“It rains a lot in Glasgow, shockingly,” Krysty Wilson-Cairns said, “so you spend quite a lot of time indoors.”
That’s where the Oscar-nominated 1917 screenwriter’s obsession with movies began. Alongside her grandparents, she devoured all the blockbusters. “Three times a week, we would go to Global Video and pick out a couple of VHS movies and we would watch each other’s. So I grew up watching a bit of everything.”
This included a lot of Leslie Nielsen (The Naked Gun, in particular), war movies (“We loved Saving Private Ryan, which obviously influenced 1917 in a way”) and all the James Bond films. But the first movie she truly remembers becoming obsessed with was The Matrix. “It blew my tiny mind.”
When she was 14, the Scottish detective series Taggart came to her hometown to shoot. “I had never seen a set before. I had no concept of how movies came into being. I had never really thought about the people that made them, I just thought about the worlds that existed,” she said. “And then suddenly, I saw trucks and cameras and lights and actors. I was obsessed with it so I kept hanging around.”
Krysty asked the crew if she could watch—and returned every day for the rest of the summer. She then began working as a runner on the show, a job she would continue every summer holiday until she went off to university.
She had intended to study physics, but the experience on set gave her a new outlook on her career. Her mom encouraged her to get a film and TV degree to figure out what, specifically, called to her.
It was during her studies at the Royal Scottish Academy that she discovered art house cinema. “It was like a whole other world was opened up to me. We started with the films of the Weimar Republic and worked our way through,” she said. “And I remember thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’ve gone my whole life without seeing Eraserhead.’”
“I always loved film, but in there, I understood film a bit more. And I knew it was what I wanted to do.”
A screenwriting teacher named Richard Smith set her on her path. “I thought I wanted to be a cinematographer because I like the idea of visually telling a story,” Krysty said. “Cinema is a visual medium.” But the screenwriting unit was a requirement for the degree, so Krysty obliged. “I thought I would treat it like gym class, just turn up and do it and get an automatic pass.”
On the first day, Richard told the class to go home and write a story, any story, so long as it had a beginning, a middle and an end.
“I remember going home that Saturday, thinking, ‘I’m just going to get this done because I’m not going to enjoy it.’ And I wrote this insane story about two guinea pigs plotting to murder their owner. It was really weird,” Krysty said. “I sat down to write it at probably nine in the morning and suddenly, I realized it was five o’clock at night. All that time disappeared in a flash because I was having so much fun. It was like time travel.”
She handed in her story, to which Richard replied, “Give me five more ideas next week.”
“And every week it was five more ideas, five more ideas, 10 more ideas,” she said. “He just pushed me to try all this different stuff. And it became the greatest education in screenwriting I could ever hope for.”
She didn’t feel the pressure of having to go out and make the movie or shoot the sequences she was writing. The car chases and haunted house stories existed on paper.
Richard attended the Los Angeles premiere of 1917 with his wife. Krysty has spoken to him since her nomination for Best Original Screenplay. “He’s very proud,” she said.
To this day, Krysty’s family doesn’t completely understand what she does. “A lot of my family now, when I tell them, ‘I’ve got to go and rewrite that,’ they’ll say, ‘Why are you rewriting it? Why didn’t you just write it good the first time?’ Which is my favorite thing to be told as a screenwriter,” she said with a laugh.
In general, she finds that “people don’t realize how much actually goes into every single sequence” from a screenwriter’s perspective, that it’s not just dialogue or creating a character.
On 1917, in particular, she met a lot of disbelief when she revealed that she wrote it. “People are genuinely shocked. Being a woman doesn’t help with that. It’s sometimes frustrating to be instantly judged in that way,” she said. “People think I’m an executive producer or the wife of someone. I think people don’t expect women to be screenwriters, by and large, and they really don’t expect them to be screenwriters of war movies or action films.”
Most of all, Krysty has appreciated how collaborative screenwriting has turned out to be for her. “The thing I love about writing is how closely you can work with directors, how much of a shared process that is,” she said.
She’s worked with Sam Mendes on two projects before, although they were never produced. Two years ago, he called her up and said, “Third time’s the charm.” He had an idea for a war movie inspired by his grandfather’s stories.
“He didn’t know at the time that I was a huge war buff,” Krysty said. “Not only had my grandfather made me watch a lot of war movies, which I loved, he had also read to me about the war and I was always fascinated by it. It was one of my favorite subjects in school. I’d always been desperate to write a war movie, I just didn’t think I was going to get the chance.”
Krysty was eager to co-write it and Sam agreed. Before they hung up, he added that the film would be shot to look as if it were all one continuous take.
“Up until that point, it was just my dream job. Then it became my really hard dream job,” she said. “But I still wanted it.”
The pair sat down to put a treatment together and figure out the beats of the story: “Here’s the A to B to C of this, here’s the route the boys would take, here’s what would happen to them along the way.” They then wrote a spec script, a proof-of-concept to convince people to give Sam free range to tell the story the way he wanted to.
At the start of this process, Krysty and Sam “came up with a couple of rules, like no exposition.”
“Then I went off and wrote the first draft, and about halfway through, I phoned up Sam and I was like, ‘I think we need some exposition.’ And he was like, ‘You’re right, you’re right, we need some exposition.’” So they revised their rule book.
After her first draft, Sam did a pass, and the two went back and forth, sometimes meeting up to talk through scenes together. “We met in New York and sat for two weeks doing nothing but trying to fix these four scenes that were giving us trouble and driving each other mad a little bit.”
Krysty joined every day for rehearsals and on set, “making a lot of surgical refinements to the spec script. We never changed the structure and order of the scenes from the very first treatment, but working with all the actors gave me the chance to tune the dialogue so it would sound right in their mouths.”
“Every single actor came in to rehearse long before we were shooting: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden, everyone,” she said. “This way, everyone could bring a sense of realness and completeness to these characters, even if they might only be in a scene for a couple of minutes.”
Because of the unique single-shot structure, camera movements, choreography and dialogue had to work together seamlessly. “It’s a wonderful moving circus that you get to be a part of. It’s like the mechanics of a clock: You have to get it all just right so that the timing works.”
Receiving her first Oscar nomination is “absolutely astounding. It’s my life’s dream.”
“This year has been an absolute goldmine of wonderful storytelling. To be amongst the nominees is so unbelievably humbling.”
When Krysty moved to London 12 years ago, she and her friends started hosting yearly Oscar parties. “They’re actually having it without me this year,” she said. “I’ve got something else to do.” She’ll be taking her mom to the ceremony, but her friends on the other side of the Atlantic will watch live, cheering her on.