Is “Salmon Fishing In The Yemen” a love story, or a tale of political impossibilities? Based on Paul Torday’s nonfiction novel, the new Lasse Hallstrom film pivots on the relationship between uptight fisheries expert Fred and plucky consultant Harriet, as they find themselves straying from their partners while visiting the Middle East, in an attempt to manufacture a salmon habitat in the heart of the Yemen.
“It’s an unusual story,” Ewan McGregor told press earlier this week. Though McGregor noted the rom-com conventions, he suggested it was the story’s unconventional attributes that excited him most. “They become friends before they fall in love with each other,” he says of Fred and Harriet. “And it made me feel that it was quite grown-up, not your usual ‘rom-com’ situation.” And while Fred initially scoffs at the idea of bringing salmon to the Yemen, he had no such reservations about the role. “I loved Fred and his [arc], there’s really something to play there, to get my teeth into.”
Adapting the source material proved slightly difficult for screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, the Academy Award winner who penned “Slumdog Millionaire.” “It’s an epistolary novel, like ‘Dracula,’” he says. Noting his predilection for adaptations, he read the novel, a collection of notes, letters, e-mails and text messages, and was enthused about the opportunity to craft the story into a screenplay. “The more difficult it is,” he says, smiling, “the more interesting it is!” Though he understands that, at the heart of this politically-loaded tome, there’s the essence of honesty. “It’s about being true to yourself, and that can be hurtful to the people around you,” he tells us. “Fred was very unhappy in his relationship, he says, I’m married, I have a job, that’s what I will do until I retire.”
Star Emily Blunt found much to admire about the characters’ change of hearts as well. “At the beginning, he’s incredibly upset about this preposterous idea, and I represent that,” she says of the relationship between Fred and Harriet, which intensifies as Harriet‘s active duty boyfriend heads off to Afghanistan. “As the film goes on, Harriet’s boyfriend is presumed dead, and she’s the one to lose hope and faith, and he sort of takes her over, and he’s very kind and sweet with her. People change, and your opinion of them could change.”
Blunt, for one, was glad about the opportunity to play a strong female lead, which she’ll do again this spring in “The Five-Year Engagement.” “All those guys in the Judd Apatow world, they believe in a huge amount of improv,” she says of the upcoming comedy. “And they were very collaborative with me, and I think they believe in funny women, which is a relief. Because you read so many comedic scripts where the girlfriend’s this sort of pill, wagging a finger at her hilarious husband and saying, ‘you’re so weird!’ So they gave my character as many set pieces as the guy and I was really thrilled about that.”
Playing Fred also made Ewan McGregor want to try something new. “I haven’t directed a film, only a short,” he says, sporting a desire to get behind the camera. “It’s a natural extension of all my experiences on film sets. I don’t want to do it for the sake of saying I’ve been a director. I want to do it because I’ve got a story I’m bursting to tell. I just haven’t found it yet. I had an opportunity for a film then I bottled it because I got scared, and then someone else made it! And then recently I found a story that I really loved, and this time I went after it and found out already that someone else is making it, even though it’s a story that happened around 1968.” When pressed for more details, he laughed shyly, “It doesn’t matter what they were!”
As for Beaufoy, it may have driven him down a path where, somehow, he can’t stop adapting material. The writer, currently prepping an adaptation of “Catching Fire” (“I’ve been told I’m not allowed to talk about it at all!”), found himself wanting to turn every published work he reads into a screenplay. “I got to the stage where I couldn’t read a book without thinking, ooh, I know what to do with this. So I started reading poetry, because I thought there was no way I would think, oh, that’s a movie. And I started adapting an epic poem into a film, so that didn’t work at all!” That poem is “Sharp Teeth”, a werewolf story that Beaufoy has been discussing with director and frequent collaborator Danny Boyle. “It’s a really fabulous piece of work. It’s really early days on that. But Danny is very collaborative, I love working with him.”
“Salmon Fishing In The Yemen” is now playing.