’s Up, it’s just a matter of time.
S.M.T.: An audience member at the Q&A said something last night at the world premiere, that I thought was really great: “This isn’t a women’s film. These roles could’ve been played by women or men.” I think that’s a big compliment to the film and what we’re trying to do with women on screen, is to present stories that, yes, they’re women and they happen to be women and, obviously, they have women’s issues, but it’s not like it’s a women’s story. We want to connect to a male audience because it’s very important to have gender equality in films that appeal to everyone and women just happen to be in these lead roles, kicking butt!
This interview was conducted at the 2019 Edinburgh International Film Festival.