Paul Torday’s novel, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, is hitting the big screen March 9 and it’s arriving with some serious pedigree. Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt and Kristin Scott Thomas star while Oscar-nominated director Lasse Hallstrom helms the story of how a visionary Yemeni sheik sought to bring fly fishing for salmon to the Yemen river in hopes of bringing his people together.
McGregor’s Dr. Alfred Jones is a fishery expert who is roped in by Blunt’s Harriet, a UK government worker who works with Thomas’ press secretary to the Prime Minister Patricia Maxwell. Their office is hoping to create a good will story for the press out of the Middle East where headlines have solely focused on bombs and war.
In the film, the fishing of the title is specifically fly fishing. McGregor, for one, discovered why millions adore the Zen-like sport. “It’s a lovely thing to learn to do. It’s beautiful. It’s really the top notch of fishing. It’s particular. You’re trying to catch only fish that feed from the surface and generally you do it in very beautiful places -- Norway, Russia, Scotland -- cold water places,” McGregor said. “Fly fishermen end up traveling a lot and traveling to very beautiful, remote places. So I think it’s very good for the soul. And the actual challenge of it, it’s far harder to catch a fish that way. So it’s quite spiritual in a way.”
For Blunt, making Salmon Fishing in the Yemen was a must because of her longstanding desire to work with the film’s director Lasse Hallstrom.
“I think Lasse is incredibly collaborative. He’s very open and he’s willing to let you find it and you play with it. He works quite similarly to how Ewan and I like to work, which was a relief.” The director of Chocolat and The Cider House Rules likes to keep things fresh and spontaneous on the set. “So going into a scene how it was on the page usually wasn’t how it ended up. And that’s a real joy when you can stretch a scene around and make it and go down different little paths that you didn’t expect.”
One thing that surprised her about the esteemed Swedish director was how quirky he came off. “He’s really odd in the most wonderful way. I don’t know if I can really get a read on him, because he almost plays the part of a buffoon and he’s always making silly jokes and tripping himself up to make us laugh,” Blunt said and smiled. “It’s like he plays the part of a clown to sort of diminish his position on set. I think he wants to be part of the gang. He doesn’t want to be seen to be the one with all the answers because I think he likes to see them unravel for themselves.”
McGregor (what are his top 10 films?) also welcomed the opportunity to work with the lauded visionary in Hallstrom.
“I think like all great directors, he stands in the middle of a great many brilliantly creative people and he lets them all work to their best,” he added. “He gently wrangles that. But he lets everybody excel. And poor, inexperienced directors are the ones who feel that they have to make every decision and everything has to go through them and the actors must stand here and do this.”
Besides working with Hallstrom, McGregor wanted to work in his homeland of Scotland, particularly in the scenic Highlands. Filming there is something he tries to do at least every couple of years since he moved full-time to Los Angeles.
“Most of the films I’ve made I’ve been in Glasgow which is an amazing city. But we shot right up in the heart of the Highlands and it is absolutely majestic up there. It’s beautiful. And when you’re filming lots of times you hang around so it’s quite nice to hang around looking up at the hills,” McGregor said. “It was very special to me in that respect.”
McGregor even had his character’s birth geography changed from the book Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. “I worked that into my character Alfred, who in the novel isn’t a Scotsman. And I felt very strongly when I read the script that he could be and that it would help if he was,” McGregor said. “Then when I met Simon (screenwriter Beaufoy), he encouraged me to use this accent, this Morningside accent, which is a very uptight, Edinburgh accent, kind of a little bit full posh. I wasn’t sure about it. Then when I first met Emily, we met in the rehearsal room and I was telling her that I didn’t know whether to use this accent or not. She said, ‘Let me hear it.’ So we read a scene with it and she said, ‘You’ve got to use that accent!’”
Blunt hopes audiences will find the same joy in the film as she did upon first reading the script. “It kind of leaps out to you and speaks to you. I just loved it,” Blunt said. “I loved it in the first ten pages. I thought it was so funny and it had such wit. I think there was something whimsical about it. It felt different and that’s always a good thing.”