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'1917' Writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns on How to Write a One-of-a-Kind War Movie

by Al Horner on October 7, 2021

Krysty Wilson-Cairns has a plea for all young screenwriters: outline extensively before you sit down to write pages. “Fix your problems in ten pages instead of 150 – you’ll save years of your life!” says the 34-year-old, who knows what she’s talking about. With Edgar Wright, Taika Waititi, and Sam Mendes among her recent collaborators, and a host of Oscar and BAFTA nominations to her name, Krysty is one of British film’s most in-demand screenwriters, renowned for the pace, tension, and emotion of shows like Penny Dreadful and movies like upcoming thriller Last Night In Soho

Listeners of my podcast, Script Apart, got a unique insight into her creative process recently on an episode devoted to her breakthrough hit: 1917, a war movie co-written with Mendes that was famously shot in long continuous takes.

Below are a few pearls of wisdom she had for anyone penning their own war movie – or any other type of screenplay for that matter. Listen to the episode (supported by ScreenCraft) below, and read on to recap some of her most invaluable pieces of advice.

Study the Structural Rhythms of Scripts in Your Genre (Then Subvert Them)

1917 features a character death that is utterly shocking due to a clever piece of structuring by Krysty and Sam. “People usually die in the bridge to the second act, in the bridge to the third act, or at the end. But we killed him at the exact midpoint of the film,” reveals the screenwriter. “We did it so that the minute he's stabbed, you think it's going to be a movie from now on about getting him to an aid station.” Instead, this pivotal character dies in a way that’s all the more impactful because as a viewer you don’t expect it – years of watching war movies have trained your subconscious to expect character deaths at other points in the movie.

Pay close attention to how other scripts in the genre you’re writing usually function and you can find fun ways to turn their rhythms upside down, surprising audiences with dramatic twists and turns they won’t see coming.

Find Subtle Ways to Communicate Character

1917 is a propulsive adventure that presents events happening in real-time. There was no room for flashbacks and little slowing down for characters to talk about who they are, what their histories are, and how they’re feeling.

This presented a challenge for Krysty and Sam. How do you establish who these characters are and give audiences a reason to care for them? The answer was to hide allusions to their personal histories in everything from costume descriptions to small snippets of dialogue that you might miss on the first watch.

“There’s little hooks to who these guys are,” says Krysty. “The idea that Schofield has hidden food [suggests] he’s been in situations before where he’s run out of food, trapped behind enemy lines. Whereas Blake hasn’t. He’s not got any clue about that.”

1917

'1917'

Pull From True-Life Accounts to Bring Authenticity to Your Story

“The baby in the basement came from a true account, and it was the saddest account I'd ever read,” says Krysty, revealing how she wrote one of the film’s most haunting scenes: the discovery of a woman in a basement deep in occupied territory, looking after a baby she happened upon.

When writing hard-hitting historical fiction, often what actually happened is more impactful and harrowing than anything we can dream up as writers. That was the case for this scene, Krysty explains. “He's got no idea why he's in a war. He's watched his entire unit be mowed down. Then he comes across this baby in a basement and he has milk [that he can give to it]. It was the first time that he felt like he was put in a place for a reason. ​​I still get goosebumps thinking about it because it tells you everything you need to know about that war.” 

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What was your big takeaway from the episode? Listen to the episode in full above, then leave a comment below.


Al HornerAl Horner is a London-based journalist, screenwriter and presenter. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Empire Magazine, GQ, BBC, Little White Lies, TIME Magazine and more.

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