A war epic and Lesley Paterson’s 16-year Oscar dream
(Credit: Netflix)

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A war epic and Lesley Paterson's 16-year Oscar dream

Today, Lesley Paterson stands not only as a world-champion triathlete but also as an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter. Her race to the Oscars with Erich Maria Remarque’s epic anti-war saga All Quiet on the Western Front is a story worthy of a grand biopic itself.

What sets Paterson’s journey to the Oscars apart is that she funded this 16-year endeavour primarily through her earnings as a successful triathlete. Her story is one of relentless determination and unwavering resilience.

In 2011, Paterson, an accomplished off-road triathlon world champion, boldly stated her ambitions in Scotland’s Daily Record, as per her Guardian interview, “I conquered my demons to become a world champion… now, I aspire to win an Oscar.” 

At the time, her dream seemed too audacious, if not entirely far-fetched. After all, Paterson had no prior experience in the world of filmmaking. And she had already spent five years struggling to remake the iconic World War I epic, All Quiet on the Western Front.

The 2022 film earned 14 nominations and won seven at the 76th British Academy Film Awards, including Best Film. At the 95th Academy Awards, it received nine nominations, including Best Picture, and secured victories in four categories: Best International Feature, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, and Best Production Design. These accolades tied All Quiet on the Western Front with past foreign language film champions like Fanny and Alexander (1982), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Parasite (2019), making it one of the most-awarded foreign language films in Oscars’ history.

Paterson’s journey in sports began at a young age, and her competitive spirit shone brightly from the start. Excelling in rugby and breaking gender stereotypes by becoming the only girl in her league, Paterson demonstrated early on that she was not one to dabble in pursuits half-heartedly. Later, she embraced fell running and triathlons, quickly rising to represent Scotland and then Great Britain. Paterson’s unparalleled drive and unmatched work ethic made her a formidable force, often outperforming her male counterparts in endurance races.

However, a change in triathlon rules forced her out of the sport, leading her to explore her passion for acting. After a brief stint in California, she returned to triathlons, eventually becoming a five-time world champion in off-road triathlon.

Throughout her triathlon career, Paterson faced numerous setbacks and injuries, and eventually, she channelled her indomitable spirit into her other passion: filmmaking. She teamed up with Ian Stokell, a former journalist, to write screenplays, and together, they secured the rights to adapt All Quiet on the Western Front.

Daniel Radcliffe expressed interest, but lack of funding ensured it never existed. Paterson had to ultimately utilise her $20,000 championship prize to extend the film’s option. Her commitment was so unwavering that she swam a mile with a broken shoulder. Alongside her partner, Simon Marshall, she remortgaged their house to keep their dream alive.

In 2020, their persistence finally paid off when All Quiet on the Western Front was announced as a Netflix original film directed by Edward Berger. The film’s release coincided with the Ukraine-Russia war breaking out in real-time, making its portrayal of life and death in the trenches even more poignant.

You can watch All Quiet on the Western Front on Netflix.