“It’s probably all downhill from here,” joked Krysty Wilson-Cairns when I interviewed her for The Scotsman just before Christmas. The Glaswegian screenwriter responsible for penning Sam Mendes’ Golden Globe-winning First World War drama was commenting on the fact the prestigious $90 million (£69m) production marked her first-ever produced film. Now, however, Wilson-Cairns, a graduate of The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland who has been writing professionally for just five years, can add “Oscar nominee” to her growing list of accolades.
Her nomination – alongside the film’s director and co-writer Sam Mendes – helped the innovative drama become the second-most nominated film, sharing ten nominations apiece, including Best Picture, with Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood. All three lie just behind the Todd Phillips-directed Joker, which has 11 nominations. But while 1917, which follows two young soldiers as they embark on a mission across no-man’s land to deliver a crucial message, was expected to pick up major nominations for best picture, best director and best cinematographer, the best screenplay recognition is very well deserved.
Mendes’ decision to shoot the movie in a simulated single take may have been the film’s biggest talking-point thus far. But for this not to feel like some kind of gimmick, Wilson-Cairns and the director had to figure out a structure that could support the single-take idea and tie it thematically to the story, which unfurls almost in real time and reflects the fragility of human life in wartime. What they came up with is almost like an immersive horror film.
As the protagonists (played by Sunshine on Leith star George McKay and Game of Thrones’ Dean-Charles Chapman) make their way through the haunting landscapes of northern France, the script never provides information the characters couldn’t have. We find out everything at the same time they do, which is a more complex way of writing a film like this, but the end results are more rewarding when done well.
Also, the way Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins shot each scene in a long take, mostly on location – the dry docks in Govan substituted for one French locale – meant it couldn’t be edited in the normal way, which also made Wilson-Cairns as crucial to the movie’s physical production as she was to the film’s conception.
“They call the edit the final rewrite on a film for a reason,” Wilson-Cairns told me in December. “But we didn’t have that luxury. So if a scene didn’t work, it needed to be rewritten on the day, so I was there all day, everyday, slightly stressed.” The end result is a phenomenal achievement. Expect her career to be all uphill from here.