Janice Ellig, CEO and founder of Ellig Group, sits down with real leaders in this series of game-changing conversations, bespoke to fellow champions of change. Heralded by Bloomberg Businessweek as one of “The World’s Most Influential Headhunters,” Janice is often consulted for her expertise and her commitment to gender parity, equity, inclusion, and diversity.
We are honored to present this month’s episode of Leadership Reimagined with Sarah Megan Thomas, an award-winning actor, producer, and writer having written, starred, and produced three complex female films, featuring women on Wall Street, women in war, and women in sports.
Episode 24: “Women on Wall Street, Women in War”
Tune in as Sarah shares the inspiration behind focusing her theater lens on creating iconic female stories and disrupting gender inequality in the entertainment business. Hear why she is committed to telling stories that have shaped our lives and society, and the impact of women.
Three Major Films
A Call to Spy (2020) – At the beginning of World War II, Winston Churchill was desperate. He ordered his new spy agency to recruit and train women. Interweaving the adventures of female spy, Virginia Hall (played by Sarah Megan Thomas), and other intrepid women whose talents and sacrifices were crucial to Allied espionage efforts during World War II, ‘A Call to Spy’ revolves around three female spies from different nationalities, from different religions, who united to resist a common evil.”
Equity (2016) – Is a female-driven Wall Street thriller. The Film premiered in Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival, where it sold to Sony Pictures Classics. The New York Times made “Equity” a Critic’s Pick when it was released theatrically nationwide. The Hollywood Reporter reviewed Sarah’s performance as “subtle, but gutsy.”
Backwards (2012) – An American sports romance and the first feature film on women’s Olympic rowing. Sarah starred alongside James Van Der Beek in this romantic drama.
“The power of the individual is such a timely theme right now.
Whatever you believe in, people may tell you no.
You have to keep trying, you have to open other doors.”
Motivated by the notion “Where are the strong women that I know exist and why don’t we see them in film?” Having not seen female-driven opportunities in the movies for women in war, Wall Street, or sports, Sarah decided to create them. It is with great privilege we present to you this episode of Leadership Reimagined, “Women on Wall Street, Women in War” with Sarah Megan Thomas.
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Show Notes: Sarah Megan Thomas
Sarah Megan Thomas on the start of her filmmaking career
My background is actually as an actress. I was a theater major at Williams College, and then I went on and got a graduate degree in London in acting very well versed in Shakespeare. When it comes to making money, which is the subject of Equity, the Wall Street film, it was difficult. I was bartending. I was getting roles as the Girl Next Door, doing commercials, et cetera. But I wasn’t fulfilled as an artist with the roles I was getting, specifically in regards to them being women’s roles that weren’t very strong. So I decided to just create the work that I wanted to see and start with commercial genres. So take a sports film, a Wall Street film, a spy film and then look at it from a female lens and an independent film lens of “what haven’t we seen in these universes in terms of complex women?” and then create and write those stories.
A big part of it was wanting to have those products out there – I was missing in my life seeing a female-driven Wall Street movie. I love Wolf of Wall Street. I love Margin Call, but the women are basically props or they’re part of the romance. And I was like, where are the strong women in Wall Street that I know exist, and why don’t we see them in film? Much like the Geena Davis Institute says, “if she can see it, she can be it.” So part of my larger mission is to put these types of female roles on screen so that young girls and women can see them and aspire to be them.
Sarah Megan Thomas on where to see A Call to Spy
Sarah Megan Thomas on the making of A Call to Spy
We shot the film in Philadelphia and Budapest, believe it or not, even though it takes place in London and France as an independent World War II film. And we used the shooting locations and the tax credits to be in a position to make the film financially. And then we brought on a really strong team of women in front of the camera and behind the camera. In front of the camera, it includes top Indian star Radhika Apte, in her American film debut, playing the role of Noor Inayat Khan. And then behind the camera, I was able to hire a female director, female production designer, female composer in order to have women working together to get this story about these hidden figures of the World War II spy world out there.
Sarah Megan Thomas on the real-life heroes of A Call to Spy
I really hope the film helps put these women in our history books, because the three women that A Call to Spy follows – Virginia Hall, Vera Atkins and Noor Inayat Khan – were pioneers in the spy field. They were first in their profession who went in to spy in France, knowing there was a 50-50 chance of survival. And these women are basically the Hidden Figures of the spy world. They won every award you could imagine, from the Distinguished Service Cross to the Croix de Guerre, yet they’re not in our history books. There are hundreds of movies about Churchill, but there are none until now about these women. So I really hope that changes. And I think we just need more female storytellers, female writers and producers out there to dig these stories out and put them on screen.
Sarah Megan Thomas on researching A Call to Spy
The spy files were just fascinating on all three women because in the files were their letters back to London, back to the spy agency, so you could hear part of their voices and how they spoke. Also very interesting, the files had all the notes of how their communications were graded and received by the SOE, which was the British spy agency they worked for. So, for example, for Noor Inayat Khan, who’s played by the amazing Radhika Apte, they would say things like “if this girl’s a spy, I’m Winston Churchill.” They’d describe her as “childlike” or “a doll” And those lines are actually in the movie. Yet she became a huge hero. And when she was captured and tortured, she did not give up any information about anyone. She was very brave. And then my character, Virginia Hall, who was the first female field agent and ultimately became the first woman to work for the CIA after the war, some of her lines in the script are actually directly from the letters she wrote. There’s a great one that I love when they’re questioning whether to put her back in the field. She says something like, “it’s my neck, and if I want to get a crick in it, that’s my prerogative.” That really gave me a sense of her personality. This was a woman who wasn’t going to take no for an answer and was going to do it her way.
Sarah Megan Thomas on playing Virginia Hall and understanding disabilities
Virginia Hall was born from a wealthy family in Baltimore, and she was head of her basketball team. She went to Radcliffe. She went to school in Vienna and France. She spoke many languages, and she really wanted to be a diplomat. She loved people. She loved traveling. She loved the world and its diversity. Yet when she was 27 years old, she shot her own leg off in a tragic hunting accident with her father’s shotgun and almost died. She had to have her leg amputated and use a wooden leg. And because of that disability and because she was a woman, the US Foreign Service said, “no, no, you may not be a diplomat,” even though she was overqualified. So instead, she became a spy for the British. And then, as I mentioned before, ultimately the first woman to work for the CIA. What I really responded to about her as a human being was this concept that people constantly told her “no,” but she felt she had a calling and a duty to protect the freedom of others. And she wasn’t going to sit by and just let things happen. I think that that is such a timely theme right now, the power of the individual, and that whatever you believe in, people may tell you “no,” but you just have to keep trying. You have to open other doors. So I loved playing Virginia Hall. I did have to play the physicality of her, quote unquote, “limp.” Now, the Germans called her “the Limping Lady,” but her family, when I talked to them, said she tried to hide the limp. It wasn’t that big a limp, so I chose to underplay it. But at the same time, I had to wear this big, heavy wooden contraption on my own leg that was tied to my back until my back went out. And then we had to find other ways of doing it. After shooting, I actually ruptured my own Achilles tendon from playing the role and couldn’t walk for almost a year. And so there was an irony there that after playing her, I encountered some of the obstacles she encountered.
Something people don’t necessarily talk about is how difficult it is to have a disability day in and day out. I was in a wheelchair for a long time, and I’m a very tall person. I’m confident. I’m used to people looking me in the eye. And when that’s taken away from you, people don’t realize when they’re talking down to you or looking at you a certain way. So I can only imagine. And this was only one year of my life. It was Virginia Hall’s entire life, and this was in the 1940s, and she was a leader. I can only imagine the hurdles she had to encounter day in and day out. Interestingly enough, because it was the 40s, the prosthesis she was wearing was made for men, of course. So it didn’t even fit. It was too big. So she had blisters all around her and just the pain that she endured without complaining day in and day out must have been very difficult to bear.
Sarah Megan Thomas on her inspiration for Equity
Full disclosure: my husband works on Wall Street. In fact, he worked at Lehman Brothers till the end. And my joke is I like to say that I married a rich man and then he went poor, and I stayed with him for love. So that’s my joke. It’s a bad joke. But anyway, it was on our honeymoon that Lehman went under, and I really experienced as his wife so much of what was in that world at the time. And it was then that the idea came to me: where’s the film about the women? Because all the headlines are following the men. And in social circumstances, like at dinners and drinks, I’ve met some of his coworkers who were women and they were these fantastic badasses. But they are women changing the world on Wall Street. And they’re not all bad people. And to me, the depictions of people on Wall Street were always negative. So I wanted to tell the story about the women on Wall Street who are cutthroat. Some are good, some are bad, but they’re really good at their job, and we haven’t seen that before.
Sarah Megan Thomas on her inspiration for Backwards
It was my first film, so I wanted to write something about what I knew intimately. I was an athlete in high school and college and I loved Bend It Like Beckham and sports films and wanted to tell one within the rowing world, which we hadn’t seen before, but also within the Olympic world because what I was really interested in is the concept of failing – or quote unquote, “failing” – at the highest level. So what happens if you’re the number one alternate or the person sitting on the bench at the highest level? And I thought that that would be a really interesting story to tell about women athletes who almost make it, don’t quite make their goal and have to rediscover their life in a new way. And I also wanted to tell a film that was rated PG, family-friendly for young girls because again, when I was watching films, there’s a lot of violence, there’s a lot of sex, and not a lot of vanilla. I use the word vanilla, not in a negative way, but in the sense of vanilla films that families can all watch together that are just simple.
Sarah Megan Thomas on how she approaches new projects
It has to be something that I think I can raise the money for. There’s a good line in Equity: “don’t let money be a dirty word.” And without the amazing investors who have invested in me and my films, you don’t have a movie. So it will have to be something in a commercial genre that I think will sell, that I think the press will pick up on and then once it hits those criteria, yes, I want to tell stories that have yet to be told about women, in commercial genres, through an independent lens. With A Call to Spy, I really loved the “inspired by a true story” aspect, so I think I may go back there for my next film.
Sarah Megan Thomas on women promoting women in the film industry
I think the situation for women is changing, and I think there’s a lot of optimism out there because there’s awareness that there’s a problem, and people are starting to change how they think about women in film and hire more women in film. But it’s still not great, to be honest. If you look at the statistics, there just are not a lot of female producers, writers, and directors. And it’s going to take more female storytellers and diverse storytellers, initiating it and making the project themselves to continue to have these new stories as opposed to stuff like Spider-Man 100.
I think you have to be the change that you want to see. In Equity, there was this aspect of women competing. That was one of the relationships. And I do think that that is true to life. There are a lot of women who really support each other and lift each other up. And then, unfortunately, there is, at times, this kind of queen bee syndrome of “it’s me or her, not me and her.” So on my end, I think it’s really important to lift other women up, promote other women, and not be competitive. For A Call to Spy, I hired a female first-time director – she hadn’t solo directed anything before – and a female first-time production designer. She hadn’t production designed anything before, but she was hugely established and talented as a set designer. And after our film, her next project was Julie Taymor’s film that went to Sundance this year. And now she’s working on a Sandra Bullock film. So it just takes that one step, and it really takes women helping each other actively. We don’t need to mentor. We need to lift each other up and help people with our actions.
Sarah Megan Thomas on the difficulties of raising money for diverse film projects
I think fundraising is always challenging. Equity made a profit, but still it was challenging for the next film. And I was so lucky that I did have a lot of investors that came back for A Call to Spy. But it was a larger budget and I had to raise more. And I think what it takes is to find a community of investors that will not only invest money, but also support and promote the film. They host parties for their friends and they say, “I’m investing in this film or I’m investing in this woman, and this is why, and I think you should join.” And that’s really what has gotten all my films to the end line, is not just finding these amazing investors, but then having them become part of the team and lift everyone up.
Sarah Megan Thomas on current topics that resonate with her as a filmmaker
I think we live in a very divided country, which the election has brought to light, and I think that’s very sad. But I do want to tell more stories that have diverse men and women of all types. The three women in A Call to Spy, one was disabled and American, one was a Muslim pacifist, and one was a Romanian woman who was Jewish and discriminated against. And yet, despite them being from different backgrounds and nationalities and religions, they united to resist a common evil. They found a way, and their diversity is what proved to be critical to the successes of their respective missions. So I think there’s a way in storytelling to tell positive stories, and that doesn’t mean you don’t have drama and conflict, but you can have real heroes, you can have role models, and that’s really where my interest lies.
Sarah Megan Thomas’s advice for aspiring filmmakers
Create the work yourself, at least to start. That’s really how in the film profession, most people are successful. So if you want to be a director, direct a short, write it, direct it, get it done. It doesn’t have to be a big-budget feature right away. The good news is that technology has made it possible for you to shoot a film on your iPhone, but just get something done that you’re really passionate about and that showcases you and your point of view. And my other piece of advice is, “don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.” For every one investor that says yes, you get a hundred “nos”. And that’s true all the way through the film process, from casting to hiring people. You get so many nos, and at any time you can just like, hang your head up and be like, that’s it, I give up. But don’t do that. Just say, I’m going to make this, I’m going to see it through. And then you will.
Stay on the path and don’t take no for an answer and get it done. But I will give you another piece of advice that isn’t related to my career, that was very informative to my life and that was after Backwards. I met with Stacey Snider, and I remember sitting in her office, and she said to me, as we were talking about family at the end of our lovely interview, “take it or leave it.” But my advice is, don’t wait to start a family. I had been waiting to start a family, and I’m so glad that I took that advice and had my son, Christopher and I now have my daughter, Madison. But this is a career where you can get obsessed, and as a woman, don’t feel as though you can’t have a family and have a job, because you absolutely can.