‘1917’ Co-Writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns Explains How to Write a One-Shot Movie

     January 7, 2020

How does one go about writing a movie that plays out in a single shot? And how does that differ from writing a traditional film script? Greatly, according to 1917 co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns. The up-and-coming writer had worked on two projects with Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes that never came to fruition before the Skyfall filmmaker called her up one day and pitched her 1917. Inspired by stories from his grandfather, the film would follow a soldier through his experiences in World War I, and would be incredibly personal and character-driven. Oh, and it would be presented entirely in one single shot.

Wilson-Cairns was thrilled by the opportunity, obviously, but she admitted in a recent phone interview I conducted with the writer that the first thing she did after initially speaking to Mendes about 1917 was Google “one-shot movie scripts.” As it turns out, not many exist. That meant that Mendes and Wilson-Cairns had to basically build the form of 1917 from scratch, feeling their way through the structure of the story (which they conjured in a single afternoon) and then constantly refining the shape of the film all the way up through production. But the nature of the single shot meant that the edit couldn’t be the final rewrite, so it fell on Wilson-Cairns to address any changes or revisions to the script during the rehearsal process and on set, so the camera would be in the correct place for each individual line.

1917-teaser-posterIt was a daunting process, but it paid off. 1917 is a breathtaking, one-of-a-kind moviegoing experience that puts you, the viewer, directly into the shoes of the lead character (played with beautiful subtlety by George MacKay). The film has picked up a number of awards nominations over the past month, including a WGA nomination for Best Original Screenplay and Golden Globes wins for Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Director.

During our conversation, Wilson-Cairns walked me through the process of writing 1917 and how it differed from writing a traditional screenplay. She discussed the unique challenges involved, and her role on set performing rewrites while cameras were rolling. She also briefly teased her experience co-writing Edgar Wright’s next film Last Night in Soho and what fans can expect from that psychological thriller when it hits theaters later this year.

Speaking with Wilson-Cairns was an absolute pleasure and I think both casual movie fans and burgeoning screenwriters alike will find what she has to say incredibly insightful. Check out our interview below, and look for spoiler-specific portions from our interview once the film opens in theaters on January 10th.

This is a unique project and I know that you worked with Sam on a few other projects that didn’t get made, but how did he first pitch this one to you?

KRYSTY WILSON-CAIRNS: He phoned me up. He said, “Third times the charm” which was a great way to open that because there are a few projects that had disappeared. He told me he wanted to co-write it with me. I knew this was going to be his first time co-writing so I excited by that as well because he’s an incredibly talented human being who I love working with. So the idea of spending a lot of time working with him was obviously a bonus. So everything was going very well. He told me it was going to be the first World War and that was a massive tick. I’m a huge history buff, really fascinated by the two World Wars. And as a woman, especially a younger woman if I may be so bold, you wouldn’t usually get the opportunity to tell those kinds of stories, especially not at this budget. And so basically all the boxes were checked.

And then he told me this one image of his grandfather, when he was 17 years old, walking through No Man’s Land lost in the fog. And so right away I knew, I literally got chills on the phone, and I knew it was going to be a different kind of war movie. It’s just going to be incredibly personal and character driven. But that’s basically it, yeah. I’m sitting in my pajamas, I get a call from Sam. My dream job lands in my lap. And so it really wasn’t hard for me to say yes to. The only difficult bit was at the very end of the call he went, “Oh by the way, it’s all going to be one-shot” and then hung up on me (laughs). Because he knew I would have questions. He knew I’d have several questions about that. So that was my dream job. It became a very, very difficult dream job, but it remained my dream job.

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Image via Universal Pictures

Well, that was kind of my next question. In and of itself, it’s a fascinating project. Sam Mendes doing a World War I film; that’s awesome. And now it’s going to be one-shot and it all plays out in real time. How do you begin the writing process for that? I imagine the outline phase is a little bit different?

WILSON-CAIRNS: Everything’s so different. It’s just much harder across the board, to be perfectly frank with you (laughs). So the very first thing I did was Google one-shot real-time movie scripts because I didn’t even know what structurally how that would look, do you know what I mean? Because I’ve never read one and I couldn’t find one. I couldn’t find a single film that was one-shot and in real time that had a script. Well that wasn’t a retroactively written script, which was just dialogue, so I couldn’t find one. So I knew there wasn’t going to be a lot of dialogue in this film, kind of straight off the bat. And so I was like, “Right. Okay. We’re going to have to just work out a new way of doing this.” And I felt that as a person who had written before, when I sat in that room with Sam, I was going to need to know this because these are the kind of questions he was going to ask.

Because I was like, “Okay, we’re going to wing it.” So that was the very first thing I did. And then Sam and I sat down in his kitchen. He had hundreds of books. I brought a load. I literally went to my storage unit and dug out my grandfather’s first World War books, just everything I had. I grew up fascinated by the War, so like hundreds and hundreds of… you know, 20-odd years worth of books. So I turned up and read with him. He and I exchanged a bunch of books. We sat down and we just went through the structure. This sort of the man taking a message became two men carrying a message became the message has to get here, and the message has to get delivered to save these people, get building the stakes, then the talking about who the two central characters were, how they were different, how they were human, not how they were soldiers, all that kind of stuff.

And then we actually got maps. So we got a map of the Hindenburg Line and we got a Google map of modern day France, and we worked at the exact route the boys would take and then the geographical kind of route, the changes in nature that they would see. So you’re going from the back of the line through the trench, through No Man’s Land, German trenches, and then everything that we sort of feel is not traditionally shown in war films. And so that requires a huge amount of research, so we were making a list of things we researched, who the characters were, the physical journey that they would go on and the sort of action set pieces that Sam had in his mind and just weaving this all together over the course of a couple of days actually.

I mean we had the structure probably that first afternoon, but we were constantly refining it for the week or so, and then I went away and wrote it. And then it went back to Sam and then it went back to me back and forth and we sort of portaled each other, collaborated, wrote over each other, wrote under each other. It was kind of a dream year for me.

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Image via Universal Pictures

I imagine it’s kind of like going through a maze in that you write to a point and like, “Well that can’t work” and you have to back up because everything has to track. Are you thinking about production design and the practicality of set pieces?

WILSON-CAIRNS: No. We never thought about anything that was how we would achieve it. We only really thought about how the story would work. He’s, to be honest with you, at this point—Sam and I wrote this film on spec. No one was paying us for it because we weren’t 100% sure it was going to work emotionally. And if it doesn’t work emotionally, then there was no point in making any film. It doesn’t matter how cool the shooting would be or having amazing locations, if you don’t care about Schofield, then what’s the point? In my opinion, and I know that Sam shares that. We only really ever thought about the emotions of the story, the emotions of the character, and the emotions of the audience.

And then the other thing that really factors in when you’re writing a film in real-time is the audience understands reality better than any of us. So, when you’re stripping away all the artifice, you don’t have anything like that. You’re showing people a version of their own world, more so than ever before. So we wanted this film to feel like 110 minutes in someone else’s life. So you would walk every step with them, but you as the audience also experienced reality in that manner. You walk every step with yourself and so you have to work out how far can we push the boundaries of reality? How much can you pack in? How many kinds of action pieces? How many things can they survive before you think, “Oh, no that’s too many” or “It’s not survivable” and you start to disbelieve it. And the moment you disbelieve it, we’ve lost everyone because it doesn’t matter how great the cinematography is.

So that was a huge part of the building the story. How far can you push reality? Which is arguably the hardest thing to measure because I like to fashion reality as a rubber lane and you have to push right up against it because it also has to be packed with stuff. Got to feel like a movie, has to feel like an experience, but you can’t push too far that you break it. So it was always a very kind of subtle like nudge, nudge, nudge, Oops, too far nudge back, which was fun and tricky.

That’s interesting because I do think that comes across. Schofield comes across as a man who can carry himself but he never comes across as like a superhero. So anytime he’s in peril you’re like, “Oh shit; this is bad.” You’re very worried for him.

WILSON-CAIRNS: Yeah. Well exactly. And a lot of that is George MacKay and how incredible he is as an actor, how much vulnerability he brings the role. I mean I literally sit there and watch the film, I’ve seen it 10 times now because I have watch all the way through post to get notes and everything like that, and I still watch the scene after he fights with the German boy and the two men are chasing them and I go, “I don’t know if he’s going to make it” and I wrote it! Like I literally know he’s going to make it. But it still, every time, gets me. I’m on the edge of my seat. And I would love to take full credit for that, but I think a lot of that George.

You said you guys wrote it on spec. Once it got to the studio, was there anything in it that they were like, “This is too expensive” or “this won’t work”. Was there any anything big that you had to pull out?

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(from left) Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay and Oscar®-winning filmmaker Sam Mendes on the set of the new epic, 1917.

WILSON-CAIRNS: No, we never pulled anything. See the loveliest thing of it, working with someone like Sam Mendes is that he’s Sam Mendes, like with the Oscar and all that and films that grossed over $1 billion. So he kind of has, I wouldn’t say carte blanche, but he has the ability to push back for things that he wants to fight for. And because Sam and I wrote this script together, I knew everything in there he would fight for it because it was there for a very specific reason. Nothing was gratuitous. We never pushed anything over the edge, and budget wise or set piece wise, everything was there to tell the story, to tell the emotional arc of these characters. So luckily I didn’t have to do any of that grunt work to take stuff out.

That’s great. Were you on set during production?

WILSON-CAIRNS: I was on set every day. I was in six months of rehearsals beforehand as well, during which we were really refining the script. It structurally never changed, but all the scenes went through loads rewrites to get them first of all to sound right in the actor’s mouth because when you’re writing someone you’re imagining the person. And then when they’re rehearsing in the room in front of you, you should tailor it to work for them. You know what I mean? Like George is not who I thought Schofield was going to be, but he’s better than any version of Schofield I could come up with in my head. And so a lot of that was moving the characters towards George and, and the same for Blake and Dean[-Charles Chapman].

And so there was a lot of that, a lot of rewrites and sometimes we rewrite because of the nature of the one-shot, you couldn’t get the two interesting parts of dialogue if they were together from two different people, so you have to remove the shape of things so that the camera could see everything that we, the audience, wanted it to see. So there was some of that.

Then on set, there would always be days when some small line didn’t work or the scene was holding without it and so it’d be my job to actually cut a line or changing the line or Sam would come to me and say, “Hey, can we get 40 lines for the background because we’re actually going to hear them and you’ve got five minutes” (laughs). So it’d be stuff like that, that I was on set for. Which was very unusual for a writer to be on set I’m told, [but I was] for both [1917 and Last Night in Soho]. I hear that that’s not the usual and I think we could be incredibly useful. I would really advocate for us. You don’t need to appease us as much, just put us near craft services; we’re happy. We just like being out of the house.

Well that’s what I was going to ask is that with a one-shot movie, it’s not like once you get into the editing room you can lop off parts of scenes and have it still work. So, I was curious what the rewrites were like on set.

WILSON-CAIRNS: Stressful (laughs). Not always though. Usually, we’ve done so many rehearsals and literally everyone came in for rehearsals. You know, Colin Firth, Benedict [Cumberbatch], Andrew [Scott], Richard [Madden], everyone. No matter how big they were, no matter how much of a global superstar they were, they came in and rehearsed in a little room in Shepperton Studios and we created set up boxes, because we didn’t know how big the sets needed to be until we’d done the rehearsals. So everyone was there and we had time with them, and I had time to listen to their concerns with the character or if there was lines that they were like, “I’m not quite sure about this” to talk them through them with Sam. So that was a huge bonus. And then when we were on set, there’s always things that just don’t work on the day. So with something that will go wrong or it doesn’t quite set right pacing wise, doesn’t quite have the right feel for the film, or too low, or not long enough.

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George MacKay as Schofield in “1917,” the new epic from Oscar®-winning filmmaker Sam Mendes.

There was always stuff like that that my job was to, with Sam, solve the problems. So yeah, there was a huge amount of surgical work, I should say, because nothing was big. We never lobbed off a limb. But Lee Smith, the editor, was also hugely involved in that. The script had to have a sense of pacing in it so that you, the audience, could understand the rise and fall of the story. Without stuff the rise and fall of the story it would be 110 pages of nonstop action, and nobody could sustain that. You just wouldn’t be able to care about [the characters], after a while you’d be like, “Cool explosion brother”. So pacing, some of it was in the script, but a lot of that was built in the rehearsal rooms, with them onset, with Sam, with Roger [Deakins], with Lee, with myself, that that was our job. There was no final rewrite as the edit is often called. So we were doing it at the top of the film.

Edgar Wright is one of my favorite filmmakers of all time.

WILSON-CAIRNS: Mine too!

And he’s one of my favorite writers as well. He’s so meticulous. And so I was curious, I know you probably can’t tease much about Last Night in Soho, but what’s the experience of writing with Edgar Wright like?

WILSON-CAIRNS: Do you know what? He is unbelievably brilliant and he’s so much fun to work with. He’s very generous as a collaborator. He’s just so on it. The days involved talking about the story, having a good laugh, listening to music, eating a lot. And so I’d do that every day for the rest of my life if Edgar would let me. He’s a bit of a genius as well, which doesn’t hurt. So yes, I could only say wonderful things about Edgar and about the process of working with him. And the same with Sam. I’ve been very lucky with British directors.

Is there anything you can tease tonally about Soho that may be different from Edgar’s other movies?

WILSON-CAIRNS:    Um…

I know he said it’s kind of like a psychological thriller or something.

WILSON-CAIRNS: It’s very much a kind of thriller. It’s very much a psychological thriller. It’s a bit like Don’t Look Now and that kind of thing, but it also still feels like an Edgar Wright movie. It still has everything that you want for an Edgar Wright movie in it because his film, do you know what I mean? So I would urge everyone who likes Edgar Wright to go and see this film. It’s slightly different from the norm, but is still an Edgar movie.

1917 is now playing in limited release and opens wide on January 10th.

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