German ‘Quiet’ Scribe Is Also a Scottish Athlete

From gold medals to Oscar buzz, writer says sports and script work are closely related

Lesley Paterson, world-champ triathlete
Kevin Cox/Getty Images/ITU

There’s no logic to any showbiz career, but some paths are more surprising than others. Lesley Paterson, one of the screenwriters for the German-language “All Quiet on the Western Front,” is a world-champion triathlete, born and raised in Scotland.

Paterson — who competed 15 years as a pro and was a five-time world champ — says her career is more logical than it appears.

“I grew up an athlete and artist at the same time,” she says. “Screenwriting is an exercise in discipline, and dealing with failure. Success in sport and in filmmaking comes if you focus on the craft, not necessarily the outcome.”

In both fields, “Self-analysis is critical to success; it’s molding and crafting. Being a triathlete is a form of meditation: You spend hours on your own. A lot of my creative juices have come from those hours.”

“Western Front” is Germany’s international film Oscar entry; it’s also getting buzz in other categories, including screenplay adaptation by Paterson, Ian Stokell and director Edward Berger, working from Erich Maria Remarque’s classic.

In 2006, Paterson and Stokell read the novel and thought it was ripe for a modern interpretation, after the 1930 Oscar-winning film and a 1979 U.S. TV version.

They were stunned to discover nobody held the rights, since Universal had let them lapse. 

The duo pitched their ideas to Remarque’s estate in 2006. They spent 16 years trying to get it off the ground; “It’s tough being on the outside, when you’re no-name writers,” Paterson says.

She and husband Simon Marshall, a neuroscience specialist then based in San Diego, “mortgaged our house and borrowed thousands to get this story told. So many writers and producers give up. But you just keep going.” 

It’s another instance of when endurance training paid off. 

“We went through many different directors and cast, and it was finance/no finance; we were kind of at our wit’s end.” However, the script reached German director Berger, who was enthused. Berger liked their angle.

Paterson says, “It is very much about the futility of war, of course, and about the betrayal of the younger generation, with a historical context of looking at the Powers that Be pulling all the strings.

“The book is written like excerpts of a diary and we felt dramatic tension was needed.” So they introduced the idea of a ticking clock during the last six hours of the war.

Berger streamlined their work “and added a German perspective, to give authenticity.

“We decided to pitch this as a German-speaking film at the Berlin Film Market in 2020,” she says. “Everyone wanted it” because of Berger’s reputation. 

Her sports background also prepared her for the male-dominated international film industry; as a youth, she was the only girl in a 250-member rugby club.

Paterson and husband Marshall wrote a 2017 book together, “The Brave Athlete,” about brain training for those in sports, but it clearly has lessons for others — including scripters. Both careers are about “dealing with constant failure.” She and Marshall are now producing films together.

Paterson is appreciative of her director. “He elevated our script, which is always your hope as a writer. I think we were most blown away at how beautiful the film is. We were very pleased with the outcome.”