Krysty Wilson-Cairns never believed she’d get to write a war movie. As a young woman with no feature film screenwriting credits to her name, she wasn’t exactly at the top of anyone’s list — or so she thought. In 2018, Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall) called: Was she free to work on a project loosely based on his grandfather’s memories from World War I? Oh, and by the way, it would all be styled to look like one long, continuous take, making it nearly impossible for Wilson-Cairns to create a compelling narrative arc.
“Then he hung up!” Wilson-Cairns told Refinery29 during a recent phone interview. Undeterred, she showed up on Mendes’ doorstep with ideas and some history books, and the two got to work. “I had my dream job, and I knew it was going to be very, very difficult,” she said.
Nearly two years later, she has a co-writing credit on 1917, a World War I epic about two British soldiers, Blake (Dean Charles Chapman, aka Tommen Baratheon) and Schofield (George McKay), tasked with delivering a letter that might alter the course of the conflict. It’s a war movie, alright, and one that earned Wilson-Cairns her first Academy Award nomination. (1917 is nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.)
In a strange turn of events, this is actually Wilson-Cairns’s third collaboration with Mendes, who executive-produced Penny Dreadful. They had previously worked on two projects that didn’t pan out. Even though 1917 is now in theatres, Wilson-Cairns can’t quite believe it’s out there, any more than she can get over the fact that she met Geena Davis at the Governor’s Ball in October.
At just 32, hers is the kind of meteoric rise that Hollywood makes movies about, but almost never actually happens. The Glasgow native caught her big break in 2014, when a screenplay she wrote made The Black List, Franklin Leonard’s annual list of the most popular screenplays not yet produced. John Logan, creator of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, read it and offered her a job as a staff writer on the show’s third season. WIlson-Cairns quit her job as a London bartender, and that was that. Well, not quite — she stops by once in a while for a drink and a catch-up. Wilson-Cairns also wrote the place into her upcoming thriller with Edgar Wright, Last Night In Soho, and even put some time in behind the bar as an extra during filming. After all, if 1917 teaches us anything, it’s that the past never really stays there.
Refinery29: It’s easy to assume that a movie like 1917 targets a male audience, and you’ve said that you thought you’d never get a job like this in part because you’re a woman. Did it feel like a male-centric world on set?
Krysty Wilson-Cairns: “There's so many women behind the scenes in this — Dame Pippa Harris was one of the producers with Ann Tenggren — and there were so many women on set, so in a strange way, it never felt like a boy's film to me. And actually, even the boys there aren't very boys' clubby. Almost everyone that works with Sam [Mendes] or works with his company is female. I think his company is something like 90% women, all in high positions as well. He's very much of the belief that women can do as much as men, which I'm pleased about.”
There is actually one woman in the movie, a French mother with her baby that Schofield meets in a bombed-out building. Why did you feel it was important to include her?
“First of all, war victims are largely male. Obviously percentage-wise, more men die. An entire generation of men were lost in that war. In Glasgow, where I'm from, so many men died in the First World War that women started working in shipbuilding factories. So, women in a way were the victims of this war, too — women and children. I can't write a movie in which you care about 16 million people dying, but I can write a movie in which you care about a few people dying. That was always the plan; we were trying to be representational across the board.
“Having Lauri (Claire Duburcq) and the baby there was meant to represent all the women that were also profoundly affected by the war, the women that were left behind, and Schofield literally leaves them behind to go out and try and save these men. Also, I would never write a movie that didn't have a single woman in it. Unless it's some weird futuristic world where we've all been wiped out, it's just not true to reality. We would have had more women in , but it was very sparse in the sense that he actually only moved through certain areas where women would be. We only really ever meet one person at a time, except for the scene in the military truck. That was all very tailored to make him feel isolated and alone.”
There’s a Sikh soldier in the truck. Was that also intentionally written into the script?
“I'm quoting him here, but Sam believes that films should be representative of the society that makes them, not just the society they're trying to portray, and so this film was made by people of many colours, of many ages, of many races. And although this region in which this film was set was largely fought by young white men, it's called World War I. Everybody was really tied up in this, and so it would be wrong to think of the war as a white, upper-class affair.”
Did the one-shot conceit change your writing process at all?
“It makes it so much harder. There's two distinct problems to writing a one-shot film. The first is you're writing a movie that takes place in real time, and so it has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. If you take your own life for instance, and focus on any consecutive 90 minute window, does it have a beginning, middle, and end? Does it have interesting characters that cross through it? Does it have character arcs? Does it have action set pieces? Basically, do you have anything that you'd spend $90 million turning into a movie? The answer for me is no.
“So what you have to do as a writer is sort of work out how far you can push reality to the audience before they go, ‘Oh no, I don't believe that any one man could survive this,’ or, ‘I don't believe that this kind of thing could all take place in one day.’
“The other part is nerdy: It's really hard to write one long ribbon of text that tells you how every part of the film plays into each other, and you never cut and you never move away from the characters.”
How does that translate to filming? As a writer, do you have to time out your story so it fits into a specific length of shot?
“Everything was built around the script. We had six months of rehearsals where Sam was working with the actors and performers. I was working, tweaking the script so that it sounded right. And then after we had the movement of the scene and the dialogue mostly down, [cinematographer] Roger [Deakins] was coming in and working out where the camera was going to go, and we would play the scene over and over and over again. After that, Dennis Gassner would come in to figure out things like this is the exact length of trench that we need. We would literally walk these trenches in-field with stakes, and we would measure, ‘This is where we see the bombed out trees,’ and ‘This is where we meet this guy; this is where we do this; this is where we do that.’ A few weeks later, we'd come back and trenches had been dug. Every single line had a purpose, had an action, which is why there's not a huge amount of dialogue, because we were trying to make it feel like reality, and we were trying to fill every frame of the film with information. It's surprisingly difficult, harder than I thought it was going to be.”
Nazis were the big bad in World War II, but World War I is more abstract — the conflict comes down to royal cousins and empires not getting along. How do you make people care about that?
“The Nazis are the fucking worst! World War II is a war versus evil. World War I is so messy. In a way, there weren’t any villains in the First World War apart from the politicians and the kings and the empires. They sent young men to die for no reason. You weren't fighting the man opposite you out of hate. You weren't trying to save civilization. It's a very complicated political shit storm. You have 10 million men from all sides, including Russia, fighting people who are just like themselves in the opposite trenches.
“Also, all the people that were swept into the war weren't really soldiers and didn't have that much training compared to the Second World War. You basically have ordinary men. You have accountants and plumbers and janitors and artists and actors, all swept into this war, and so in a way, it's war about humanity, it's a war about people. Everyone's a human being.”
What was like when you saw the finished film for the first time?
“It was astounding. I was totally blown away by it. I actually first started seeing the film when we were on set, and I think it was about day four, day five, Sam told me to come into his trailer, and he showed me the first six minutes of footage, blended together. I remember thinking, Oh thank god, at least it works. Up to that point, I was like, Good, luck everybody. I was pretty sure it would work, but I didn't realize it would work so well, and so that was genuinely shocking.”
The film is considered a Best Picture front-runner at the Oscars. What's it been like doing the awards circuit?
“I was very kindly invited to the Governors Ball, where Geena Davis was getting an award. I'm uncommonly, unbelievable obsessed with Geena Davis. I just think she's amazing. She is probably the reason I have a job, because there was a push to get more women into writing. I met her at the afterparty, and I was literally a mess. I was like, I love you so much! Thank you for everything that you do for us. And everyone was looking at me like, ‘What have you done? Why are you like this? Be a professional!’ But I wasn't. I was totally, unbelievably shocked. I'm a writer. I make stuff up in my pajamas for a living. I don't get out that much. I met Danny DeVito last week!”
You worked in a bar before getting a job as a full-time writer. Do you ever go back there?
“I literally was there today saying Merry Christmas to the people that own it, because they were always very good to me. I love it there. I hope to one day own it. Last Night in Soho was actually shot in the bar that I worked in, and they put me in the background as a bartender pulling pints. Because it was quite last minute, they were like, ‘Oh, we need to get you some clothes. What would you have worn?’ I said, I literally still have the clothes that I worked in four years ago in the bar. I could just wear them. So I found myself literally as if I had fallen through a hole in time, which I was in the bar working, but at the same time, all these cameras were there shooting Thomasin McKenzie's scene. It was very surreal.”
You’ve worked with all male directors so far. Any women directors you’d like to collaborate with in the future?
“So many, so many. I just watched Little Women. I thought Greta Gerwig is just unbelievably brilliant. I loved the  version of Little Women, you know? Christian Bale was my Laurie. I was genuinely surprised that I was so utterly, totally entranced. I was watching the movie to try and judge it for awards, but I was utterly lost in how much I loved it.
“I love Kathryn Bigelow obviously, because she does war movies, which I think more women should be doing. But then I guess really any female directors. I've been doing this for five years, and I haven't worked with a female director, and it's not from want of trying.”