In episode Six of the IBC’s Changemaker series of Podcasts, Actors and Changemakers, Lesley Paterson, co-writer behind Oscar Winning production, All Quiet on the Western Front, a film that was made thanks to the endurance of the triathlete turned screenwriter, speaks to Nadira Tudor about how a triathlon-win helped fund the film, and enabled her to thrive in the cut-throat world of Hollywood.
Paterson began with an introduction to her changemaking viewpoint, referencing her upbringing and sporting background.
“My intuition was to follow my passion and my guts and I’m a very driven person. I have always been very, very driven. When I was younger, and I remember the first instance, certainly from a sporting capacity, I used to pretend I was Zola Budd who was a famous runner in the 80s from South Africa that ran in bare feet. There was something about the fact that she was different from everyone else. That she was kind of doing something out of the ordinary that I connected with, and I must only have been about six years old at the time, but I used to practise running in bare feet.”
Paterson became the off-road triathlon world champion in 2011, which prompted an interview in Scotland’s Daily Record. The headline read “I beat my demons to be world champ … now I want an Oscar”. At the time that might have seemed an unlikely chain of events. However, All Quiet on the Western Front most recently collected four 2023 Oscar wins out of nine nominations, adding to the considerable stack of critical acclaim for the production that now totals 50 wins and 82 nominations, including seven Baftas.
Paterson dug into her inspiration behind All Quiet on the Western Front (she used the prize money from winning her first world championship to renew her option on the film rights): “Yeah, I’d read the book in school and then again, when I was older, I’d studied film. Storytelling has been a huge part of my life. When I came across this book it reminded me of some of the elements I felt were really important, the portrayal of a youthful generation. And that was something I could really relate to as a Scottish person, that fighting of the upper brass, that sort of underdog feeling, that rang true.
“Also it’s such a beautiful book and as a writer, as a screenwriter, and as a producer, you’re always looking at ways to kind of get into the industry, and having a piece of intellectual property like All Quiet on the Western Front is a good business decision. So it [was] both creative and business oriented.”
The process of moving from professional athlete to screenwriter was unsurprisingly challenging: “I didn’t have any connections, so I teamed up with a writer and producer up in Los Angeles purely because when I was doing my master’s degree in California. I started to act and I would apply for everything - student films, independent films, and apply to all the ads, I was pretty obsessive about it, as you can imagine.”
One producer connected with her and advised that she needed to write and/or produce films if she was going to be successful as an actor, which “set the stage for me to kind of understand the industry. Then we kind of went on this journey together, but it was always utilising every connection that I might have whether it was through sport or otherwise, and just thinking dynamically. Getting the option to the All Quiet rights was a huge piece and developing the business side too. It gave us a leg up, we took a risk and it paid off…”
Embracing new perspectives
A changemaker who has made it a personal mission at several points in her journey to challenge the status quo (she played youth rugby competitively for Scotland before a women’s team existed), Paterson has plenty to say about equality in the film industry:
“A lot of Hollywood is still very much [run by] that older white man. But there are a lot of amazing female talents coming through which is incredible, and what is fascinating is some of the stories that come along.
“I think what I always look for in every story that we’re telling, is some way to surface a female perspective, even if it’s a male dominated story. We’re doing one at the moment about a very prolific polar expert, [all very] expeditionary chat - but what we find out about his wife is incredible. So we’re finding ways to embed her influence within the story.
“So yeah, I think it’s about opening the door to different perspectives, whether that’s diversity or whether that’s gender, it’s continually being open to new perspectives.”
Train hard, master your craft
Characteristically, her take on how to make it in the film industry is based around hard graft and persistence: “I think it’s about making sure there’s figureheads that can inspire people to feel like they can break through into an industry like this - supporting vision and passion, but also, making people realise that adversity is good. That’s how you progress. You’ve got to face your fears. You’ve got to be brave. You’ve got to see those obstacles as a good thing to learn and grow.
“It has to be about the process, not about the outcome. You have to truly love the mastery of your craft. And with that the outcome will come and unfortunately the social media and all the rest of it, you know, it’s all posturing [about the] outcome.
“I love to train hard. I love to learn screenwriting, I love to really push myself to the limit. What was fascinating, certainly during the award season was meeting all of these, famous actors and directors and so on. They’re the same, they love their craft. All the rosy stuff around it is fun, for sure, super grateful for it. But they really love what they do. That is where their passion is…”
See all Changemakers Podcast Episodes, including upcoming Episode 7: