A film crew captures Vienna’s clandestine allure for the espionage thriller City of Spies
The backdrop certainly isn’t reassuring: I’m in front of a vape shop on a deserted backstreet in a dubious part of Favoriten, Vienna’s rundown 10th district, nervously double-checking the time and address on my email. The newly painted storefront – plugging vials of flavored nicotine for e-cigarettes in gaudy colors – seems both mundane and menacing, with a distinct air of not quite what it seems. But that’s exactly the point: Inside, British filmmaker Philip Moran and his team are shooting a scene for City of Spies, an independent spy thriller set in Vienna. Two years in the making, the film has long been a passion project for writer, director and local resident Moran.
He’s certainly not the first: Vienna has long been regarded as the spy capital of the world (see “Capital of Cloak and Dagger,” Met Feb, 2017), with intelligence agencies drawn by Austria’s neutrality, international organizations and very permissive espionage laws. Experts estimate around 8,000 agents operate in the city, though I’d posit the really good ones haven’t been counted. And while Vienna has changed much since Orson Welles hid in dark doorways as Harry Lime in The Third Man, its grip on the imagination has not.
The story follows 21-year-old, Kindra Starr, who steps into the hidden world of her missing spy parents in the hope of finding the answer to their disappearance. Moran describes it as “a quirky thriller, part The Americans, part Fargo,” and the first in a series where Starr moves up the ranks.
The scene they’re filming as I arrive has Starr, played by British actress Scarlett Sheriff, trying to duck out of view after she suspects she’s being tailed. The small but dedicated crew file in behind the camera as Moran eyes the frame of the shot for her entrance. Though the scene is brief, her natural charm is engaging, her dedication evident.
Lights, Camera, Covert Action
The crew breaks for lunch and, strolling down the street, I get the chance to chat with Moran. The man behind City of Spies is actually a doctor of physics, but a long-held fascination for film has led him to finally create his feature debut. Before City of Spies, he worked on numerous film projects for international organizations like the UN and the OSCE, including covering the IFE14 in Jordan, a field exercise by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization simulating a nuclear inspection. It’s Moran’s involvement in these circles that helped inspire the story. Set within the expat diplomatic community, the cast features many familiar faces from the English-language theater scene, including David Wurawa, Dave Moskin, Joanna Godwin-Seidl and Alan Burgon.
Moran explains that his motivation to create a young female lead was driven by his desire to avoid conventions and his love of both twists and relatable figures. We talk over many of recent TV’s great modern protagonists: Walter White, Tony Soprano and Dexter Morgan, each of them deeply flawed yet eminently human. And while City of Spies’ protagonist Kindra Starr is of the same breed – an everywoman driven to extremes – her innocence and apparent fragility also toys with the viewer’s assumptions, making Starr’s transformation from ingénue to veteran all the more stark.
The changing political climate over the long course of the film’s production has certainly given the project a renewed urgency. Moran points out that Britain’s EU referendum and America’s presidential election were both marred by allegations of foreign interference and social media manipulation, giving City of Spies an additional poignancy.
The Cold War may be history, but the Great Game is far from over. And the “City of Spies” is the perfect backdrop for a world where public opinion is malleable, truth is a matter of consensus and private information is the greatest currency.
City of Spies will be released in spring 2018. facebook.com/cityofspiesfilm