When Lesley Paterson bought the film rights to the classic German book All Quiet on the Western Front, she thought she had arrived.
Hollywood was hers for the taking. “This film,” she told herself, “is totally going to happen next year.” That was 2006. Last month, her 16-year passion project won seven Baftas, including best film and best director. Paterson and her co-writers won best adapted screenplay, 15 years after they finished writing it. The film was nominated in 14 categories, more than any other film, and is now hotly tipped to win again at the Oscars tomorrow. Not bad for a professional athlete and part-time screenwriter, who describes herself as a wee lassie from Stirling.
“I’m sort of overwhelmed,” she says today, sipping peppermint tea at her London hotel the day before she flies home to Los Angeles. “This has been such a whirlwind, and so much fun. It’s all your dreams coming true.”
Paterson, 42, is now feeling a lot better about the film’s chances at the Academy Awards, where it has been nominated in nine categories, including best adapted screenplay and film. She is a petite blonde bundle of sinew and energy and positivity — you would mess with at your peril. Nobody believed her 11 years ago when she told a journalist that she wanted to win an Oscar. At the time she was the new world champion in off-road triathlon, not Steven Spielberg. Triathletes don’t win Oscars. Tomorrow, this one might.
“Och, it was probably just a little bit of a flippant comment,” she says, “but when you’ve won something like a world title, it’s a big stamp of approval, that external validation that you are who you always thought you could be. It’s the same with the Oscars. It’s validation, and as I’ve gotten older I realize that validation gives you more opportunities to do what you love.”
Her life story divides roughly into two careers, in two countries. Growing up in Scotland, her first love was athletics. She started doing triathlons when she was 13 and quickly got good at it. She won local, national and international titles representing Scotland and Great Britain, and seemed on course to achieve the dream she had cherished since the age of four, to compete in the Olympics.
But then the format of Olympic triathlons changed, giving more weight to swimming, which was her weakest area. To get the lottery funding she needed, triathlons seemed to involve running round in circles on a track, which she hated, instead of running up and down mountains, which she loved. She retired in 2002 and swore she would never do another. At 20, she says today, “I felt like a big old failure”.
Which is when the second part of her life began. She went to Loughborough University to read drama and met the man who soon became her husband, Simon Marshall, a sports psychologist. He was offered a job as a professor at San Diego State University and so, still in their early 20s, they packed their bags. Paterson was thrilled.
“I got to shed my skin and reinvent myself. I’d spent my whole life up to that point being an athlete and because I hadn’t done what I wanted to do, at the level I thought I was capable of, I felt like a failure. So when we moved to America, it was amazing. You get there and you feel like anything’s possible.”
The film was nominated in 14 categories, more than any other film.
She signed up for a master’s in theater and started to pursue the American dream with the tenacity she once reserved for sport. They later moved to Los Angeles. She started competing in triathlons again, and established a coaching business training other athletes. She started to think about the future, after athletics. She knew nothing about filmmaking, and no one in the industry, but when in California, well, why not? She enrolled in acting and screenwriting classes, wrote in her spare time and landed a few parts in indie films and a David Gray video.
Did she grow up dreaming of being an actress? “Och, no. When you’re from a small town in Scotland, you don’t allow yourself to think like that.” In the end, she decided that she wasn’t much cop as an actress, although she met her All Quiet writing partner, Ian Stokell, when she auditioned for one of his films (Marshall also helped to write the screenplay).
One day, she and Stokell were in their local bookshop, browsing for inspiration. By chance, the shop was promoting All Quiet, which Paterson first read when she was 17. She remembered, back in Scotland, running and cycling past war memorials covered in names, whole villages of men wiped out. Now, reading the book again, she was captivated. The film rights were available, so they snapped them up, but every few years, options expire so you have to buy them again. To the outsider, this sounds very much like paying money for thin air.
During the next 16 years, Paterson duly spent $200,000 on thin air. She smiles. “You’re not thinking like that, you’re thinking this is totally going to happen. It was an investment in our careers.” They remortgaged the house, maxed out their credit cards and begged loans from friends, now repaid with interest and a bit more. They had Marshall’s salary as an academic, and the coaching business paid the bills. Could her dream have bankrupted them? “We’re not that stupid financially. We’re in LA, but I grew up in Scotland.”
Much of the money, unexpectedly, came from Paterson winning triathlons. She set about finding suitable races and hoping that she would win, which she often did, in one race the day after breaking her shoulder. Even contracting Lyme disease didn’t stop her. At its worst in 2014, when running was too painful, she ran up and down stairs instead. And still she kept plugging away with the All Quiet dream. Quitting was “not acceptable”.
“Everyone told us to give up a million times. All my family, my friends, everyone. Even Simon at one point was like, ‘Should we be doing this?’ ” What did she tell him? “‘You just have to trust me.’ He knows what I’m like: tenacious. Never give up. Like one of those dogs with lockjaw.”
So for all those years, she and Stokell tried and often failed to get strangers in Hollywood to pick up the phone. They cold-called agents and banged on closed doors. They slowly learned, by trial and error, how films get off the ground. Was it better to focus on getting finance first, or a director, or a star? If they had a big name on board like Daniel Radcliffe, as they did for a time, then the funding would follow, right? Wrong. And on it went. War films were seen as difficult and expensive to make, with precious little return on your investment. Studios needed paying punters on cinema seats. That meant American superheroes and romcoms, not Europeans killing each other in trenches 100 years ago.
Nobody believed her 11 years ago when she told a journalist that she wanted to win an Oscar.
But, slowly, the film landscape began to change. The streaming giants changed the business model of film. Sam Mendes’ 2019 film 1917 showed there was a market for war films. Netflix had unlimited demand for content, combined with the means to pay for it, and the pandemic did wonders for demand. Seven months before the All Quiet premiere, a real war broke out, in Ukraine.
After years of dreaming about it “with every pedal stroke, and every running stride”, it all came together very quickly. Luck played a part, she agrees, “but you have to work very hard to create luck … nothing’s going to happen if you do nothing.”
She always hoped for a German director, because she thought only a German could do justice to Erich Maria Remarque’s book. “Unlike us, they are filled with shame about what happened.” But Germans shied away, worried that messing up such an iconic book could be career-ending.
Then out of the blue, the director Edward Berger and producer Malte Grunert got in touch. They wanted to do it, but with one big change: it had to be in German.
Paterson originally envisaged English-speaking actors putting on German accents, but times had changed. She agreed without hesitation. “It felt authentic, and authenticity means a lot more now than it did 16 years ago.”
Three years ago, she met Berger and Grunert for the first time, at the Berlin film market. Suddenly this film, which nobody would touch, was the subject of a bidding war. Netflix won.
Then Covid hit. When filming began in 2021 on a locked-down set in Prague, with strict protocols, Paterson was locked down in Los Angeles. Her script was finally being filmed, in a language she couldn’t speak and a country she couldn’t visit, when she was desperate not to interfere, or micromanage, but to learn about the craft of filming. She finally met the cast and crew for the first time at the premiere last September and is now buzzing with ideas for future projects.
Everything about All Quiet made it almost certain to fail. It is a bleak two-and-a-half-hour immersion in the harrowing squalor of trench warfare. After an hour, I couldn’t take any more. It is told from the German point of view, in German. It is directed by a man most of us have never heard of, and stars an unknown novice from Austria. In the opening scenes, the uniforms of dead soldiers are washed and handed out to fresh-faced, excited new cannon fodder. She tells me that the scenes were inspired by the little girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List, and they came to her when she was out for a run.
“You don’t get many ideas in life where you just know. But I knew that even if the rest of the film was crap, that was an Oscar-winning opening.”
The rest of the film, as it turns out, is not crap. We’ll find out about the Oscars tomorrow.
Hilary Rose is a longtime columnist for The Times of London and the author of the weekly column How to Get Dressed