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Far Out Meets: Screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns discusses war, the future and the films that made her

Krysty Wilson-Cairns has been moving from one high-profile production to another after making her breakthrough with a sci-fi screenplay that made it onto the famous Black List. One of the most prominent screenwriters of her generation, she worked with Edgar Wright last year on one of the most anticipated films of 2021 – Last Night in Soho – and has already set her sights on new horizons.

Of course, the first proper project that introduced the world to the undeniable talent of Krysty Wilson-Cairns was the highly acclaimed 2019 war film by Sam Mendes – 1917. Cited as one of the greatest cinematic experiences of the last decade, the film became the perfect launchpad for the young writer who has a special connection with the genre. During our interview, Wilson-Cairns recalled how her grandparents had introduced her to the genre. The spectacle of it all left a lasting impression.

“There were a lot of war and action movies in my household and I just always got totally thrilled by them,” she said. Classics of the genre such as The Dirty Dozen, The Bridge on the River Kwai and A Matter of Life and Death showed her the power of the cinematic medium. Growing up, she went to the cinema every week with her family to watch the biggest hits and got the chance to see the old gems thanks to a video store membership.

While recalling the impact of these war films, Wilson-Cairns singled out one particularly famous example as the most important source of inspiration for her: “I think the biggest one was probably Saving Private Ryan,” she exclusively told Far Out. “That must have come out when I was maybe 10 or 12, quite young still, and I remember going to the cinema to watch that. I mean, the opening sequence of that film is unbelievable.”

Despite harbouring dreams of studying physics and engineering, Wilson-Cairns changed her mind when she got the opportunity to become a runner on TV shows like Taggart when she was a teenager. After witnessing the magic of filmmaking through her own eyes, she spent her undergraduate years at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland which played a pivotal role in her development as an artist.

Although it was a practical program, there was a mandatory course on the history of cinema that exposed her to new ideas. “That really opened my eyes because I didn’t know anything about German Expressionist films, I didn’t know about the French New Wave,” Wilson-Cairns claimed, explaining how the course helped her to move beyond the films that she had grown up watching.

Talking about her introduction to the revolutionary sensibilities of the French New Wave, she added: “I remember seeing The 400 Blows for the first time and being like, ‘What is this?!’… That absolutely played a huge part in my development as a human anyway because you see experiences that are so ‘other’ from western mainstream media which was what I had been brought up on.”

After the success of her breakthrough script Aether which showed how skilful she was at navigating the genre frameworks, Wilson-Cairns got to collaborate with Sam Mendes on an adaptation of Gay Talese’s The Voyeur’s Motel before it was eventually scrapped because of legal issues and the fact that another similar project was already in the works. “At the end of the day, my relationship with Sam was stronger for having worked on that film with him and that’s the reason he called me to do 1917,” she commented.

Some might think that 1917 was Wilson-Cairns’ first foray into the war genre, but that’s not the case. She had previously worked on the screenplay for a fascinating short film titled All Men’s Dead which chronicled the aftermath of the World War Two bombing of the BBC Broadcasting House during a German Blitz raid, exploring subjects such as journalistic integrity and the horror of war.

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Those early flourishes in All Men’s Dead became much more polished in 1917, featuring a fantastic screenplay that oscillated between moments of ominous silence and outbursts of violent action. While most of the critical attention was directed towards the film’s continuous visual narrative expertly handled by the great Roger Deakins, the screenplay for 1917 provides a vital commentary on the arbitrary nature of nationalism and the military-industrial complex.

On multiple occasions, Wilson-Cairns has said that writing is her dream job because she gets to do it in her pyjamas, but her research process is the complete opposite. Describing her “boots on the ground” research methodologies, she said: “I spent a lot of time at the Imperial War Museum in London. For 1917, I read a lot of diaries – first-hand accounts of people who served on the frontlines or just right behind the frontlines in the first World War.”

Instead of focusing on history books that dealt with issues at the macro level like troop movements, she wanted to understand the emotions and the experiences of the soldiers which is why she also listened to the recorded experiences of war veterans at the Imperial War Museum. “We wanted it to feel like one man moving through the war,” she added. The cinematic brilliance of 1917 is entirely dependent on that brutal journey, a journey that was undertaken by her during the research process.

“I went to Northern France and Belgium and Luxembourg,” Wilson-Cairns revealed. In addition to attending battlefield tours and learning more about the history of the various sites, she completed that route on her own: “I knew the route that Blake and Schofield would walk so I did the same route, I walked across that part of France. The scars of all the battles are still there over a 100 years later so it’s really quite sobering.”

From the retrospective distance of war, Wilson-Cairns entered deeply personal territory when she penned the script for Last Night in Soho. Directed by Edgar Wright, the psychological horror project starred Thomasin McKenzie as Ellie, a young fashion student who experiences extreme alienation when she goes to London for college. This was something that both Wilson-Cairns and Wright had gone through as well.

“I think really good horror is based in reality,” she declared. “The things that really scare you are the things that could happen to you. So we wanted to make Ellie’s journey at the beginning of Last Night in Soho feel like a lot of people’s journeys. Edgar and I both moved to London for university when we were quite young and got to London and realised that we were not cool.”

For Wilson-Cairns, the personal connections extend beyond that because she worked at the same Soho bar – The Toucan – as the film’s protagonist. In an article for the Los Angeles Times, she explained how working there had affected her during her graduate studies at the National Film and Television School. Living above a strip club, she listened to the bizarre stories of the people around her and would often take copious notes.

“The bar that we filmed in – The Toucan – is the bar that I worked in and it’s the bar that I’m actually going to tonight because it’s St. Patrick’s Day so we are going to have drinks after work,” she told me, “It was such a huge part of my life, I loved working there and the owners became my London family.” In fact, she took them to the premiere of Last Night in Soho when it opened in London.

One of the major themes of the film was the deconstruction of nostalgia, showing just how dangerous it is to blindly romanticise the past when there were so many pressing issues. “As a young woman in London, it’s quite impossible to not face elements of harassment on the street,” Wilson-Cairns noted. “It becomes almost like this background radiation that you don’t realise is affecting you.”

Since she is 34 now, Wilson-Cairns insists that she is “much more comfortable in my skin, much more comfortable advocating for myself” but the project was still very important to her. “Going back and writing that story for Ellie was really cathartic,” she admitted. Last Night in Soho also plays around with questions about individual identity and feminist icons, featuring Anya Taylor-Joy as a talented singer in the ’60s who was forced to become a serial killer to overcome patriarchal oppression.

(Credit: Alamy)

The film has already been described as an essential work of feminist horror, a categorisation that is welcomed by Wilson-Cairns. While discussing her artistic intentions, she clarified: “To me, it’s just a horror story about powerful characters. They happen to be women because that was the story. We didn’t set out to write a feminist masterpiece, we set out to serve these characters and their stories.”

Wilson-Cairns has also cited other female pioneers such as Kathryn Bigelow as major influences, claiming that she wasn’t really interested in writing Kitchen Sink Realist dramas because it wasn’t a form of escapism for “my grandparents and my parents [who] understood poverty and deprivation in a way that is quite shocking.” According to the writer, she is primarily interested in making films that are “challenging but lean more into entertainment.”

“I think Fish Tank is a masterpiece but I don’t want to watch that on a Sunday morning,” she added, reinforcing her point. Having worked in the domain of television as well (as a staff writer on the popular show Penny Dreadful), Wilson-Cairns attributed her success to perfect timing because “there was a massive push to have young female writers in these domains that they had been kept out of for a long time.”

“That push had happened because there were a lot of writers above me that were women who had worked really, really hard and there were a lot of female producers,” she elaborated. “[They] realised that they have a different view on war, they have a different view on the world than men and that’s also valid. Why shouldn’t we write action? Why shouldn’t we write war movies?”.

As a young female artist in the entertainment industry, Wilson-Cairns revealed that she had to face certain forms of discrimination: “I’ve been in many rooms where women are not highly thought of.” Despite that, she claimed that she is very lucky to work with her current creative partners. “It’s an exciting time to be a part of the entertainment industry,” she commented while pointing out that many production studios were showing more interest in stories from diverse backgrounds.

In 2020, Wilson-Cairns started her own production company with her childhood friend Jack Ivins and they recently signed a deal with Universal. Wilson-Cairns thinks of this development as a necessary next step in her career: “It’s a chance for us (her and business partner who grew up together) to champion new talent and to make the big international stories that we desperately want to tell.”

Since then, she has already been attached to huge projects including a new Star Wars film that is being helmed by Taika Waititi. “I’m not really allowed to say anything about that project,” she immediately responded when I asked about the project. “It’s a pleasure working with Taika, I think he is incredible.”

Later this year, her adaptation of Charles Graeber’s The Good Nurse is also set to come out, which was her first commissioned job when she signed with her American agents. Expressing her satisfaction with the finished version of this upcoming project, she stated: “I have seen it, I love it, I am really proud of it.”

Reflecting on her journey from being a runner on Taggart during her teenage years to writing a Star Wars film, Wilson-Cairns said: “I’m incredibly lucky. I do feel a bit like the universe loves me.” Although she has only worked as a screenwriter so far, Wilson-Cairns also admitted that she is open to directing films in the future if the right opportunity comes by.

“I would direct if it were a project that I knew I could do something different with it,” she noted. “I work with a lot of really good directors and I would only direct something that was incredibly personal to me, a story that I could tell in a completely new and entertaining way. So if that comes along or if I write that, then yes but until then, I am really happy working with the people I work with.”

It is clear that Krysty Wilson-Cairns is an artistic force to be reckoned with. Given her current achievements and the overwhelming indications that point in one direction, it is safe to say that this is just the beginning of a career that will only reach greater artistic heights since she continues to show a tenacious determination to keep moving forward.

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