‘Obsessive? This is who I am!’ How Lesley Paterson funded her 16-year Oscar dream – by winning triathlons

Paterson’s debut film, All Quiet on the Western Front, is up for nine Academy Awards. It could not have been made without her earnings as an athlete – and the drive that made her swim a mile with a broken shoulder

In 2011, Lesley Paterson was interviewed in Scotland’s Daily Record after becoming the off-road triathlon world champion. The headline crowed: “I beat my demons to be world champ … now I want an Oscar.” It was hard to know whether Paterson was rash, brash or simply delusional. The athlete had no track record in film. By then, she had spent five years trying and failing to remake the first world war epic All Quiet on the Western Front. It felt like a grand folly. Even her loved ones thought it was a pipe dream.

This week, Paterson is up for the best adapted screenplay Bafta for All Quiet, alongside her co-writer Ian Stokell and director Edward Berger. On 13 March, she will attend the Academy Awards, where she hopes to win her Oscar for best adapted screenplay. In total, the film has been nominated for nine Oscars.

It took Paterson 16 years to get it made. Along the way, star actors and directors pulled out, funds went awol and Paterson subsidised her dream with her winnings from triathlons. It’s a heroic tale of endurance worthy of a movie in itself.

Today, Paterson is on the campaign trail. Make no mistake: the Scot, who lives in Los Angeles, wants those gongs. We meet at the Guardian’s office in London. Congratulations on the film, I say. “Thank you so much,” she says, followed by a triumphant roar that verges on the indecent. “Yeeeeeeeeeahhhh!!!Paterson is a tiny, fiery ball of muscle. Whereas most of us are covered in fat, she appears to be wrapped in polythene. Her eyes are the bluest I have seen and scan the world with fierce intensity. Her speech is turbocharged, only breaking when she stuffs an energy bar or homemade rice-flour cake into her mouth.

Lesley Paterson during the 2012 ITU triathlon elite women’s race in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2012.
Lesley Paterson during the 2012 ITU triathlon elite women’s race in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2012. Photograph: Kevin C Cox/Getty Images

She admits that, for good or bad, she has hardly ever met anyone the same as her. “My husband calls it a feralness, like a ‘Don’t mess with me’ thing. Nice on the outside, but there’s a little undercurrent. I will do literally anything to make what I want happen.

“I don’t mean in a bad way. I won’t murder someone or be horrible to someone, but if it means getting up at 2am to fit it in, that’s what I’ll do.” She again quotes her husband, Simon Marshall, a psychology professor and now her partner in writing. “He says I’m like one of those toys you wind up and point in a direction and it just goes. I’ve always been like that. My mum said I came out of the womb running. I’ve always been so driven. Everyone criticises me for it or has done in the past, like: you’re so intense, or you’re so obsessive. But this is who I am!”

At times, she says, her friends have wanted to stage interventions. What does that involve? “Settling down, being more normal, more balanced. I fucking hate that word. Balanced! What does that even mean? Because I’m so driven, my biggest fear is that I’m selfish, but you have to be selfish to be the best in the world.”

Paterson, 42, grew up in Stirling. She was one of four siblings born to a sporty surveyor father and an artsy hotel manager mother. By seven, she spent her Saturday playing rugby for Stirling County in the morning and doing ballet in the afternoon. Of course, Paterson being Paterson, she didn’t merely dabble.

She remembers holding her father’s hand as they watched her brother on the rugby pitch. “I said: ‘Dad, that looks a lot of fun. I want to do that. There’s mud, there’s boys, I get to beat up on them – I want to have a go.’ And he’s like: ‘Yeah, but you’d be the only girl,’ and I said: ‘I don’t care – I want to have a go.’” Was she tough? “I was really tough, because I was the youngest of four and my brother was the next up and he used to beat the shit out of me.”

Her father took her to practice; she impressed and won a place in the team, playing at scrum half and inside centre. “I loved it. I was the ducker and diver, in and out of rucks. I was quick and nimble and dynamic. I would say that’s my personality – dynamic. We played all over Scotland. I was the captain and only girl in the league. We ended up winning the Scottish championships when I was 10.” She tells the story as if there is nothing remarkable about it.

A scene from All Quiet on the Western Front.
A scene from All Quiet on the Western Front. Photograph: Netflix

After rugby, she would turn up at ballet with muddy knees. One of her sisters went on to become a professional baller dancer. Was Paterson as good as her? “I’d say yes. To be honest, anything I turn my hand to I work harder than anybody else, so I’m always going to be better than them.”

She had to stop playing rugby at 12 because it was regarded as unsafe to play with boys and there was no girls’ team. Paterson was distraught, but then her father introduced her to fell running. It was tough and dirty and she loved it every bit as much as rugby. Paterson had started to feel alienated from her peers, particularly girls. Running with her father and his friends gave her something different. “I find incredible solace in the land. Running through the hills in Scotland was super-poetic to me. It made me feel special, like I was experiencing something no one my age was. I wasn’t interested in what young people were doing. I didn’t want to get drunk, I didn’t want to go shopping.”

When she was 13, her father introduced her to the local triathlon club. “It was fucking awesome,” she says. Paterson is not only one of life’s great achievers; she is also one of life’s great swearers. “I’d go out on these 50-mile bike rides when I was 14 years old with a bunch of plumbers, welders and builders. I just loved that. If you don’t keep up you’re dropped. Tough shit.” And, of course, she soon outpedalled them. By 15, she was representing Scotland in the triathlon, and then Great Britain. In endurance races, power-to-weight ratio is more important than overall strength, which is why she could often beat the best men.

She was on a high. Then, in her late teens, she fell to Earth. A technical change in triathlon rules meant that competitors had to be top swimmers to stand a chance of winning. As swimming was her weakest discipline of the three (cycling and running are the others), she was done for. Paterson missed out on the 2002 Commonwealth Games and retired. She began to loathe triathlon with the same passion she had loved it. “ I swore that I would never do another triathlon as long as I lived.”

That was when she started her second life. Paterson was 21 by this point; she had graduated in drama from Loughborough University, met Marshall and got married. They moved to California, where Marshall, who is 10 years older, had got a job. She did an MA in theatre, alongside any number of odd jobs from working on a production line with ex-cons to flogging ice-cream, and spent three years trying to make it as an actor. The closest she got to success was starring in a video for the David Gray song Alibi.

‘The people I’m meeting right now! It’s bananas.’
‘The people I’m meeting right now! It’s bananas.’ Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

She rethinks what she said earlier about being good at anything she turns her hand to. Actually, she says, she was a hopeless actor. “I’m also really shit at things that involve attention to detail and I’ve not got a lot of patience. I think I’d be a shit mother,” she says chomping on another piece of cake.

By her mid-20s, she had discovered what she really wanted to do – write and produce movies. She teamed up with Stokell, a former journalist, to write screenplays. Both of them adored the German anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front, written by Erich Maria Remarque and published in 1928. “The theme of the betrayal of the youthful generation meant a lot to me,” she says. “And my personality has always been that fight against the upper brass. I’m for the everyman. I’m a lefty.” They took out an option on the book.

Soon after, Paterson’s third life started. She was 27 and visiting her parents in Scotland. She had kept fit since retiring from triathlon and no longer felt so negative about the event. She decided to enter the Scottish championships for the fun of it – and won. Then she discovered a new form of triathlon, Xterra, which involved running and cycling in rough terrain. It was perfect for her. In 2011, at 31, she won the first of her five world championships.

It wasn’t a straightforward victory. She finished the swim in pole position only to find her bike had a flat tyre. “I was like: ‘Are you fucking kidding me? I’m in the world championships, this is my best chance ever to win and I’ve got a flat tyre!’ That was a pivotal moment in my life. It was like: what do you do with that obstacle? Do you give up, or say: ‘I’m going to use that and just go for it’?” She went for it, made up six minutes against the leader in the 10k run and, against the odds, won.

Meanwhile, she and Stokell were still hoping to get the film made. But there were endless setbacks. Daniel Radcliffe said he would love to be in it, but there was no money. In fact, there was minus money. “I mean, we had people go to jail. That’s how bad it got.” And still they kept going. Did it become a joke? “It did to everybody else, but not to us.” Paterson used the $20,000 prize money for winning her first world championship to renew their option on the film.

In 2012, she won two world titles. Again, the prize money was used to keep the dream alive. But, in 2013, she contracted Lyme disease and was bedridden for six months. As she struggled with her health, money got tighter and tighter. By 2015, she was well again, the option was up for renewal and she was desperate for dosh. “I thought: right, the field isn’t super-duper-strong. I can probably do quite well.”

Paterson during the Xterra Nationals triathlon in Utah in Sept 2011.
Paterson during the Xterra Nationals triathlon in Utah in Sept 2011. Photograph: Jim Urquhart/AP

In off-road triathlons, competitors ride the course in advance, so they know the terrain. In her pre-ride, she broke her shoulder. “I didn’t know it was broken, but I couldn’t lift it up. I had this big chat with Simon, like: ‘What the fuck are we going to do?’” By now, Marshall, who co-wrote the sports psychology book The Brave Athlete: Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion with Paterson, was also helping with the script for All Quiet. “How am I going to swim, how am I going to hold on to the bike? So I tested it on the bike and I could kind of prop my hand up on the bar. Running was easy. Swimming? Nah, not a chance in hell. He’s like: ‘Well, you’re really good at the one-arm drill. And I thought: ‘You’re right, and I’ve got a good kick, and I think I can get through this with one arm – it’s only a mile.’ So I started, and I took a lot of painkillers.”

When she came out of the water, she was 12 minutes behind the leader; by the end of the bike ride, she was in second place. Eventually, she won the race. The $6,500 prize money was again put to renewing the option, which cost between $10,000 and $15,000 a year.

In 2018, she won two more world titles, with the winnings again used to keep the film alive. She and Marshall also remortgaged their house. All in all, they spent about $200,000 over 16 years to maintain the option. Finally, in 2020, it was announced that All Quiet on the Western Front was going into production as a Netflix original film; it would be made in the German language and directed by Berger. It premiered at the Toronto film festival last September and launched on Netflix the month after. By the time it came out, with the war in Ukraine raging, this hellish vision of life and death in the trenches felt extraordinarily resonant.

Paterson says she knew all those years ago this was going to be her way into the film world. And so it has proved. “The people I’m meeting right now! It’s bananas,” she says. “I’m meeting Spielberg.”

Ian Stokell, All Quiet star Felix Kammerer and Lesley Paterson at a Netflix event in 2022.
Ian Stokell, All Quiet star Felix Kammerer and Lesley Paterson at a Netflix event in 2022. Photograph: Vivien Killilea/Getty for Netflix

What opportunities does she hope All Quiet’s success has opened up for her? “My ability to get in front of people and to be able to sell myself, but in the nicest way. To say to people: ‘You want to work with me because I’m going to work harder than anybody else and I’ve got great ideas.’” Her only disappointment is that Marshall didn’t get a joint screenwriting credit. Is he upset? “Yes, in the nicest way, because he’s such a lovely man. It’s hard for him.” As for Stokell, she no longer writes with him. “I’ve never argued as much with anyone as I have done with him. But he’s like a brother to me and we’re the best of friends now.” So much so that he is currently living with Paterson and Marshall.

She insists this is just the start of her film career, with her and Marshall as a writer/producer double act. Paterson hopes a psychological thriller they wrote together will be shot in the Highlands later this year. Has she got the money? “A little bit. I’m looking for more.”

As she polishes off the final piece of cake, I remind her of the interview 11 years ago when she said she was planning to win an Oscar next. She laughs. “It’s ridiculous,” she says. “Ridiculous.” Does she remember saying it? “Oh yes.” Was it a throwaway comment? “No,” she says. “Deep down, I really did believe it.”

All Quiet on the Western Front is available to stream on Netflix


Simon Hattenstone

The GuardianTramp

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