'1917' and How to Write a One-Shot Script: "Fly Blind and Make It Up as We Go Along"

Writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns - Getty - H 2019
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Scottish writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns reveals her shock when she learned of Sam Mendes’ plans for his World War I epic and how they crafted the screenplay: "Super rewarding, but really hard."

While the director-cinematographer pairing of Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins might be a tried-and-true recipe (having so far resulted in Oscar noms and over a billion dollars at the box office), when it came to World War I epic 1917, a fresh voice was thrown into the mix. Scottish writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns was tapped by Mendes for her very first feature credit to collaborate on the screenplay (even before the director knew he was speaking to a World War I expert). Wilson-Cairns, who has Edgar Wright's Last Night in Soho on the horizon, tells THR about the phone call from Mendes that changed it all and why three really is the magic number.

As your first feature, how did you come to work on 1917?

I thought I'd just start big! I'd worked with Sam Mendes a whole bunch of times. I started on Penny Dreadful, which he exec produced, so Sam and [producing partner] Pippa Harris knew me from that. And I had written two other films for Sam, but both fell apart because of rights issues.

What were they?

One of them was The Voyeur's Motel. There was a big splashy announcement that I was writing it and there was Sam and Steven Spielberg. And then, just as I handed in the first draft, they were like, "Oh, did anyone hear about this documentary that's being made about this exact same thing?" Turned out the rights had been sold twice. And [Spielberg's production company] Amblin didn't actually have them. It was a cluster! And then I had another project, which fell apart. And then Sam phoned me up for 1917 and said, "Third time's a charm!"

What did he tell you about the plot of 1917?

He told me about his grandfather's story, and one image that he'd had for years about a messenger carrying a letter through No Man's Land in a race against time. What he didn't know was that I was a World War I buff, which helped as well and was pure luck. And then the very last thing he said in that call was, "By the way, it's all going to be one shot," and hung up on me. I was just standing there and I was like, "What the fuck?"

Where did you go from there?

Well, I hung up the phone, because I was just listening to dial tone. And then I googled one-shot movies and one-shot scripts. I found a couple of movies but couldn't find any scripts. I didn't even know what a script would look like if there was only one shot, so I was beginning to get a bit anxious and thought, "Oh, right, we're going to just have to fly blind and make it up as we go along." And that was really what happened. I met Sam a couple of days later. We sat down at his kitchen table and he was like, "No pressure, but this is where Skyfall was perfected." And I was like, "OK, lucky table!"

So how did it come together?

Sam had ideas for sequences and for a story, and we just put together an outline and passed it back and forth. And actually, the structure of the outline we came up with that first morning is the exact same structure of the film, which has never happened to me before, and I question if it's ever happened to any writer ever. Obviously, character and dialogue and everything was constantly refined. Even on set I was constantly doing dialogue work. Writing a single-shot film is just so hard. Super rewarding, but for the whole middle part, really hard.

Mendes is obviously a hugely successful, award-winning filmmaker. You'd think he wouldn't need to collaborate.

Here's the thing about Sam: I think he's visionary. I think he's one of the greatest directors, writers, producers out there working today. I'm obviously slightly biased. There's several things that make Sam amazing and some of it is his talent and his genius. But the other thing that makes him really incredible is that he listens, he's very open and very collaborative. I like to describe him as a man that leads from the front. He knows what he wants. He knows how to achieve really incredible drama and incredible images. But he also isn't afraid to listen to you and to change his mind, to let you pitch your stuff. And so as a co-writer, he's generous, he's collaborative, he's very open and very honest. He quite simply bares his soul in front of you, and because he's so brilliant, that inspires you to do the same.

Were there any elements of the film that were your suggestions that you're particularly proud of?

Because of the nature of Sam's collaboration, I can't actually tell you where my ideas start and end. And that's the way a collaboration should be: I don't know which is mine and which is his because it's all ours. I think that's a really important thing, though. But there's many things I'm incredibly proud of in the film. There are certain scenes that have a real kind of emotional resonance with me because of stuff I found in the research or because of my own experiences. The cherry orchard scene, for instance, is something that I find really profound. My school had a cherry orchard. When I was in Albert in France I saw a cherry orchard and there were petals on the river. My gran used to sweep up the blossoms in our garden. So it's all wrapped up in so many different things. But all of this gets like that for both Sam and me. It's such a personal script because we put our souls into it.

You're next project sounds slightly different. You've been working with Edgar Wright on Last Night in Soho.

I basically hang out with A-list, British, genius directors! That's my exclusive friend zone. Actually, it was Sam Mendes who introduced me to Edgar. 

So was 1917 already written when you started working with Edgar?

No, Sam actually introduced me to Edgar before he phoned me up for 1917, a couple of years ago now. I'm obviously a huge fan of Edgar's, I love his work, and Sam was just doing a nice thing. But Edgar and I really hit it off and Last Night in Soho is obviously set in Soho among some of its more seedier aspects. I used to live above a strip club in Soho so had a lot to talk about just from my own experiences. He told me a rough idea he had for the movie and wanted to have a tour around the seedier parts, so I took him to all the haunts. And a couple of months later he phoned me up and said he really wanted to write the idea that he'd told me about and was like, "I'd like to do it with you." And I was obviously like, "Hello! Yes, of course!" So that was really wonderful. And obviously, you know, it's got female leads and it's something I'm incredibly proud to be a part of. It's everything you want from an Edgar Wright movie. 

So which other A-list, British, genius directors have you been hanging out with?

Ha, I don't know. Whomever Sam or Edgar introduce me to next!

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.