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Interview: 1917’s Krysty Wilson-Cairns

by Leora Heilbronn

Screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns is a gem. I can’t recall the last time I spoke with someone with so much fervour for their art and yet so humble and down-to-Earth about their major accomplishments (and a kind person to boot). Wilson-Cairns has co-written (with director-producer Sam Mendes) one of the most dazzling movies of the year, 1917, which follows Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) as they attempt to deliver a message across enemy lines during the First World War. Oh and it’s shot all in one take.

I sat down with Krysty Wilson-Cairns during the Toronto stop of the 1917 promotional press junket and the following is an edited and condensed version of our lovely chat. (*Spoilers ahead*)

*This interview originally ran on December 25, 2019*

Brief Take: It’s such a pleasure to meet you and talk with you because your screenplay is phenomenal and also your passion for your work is so infectious.

Krysty Wilson-Cairns: Oh good! I’m just really happy to be here. This is my first rodeo; it’s wild and I think it’s great. I’m just so happy people like the film. [laughs]

BT: Did you think they wouldn’t?

KWC: Well, you know when you work on something for so long – it’s been two years of my life, and I mean really two years because I was on set every day and at every rehearsal, and I was there in post, I was heavily involved – so it’s your child, and you think it’s cute, but some people’s kids aren’t cute, but they don’t know that. So it’s lovely when it starts to go out into the world and people like it. I mean I showed it to my family at the premiere and that was so special to me. My Mum was grabbing my hand the whole time and then calling me bad names when bad things happened. “I can’t believe you did that!” and I said “I’m sorry!”. But it’s such a joy. This is my dream job, what do I not have to be enthusiastic about, you know what I mean? [laughs]

BT: After having worked on the film for two years, is there a particular moment in it where you’ve watched it and thought “Oh wow, I’m so glad with how that turned out”?

KWC: The whole film. [laughs] Actually I think the part I’m most struck by is everything that happens in Accous. Everything that happens there is pure cinema because it’s the camera, it’s the acting, it’s the editing, it’s the score all manifesting its way to make you, the audience, understand the world and what Schofield is going through without him having to say it. I think as a screenwriter this might sound stupid, but when you don’t have to use dialogue to convey things, that’s cinema. That’s the crux of where something really special happens. And so every time I watch that, where the camera goes through the window and finds him down below with the flares, I just feel like “holy fucking shit! I can’t believe I had anything to do with that!”, you know what I mean? I’m just totally blown away by it. [laughs]

BT: What did your family think of the film?

KWC: Oh my Mum loved it. My Mum had read the script but even afterwards she was still crying. I said to her “You knew that was going to happen”, and she was still sobbing. My Mum and my Aunt saw it and my best friend all came down from Scotland to see it and they were all just blown away by it. It was so nice. I said “this is what I’ve been trying to do my whole life” and they were like “oh we get it now”. [laughs]

BT: During this whirlwind promotional tour, have you had one big ‘pinch me’ moment?

KWC: I mean I met the Prince of Wales, I met Prince Charles. I was standing there, because you line up in a little row and they come and greet you, and I forgot how to curtsy. You’re given this fact sheet and how to curtsy and I was thinking “why can’t I recall it?”. And I remember looking down to see the amazing producer Pippa Harris and I thought “I’ll just copy her”, and the whole way through that I thought “life got really weird this year”. [laughs]

BT: It was only a few years ago when you were working full time as a bartender, so I can only image how surreal that must have been.

KWC: Exactly! And in that time, ok it’s been a few years, but it’s still pretty short. [giggles]

BT: I read that in your next film, Last Night in Soho, you re-created the bar that you used to work at.

KWC: Yeah, I wrote a film with Edgar Wright which comes out Fall next year, and it’s all set in Soho where I lived. I used to live above a strip club there, which wasn’t the best place to live, but it was really safe. I worked at the Irish bar on the corner and oh my god, I had two bouncers, it was the safest place I ever lived. So I worked at this bar and Edgar had this idea to have a scene set there. Sam (Mendes) introduced us, so he came to me and said “can you take me to some of these places” because there’s quite a lot of secret bars and clubs. And I was like “yeah, absolutely”, so I took him around, and then a few months later he said “would you write it with me?”, and I was like “oh my god, yeah I will! You didn’t even have to ask”. I mean I was pleased that he did because I wouldn’t have known otherwise, but yeah! So part of it needed to take place in a bar and I thought “there’s nowhere I know better”, so I put it in. And then when we were shooting there they put me in the background as a bartender, so I’m in that. I don’t have any lines because I’m not an actress, believe me, but it was really special to do that. But it was so strange because they called me up and said “we need a costume for you, what did you used to wear to the bar?” and I said “I still have it”, and they said “oh, you could just wear that”, and it was the same stuff I had worn three years before. There was still a whiff of Guinness on it and I thought “I really should wash this better”. [laughs]

BT: Did you give tips to the other actors playing bartenders in that scene?

KWC: I was! I asked one guy “you know how to pour, right?” and he said “umm, yeah”, and I said “no, no, keep the glass at an angle”. And then of course how to sneak a drink, but then I thought “no, I’m on a film set”.

BT: They weren’t just props?

KWC: Oh no, nothing but the best for an Edgar Wright movie!

BT: What was it like collaborating with Edgar?

KWC: Do you know what? He’s so creative, so funny, such a joy to work with…I’m such a huge fan of his. Getting to sit in rooms with him and talk story and play with a whiteboard was just so great.

BT: I mean you’re in the city where all film fans here worship Edgar Wright because we’re all so thankful for his adaptation of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, on top of the rest of his amazing filmography, of course.

KWC: Scott Pilgrim is one of my favourite movies as well. I just think what he was doing with comic book movies before they were becoming what they are now was just so cool.

BT: Back to 1917, this is the third movie that you’ve collaborated with Sam on.

KWC: Yes. Well the other movies fell apart because of rights issues, so he called me up and said “third time’s the charm”, and I was like “ok!”. And then he said “I want to co-write it”, which I love. I love collaborating because it’s so much fun, it’s half the work. And then he said it’s a World War 1 movie – he had no idea that I was a huge World War 1 fan, he had no idea that I had such a fascination for that time period – so right off the bat I thought “this is going to go well”, and then the last thing he said in that call was “oh, by the way, it’s all going to be one shot”, and then he hung up. I was like “uh”, so I texted him and he said “no, you heard that right. See you Tuesday!”. I thought “how the hell..?”, so I Googled ‘movie script one shot’ and I couldn’t find anything, so I didn’t even know what it was going to look like. And I was the writer in the room, he wasn’t, so I was like “how do I come in there with any authority? I don’t even know what this script would look like”, you know what I mean?. Can you imagine going into a room with Sam and saying “I don’t know what the script looks like”? So I thought that I would just make it up as I go along. You know much like Edgar, he’s also delightful to work with. Sam is a visionary, Sam is a genius. There’s a quote “Talent hits a target no one can hit. Genius hits a target no one can see.” Sam’s a genius because no one could even envision telling a story like this in this way, no one would have come up with it, but he did. I just feel very privileged that he wanted me in that room.

BT: And you were planning out some of the dialogue in his garden, is that right?

KWC: Oh my God, so we were sitting at his kitchen table and we did the structure, and then after we had the script he would march around his garden or rooms and we’d do it like that. Sometimes I would do Blake’s dialogue and he would do Schofield’s dialogue, and sometimes he said “I’ll just do the dialogue”, because my acting is not that great, and I would walk along beside him. Then that evolved into us going to the fields in England where we were going to shoot the film, and walk along with stakes, and then George and Dean, lovely actors, them walking along doing the dialogue. You know here’s the trench that will be caved in by a bomb because you have to climb over the sandbag, and here is where they will speak to this person, here’s where they’ll speak to Lieutenant Leslie. It was a strange way of making a movie because everything was so circular – the script was being refined by the actors, by their performances, we were tweaking the script because sometimes they were so good they didn’t need the dialogue, they could just do it with a look. Then when we were shooting things in certain ways we had to change it because there were too many great lines that you wanted on camera but the camera couldn’t move fast enough, so “how can we make it organic?”, there’s all of that. Then “how long do the sets need to be?”, well they need to be the length that it takes for the script to be finished, so you find yourself just looking mad in fields because there are people in uniform and they’re all wrapped up because it was December or January, and there I am running around behind them with my Macbook trying to type and trying not to fall into divots or get covered in mud. It was so weird. [giggles]

BT: I read that one scene had 400 extras.

KWC: Yeah, it may have even been 500. It’s that final run along the trench, which was one of my favourite days on set. When he gets hit, that wasn’t in the script, it wasn’t a planned stunt, it was an accident. So there’s 500 extras but there’s also the entire crew behind the scenes all gathered around the monitors watching because this was the big shot. When George fell, when that extra hit him, everyone jumped up. It was like your team just lost the Super Bowl. We were just “oh my God!”, and then he gets up and I remember hearing Sam screaming “He’s up! He’s up!”, and the camera hadn’t stopped, and George gets up and he’s like the fucking Terminator. He’s charging down that path, he’s so in character, he didn’t break for a minute. And we were like…I mean everyone was on their feet. And it’s not hard to get me on my feet, you know I’m enthusiastic, but like the video guy, J.B., he was like “come on George! COME ON!”, everybody, the makeup girls, the location people, everyone was screeching. Honestly, it was like a penalty shoot-out at the World Cup. Just “go! go! go!” heard from everyone. I remember after he landed in the trench, he came back up, and I was next to Sam, George literally picked me up and screamed “we’ve done it!”. [giggles] Honestly, it was like, well for you maybe the Stanley Cup. It was something really special. And he did that so many times! I mean George was incredible and he was incredibly fit by the end of filming. We put him through hell. We drowned him a lot, well we kept trying to drown him, and he got really mad about that. [laughs] It’s in the script but “don’t actually drown him. He’s a nice man”. Do you know, not only are the two of them unbelievably talented, they’re good human beings. I was like “ugh, you sicken me with how beautiful and wonderful and great you are and everything”. They’re like my little brothers, I love them so much. But every so often I say “could you be less talented, please?” just to make it all feel like you’re mortal.

BT: Dean and George were just saying that everyone on set was just so nice.

KWC: Everyone was just so delightful. A lot of that was set from the top, from Sam, and a lot of that was set by George. I never saw him leave the day of shooting without shaking everyone’s hand. He knew everyone’s name, he was so unbelievably generous with his time. He had time for everyone on set, I’m not just talking about the head of the departments who had an impact on his job, but everyone across the board, all the assistants, all the runners, he knew everybody’s name. He spent a lot of time learning about them and learning about their lives. I thought “he’s a really special young man”, he really is. Not only is he talented but there’s a goodness in him from a bygone age.

My Mum came to visit one day on set and he talked to her for like twenty minutes. I was like “you can go, it’s ok”, and he said “no, I want to be here”. Just a really delightful human being. I can’t say enough good things about him. Also, I will tell you this, I was on set every day and I never saw him once fluff a line. That precision, professionalism, perfection that that boy has! He’s really something special.

BT: Especially after they’d been rehearsing for six months. To stay that focused and grounded is just incredible.

KWC: That’s it, their performances are a testament to Sam and to the boys. Their performances never feel like they’ve been rehearsed for six months, they feel so real. The whole point of writing a movie this way and shooting the movie this way was so that it would feel like 110 minutes in someone else’s life, and that would only be possible with everybody working at their ultimate best. The way I describe this film to my friends is basically what we were doing was a hair’s breadth away from the impossible, but if everyone kept bringing their A game, everyone brought 110 per cent every minute of every day, we could stay on this side of possible. And that’s what it took. It was so unbelievably difficult, it was Herculean across the board, and together, and only together, could you have done it.

BT: Do you have favourite screenwriters that you look up to?

KWC: I mean there’s so many amazing screenwriters. John Hodge is one of my favourites, I just love his work. Writer-directors as well, I love Phoebe Waller-Bridge, I think she’s absolutely unreal. I would like to be her. Kathryn Bigelow and Steven Spielberg were huge influences when I was growing up. I think their movies are just incredible. I mean we’re so lucky we live in a time now where there’s such a wealth of amazing screenwriters and filmmakers. Taika Waititi – what he’s done recently, just everything from What We Do in the Shadows to Thor 3 to Jojo Rabbit, I just think “my God, what a talent!”. I’ve only met him once very briefly but he was delightful.

BT: At a red carpet recently you spoke excitedly about your next script, The Good Nurse. Tell me about that.

KWC: I don’t actually know what’s happening with that. I wrote it and I know there might be another draft of the script when they go into production, but I don’t know when they’re going to go into production. It’s such a bummer because it’s all about the American healthcare system and it’s very poignant and present at the moment. I know Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne are kind of superficially attached but I have no idea. Usually as the writer you finish off a script and they’re basically “goodbye! maybe see you at the premiere”, but these last two films have been out of the norm with having me be so involved all the way through production and in post, that’s rare.

BT: Do you have a dream story that you want to write?

KWC: I do and I’m actually writing it right now, but I can’t tell you about it otherwise I’ll be murdered by Universal. [laughs]

BT: What do you hope viewers take away from 1917?

KWC: A lot of people think 1917 is just a war movie but it’s no accident that we wrote a film in which two people are fighting to stop a battle. It doesn’t glorify war, what it’s really about, at the heart of it is what will you do to save someone you love? To me that’s a universal question, everyone can understand it. Everyone knows what it is to travel a distance to get somewhere to help someone when it matters. So what I hope people take away from this is the idea of how amazing we are as people when we work together. When we come together we can do something really incredible – we can bring about peace, which is the one thing as species we should endeavour to do. So rather pretentiously I hope people leave the cinema thinking “god, people are great”.


1917 is available on Blu-ray combo on March 24, 2020. Read more about the film in our interview with its stars here

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