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“The Emotional Arcs of Our Characters are Tied to the Stakes of the War…”: Director Lydia Dean Pilcher on A Call to Spy

A Call to Spy

During World War II, Prime Minister Winston Churchill put a network of spies behind enemy lines to aid the 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 opening in theaters and on demand October 2, follows three women who played crucial roles for the SOE in France.

A Call to Spy is the first solo feature credit for director Lydia Dean Pilcher, after co-directing Radium Girls with Ginny Mohler. A veteran producer, Pilcher has worked in a wide variety of genres for the screen and TV. She collaborated on 12 films with director Mira Nair, most recently on the HBO series A Suitable Boy, the Closing Night event at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. She spoke with Filmmaker by phone in New York City.

Filmmaker: What made you choose this project?

Pilcher: Sarah Megan Thomas [an actor and producer of A Call to Spy] approached me with her screenplay about three incredible women and their experiences in World War II. Noor Inayat Khan [played by Radhika Apte] I had read about, but I’d not heard about Vera Atkins [Stana Katic] and Virginia Hall [Thomas]. 

The screenplay takes place when Hitler occupied almost all of Europe. Churchill chose that moment to train civilians in sabotage and subversion tactics.  Under the Ministry of Economic Warfare, SOE selected people who were fluent in French and could blend in easily. Some officers believed women would be less conspicuous in this mission to undermine Nazi infrastructure.

The script spoke to my own creative path, characterized predominantly by multicultural storytelling on a global landscape. Stories that explore the human condition. When I first read the script two years ago, it felt like a cautionary tale about a world that we could be heading into now. With today’s surge of authoritarianism, extremism, and racism, the movie feels hauntingly more relevant and perhaps inspiring in terms of how these women were driven by a sense of purpose to take on issues bigger than themselves.

Filmmaker: What interests you about historical stories? 

Pilcher: Even when you know what the ending to a story is going to be, you can be 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 experience of characters as they navigated the crisis in which they found themselves. Here I look at our three women and ask what informed their decisions in the moment. How can their stories inform the way we think about our experiences today?

Filmmaker: As a producer, you knew you were setting yourself up for a lot of work with A Call to Spy, a period war drama with locations in multiple countries.

Pilcher: Yes! But I felt it was a challenge I could meet. I’ve produced a lot of period movies over my career, and I had just come off of making Radium Girls, which was set in the 1920s and had an even smaller budget. It was exciting to find ways to architect that world in upstate New York, one shot at a time.

On A Call to Spy, I knew that period France would be the toughest part to figure out as so much was lost during the war. I travelled to Lyon, and visited the Resistance Museum [Centre D’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 Resistance members. I scouted the terrain of city and countryside, all the places where our stories took place, and I really just walked in these women’s shoes, imagining what it was like to be them.

Then I met with Ildikó Kemény, a partner in Pioneer Films, a female-owned production company. They produce a lot of the feature films shot in Budapest, and they were keen 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 external world of France.

Filmmaker: You establish the period with strong visual details: Nazi banners hanging from buildings, trucks and tanks, costumed extras. How do you achieve that on a tight budget?

Pilcher: What I wanted to convey was the immersive, emotional experience of these three women. I studied other films that created a feeling of scope within the frame, without having a budget of millions and millions of dollars. One that inspired me a lot was Son of Saul. László Nemes was able to convey scope of the story in the way he built depth in the frames, placing frames within frames, while providing a first-person experience of those horrific events. It turned out that a lot of our crew in Budapest had worked on the film, and it was interesting to hear their stories.

Filmmaker: You also shot outside Philadelphia.

Pilcher: Yes, we filmed at many Philly locations that supported our French world, and we created an English world there that was visually more linear and controlled. The Ardrossan estate on the Main Line looks very much like the Scottish mansions the SOE used for agent training bases in the UK. We used every nook and cranny of that location.

Our production designer Kim Jennings and I worked closely to blend the Philadelphia and Budapest locations into the singular world of our movie.

Filmmaker: How did you collaborate with Sarah Megan Thomas?

Pilcher: Sarah had been working on the script for a long time before I came on board. I read over 50 books about the SOE and this particular time of World War II. I also researched in the archives of the Imperial War Museum Archives in London. So in prep we were able to add layers to the story based on what we learned. For example, Vera Atkins took notes from her post-war interviews with German soldiers. The ones who expressed guilt and regret compelled me to include not just brutal Nazis we’ve seen so many times, but moments where they are individuals finding their footing. Sarah and I also devoted a lot of prep to how we would portray Virginia Hall’s experiences training as a spy after having lost a leg earlier in her life.

Filmmaker: As a producer yourself, did you warn her that some scenes in the script might be too expensive?

Pilcher: It was actually the opposite. Her experience had been on lower-budget films, and at times I was convincing her we could aim for something that might seem out of reach. The idea of shooting in Budapest was ambitious, for example. Mira Nair and I have a saying, “We cut our cloth to size,” but we take on that challenge without compromising our vision.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about collaborating 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 pre-eminent chief lighting technicians in the industry. He has an exquisite eye. In Budapest we used 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. They both complemented my desire to be immersed in a scene visually, and their styles balance beautifully on screen.  

Filmmaker: There’s a long sequence where German soldiers search a train. Noor is sitting with a wireless radio that would mean her death if discovered.

Pilcher: First I should say that wireless operators around then had a life expectancy of about six weeks. That scene originally took place inside the railroad car. I was inspired by a photograph of Nazis who had ordered everyone off a train. Luggage and people’s belongings are strewn everywhere. It was terrifying. I moved the setting outside added German Shepherds for tension.

As we were shooting I realized that we could increase, amplify the danger to Noor. So in the moment I added a beat where another female spy gets caught and is paraded right in front of her.

Filmmaker: How does that affect your shot list?

Pilcher: Right, I was adding an unplanned story beat, on a very tight shooting schedule. But we only needed two camera setups to get that beat. Your brain is constantly having to make decisions to achieve the plan and make the day, but you always want to save room for the magic and inspiration that happens in the creation of a scene. 

Filmmaker: So even with the changes you stayed on schedule?

Pilcher: …If you only knew what else was shot that day, you’d want to take a nap! We shot all the scenes at the station, the ticket window, and the train platforms, and then the crew boarded the train and we filmed Virginia as we rode back to the train yard. Meanwhile the extras were changing their clothes on the train. Near the train yard we had about four hours of daylight left to shoot the scene with Noor, and after that we moved to a platform and filmed Virginia getting off the train in Perpignan at dusk when she’s beginning her escape. We had two cameras all the time, but still it was a big day!

Filmmaker: Was there a conscious decision to increase the violence as the story proceeded?

Pilcher: The emotional arcs of our characters are tied to the stakes of the war, and violence increases as the war advances. I don’t really enjoy watching violence on screen. My goal was for it to operate mostly on a psychological level. Sometimes just the fear of violence adds enough tension for the audience. Jean-Pierre Melville did this masterfully in Army of Shadows.

Filmmaker: Was it difficult to transition from producing to directing?

Pilcher: In some ways I think my whole career path has been a progression towards here. Directing was an opportunity to use my skills and explore some of the ideas I feel deeply about. I’ve always been very camera-driven. I directed documentaries early on, and second unit on a lot of the movies I produced. I’ve also had the privilege of producing for many directors who’ve inspired me: Mira Nair, Katja von Garnier, Anthony Minghella, Gina Prince Bythewood, Kathryn Bigelow, Barry Levinson.

Before A Call to Spy, I produced The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for HBO with director George Wolfe. Coming from the theater, he was very focused on that intimate connection between actors, and what happens in that space. He was perhaps less interested in the world-building aspect, establishing connective tissues and transitions. I directed the second unit on Henrietta Lacks, and George gave me a lot of license. I was inspired by the way his deep understanding of humanity informed 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. Photography focused my painting into a frame. I’m interested in texture, the edges of the world, the ironies, the beauty and ferocity of the human spirit. I also love deep, rich colors, and the juxtaposition of colors and shapes.

Filmmaker: You’ve spoken about perspective, about female storytelling. How do we see that in your work?

Pilcher: I would say my first thought is to value every character by thinking through what they are feeling, and see if the script is allowing us to understand the story through their experience. That is something that we didn’t get for many years in terms of female stories, because men naturally spoke from their experience as men.  

Valuing underrepresented experiences and stories is essential in the quest for authenticity. I’ve taught a graduate level master series at NYU on cultural strategy and audiences. We talk about how our brain navigates stereotypes, and how bias impacts our own storytelling. We can expand our audiences by being more authentic and finding these universal chords amidst all of our differences. When you can make that happen it’s gold. 

Filmmaker: How far along were you on A Call to Spy before the pandemic hit?

Pilcher: We had completed the film and were starting the festival circuit. I went off to India to produce a six-hour miniseries based on one of Mira’s favorite books, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. We wrapped in December of 2019 and we did the post across four continents 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 remotely in Budapest! I’m sure our industry will never completely go back to the way it was before.  

Filmmaker: What’s it going to take for you to be comfortable on a set again?

Pilcher: With three shows releasing this fall, I’m not going to be on a set until 2021. But I’m watching my friends who are going through this, and it sounds really hard. 

All of us who love making movies, who love being in production, we’re like gypsy junkies. Who in their right mind would ever go to work on a job in the morning and have no idea when they’re coming home at night? Those of us who do what we do we could never have a desk job. Never.

What’s especially painful about this pandemic is that at a time when we need each other more than ever, we are forced to be distant from each other.

Filmmaker: It’s also disturbing that the pandemic is forcing us to abandon a lot of environmental precautions.

Pilcher: I’m a co-founder of PGA Green. We have a long-standing initiative with eleven Hollywood studio partners called the Green Production Guide. We worked very hard on a protocol that weaves sustainability into return-to-work guidelines, to reduce waste along with our changes in work rules. On our website you can find “Covid-19 Return to Work Resources” that support carbon emission reduction strategies.

Filmmaker: How about returning to movie theaters?

Pilcher: I’m tracking that very closely! Radium Girls was scheduled to open in cinemas on April 3rd. We had our trailer in theaters. The lockdown in New York started the week before we were to open. 

I’ve been watching how independents and studios are navigating the uncertainty in distribution, with all the flexibility, compromises and new ideas that entails. We’re now opening October 23rd in theaters and virtual cinemas. I think the new model of direct ticket-selling is exciting because we have a film that lends itself to a social-impact campaign. We can appeal to a wide range of affinity groups who can benefit as well. 

The way people are watching content now — it’s a new world. When the pandemic ends, I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the way it was. Hopefully we can use this disruption to find more meaningful ways to get our stories out there.  

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