Oscars 2023: meet Lesley Paterson, the triathlete who wrote Netflix’s All Quiet on the Western Front

 (Lesley Paterson)
(Lesley Paterson)

Lesley Paterson is not exactly an ordinary screenwriter. Last year, her film All Quiet on the Western Front was released to thunderous worldwide acclaim – and has now picked up four wins at the Oscars (out of a massive nine nominations) last night.

But it’s taken 16 years and multiple triathlons – yes triathlons – to get there.

And still the day job as a triathlete never stops for Paterson. When All Quiet was finally released “we were hosting a triathlon camp,” she says. “Literally, I’m going to the premiere of our film, and I’m answering emails and WhatsApp messages about wetsuit sizes, and ‘How do I start my wash?’ And I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”

She fell in love with the book, originally written by Erich Maria Remarque in 1928, in high school. Taking the German point of view, it follows soldier Paul Baumer through the trenches during the last years of the First World War. It had twice been adapted for the screen before, but not since 1979.

“World War One is such an intriguing war. It’s so tragic. It was this intersection between modernity and old fashioned military operations. I’ve always found that fascinating,” she says. “But specifically about this book. I mean, it’s so poetic, and addresses the youthful betrayal of a generation. It’s so poignant, and it’s so timely. Every decade: it never changes.”

 (Lesley Paterson)
(Lesley Paterson)

It stayed at the back of Paterson’s mind as she pursued a career as a triathlete, winning numerous races around the world before coming across the book again, by chance, in a charity shop. When she and her husband, Simon Marshall, enquired about the rights, they were stunned to find them relatively affordable.

The pair went for it and Paterson spent the next decade trying to get the film optioned, working on drafts of the script with writing partner Ian Stokell and funding the licence fee renewals by winning triathlons. One of them she won with a broken shoulder, writing for the Hollywood Reporter that she “could get through the bike [section] if I strapped my arm at a 90-degree angle to the handlebars, and I could just about run if I used T-rex arms.”

She channelled that same grit into writing – “I find meaning through suffering. So I’m kind of in touch with that side of my personality” – and suffered multiple rejections over the film’s 16-year journey to the screen.

With the advent of streamers – and, critically, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite winning Best Picture at the Oscars – things changed. Shortly after Parasite’s win, All Quiet on the Western Front was commissioned.

“People say, ‘Hey, did you consider doing it as a German language film before?’ Well, yeah, we did,” she says. “But that would have been impossible 16 years ago… we were pitching it as English language with German accents to try and be able to raise finance.”

Does she speak German? “I’m not a huge language person,” she says sheepishly. “That sounds terrible. You know what it’s like, when you’re English and everyone speaks it. I’m just lazy.” Instead, renowned German director Edward Berger translated the English-language script into the German version that he ultimately ended up directing.

All Quiet on the Western Front (AP)
All Quiet on the Western Front (AP)

Make no mistake: despite the book’s classic status, this isn’t a beat-for-beat remake. The ending has changed, most crucially, but Paterson defends the decision, saying “I think cinematically, what’s important when you do an adaptation is to understand a modern audience: what’s gonna appeal and the beats that you want to hit while still staying true to the overall themes.”

That included adding in a storyline about the armistice, where a politician (played by Daniel Brühl) heads up the delegation of Germans seeking a peace deal.

As Paterson points out, when the book was written, the repercussions of the war hadn’t yet been fully felt: “We wanted [a modern audience] to understand that World War One led to World War Two.”

However, despite the firmly anti-war themes of All Quiet, it hasn’t been as much of a hit in its home country of Germany. “Everywhere else, they’ve loved it. And I think it’s mainly just that [in Germany] they’re so close to the material… you know, there’s been criticism. But you have to take a stance artistically. And we’ve done that.”

It feels especially prescient now, in the middle of the Ukraine war. “It’s awful to say [that the war is] helping the traction of this film, but it is,” Paterson says, citing a scene at the beginning of her film where a dead soldier’s uniform is stripped off him and recycled for the next recruit to wear it.

Daniel Brühl plays a German politician seeking peace (Reiner Bajo)
Daniel Brühl plays a German politician seeking peace (Reiner Bajo)

“I mean, even the Russians are repurposing their uniforms. And a lot of the photography that’s coming out of Ukraine is like our film… which is bananas.”

For now, she’s looking to the future. Alongside her husband, she’s writing a grand total of four different screenplays (set in Africa, Scotland and Ireland; and another military drama) – and of course, there are the Oscar wins to come to terms with.

The film was nominated in nine major categories including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design and Best Sound, and won Best Cinematography, Best International Film, Best Production Design and Best Original Score.

Paterson glows when she recounts a meeting with Steven Spielberg, whose film Schindler’s List inspired the opening scenes of All Quiet, and still seems bowled over by her whirlwind success: when she found out she was nominated for the Oscars, she “jumped up and down a lot”.

Ultimately, though, the message of the film is what matters most: “It truly is an anti-war film. I think I’m an underdog by nature, coming from Scotland and just the fight that I’ve had.

“So I think standing up to the political entities that rule the world the way that they do without any concern for the every person? Yeah, I think that as a message is important to me.”

All Quiet on the Western Front is available to stream now on Netflix