Writer and actress Sarah Megan Thomas had always been interested in World War II and spies. She had been wanting to tell a female spy story and heard about Winston Churchill’s female spies.
Diving in, Thomas found herself in a rabbit hole reading up on the secret British World War II organization, The Special Operations Executive (SOE), Thomas found herself writing about the unheard female heroes who gathered intel and created espionage in France.
In “A Call to Spy,” now streaming on demand, Thomas plays Virginia Hall, starring alongside Stana Katic who plays Vera Atkins and Radhika Apte (Noor Inayat Khan) as the trio of spies working to fight evil.
Thomas and production designer Kim Jennings talked about writing the script, telling an empowering female story, the importance of hiring females and creating World War II in modern-day Philadelphia.
It’s not very often we get to see stories about women during the war. What did you know about this before you started?
Sarah Morgan Thomas: I knew I wanted to tell a spy film. I love James Bond, but with a female lens, I was interested in the grit, determination and psychology of what it was like to be a female spy. I had studied World War II extensively in college and knew there were female spies. When I dug into the research and learned there were these three women who had never had a movie made about them, my first reaction was this film has got to be made.
Kim, how did you find the perfect location to recreate World War II France and England in Philadelphia?
Kim Jennings: We were fortunate to have some connections with Philadelphia. We were working on a shoestring budget on a period drama. We had painters working on one place and builders working on the risers, and that was all we could do.
The rest of it was to use the historic nature of Philadelphia, and that became our England. When we needed to go wide, we did some shooting in Budapest, so we were fortunate with that.
Thomas: With the house, it’s the home of the family that inspired “The Philadelphia Story” and a Georgian revival mansion named after the family home. The house came fully furnished, and so all the period furnishings you see, we would never have been able to create that lush environment had it not been for that.
Kim and her team used that house to its fullest. The bedrooms were the sets for France, the torture chamber was created in the basement, so they were able to go above and beyond with what was there.
One of my favorite locations was the mill to make it feel like a part of France where they were hidden. We shot the French Resistance and French countryside meeting there. But that was a real working mill in Philadelphia.
What was the color palette you wanted to use for this feminine story?
Jennings: We’ve all come to understand a period palette. So, I wanted to use overwashed textures of cotton that the women would have used in war. It was a nod to the period and that is a palette that would have evoked being in the ‘40s.
The biggest thing was when to use red. The oaks, greens and rich rust colors were very much a part of what we were looking at.
How refreshing was it to see a story set in World War II about female empowerment?
Jennings: Sarah inspired everybody around her with the story.
Thomas: If you watch the credits, there are five minutes of credits on this film. Everyone worked for a low budget, but everyone brought their A-game and we could not have made this film if everyone didn’t feel passionate about the subject matter and were willing to work extra hard to help get the film made.
Was it a long journey to have the film made?
Thomas: I started the research on the press tour back when I was working on “Equity” in 2016. It was almost four years. It took a long time because of the research was so extensive — I talked to living relative and had their spy files, so it was all about finding that balance in telling the story.
You have a female composer, a female production designer — how did you go about assembling your crew?
Thomas: It was very important to Lydia and myself to have a balance of women behind the camera…and a few good men. Our editor is a great guy. But the concept was to make hiring women our priority. Hiring a female director for this simply had to happen.