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François Duhamel/Universal

1917 writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns funneled WWI obsessions into the single-shot epic

‘That was massive for me’

It’s every writer’s secret fantasy: you get the call from Hollywood, march into your day job, and tell everyone you’ll see ‘em in the funny books. Maybe one day, flush with the trappings of fame, you will grace them once again with your presence just to show them how far you’ve come.

Screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns isn’t nearly as theatrical about it, but she’s pretty much living the dream these days.

The Scottish-born screenwriter ditched her gig as a bartender when the production team on Penny Dreadful tapped her to join the writing staff midway through the series’ run, but she still visits the old gang plenty. This year, she has lots to crow about with her pub buddies; she’s landed her biggest platform yet as the co-writer for 1917, Sam Mendes’ new WWI drama stylized to resemble a single, unbroken take. She’ll pop up in cinemas again next year when Edgar Wright’s new psycho-thriller Last Night on Soho, which Wilson-Cairns also co-wrote, gets a premiere. Like any talented scribe starting out, she has lots of ideas and she’s gradually finding the right places to put them.

Out of New York Comic Con in October, Wilson-Cairns chatted with Polygon about the myth of the “big break,” the movies that didn’t work out with Mendes, and the secrets she has to keep for Wright. With a wide breadth of expertise, an enthusiasm for the business, and a handful of connections worth their weight in gold, she’s not going anywhere — except, maybe, back to the bar.

Redharied Krysty Wilson-Cairns stands in front of a step and repeat for 1917
Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Owen Hoffmann/Universal Pictures

Polygon: You wrote for Penny Dreadful prior to 1917, two projects of different scale, format, and genre. Which aspect felt like the biggest shift to you?

Krysty Wilson-Cairns: The very first thing was that Penny Dreadful was serial TV, so you’re not telling a beginning-middle-end story over the course of two hours. It’s an open-ended narrative designed to last 10 or 20 or 50 hours. The finiteness of this was the big difference. 1917 is a tight, compact script. We needed a real-time, satisfying arc for these characters. Aside from that, it was working with a new set of people. Working with a director is a world away from working with a showrunner or other writers. You’re in conversation with the person who’s going to translate your work right to the screen, and that’s a joy, because half the work’s already done for you. I wonder how I might imagine something, and Sam [Mendes] says, “Well, here’s how I imagined it,” and I realize I can add to that.

So you were in constant contact during the writing process?

Hangin’ out, best time ever, total dream. Sam Mendes is a legit genius! And a lovely person. This is our third film together, actually. We had two that fell apart due to right issues.

Are you allowed to say what those two were?

Oh, sure. We had The Voyeur’s Motel, the true story about the man who spied on the guests staying at his motel out in Colorado. They made a great documentary about it. Amblin bought the book that Gay Talese had written without knowing that the documentary filmmakers were already exploring this, and there was some kind of kerfuffle I’m not totally clear on. Then we had another one, based on a podcast about a small town in Denmark that also didn’t work for licensing reasons. So when Sam phoned me up for this, I was just at home in my pajamas still waiting for something good to happen. I got the call and tried to play it cool while he explained, ‘I’ve got this big idea, are you free? I want to tell you more about it.’ And I’m like, “Yeah, I think I can clear some time.” I would’ve set fire to my house if it meant freeing myself up.

Then he told me it’s going to be a World War I film, and I gasped, because the WWI/WWII era is my big obsession. There aren’t that many great World War I movies, and an opportunity like this came to me like manna from heaven.

What makes World War I distinct from all other wars?

World War I and II get compared all the time, and the real difference is that World War II had proper baddies. To put it into scripting terms, Nazis make for real good villains — total arseholes, the worst. World War I is a more complicated historical shitshow, for lack of a better word. Empire versus empire, war over treaties, men fighting for king and country without really knowing what that means. What fascinated me about WWI was that the trenches were sometimes as close as 50 yards apart. The man you hated over there was the exact same person as you. By the time we got to 1915 or 1916, a lot of the people had realized that the enemy was human just like them. There was something powerful and unifying about that conflict. That alone is enough to capture my attention. Sixty million people were dragged into the war, and that’s 60 million stories. I was like, “Gimme.”

Shot in the dark: I take it All Quiet on the Western Front was on your mind while scripting?

One of my favorite books. It’s incredible. The scene in the hole in no man’s land when he stabs the Frenchman — I mean, my God. I read that probably too young, about 11, and it stayed with me forever. It’s such an intimate and horrific scene, with two people who don’t want to kill each other forced into an impossible position. That was massive for me. I definitely tried to bring elements of that into 1917, yeah.

How did you and Sam start working together in the first place?

I wrote a script called Aether that made it to the Black List, which was very nice. I was still a bartender when I wrote that script. That was 2014, and John Logan read that, and our agents convened because he was looking for writers on Penny Dreadful’s third season. We ended up having a long conversation, and I subsequently found out that he didn’t understand any of what I said because of the combination of the phone line connection and my mad accent. He was like, “The script was enough for me to hire you.” He gave that to Neal Street, Sam’s company, and head of development Julie Pastor wanted to meet me to talk it over. I kept in touch with them during Penny Dreadful, sent them another script I’d written for Darren Aronofsky, and after that, Sam asked me to co-write Voyeur’s Motel.

It was such an easy collaboration with him. Sometimes, as a woman, you get nervous walking into rooms full of experienced men that they’ll just disregard your opinion. That’s happened, but with Sam, it’s a completely different experience. You feel so safe that you can even pitch your terrible ideas, and sometimes your terrible ideas contain the kernel of a good idea. You have to have that comfort. In one way or another, I’ve been working with or for him my entire career.

You mentioned during a 1917 panel that your first pass at the script had a lot more gristle to it. Can you talk at all about that?

I don’t know if I can even tell you what isn’t in the film, to be honest. The actual structure of the film has remained unchanged the whole way through. Sam told me his idea was to build the script around the one-shot technique. I turned up at his house two days later and we sat down at his kitchen table. He had the idea of messengers going across no man’s land to deliver vital information. What happens to them on that journey? We made a wishlist of what we wanted to see in a World War I movie, dream immersive scenario, and that came together in about four hours. That never changed. So there’s not a lot left out of the movie. I think what he toned down was any impulse to go over the top. We had to be careful about the arc of the story. This was an intricate push and pull.

This script must have required lots of tiny adjustments, because the action on the page has to fill a precise amount of time on camera. Were you on set rejiggering writing during shooting?

Every day. I was in every rehearsal, at every set, on every location. I was with Sam in his garden, and we’d test how far we could walk while saying different dialogue. Lots of tinkering, fine-tuning. The editor, Lee Smith, is critically involved in the sense that he binds the film together, but there’s really no editing in the traditional sense of configuring a scene. What I mean will become more obvious in time. It’s like this: if a line didn’t work, if it wasn’t delivered right, doesn’t matter if that take’s perfect. That one’s going in the trash. There’s no fixing things when you’re working in long takes like this. You can’t cut around it!

a young soldier lifts his friend off the ground of a salty earth trench Universal Pictures

To what extent is the production about making peace with those imperfections? Is there such a thing as the perfect take?

There is, you’ve just got to get it. I’ve seen it, and when it happens, you know it. Sam and Roger Deakins, they’re not quite perfectionists, I’d say more that they strive for brilliance. They want the best version of everything. We could all feel that, and we adopted that. What makes Sam a singular director is that he has a clear idea of what a scene should be, but he’s not rigid about it. He’s open to new ideas. He’s a cool motherfucker.

Some artists talk about this idea of the “big break” that suddenly hits. Others say it’s more like an incremental thing that plays out over time — how have you experienced success?

Second one. This year’s been a surprisingly wonderful year; I’m worried my agent has sold her soul to the devil, because she just keeps coming through for me so hard. This film [and] Edgar Wright’s next film, both shot at overlapping times. I’d been writing for five years, written for TV, done a bunch of movie scripts, but nothing came together. Either the talent couldn’t do it, or the rights issues I mentioned, it just never worked out. Just bad luck. Now, it sometimes feels like I’ve arrived somewhere, but that’s how I felt when Aether made the Black List, and when I got the Penny Dreadful offer. I hope I feel this way every time I get a new job. I hope I never stop feeling this way. I got to quit my bar job! I’m a writer! I do sometimes miss my bar job, though, particularly because I love to drink.

Do you ever go back to the bar you used to work at?

All the time.

That’s a power move.

It’s in Last Night in Soho, the movie Edgar Wright and I wrote. They reconstructed the whole thing! I get to make a little cameo as a bartender, too.

For US audiences unfamiliar with London, what should we know about the neighborhood of Soho before going into that film?

Soho’s a really lively place. I lived above a strip club there for a couple years. It’s a weird little community right in the middle of London, very seedy and dingy. In the ‘60s, it was the center of vice in the UK. It was also the center of art, jazz, and pop. A bit gritty. It’s been a bit sanitized now. It’s not even being redeveloped into expensive condos or anything, they just want to scrub the heart out of it because it seems a bit dirty. They’re getting rid of the sex shops, the strip clubs, the character.

Sounds a bit like what happened with Times Square in the ‘80s.

Exactly, yeah. They’ll redevelop not to put anything new there, but just to push out the whorehouses. I like having them there! People work there! There’s a charm to looking out your window and watching a dominatrix bring a client in the front door on a leash. Come on, city life doesn’t get better!

Everything’s still very much under wraps, but it’s already come out that you and Edgar took Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now as a major inspiration for your script. What did you like about Roeg’s film, that you wanted in yours?

Major reference point. We liked the thriller component. The visual landscapes of England were very important to Edgar and the DP Chung Chung-hoon. It’s definitely an Edgar Wright movie, whatever that might mean to a viewer at this point, it’s just got a bit more of an edge. Like Roeg, he comes at the psycho-thriller from an angle. It’s a very specific thing, which doesn’t mean much, but that’s all I can say.