Whistler Film Festival interview: Lydia Dean Pilcher on LIBERTÉ: A CALL TO SPY

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Financed and shot independently, filmmaker Lydia Dean Pilcher’s thrilling truth-based narrative is about female spies of the Allied resistance during WWII. Forced to consider new avenues for espionage after the Nazis invade France, Sir Winston Churchill resolved to create a covert brigade of female spies within his Special Operations Executive. Spy-mistress Vera Atkins (Stana Katic) was tasked with overseeing this unit, and the bulk of the narrative focuses on the efforts of two of her most effective recruits: American expatriate Virginia Hall (played by Sarah Megan Thomas, who also wrote the script and produced) and Muslim pacifist Noor Inayat Khan (Radhike Aote). Together, these women form a sisterhood while entangled in dangerous missions to build a new type of spy network and help stop Hitler. The film presents powerful female characters and reveals an aspect of women’s herstory that has too long been neglected. Liberte: A Call to Spy is among the female-directed films nominated for an AWFJ EDA Award at Whistler Film Festival 2019. Here are Lydia Dean Pilcher’s insightful comments about the making and meaning of the film.

Jennifer Merin: What your film is about — both in story and theme?

Lydia Dean Pilcher: Liberté is a thriller based on the true stories of three women working as spies in Churchill’s Secret Army fighting the Nazis in the French Resistance of World War II. They form an unlikely connection while entangled in dangerous missions to turn the tide of the war, each risking their lives in the service of a larger cause, but for very different reasons. Vera Atkins works as a spy recruiter and overseer in Britain’s Special Operations Executive while hiding her Romanian Jewish heritage; Virginia Hall is an American with a bold desire to help the Allied Forces even with the challenge of having one leg; and Noor Inayat Khan is a Sufi pacifist working in Britain’s Women’s Auxiliary Airforce, driven by a higher moral authority and a sense of national pride for the values-driven role that an Indian can play on the world stage in 1941.

Merin: How is your film stylistically distinctive?

Pilcher: The story-telling happens between three worlds: London, Lyon, and Paris. It is character-driven, with distinctive gritty realism reflecting the rarified environments in which our women live. The powerful motivations that drive them forward also define their ambition, and Illuminates many different aspects of the female experience including the best of the masculine and the feminine–adrenaline and emotion. My visual style is heartful, emotional and drawn to the colourful edges of life.

Merin: How and why did you encounter and commit to the subject/theme of your film and to the main characters in it?

Pilcher: I was intrigued by the construct of what it means to be a spy as a metaphor for questions that anyone can ask of themselves—how do we connect our external and internal personas to become one whole person? Can we escape the traps of our own character, the safety of convention, the inertia of the system—to have an impact and control our own destiny? The stakes for our characters were the stakes of the war because humanity was at stake This resonated for me as I spend a lot of time thinking about our current times and the dynamic between globalization and the resurgence of nationalism, extremism, hate and racism.

Merin: What did you learn about the subject/theme from making the film?

Pilcher: I spent a lot of time combing through materials in the Imperial War Museum archives in London and I obsessively read over fifty books about the French Resistance and women of the SOE (the stories are fascinating and voluminous). I also travelled thru Lyon and London visiting the real places that our characters inhabited. The production designer, Kim Jennings, and I looked at research that reflected different dimensions of our characters. With Noor we could use the mechanism of coding to amplify the imagination of her character. With Vera, we researched the anti-semitism that was prevalent in London especially at a time when there was a lot of concern around refugees flooding into the UK. With Virginia we spent time exploring her personal experience of having one leg, from riding a bike to escaping across the Pyrenees.

Merin: What did you learn about filmmaking from making the film?

Pilcher: I’ve been producing for many years now and it was super rewarding to step into the director shoes using all the craft and experience I’ve amassed and designing shots and scenes in incredibly textured period locations. The new piece for me was the experience of working with actors and learning how to create the space to heighten their emotional and physical power in each moment on screen. I loved discovering the unique process that each actor brings to their work and finding an alchemy together born of instincts and ideas.

Merin: What were your biggest challenges in making the film?

Pilcher: Taking an indie scale budget and constructing the period visually in a way that conveyed the global scope of World War II was the mountain to climb! I had amazing partners in casting director Heidi Levitt, production designer Kim Jennings, costume designer Vanessa Porter, Line Producer, Louise Lovegrove, first AD Jane Ferguson, DPs Robbie Baumgartner and Miles Goodall, composer Lillie Rebecca McDonough (who also composed “Radium Girls” with me) and editors Paul Tothill and Tia Douglas (also on “Radium Girls”). Everyone brought their A game and were incredibly innovative, resourceful, and committed to telling this story.

Merin: Do you think that being female gave you a distinct perspective and/or way of handling the filmmaking process?

Pilcher: Yes, most definitely. The stories of our women speak to many of the themes that drive my own creative story. (I’ve had the opportunity to work in multicultural situations in many parts of the world — India, Turkey, Qatar, Uganda, South Africa, England—as well as many regions of the U.S.) I love working on an international canvas, and the concept of “perspective” in female storytelling has always been a north star for guiding and defining my professional choices.

Merin: What are your plans for the future?

Pilcher: I’ve fallen in love with a book written by a woman who discovered later in life that she was autistic and learned from gorillas the beauty and joy of communication with other beings, human and/or animal. Early in the book she notes how important writing was to her — a kind of aesthetic experience in “cutting and tracing the lines of one’s thoughts and feelings into the steady lines of permanent letters.” Her voice is quite beautiful and she offers us a rare window via her articulation of her sensory experience. I’d like for this to be my next movie.

Merin: Who are the filmmakers whose work has inspired/influenced your own?

Pilcher: I was very inspired by a film Army of Shadows, by director Jean-Pierre Melville, who was a French Resistance fighter. His visual style is different than mine but he captured so beautifully the darkness and psychological terror of the time. And in our research, I discovered a prolific American WWII photographer, Thérèse Bonney, whose work shows the impact of war in Europe on women & children and is incredibly powerful. As a silent tribute, I cast a featured extra in Budapest to portray her character. It feels karmic to reveal this secret detail for the first time with AWFJ!

Merin: What advice do you have for other female Filmmakers who are trying to make their way through a still male-dominated industry?

Pilcher: Be a great leader. Everyone on a production contributes to the telling of the story in often uncredited but defining ways. A great leader encourages everyone to feel part of a synergistic whole and galvanizes people to do their best work. In the bigger scheme of things, we need to focus energy on new systems to over-ride any bias that may be excluding valuable energy. We should require our own productions to achieve at least a 50/50 gender-balance with an eye toward the reality that women of color reflect over 20% our population in the U.S. Being proactive and understanding the significance of this makes for stronger teams and makes us stronger storytellers– ultimately reaching wider audiences.

ABOUT LYDIA DEAN PILCHER: Lydia Dean Pilcher is an Academy Award nominated and two time Emmy-winning producer, with over 40 feature films with directors including Gina Prince-Bythwood, Wes Anderson, Barry Levinson, and eleven films in a long-standing collaboration with internationally acclaimed director, Mira Nair. Her production company, Cine Mosaic, is active internationally with relationships in the US, India, Turkey, Africa and Middle East. Pilcher’s films include The Queen of Katwe starring Lupita Nyong’o for Walt Disney, Cutie & The Boxer (director Zachary Heinzerling, The Lunchbox, directed by Ritesh Batra, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for HBO. Pilcher began her career directing documentaries and recently co-directed the feature film, Radium Girls, starring Joey King and Abby Quinn, releasing in early 2020.

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