When CBS Films paid a reported $5 million for distribution rights to Salmon Fishing In The Yemen after its successful world premiere last September at the Toronto Film Festival, the initial thought according to insiders was to try and release it in time for the 2011 awards season. The move that would have made sense considering the Oscar pedigree of its director — three-time nominee Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, My Life As A Dog) — and its Oscar winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, whose own three nominations for The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire (for which he and the film won) and 127 Hours were also Best Picture nominees. The Academy-friendly nature of Salmon Fishing could have put CBS Films in the race for the first time, or at the very least a contender for Golden Globes in the Comedy or Musical categories. But looking at the crowded landscape, the distributor decided instead to tweak the film a bit (it runs four minutes less than the 111-minute version reviewed out of Toronto) and hold it for this month, starting with a limited engagement tomorrow. That makes it instead an early candidate for the 2012 contest if it does well enough to be remembered — a difficult feat for March releases.
The film, in which Ewan McGregor plays an uptight fisheries expert enlisted by Emily Blunt to make a Middle Eastern Sheik’s (Egyptian star Amr Waked) dream come true of creating a lake for salmon fishing in the middle of the desert, is part political satire, part romance and not an easy adaptation for Beaufoy who I interviewed after a screening this week during his quick visit to L.A. But he is used to tackling unusual projects and turning them into surprising crowd pleasers. “It was quite a challenging adaptation. I had to do a lot of structural work,” he says of the book which then 59 year old first-time novelist Paul Torday wrote in a style consisting of Emails, letters and memos rather than traditional prose. “I fell in love with the tone of the book. It has a very unusual mixture of satire, which normally has a hard edge, and romance. Usually those two things are like fire and water. They kind of put each other out. But it reminded me of Local Hero (Bill Forstyth’s 1983 film starring Burt Lancaster which has become something of a cult classic gem), one of my favorite films ever. It had this strange, slightly whimsical eccentricity about it and the book reminded me of that. If I could re-create some of that oddness I would be successful.”
No stranger to doing successful adaptations Beaufoy says his mantra is keeping the people, tone, spirit and heart of a book the same but putting everything else up for grabs. He describes the process of turning book-into-film sometimes as “bruising”. He met Torday before they started and got his blessing but did not engage with him after that point. “I think you are doing a disservice to a novel just by transposing it wholesale on to the screen because it doesn’t work. They are completely different beasts. It was the same for Slumdog Millionaire . It was a very free adaptation of the book, Q&A. . It’s kind of like brother and sister , different but the same,” he says.
Beaufoy also was happy to be able to present a portrait of the Middle East we never see in films today, not the one where they are trying to blow each other up. “We get a very mono-dimensional view of the Middle East at the moment and I thought this was the opposite side. We see a side of tolerance and respect and just trying to be respectful of other countries and human beings, ” he says.
Humanity struggling against the odds is a theme, accidental or otherwise, that seems to run through much of his work from Full Monty to Slumdog to 127 Hours to Salmon Fishing. He says it is not something he deliberately seeks out but somehow is just drawn to subconsciously. “I have a huge admiration for the ability of people to go ‘I don’t care if it can’t happen. I don’t care if you say it’s impossible. I am gonna do it anyway’. I think it’s an amazing part of human nature. It feeds into faith and belief in human beings to not only do the improbable but almost the impossible. The human spirit is lifted and you go, ‘ I feel better today’ and I love that… I try to make the films as authentic as possible, they don’t fit into a genre or attract the biggest movie stars. However odd they are stories about real people somehow or at least the events and emotions in them that I hope are something people recognize,” he says.
As someone whose scripts are not easy to characterize , is he worried that the rather unusual title will be a turnoff to potential American moviegoers, even if it was the title of a popular British novel? “Everyone hated the title The Full Monty until they saw the film did really well and then loved the title. And similarly with Slumdog Millionaire everyone was focus-grouping it , trying to find a different title and seeing if anyone understood it. It didn’t really matter. I hope this title will be all right. I just felt it fit with the eccentricity of the film,” he says although the whole idea of the theme of fishing was a little oft-putting at first.
“Before I started I thought fishing was kind of a stupid sport. It never really attracted me… They have all this gear and they stand there and do nothing. But I thought I better go fly fishing because that’s what the book is sort of about and I need to understand where this strange meditative sense comes from in the Sheik and his fishing. I was absolutely hopeless at it but I could completely see how it becomes incredibly addictive and incredibly calming. I understood that this is a metaphor for peace and calm and harmony and tolerance and sort of being at one with nature,” he says.
Beaufoy says the experience of the movie now even has him taking his kids fly fishing with him, that is when he has a break between projects which is rare since his Slumdog Oscar win. Currently he is working on a stage adaptation of this first film, The Full Monty (not to be confused with the Broadway musical version) and says it will premiere next year in Sheffield, England where the film was set. He also has turned in the first draft of Catching Fire, the sequel to The Hunger Games even though the first film isn’t released until later this month. Although he didn’t write that one, he has obviously seen it and praises it as very smart, telling me “it has a Lord Of The Flies sensibility to it” . In this case he couldn’t stick to his idea that the screenplay could be a totally different “beast” since there is such a rabid fan base with definite expectations but he is pleased with the way it is turning out.