Writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns and director Sam Mendes initially bonded over a handful of projects that ultimately never made it to the screen. One such project centered around the bizarre and perverse backstory behind Gay Talese’s controversial novel The Voyeur’s Motel. A competing documentary eventually stalled their effort, but their collaborative relationship persisted, resulting in Universal Pictures’ critically acclaimed 1917.
Based on memories and experiences related by their grandfathers and further honed by influential art of the period, 1917 tells the story of two soldiers – Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) – tasked with the seemingly impossible mission of relaying a warning message across the No Man’s Land of the Hindenburg Line. In designing the film, Mendes tossed Wilson-Cairns a significant curve ball – the film would be shot so that the events appeared in real time. The challenge forced Wilson-Cairns and Mendes, sharing joint credit on the original screenplay, to rethink traditional war narratives and character development.
Here, Wilson-Cairns talks about the inspirations – both personal and artistic – behind the events of 1917. She also reveals how subtle hints referenced throughout the film reinforce the main characters’ humanity. The finished product feels miles away from her previous work on Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. It’s a huge testament to the power of her writing that the screenplay manages to balance the technical requirements of the film with a realistic expression of the human experience during war.
Awards Daily: 1917 marks your third collaboration with Sam Mendes, but your first to actually make it to the screen. I’ve read the novel The Voyeur’s Motel, which should have been one of your first projects. What would that story have looked like?
Krysty Wilson-Cairns: The screenplay was actually less about the book and more about the people who made the book. It was about Gay Talese, and the voyeur himself and their relationships with their respective wives. Those two couples really contrasted each other, and it was more about the making of the book than the actual events of the book. The book is just a collection of horrific and creepy events, which we never actually intended to turn into a film. The documentary [Netflix’s Voyeur] is really incredible. It’s one of my favorites.
AD: Jumping forward to 1917, what is it about World War I that fascinates you as a writer?
KWC: I think for me I am fascinated by both world wars. Wars is humanity, people pushed to their absolute extreme and their absolute limit. So, as a writer, that’s inherently fascinating. The first world war was of particular interest to me, not because my grandfather fought in it. He was profoundly affected by the aftermath of it, and he really believed, in the first world war, humans faced hell on earth. These normal everyday people – accountants, actors, painters, garbagemen – ended up going to fight a battle as opposed to trained soldiers. Everyone who went into it was a human being who was profoundly changed, and [my grandfather] really believed, if you can learn from history, then you can be better people and have a better civilization in the future. I became fascinated by the catastrophe that was the first world war. To me, it’s like reading an earthquake in slow motion as you read accounts of it. As a writer, it’s such a rich piece of history that resulted in a wealth of great art – both books and paintings. That all really resonated with me.
AD: So, what art then inspired you as you were writing this screenplay?
KWC: So, there’s a landscape by Nash called “The Ypres Salient At Night.” It’s one soldier in a trench, and a flare is bursting overhead. That really inspired the second half of the film – this isolation and this lost world and this weird light in the sky and this mythic quality to the whole thing. Then you’ve got Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum est,” to me that was Schofield. That was how Schofield would feel. For Blake, I thought like he would feel like “The Lone Ranger.” Those were the books my grandfather read as a boy, and it made him want to be a hero. Stuff like that, a strange mishmash of things that go into your head when you’re writing, don’t always necessarily relate back to the original subtext, but there’s some kernel in them that makes you think of this or that character.
AD: Tell me about the writing process with Sam Mendes.
KWC: After our first call in which he told me it would be one shot and then hung up on me… (Laughs) We sat down at his kitchen table. I had turned up with around 30 World War I books. I’d go into my storage unit to get my grandfather’s book and dust them off because I knew there were a lot of weird things in there that are now out of print. We sat and talked just about the structure, the A to B to C of the story. One man carrying a message becomes two men carrying a message. We got a map of the Hindenburg Line so that we could understand the different locations. Then, we really mapped out the heart of it – the characters.
We spoke at length about who Schofield and Blake were. How they were different. How they were similar. You needed to understand every aspect about them. We spent a lot of time doing that. After a few days, we had the structure and the characters, and I wrote the first draft. We rewrote a few times back and forth with me in London and him in New York. It was a globetrotting script, which was nice for me because I usually write in my pajamas in London.
AD: You talk about mapping out the qualities and backgrounds of the characters. How do those details appear in the finished product?
KWC: Traditionally, you would use exposition either a cutaway or a flashback. Because this film was written to be one shot, we didn’t have exposition in that sense. So, what you have to do then is be very crafty about it. In that first 15 minutes, you actually learn a great deal about them without them ever saying anything specific about themselves. Blake’s first instinct when he receives that letter is to tear it open because he’s desperate to hear about his family. To get information from home. Whereas Schofield doesn’t want any information at all. He’s probably asked his wife not to write him anymore.
So, there’s all that kind of stuff, this subtle exposition. It defines who these men are and how they react to things. Later, another scene sets up Schofield’s status as a father. You have to use scenes like these because you can’t just have the actors talk and talk and talk because people don’t really behave that way. As a writer, you’ve got to give just enough information without losing people. The handy thing about that is, when you’re working with Sam and Roger [Deakins], the writing isn’t the only way you can develop characters. The shots tell you how they feel. It really was a multi-disciplinary way of telling the story.
1917 opened in limited release on Christmas Day. It expands nationwide on January 10, 2020.