Lesley Paterson: From triathlon world champion to the Oscars

15 Mar

This time, Lesley Paterson will be mixing with the big names of cinema, rather than serving them drinks. "I waited tables at the Governor's Ball, which is the dinner event after the Oscars... and I had Judi Dench and Jennifer Lopez at my table, which was quite funny," she told DW of an event 14 years ago.


"I remember serving Jennifer Lopez, Diet Coke and Judi Dench, a cup of tea. Oh, my God. I mean, honestly, like, she [Dench] is a massive idol of mine, so I'm hoping I actually get to meet her more on level terms this time around." Dame Judi probably had no idea then who her waiter was. She may well know now, after Paterson's long fight, along with writing partner Ian Stokell, to have their adapted screenplay of Erich Maria Remarque's classic 1929 anti-war novel "All Quiet on the Western Front" made into a feature film for a third time. The first was done in 1930, the second in 1979. 

Paterson draws a straight line from her hugely successful athletic career to her success with the film, which was nominated for nine Academy Awards including best picture and best adapted screenplay, the category for which she was co-nominated along with Stokell and the film's director, Edward Berger.

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'Running out of the womb'

"I pretty much was running out of the womb," Paterson said. "But to be honest, the creativity was always there. I was a dancer from a very young age as well, so I think I've expressed myself through my body for most of my life." Paterson's first organized athletic endeavor was rugby, at age seven. "I watched my brother playing the game in the mud and then said, 'Dad, I want to go with that. It looks really fun' and jumped into an all-boys rugby team." It was Paterson and more than 200 boys. "So that was my first sport and that kind of sums up my personality. Gritty and like, you know, I like to overcome obstacles."

After she added ballet to the mix, Paterson's father turned her on to running, then cycling and by age 14, she was doing triathlons. And she was good, eventually earning spots on the Scottish team at age 15, and the Great Britain team shortly thereafter. But, she says, a change in the Olympic triathlon format, emphasizing the swimming, led to her becoming disillusioned. She left the sport behind and moved to Southern California with husband Simon Marshall, a sport psychologist who had found a position there. She turned from competitive sport to her love of performing arts, gaining a master's degree in theater and film. 

"My art allowed me really to develop my emotional sense of self," she said. "And because when you get into sport at a very young age, and especially as part of a system like the British system,   they tell you there's one path. And if you don't fit into that one path, then that's it. So, I think getting back into art really allowed me to open up my mind a little bit about who I was, and what I wanted."

Dreaming big in Hollywood

Paterson tried acting for several years. But making it into a music video was her lone highlight and she determined it wasn't for her. She had, by then, realized her skills in storytelling, and started keeping track, with Stokell, of potential writing projects. As is said to be the way in Hollywood, they found one by accident in 2006. They would adapt "All Quiet on the Western Front."

"There was a summer sale in a bookstore in Los Angeles," Paterson said. "And we both were like, 'Wow, we loved that book in school. Let's read it again.' So, we read the book and then we thought, 'Gosh, it really has not been done in current times. I wonder who has the rights?'   just on a whim. Because normally the rights of war titles like this are taken up by big studios." "So, we found the rights were available. We pitched and, lo and behold, we got it. And then we embarked, of course, on this journey to adapt this masterpiece, which of course is daunting." Adapting a screenplay would be tough, but it may have been the easiest part of the next 16 years.

Triathlon years

Having stayed fit since her early years, Paterson rediscovered athletic competition on a visit back to Scotland in 2007. She competed almost on a lark in the Scottish championships. And won. She still struggled with the swimming discipline, but with the help of her sports psychologist husband, regained what she had lost somewhere between her teenaged years and adulthood, and then some. She also found a new offshoot of the triathlon, Xterra, where the running and cycling disciplines wind through off-road, narrow and often rocky terrain. That required even more grit, determination and ability to withstand suffering than in on-road competition.

"And that just suited my spirit," said Paterson. I think you find a sort of joy in obstacles, you know, finding meaning through suffering. And you learn at every step of the way. I think as soon as you realize that adversity causes actual neurological changes in your brain and makes you stronger for the next time, then you kind of embrace those obstacles and use them as a counterpoint." In 2011, at the age of 31, she won the first of five world championships. Afterwards, she told a Scottish reporter that what she wanted next was to win an Oscar. 

Getting past rejections

That first world championship was five years into her efforts to get her co-written English screenplay of "All Quiet on the Western Front" made into a feature film. All five of her titles, including the last in 2018, would be needed to help fund the ongoing payments for the book's rights.

Over 16 years she used $200,000 (€190,000) of her winnings. Between competitions, she focused on shopping the project to film studio after studio, trying to find a way to get past rejection after rejection. But then, Paterson said, the industry altered course, with Korean language film Parasite winning Best Picture and war film 1917 being universally acclaimed. She was asked to make the film in German, raised the funds and started production in 2020 as a Netflix original film. 

"All Quiet on the Western Front" debuted at the Toronto Film Festival last September. Netflix started airing it in October. In January, it garnered nine nominations for Academy Awards, including best adapted screenplay. In February, Paterson picked up a BAFTA in London for best adapted screenplay. On Sunday, March 12, she has a chance at her first Oscar. And then, perhaps, she can tell Judi Dench a bit of her story at the Governor's Ball. 


Author Kyle McKinnon

Edited by Matt Pearson

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