Welcome to Deadline’s International Disruptors, a feature where we shine a spotlight on key executives and companies shaking up the offshore marketplace. This week, we’re talking to Krysty Wilson-Cairns, the Oscar-nominated writer behind films such as 1917, Last Night In Soho and last year’s Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne starrer The Good Nurse. We sit down with the Scottish talent to talk about how she collaborates with big directors like Sam Mendes and Edgar Wright, her new outfit Great Company and why she plans to pay it forward.
If you’re unfamiliar with the word gallus, you haven’t met Krysty Wilson-Cairns. The Scottish writer uses the colloquial term to describe herself when reflecting on how she got work experience on the popular long-running Scottish detective series Taggart, which was shooting in her Glasgow neighborhood the summer she turned 15.
“I had somewhere I had to be,” recalls Wilson-Cairns. “I didn’t know where, but I was in a rush to get there.”
Enamored by the day-to-day workings of how stories were made for the screen, Wilson-Cairns kept returning to set (uninvited) each day asking crew members questions and absorbing the bustling work behind the rolling cameras. “Eventually, they said to me, ‘Well, if you’re going to hang around, do you want to get us teas and coffees?” And I said, ‘Of course – no problem.’”
It’s this kind of gumption coupled with a virtuosic talent that has propelled Wilson-Cairns into one of the hottest screenwriters in the business right now and has seen her work with heavy hitters like Sam Mendes, Edgar Wright, Tobias Lindholm, John Logan, Darren Aronofsky and now, Taika Waititi (she’s currently co-writing his Star Wars project).
Her debut feature 1917, which she co-wrote with Mendes, earned her an Oscar nomination and a BAFTA award. Meanwhile, projects such as fantasy-horror-romance Last Night in Soho and last year’s Netflix crime-thriller The Good Nurse further established her as a writing talent capable of collaborating with the industry’s top creatives. In 2020, she established her production shingle Great Company and pacted with Universal Pictures in a deal to create and produce high calibre content.
When Deadline sits down with Wilson-Cairns in her London Soho office, it doesn’t take long to realize why these leading directors and companies want to work with her: She’s whip-smart, confident yet self-deprecating and brimming with ideas. Plus, she’s quite good fun – the kind of person you could while hours away with in a pub chatting over a pint (although during our interview she’s drinking her favorite tipple, Kimura, a Japanese soda).
“In this industry sometimes you get showered with some magical luck,” she says, reflecting on her career to date. “And that’s what happened to me – it was one good thing after another.”
Born in Glasgow, Wilson-Cairns was originally headed to university to study engineering, but her Taggart experience emboldened her to pursue a career in the entertainment world. After completing a film degree in Scotland, she moved to London to study at the National Film and Television School. “I had ambitions to tell these bigger stories and I was just trying to find a place to put them.”
While studying, she worked as a bartender at the Irish pub The Toucan in Soho, which would later feature prominently in Last Night in Soho. Her sci-fi thriller script Aether made the 2014 Black List and sold to FilmNation, which ultimately led to her meeting and signing with CAA’s Tiffany Ward and Jon Cassir.
She frequently credits people she has worked with as being pivotal to her trajectory, and says her reps were the first to propel her into the business. “They had a lot of trust in me, and they told me, ‘Why shouldn’t you be writing big movies?’”
While Aether never got made, she soon landed a spot as staff writer on the third season of Neal Street/Showtime’s Penny Dreadful and says its creator, Logan, was a “fantastic mentor” whose faith in her writing had a tremendous impact on her.
Meanwhile, Aronofsky brought her in to adapt Charles Graever’s non-fiction serial killer book The Good Nurse, his latest production effort from his banner Protozoa Pictures. It followed Charles Cullen, who confessed to killing 40 patients over his 16-year nursing career (the actual figure is ten times more) but Wilson-Cairns was most attracted to Amy Loughren, the ICU nurse who managed to take down her colleague Cullen.
“She’s a very small part of the book and I remember reading it and thinking, ‘I’ve got no idea how to tell this story.’ And then you meet her, and I was like, ‘Oh, what’s her story?’ She’s the most interesting person.”
While researching the script, she spent two weeks working in a burn unit in a Connecticut hospital, where she was exposed to the “incredible manual labor” entailed in nursing as well as the huge cracks in the American healthcare system.
“You think of nurses as dabbing the forehead and that sort of thing but some of them are shifting the bodies of huge men to wash them and some patients even fight back with them. It’s crazy how sanitized our version of them is. Very rarely are those women shown as heroes, so this became a bit of a crusade for me.”
While it would be seven years before that project would come to fruition with Eddie Redmayne and Jessica Chastain as the leads, Mendes, whom she met through her work on Penny Dreadful, was impressed with her treatment for The Good Nurse and offered to give her some notes.
“We really hit it off,” she recalls. “It was a kind and creative collaboration that was just really fun. Sam’s got such a brilliant mind but he’s very giving with that. Right off the bat it was this fun game of table tennis over a script.”
Mendes was keen to find a project to work with Wilson-Cairns on and it took two attempts (an adaptation of Gay Talese’s The Voyeur’s Motel and adaptation of an Invisibilia podcast that both fell apart) before 1917 came to the table.
“He said to me, ‘It’s a World War I movie loosely based on my grandfather. Do you want to come to my house and we can talk about it? Oh, and by the way we are doing it in one shot.’ I was just thought, ‘Shit, that’s great.’”
The two came up with the outline for the story in just two days. It would follow two young British soldiers given an impossible mission to deliver a critical message to another battalion. Amblin Partners bought the spec in a bidding war before Wilson-Cairns headed to France with her mother in tow to map out how the story would work in one shot.
That trip was a sobering experience for Wilson-Cairns, who was just 28 at the time. “It’s just so horrific because every 250 yards there is another mass grave for young men, many who were younger than me. Each time it would take us about half an hour to compose ourselves, but the landscape was so beautiful and natural and filled with cherry blossoms. I wrote the script as I was seeing all of this.”
Mendes, meanwhile, had introduced her to Wright and the duo got along “like a house on fire,” as Wright described to Deadline last year. After a pub crawl around Soho’s dingy haunts (starting with The Toucan where, incidentally, Wilson-Cairns was still working), Wright called her months later to ask her to help shape his original idea for what would become Last Night in Soho, a psychological thriller about a young girl transfixed by the 1960s London which her late mother thrived and died in. At the time, Wilson-Cairns was in prep for 1917 but jumped at the opportunity.
“I had been working for more than ten years and had written maybe eight scripts and then these two came along at once – it’s like buses,” she quips. There were two weeks of overlap on the shoots, with Wilson-Cairns spending her days in World War I and her nights in Soho’s underbelly.
“It was an unbelievable couple of years,” she says. “Eventually you forget that these are incredibly impressive people and you become equals in these rooms, which for their part is really special.”
It’s evident that Wilson-Cairns is a true collaborator and has a deep respect for the writers and directors she works with, but she chalks this down to having been “fortunate enough to work with the right people.”
“A lot of the people I have worked with don’t have egos in the sense that they don’t mind me fighting with them – and I do fight with them.”
She adds, “I don’t mind being told I’m wrong and I don’t mind my work being criticized. But if I fight for something, I fight for it in a way that they then really have to consider and I have to consider why I’m doing it. I’m quite an even person so if I’m really dug in on something and I spend a lot of time thinking about why I’m dug on it, I need to ask myself that. But I’m not insecure in my position. I’m happy to confront people and I’m happy to have difficult conversations. I know the people I work with either like me or they move on.”
Being on set is an important part of the creative collaborative process for Wilson-Cairns. “Things change when they are being filmed. Sometimes it’s by miles and sometimes it’s by millimetres. When a film is shot, you can do so much damage control if a writer is there because if something gets cut, I can shift things and preserve the story if the director will let me – it’s always a conversation.”
She adds, “You have to remove your ego during the process and forget the script exists. The script is not something to prove as correct. The script is a blueprint to create.”
While she can’t reveal much about projects in the pipeline including the Star Wars project, (“I’ve got a few things bubbling up, a couple of TV shows, a couple of films”), she is keen to emphasize the sense of duty she feels in offering opportunities to young talents through her Great Company banner.
One TV project she has in the works will look to bring in new writers and new directors to offer them a similar chance to the one she had on Penny Dreadful. “You learn on the job and find what you’re good at and grow into that.”
She adds, “It’s important that we start making these opportunities where people can fill the gap and move up. Building those pipelines is so important to me. I’m always trying to give my characters agency so it’s important that I do the same for those coming into the business as well.”
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