How a Scottish triathlete is on the brink of Bafta glory

Six years ago she was desperately trying to win triathlons to raise cash for her screenwriting ‘dream’… Now five-time world champion, 42, is courted by A-listers as her critically-acclaimed All Quiet on the Western Front is on the brink of Baftas glory

  • Lesley Paterson reworked All Quiet on the Western Front for the big screen 
  • The 42-year-old Scottish triathlete spent 16 years working on the epic project 

Casting her gaze out into the audience as she accepted her award from Sienna Miller, Lesley Paterson could see some of Hollywood’s biggest names listening intently as she gave her thank you speech. 

A five-times world champion triathlete – who used her prize money from the sport to fund one of the movie industry’s biggest Bafta, and likely Oscar, contenders – the Scot had just pulled off another feat of endurance. 

For 16 years after adapting Erich Maria Remarque’s First World War epic All Quiet on the Western Front for the big screen, and failing repeatedly to gain any traction in her passion project, streaming giant Netflix had finally helped her seize the day.

And following on from that award win for Best Adapted Screenplay two weeks ago from the National Board of Review, in New York, the movie now has 14 nominations on the Bafta longlist – the largest number for any film.

Scottish triathlete Lesley Paterson spent 16 years working on a screen adaptation of the anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front

The Netflix movie has been nominated for a host of Baftas and may even feature in the Oscars

Ms Paterson, 42, who is from Stirling and moved to California in 2003, is still struggling to come to terms with the turnaround in her life. 

‘It’s been manic,’ she said last night from her home in Culver City, Los Angeles. 

‘I was totally floored to hear about the Bafta nominations, and to have such an overwhelming response to the film has been so satisfying. Suddenly doors are opening and people in the industry are returning our calls in a way they never did before.

‘Although everyone around me doubted massively that I could get the film made because of the risks involved – war movies are expensive to make and, for a long time, no one was interested in making a First World War movie – I’ve always had this unbridled confidence that I could make it happen, just as I have in my sports career.

‘I have a fire in the belly for everything I turn my hand to and it’s only getting brighter as I get older.’

All Quiet on the Western Front was first published in a newspaper in 1928 and made into a Hollywood film in 1930, which won the Oscar for Best Picture.

Having read it at school and suddenly seeing it being promoted by booksellers Barnes and Noble one day, she and her then writing partner, Ian Stokell, decided to try their hand at adapting it.

Ms Paterson, who has an MA in theatre and was a jobbing actor when she first met Stokell, said they were surprised to find Universal’s rights to the book had long since lapsed.

After approaching Remarque’s estate to see if they could secure the rights for a remake, they found they could – at a price. 

And in what has to be one of the most audacious ways of part-funding a movie project, Ms Paterson – who was a member of the Scottish and British triathlon squads by the age of 16 – dug deep and fell back on her career as a triathlete to get it over the line.

Flying to Costa Rica to take part in a gruelling triathlon with a £6,500 cash prize for the winner, she swam 1.5km, followed by a 40km bike race and a 10km run to take the top spot.

Having read it at school and suddenly seeing it being promoted by booksellers Barnes and Noble one day, she and her then writing partner, Ian Stokell, decided to try their hand at adapting it

For 16 years after adapting Erich Maria Remarque’s First World War epic All Quiet on the Western Front for the big screen, and failing repeatedly to gain any traction in her passion project, streaming giant Netflix had finally helped her seize the day

Incredibly, she did it with a broken shoulder, having crashed her bike the day before. It meant she had to swim one-armed and ride her bike with her arm strapped at a 90-degree angle to the handlebars.

Ms Paterson laughed at the memory, saying: ‘I didn’t just want to win the race, I had to win because the option payment for All Quiet on the Western Front was due the following week and this was the only way I could get five-digit cash together to keep our dream alive.’

She finished the swim 15 minutes behind the leaders but was in fourth place by the end of the bike ride and the start of her run. ‘With 2km to the finish line, I saw the leader ahead,’ she added.

‘Dizzied by pain, I kept going, each step becoming a private vote against the naysayers and discouragers. In the final kilometre I took the lead and refused to give it up.’

All in all, Ms Paterson estimates she and her husband Simon Marshall, a psychology professor and an uncredited writer on All Quiet on the Western Front, have invested about £165,000 – more than £10,000 a year – just to keep her dream of seeing the project become reality alive.

All in all, Ms Paterson estimates she and her husband Simon Marshall, a psychology professor and an uncredited writer on All Quiet on the Western Front, have invested about £165,000 – more than £10,000 a year – just to keep her dream of seeing the project become reality alive

Ms Paterson said: ‘For us, the authenticity of it being in German is critical. The essence of the book is there is no hero, there’s no sense of adventure. I’m most proud of how we’ve captured the anti-war sentiment in a way that’s never been shown before.’

She explained: ‘It was a very nerve-wracking time – financially stressful for us as a couple trying to keep the damn thing going.

‘We had to renew the option on the movie every year and most folk don’t have tens of thousands of pounds lying around and we certainly didn’t. To help, I made my bread and butter by trying to win triathlons.’

Her and Stokell’s initial screenplay was in English as they felt it was the only way to get a war film financed.

However, as streaming services took off, foreign language movies such as South Korean comedy thriller Parasite won Oscars and, in 2019, when Sam Mendes’s 1917 reignited an interest in the subject, the mood towards her project changed.

The book channels all the despair and disillusionment of the author’s experience as a German soldier in the trenches in the First World War.

So after meeting director Edward Berger, they pitched the film in Berlin in 2020 as a German language project and were delighted when Netflix commissioned it.

Ms Paterson said: ‘For us, the authenticity of it being in German is critical. The essence of the book is there is no hero, there’s no sense of adventure. I’m most proud of how we’ve captured the anti-war sentiment in a way that’s never been shown before.’

The book channels all the despair and disillusionment of the author’s experience as a German soldier in the trenches in the First World War

In two days, when the Oscar nominations are announced and nearly 100 years since All Quiet on the Western Front’s last success at the Academy Awards, Ms Paterson and the rest of the team will discover if they are on the shortlist

The film was made on location in the Czech Republic in 2021, with Daniel Bruhl and Felix Kammerer in the ensemble cast.

One of the opening scenes, where women launder the uniforms of dead soldiers so that they can be passed on to the new recruits, came from Ms Paterson herself.

And she said she was shocked and saddened to recently read an article about Russians, in the conflict with Ukraine, repurposing uniforms in the same way. ‘We wrote that scene for the film 14 years ago, so what it tells us is it’s still relevant.

‘We also wanted a younger generation to really see it and Netflix helped us achieve that because of the reach that it has.

‘It’s now being shown in German schools and I hope they will begin to show it in every school.’

In two days, when the Oscar nominations are announced and nearly 100 years since All Quiet on the Western Front’s last success at the Academy Awards, Ms Paterson and the rest of the team will discover if they are on the shortlist.

‘Typical Scottish girl that I am, I’m so bloody nervous,’ she said. ‘Obviously we’ve got a great chance at being nominated in a few categories but I don’t want to get my hopes up and be let down.

‘Whatever happens, the reaction has been amazing and, at times, surreal. To break into this industry is almost impossible and the doors have just opened and all of a sudden people are returning our calls.

‘Two weeks ago, when we won our award in New York, we had to do a speech and there, literally in front of me, was Steven Spielberg, Daniel Craig and Colin Farrell. I’d just been introduced by Sienna Miller. I found myself thinking, ‘This is crazy’.

‘Sienna’s absolutely lovely and sat at our table all night. Last weekend, I found Kate Hudson sitting beside me at another awards ceremony, so I’ve really been rubbing shoulders with the A-list.’

She and her English husband, whom she met while they were students at Loughborough University, have formed their own production company and are working on other projects, including plans to shoot a psychological thriller in the Highlands this year, as well as another in Ireland.

She and her English husband, whom she met while they were students at Loughborough University, have formed their own production company and are working on other projects, including plans to shoot a psychological thriller in the Highlands this year, as well as another in Ireland

Ms Paterson added: ‘It’s a lot of hard work that’s got us here but we’re so grateful for this opportunity. We’re also very fortunate with our friends and family. Mine in Stirling will always keep me down to earth. I’m the youngest of four so they don’t let me get too big for myself. They all think it’s hilarious that I’ve been nominated for a Bafta after years of fighting to keep the project alive.’

However, after watching her display that same steely determination growing up and competing while at the top of her sport, they never lost belief in her iron will to pull it off.

Ms Paterson added: ‘They know I was exactly the same with sport growing up – and if you want to be the best, you have to really love mastering your craft. If you’re always looking for the outcome, you’re never going to get there. You have to take risks.

‘I did that in sport and I was successful and I’m doing the same in film.’

  • The Bafta winnners will be announced on February 19

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