We’ve all heard stories and read chapters about World War II in our history books, but what we may not realize is just how many harrowing events and incredible people helped make a difference in that very war that we have no idea about. In Sarah Megan Thomas’ film which she wrote and also stars in, “A Call to Spy,” the lives of three courageous women are examined, each of which were impressive in their own right and helped shape the course of events in circumstances that most people wouldn’t even dream of.
For Thomas, this film shines a light on three unsung heroes who were recruited by Winston Churchill to put their lives on the line for the greater good, but on a more personal note, the character of Virginia Hall really resonated with the Haverford native. Thomas put a ton of research into the script and even spoke to surviving family members to get a better picture of who these three powerhouses were, and the outcome is a film that is as exciting as it is energetically informative.
Thomas sat down with Metro to discuss what went into making this film and dive into more on how she hopes “A Call to Spy” motivates people to learn more about those incredible stories that don’t make it into history books.
Where did you first hear about this story and what was it about these events that intrigued you to write the screenplay?
As a filmmaker, I always start with a genre that I love that’s popular for film. My last film was “Equity” which is Wall Street, and then with this film, I started knowing that I really wanted to make a spy film. I love James Bond, I love Charlotte Grey, but a lot of the films that I saw where a woman was involved, at its core there’s a love story. I was really more interested in exploring the grit and the aspects of the job on a female level. I studied WWII at Williams College and I did know about Churchill’s secret army, and when I started digging into the research of who these women were, there were just so many. I came across these three who happen to be first in their field, which is why I chose them. Virginia Hall was the first female field agent, Noor was the first female wireless, and Vera was the first and only kind of spy mistress in charge of recruiting these women. So, I thought wow lets put these women in a story and see what happens.
What was that writing process like? How much research went into crafting the script?
A lot of research went into the writing, and it went on for years. If I had discovered a new tidbit from a new relative and we were on set, I wanted to make sure it went into the movie. So, I used the historical spy files of Noor, Virginia and Vera, and I also got the OSS files which is the precursor to the CIA that Virginia Hall worked for, and I spoke to various living relatives— all of it was crucial to the making of this film. With that being said, this isn’t a biopic of any just one character. I have three women in the movie, so by having them together in the film, there are fictions, but what was so important for me was to stay true to the arc of what happened to them and who they are as people. Linus Roache’s character Buckmaster is a real person, Rossif Sutherland’s is kind of a composite but is inspired by a doctor who is really one of Virginia Hall’s contacts, so it’s very factually accurate.
What were some of those tidbits you learned, did anything stand out to you?
There’s actually a line in the film which frankly might seem archaic, but Virginia Hall said it and I wanted it in there. London [sent a note] saying it’s time for you to come back and cool off, you’ve been there a while—and she wrote back and said something along the lines of: “It’s my neck and if I’m willing to get a crick in it, that’s my prerogative.” I thought that was just such a great statement about who this woman was. She didn’t really care if she died in this war, she wanted to make a difference, she wanted to be useful, she wanted freedom for all and I just find that so inspiring.
Did you always want to play Virginia Hall as well?
Yes, this is my third project as a writer-producer-actress, and I really connected to Virginia from the beginning on so many levels. I really connected to her wit, her hard work and her determination. She was a woman ahead of her time who when people told her she couldn’t do things, she just kept breaking down those walls to make a difference. I just found that so inspiring on so many levels and I hope I do her justice because really it was such an honor to have that opportunity.
How would you describe Virginia and these other women who did these incredible things that not many people know about?
I think all of these women had this inner strength that allowed them to put their lives on the line as spies when they knew and were told by the London office that they had a 50/50 chance of survival when they got there. What was inspiring to me about all three of these women was that they each had very different methods, and I think that’s what hopefully makes this film so interesting. Noor was a pacifist, Virginia was very much a fighter in spirit, yet they were able to use their diversity and different skill sets to the betterment of the entire mission. I also think there certainly is a loneliness to having to be a spy in this world where your life is on the line and you can’t talk to people about it, and I think that was definitely there too.
What’s the best part for you about being able to bring this story and this piece of history alive for people?
I’m just so excited that people are going to know these women’s stories. There’s a number of books that just started to come out on these women as well, and it’s just time that their stories are widely told. I hope for people who don’t know the story, they’re inspired to learn more about these women and maybe learn more about others because they are not in our history books, but they absolutely should be.
IFC Films will release “A Call to Spy” in select theaters and on VOD on Friday, October 2.