Download: Oscar Nominated Screenwriter and World Class Triathlete Lesley Paterson on Adapting 'All Quiet on the Western Front' for the Screen
The story of how Lesley Paterson gained and maintained the film rights to the classic novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, is worthy of a feature-length documentary. Lesley and her writing partner Ian Stokell held onto the rights year after year largely by using her triathlon race winnings to do so. It’s no small amount of money for a regular person (not that Lesley Paterson is a normal person, as you will see), but her career as an athlete kept the rights with her and Ian until director Edward Berger signed on and Netflix picked up the film.
What came at the end of this long journey is one of the greatest anti-war war films ever made. All Quiet is a searing look at WWI from the German point of view, a POV built around shame. It’s an astonishingly effective movie, one that has received nine Oscar nominations from the Academy, including one for Paterson, Stokell, and Berger’s screenplay.
In our conversation, Lesley and I speak to the harrowing nature of the film, and it’s long and unique road to the screen.
Awards Daily: I have interviewed Oscar nominated screenwriters before, but I have never interviewed a world class triathlete. You’ve been competing and winning championships for years now, but you haven’t had a film credit since 2009. How did you end up here with this movie?
Lesley Paterson: I studied my undergraduate and graduate in theater and film, so I’ve always had a huge draw towards film. I always knew I wanted to be in film and had produced some, as you saw, some lower budget films, I’ve always been involved in writing. Writing is something you can do even when you are competing full-time. because certainly in endurance sports, you spend hours on your own, right? You’re in these imaginary worlds and that’s how you kind of pass the time.
I was working with Ian Stokell at the time, and we were writing other scripts. We had met through another project and connected because of sport, and we had a love of the same kind of films. Because Ian had actually been in the military and his grandfather had died in World War I, he was very close to All Quiet on the Western Front, the novel. I had read it in high school and absolutely loved it. It’s so poetic and the themes of betrayal of the youthful generation, I just felt like I could really relate to it, especially being Scottish and having an underdog mentality–this sort of fighting against the upper brass and looking out for the everyman. Ian and I were going through a bookstore one day and they were promoting the novel. Both of us picked it up and started reading it and were like, gosh, a film hasn’t been made based on this for a number of years.
I wondered who had the rights. We’re both kind of mavericks as you can well imagine. And as you can tell from my athletic career, being very much on the outside, of the industry, we thought, well, fuck it. Let’s see what we can do. We then sought out who we should approach. We went to the estate and New York University Press and the rights were available. And we just couldn’t…I mean, honestly, it was mind blowing because I think at Universal, they just dropped it and nobody else had picked it up. We did our research, pitched our take, and Netflix said yes. So we quickly cobbled together some cash, my husband and I. We put most of the money in, got a lawyer and did that whole bit and thought, oh my God, this is it. We’ve made it. Of course the next step is adapting the damn thing, which is incredibly challenging, because the novel itself is like excerpts of a diary.
Awards Daily: Which doesn’t necessarily lend itself to easy adaptation.
Lesley Paterson: It’s absolutely gorgeous, but, there’s no real through line. So, we really dug into the themes that we felt were important that we wanted to respect in a novel, and then did a lot of research around World War I and what we felt was most important. For us, it was really that historical piece because as Brits, and as allies, and as the winners we were never told about the full context. Especially about the armistice and the last six hours of the war. We were never told about what Germany had to pay back and how devastating it was to their country. We felt that was incredibly important and created a wonderful dramatic through line for the story.
We embarked on writing the adaptation. and at the same time I was getting back into competing full-time. Trying to get it off the ground was incredibly difficult sixteen years ago. I mean, gosh, a foreign film, you’re not gonna get that funded for any kind of money, nor for a World War I film. All of that stuff was just so new to us. Of course, we’re intelligent people. We had a sense of the industry, but we were very much on the outside. So then it was about learning the business and how to put the pieces together. We went on all these crazy journeys, getting cast and producers attached.
Just navigating the landscape basically. And all the while I was competing and of getting better and better as an athlete and, winning world titles and what have you, which was funding our pursuit. To be able to maintain the option on the film rights meant every year you’re having to pay10 or 15,000 bucks. I mean, who has that kind of money lying about if you’re not a studio or a big producer? We certainly didn’t. My race winnings were almost like bonus money to put towards the film, because you can never rely on income as an athlete in my sport. As long as our bills were paid, we could put my winnings towards the film rights. I think in many ways, having this sport was very helpful beyond just the money. You put the hours in, you go out for your 10 mile run, you do your hundred mile bike ride, you do your race, you get your podium. It’s very definitive compared to the film business. I think in many ways that kept my sanity. And I was doing well in the sport. We were just so passionate about making the film. We felt that this story had to be told,
Awards Daily: It’s just remarkable to think that triathlon race winnings partially funded this incredible movie. How did you get connected to the film’s director, Edward Berger?
Lesley Paterson: As with everything in this industry, it’s through somebody, through another somebody, and then through another somebody. It started with a producer we were working with at the time, Daniel Dreifus. It was his agency’s lawyer that knew producer Malte Grunert and he passed on the script to him as Malte was working on a different project with Edward. They thought we had a really great take and that there was this massive hole here that it’s never been done in German.
They came to us with their pitch, and of course we thought that it was perfect–Edward’s vision coupled with Malte’s credentials. It’s one of those instances in life where you just spent the last 14 years making all the wrong decisions, then all of a sudden something feels so right. It was instant. Then it was a case of, here you go guys, let’s make this happen. They always talk in this business about overnight success, but the reality is you plug and you plug away and then all of a sudden it happens.And that’s kind of how it was, you know, Netflix jumped all over it. We presented it at the Berlin Film Market in early 2020, and everybody wanted a piece.
Awards Daily: You mentioned that this is challenging material because you have a classic book and a classic film from 1930 that you have to sort of compete with. You’re trying to do something different and build upon what has already been done, right? Because why produce the same thing over again. On top of that, you have this challenge of trying to make an anti-war war movie, which is very difficult because war lends itself to action, which creates an adrenaline rush. You can be entertained by a war movie in a way that this movie avoids. How did you manage that balance?
Lesley Paterson: What Edward brought to the table as a German, that sense of shame and the fact that in German culture, there is no such thing as a hero. That really cemented it all for us. Also, by building in the armistice in the last six hours and the fact that men were still getting killed when the war was already over, that was like a microcosm of the thematic essence. That anti-war thematic essence, that was really tragic. We had the nuts and bolts there, but what Edward and Malte brought to the table was that infusion of German shame that Ian and I were not aware of beyond having a conceptual idea of it. What is beautiful about this film and why audiences are responding to it is because you have that outside-in perspective that Ian and I brought, and then you have the inside-out authenticity.
We had more context to go with the naturalism, and the immersiveness of all of the elements. Then I think about things like casting choices. I think by not casting name actors, it was so critical because you don’t know who they are. They represent the everyman. and then really leaning into those moments of travesty and drilling down and not giving a respite to the audience. That’s a bold move, right? I mean, shit, we sat at the end of the Tiff premier of the film and it was fucking silence. and we’re thinking, oh my god, they don’t like it. But it, but it wasn’t that. It’s just that, I think it’s done something to audiences that very few films do.
Awards Daily: This film is not heavy on dialogue at all. Did you find it more challenging to manage structure without that much dialogue?
Lesley Paterson: Yes. Story architecture is at the essence of a good screenplay not dialogue, and unfortunately, people don’t always see that it is an absolute mathematical problem to figure out how you are going to hit those beats and have the impact that you want to have in a way that does not reveal the structure. It is so hard. And then you’re trying to stay true to the essence of a novel that is a masterpiece. Therefore, for me, it became more about rhythm and pacing. One of the biggest things if you’re not focused on dialogue is juxtaposition. Juxtaposition in every sense of the word, whether that’s music or sound, whether that’s what scene butts up against another one, and then considering the visual. You’ve got human nature versus the intensity of the battlefield, and then of course you’ve got the decisions made by the upper brass.
You’ve got all of these different layers that go on that you’re trying to figure out. Then when you do have dialogue, it really needs to matter. But my biggest pet peeve in war films is when all they’re talking about is how awful it is. Because do you really talk about that? You don’t, but yet you need to convey how awful it is. My most favorite scene is actually in the latrine with the letters, because it shows such immense humanity and it tells you everything that you need to know about the fact that these men are forever changed and will never be able to go home.
But it’s done in such a beautiful way that exposes it. There’s a shock in it. There’s a shock in it for Paul when he finds out that Kat actually has a kid. There’s so many moments in that scene, and they’re so subtle and clever. I think as well, when it comes to action, how do you keep the audience engaged? Because everybody’s seen everything before. And action to me only means action. It only has an impact if it’s driven by character, or by emotion. or a choice. So then you have to figure out, well, why is this action important? How does it drive the story? How does it drive a theme and how does it impact the character or be driven by the character? Every piece of action in our film has that. So you’re then having to really tell your story in ways that are actually more complicated.
Awards Daily: I found the enthusiasm of the new cadets to be really fascinating as they are readying to go to war. They think they’re doing this for all the right reasons. It doesn’t even matter whether they think that later or not. It’s just they have no clue what they’re getting into. They’re putting on dead men’s coats that have been recycled from the battlefield. Then they go to war. And as you mentioned before, the war was over and they were still sent out to fight by a general living in a beautiful French villa who refuses to let the war be over for himself.
Lesley Paterson: That’s it. And you can’t like it. It’s so shocking. And that happened. It happened on the German side, it happened on the French side. It happened on the British side. There’s so many instances of that in that war specifically. It’s like this playground of intense moments to investigate character and the psychology of character at every stratosphere. It’s just amazing how it’s all come together and I truly think that when you have someone like Edwards who is a real visionary, that can stay so true to what he believes in, and who brings all of these amazing people together, and they stay on course, it all adds up to something very unique. That’s when you end up with something that’s incredibly elevated,
Awards Daily: You had referenced Paul and Kat. I think what I found about the movie for me, with their relationship is how in war you might end up with what you might consider a strange bedfellow. Paul is much younger, he’s more educated, and Kat can’t even read his wife’s own letters to him. He has to have somebody else do it for him. There’s this tendency not to want to humanize Germans who went to war, whether it’s World War I or World War II, but that is a beautiful and ultimately tragic relationship. Tell me about putting their unlikely friendship together.
Lesley Paterson: I think it was so important to consider what does comradeship mean in war, and how close these men can get. I mean, they almost become lovers in a sense. And I don’t mean in a romantic sense. How do you convey the potency of that and that nothing else is like it. That was really important. For us, because we did not go back to the home front, which is quite a big piece of the book, we had to really illustrate through their relationship, that sense that they’re forever changed and they’ll never be able to go home again in the most ordinary sense.
There were certain parts of the book that we had to build upon and put into their relationship. There was a little bit of light relief in their relationship that was very important. Again, it’s about rhythm, in terms of how you are impacting the emotion of the audience. It was really important to have that contrast between the naivete of Paul and the experience of Kat. Then at the end of Paul’s arc, he becomes very numb and mechanistic and animalistic. This lack of luck, the arbitrariness of who lives and dies in war, we needed to show that.
Awards Daily: I’d love to know what it was like for you watching the film back for the first time. The thing that really unsettled me, aside from the visceral nature of the film, was the music. Volker Bertelmann’s score is so unnerving. I could never get comfortable watching this movie, which I think is the point, right?
Lesley Paterson: It is 100% the point. My most favorite line that Edward said to Volker was, “I want you to destroy the images.” Which is perfect, right? That’s exactly what he did. It was a massive learning curve for me about the role of music in a film. Volker and Edward elevated the film and they’ve made it modern, and yet old at the same time–it’s everything. For me watching it for the first time, it was really traumatic. I was exhausted after so many years of trying to get it off the ground. You’ve got all of this elation from feeling like I was seeing a masterpiece in front of me. There’s our words on the page, our ideas. I was exhausted, elated and I was kind of…I was sweating. I was stiff as a board. Getting straight on the phone and calling Edward and relaying how the film was received by me and Ian. He was so relieved.
Awards Daily: The response to the film here in America, and I would say specifically by the Academy, to recognize the film in so many different categories, including your own screenplay nomination, has to feel amazing.
Lesley Paterson: It’s unbelievable. And for me the most exciting part is that the younger generation is watching it. All of my friends’ kids have been telling them, mom, dad, you must watch this film. That is awesome because what does it tell us? It tells us that the youthful generation—they want to see content that matters. We can do this. We can make films that hit four quadrants that still have an impact, that say something. And you know, all you ever want with your stories is to raise a discourse. That’s what this film has done. That’s the best part. That’s what excites me about moving forward and the stories that I want to tell. I want them to matter and I’ve learned a shit ton on this project. So hopefully I can take that to the next ones.