The incredibly talented British screenwriter Simon Beaufoy is known for writing films whose main themes involve making the impossible possible. The Oscar winning SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE along with the Oscar nominated pair THE FULL MONTY and 127 HOURS are a few prime examples of this. Human struggle turning to triumph FTW! He’s also recently been attached to adapt the second book in THE HUNGER GAMES series CATCHING FIRE for the big screen. Beaufoy’s newest is the lovely and charming romantic comedy, SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN.
In the film directed by Lasse Hallström, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) is a representative for a wealthy sheik (Amr Waked) whose dream is to introduce the sport of fly-fishing to the Yemeni People. Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) is the straight-laced British Fisheries expert whose been loaned out to help on the project. In the process of making – you guessed it – the impossible possible, the two discover a little more than the art of fishing.
During the roundtable interviews at the press day for the film, we caught up with the affable screenwriter to talk about what inspires him, the sport of fishing, and the challenges of turning a beloved book into a successful romantic comedy.
VeryAware: What were some of the challenges turning the beloved novel into a screenplay?
“I suppose the biggest challenge was it was supossed to be a love triangle but one of the triangle dies very early on in the story. And in the book, it stays that way. As I was wrigting the adaptation, it became increasingly clear there was actually nothing to stop the rather beautiful Ewan getting together with the rather beautiful Emily from about halfway in at least. So that became a real problematic area for me. I decided to do something rather radical from the book adaptation and bring Robert back from the dead effectively. Just so you are still asking increasingly whether these two should be getting together and if they are right for each other. Other wise there’s nothing to stop them from getting together early on, which is death to the romantic comedy or romance of any kind. That was the biggest problem really. I thought the book was a tremendously interesting mix of romance and satire, which is really unusual. Satire’s got a hard edge normally and it doesn’t tend to work very well with something softer like romance. Comedy tends to be quite cutting. Very near the bone. But the book had a gentle edge to it, which is what attracted me to it. It was satirical, but mixed up in it a super love story which were two surprising elements to bring together. Getting the tone right was tricky.”
This film does a lot with the imagery of swimming upstream. You have the fish farm and that lovely image of seeing Dr. Jones walking with the crowd then turn against the crowd. Would you characterize this as perhaps getting himself in touch with naturally who he is after this self-imprisonment that he was in or was he working against himself?
“I always thought his natural self wasn’t 9-to-5’ing it at the office all the time but he like the rest of us, somehow got shoehorned into a way of life that wasn’t his. He just settled down, don’t ask questions, have your 2.4 kids, retire, die. And wasn’t asking any questions whether it was right or him. This woman comes along and starts prodding, pushing, opening up Pandora’s box which is somewhere uncomfortable for him to be. It talks about the DNA of fish, abou salmon and how they will run because it’s in their DNA and he believes his DNA is a free person, to be outdoors, and not to be sat in front of a computer. All those little metaphors are running along in there.”
Most of your characters in your films deal with impossible situations that they have to overcome and having faith that they can overcome those situations. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, 127 HOURS, and now this. Is that something you have experience with in your own life?
“(laughs) Yeah. Don’t we all?! I’m never consicously attracted to a project because it’s one of those films that I’m interested in. But I do love the human struggle of people deciding they are going to do the impossible. I have great respect for that. I think Everybody for that matter. Sure they’re not searching the bombay slums for their loved ones, or building salmon runs, but everyone is in a big struggle with their daily life. And the people who just punch on and go ‘I don’t care that it’s impossible. I’m going to give it a shot.’ I just love that. That’s why wew all watch sport teams that are hopeless. Somewhere in our heads we think one day Burnley is going to beat Manchester United. That’s never gonna happen but it doesn’t matter. One day, I believe it will happen. You can call it faith if you want. It doesn’t have to be religious faith sometimes it’s just right on the edge. It’s a spiritual belief that somehow, if something is good enough and right enough, it will happen.”
Is that what the life of a screenwriter is like?
“….Or getting a film financed. Yeah. You push against people saying no all the time. Everybody’s life is like that. Sometimes it is the definition os insanity. Other times, it’s an act of great faith and you can win a Nobel prize. You’re right on the edge of being a genius or an idiot. I love that place as a writer to put my characters there.”
Did you do much by way of research if this would be patently ridiculous or not?
“Luckily Paul Torday, the writer of the book, did that research for me. It’s always like going to Mars is theoretically possible. It absolutely is possible. They do get huge amounts of water running in. Very unlikely and very expensive, but theoretically possible.”
The name of the film is SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN…
“Yes, let’s just get it out in the open. Everybody hates that title.”
Have you ever gone salmon fishing in the Yemen? Did you enjoy it?
“Yes! That’s one of the first things I did. It’s magic. I have to say I went the week of the Mayfly. There’s a 10 day period. I don’t know if it’s the same in Alaska or where salmon fishing happens here. But there’s a 10 period where the may fly runs. And it’s like frfee food – like Christmas for fish! My children were hoiking them out and I was hoiking them out. I caught three trout and my children caught one. It was one of the most amazing days spent fishing that I ever had. Watching people who really can do it, you can see why it has that strange meditative quality. I always associated fishing with lots of gear, and fly fishing is actually incredibly simple. Just a rod, a bit of nylon, and absolute accuracy when you can time landing your fly on the water. It’s like an artform. I was just whacking away at the water in an extremely unelegant way.”
Since you opened the door, tell us your feelings on the title.
“It’s a brilliant title! You’ve all got it wrong and I’m totally right! Look, THE FULL MONTY was a really bad title, until it wasn’t. Now I just call it the film with the really stupid title. We did try to come up with other titles but it’s a funny thing. Titles just stick.”
VeryAware: What were some of your runners up?
“Swimming Upstream. They were all like really hokey. Not good. And in the end, Paul did call his book that so if you can’t think of anything better, might as well use the title of the book.”
It’s very easy to describe it to people. It’s about salmon fishing… in the Yemen.
“And then they think, ‘Oh. Maybe not.’”
You talked about finding the balance of finding the satire and the romance in it. Were there any particular trappings of the romantic comedy genre that you actively tried to avoid?
“What I was trying to avoid was satire killing off the sense of a love story really. Because it’s very brutal. I always get very frightened by all the screenwriting manuals in the United States – particularly the ones that tell you how to write romantic comedies. I don’t really understand how they do that. I just work on instinct really. I just knew there was a problem with this love story in that there was no problem. You have Fred and Harriet with a shared desire to do something and love of something and nothing to stop them getting together. My instincts told me that wasn;t good as it ended on page 35. Rather than looking to the genre to help, I was just tryingto figure how to make this story keep on running. I never really work in genres, which has been a problem in my career on occasion. I think some of my films have been hard to market. I don’t know what genre SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE was. I always get interested when they are on the edge of different genres.”
Are you a great screenwriter but a bad director because you haven’t done anything in years?
“(laughs). I have directed a couple of films but it’s a different part of your brain. I always think it’s interesting on a set, you get hundreds and hundreds of questions fired at you every day. Purple Lipstick, pink lipstick? Where to put the camera? Where to put the lights? As a director, you live with that decision. You are very certain and definate. And the writer in me says, ‘that’s so interesting. Purple? Pink? Let me think about that.’ Also if you are working with visionary directors, they live in a slightly different world that we do. As a writer, I live in our world. Some live in their world and everything is filtered through their vision of the world, which is rather wonderful.”
Was there something in SALMON FISHING that you didn’t expect?
“I think Lasse is very, very good at walking that line of tone. He’s got a warmth – a generosity of spirit which was absolutely right for the film and prevented it from toppling over into something with slightly harder edges. One day, I will direct a film when I’ve learned how to be certain.”
Was it weird to shoot in Morroco instead of Yemen?
“I think it’s a shame but it became very unsafe, very quickly. It is very similar. It would have been amazing to shoot in Yemen because they have those amazing multistoried buildings. It’s where the skyscraper was invented, isn’t it?”
What do you think Ewan and Emily brought to the film?
“The pair of them are a very difficult relationship to make work. Because his whole character is very disspassionate. It’s hard to get a sense of two people liking each other when one of them cant maintain eye contact. They very cleverly brought a sense of fun to that. Emily was never intimidated by his refusal to engage. I think she played that incredibly well, which is hard to do. By the time they get somewhere, you can tell they really like each other. They created a love story when the script is trying to push them apart.”
With the economy going down, do you think it’s time for THE FULL MONTY 2?
“It is! Not FULL MONTY 2, but I’m doing the stage version of it.”
It’s totally relevant as of today.
“Absolutely! Yeah I know. It’s on it’s way back!”
Is it interesting to see the things you write, take on a life of their own?
“Suddenly the phrase is around again, which is strange. I think every time there’s a recession, it’s good for me. It comes back again.”
Will you do something different with the stage version? Are you going with a modern day slant?
“I thought about updating it because it felt old-fashioned somehow. But it’s interesting how sexual politics has moved on in 15 years. It’s not that shocking to see all the women in the workplace working, and male strippers. So again, I put it back in the 1980’s where it was set. It’s very interesting how the world has just moved on and what was unacceptable then are commonplace now.”
SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN opens in limited release on March 9.