Salmon Fishing In The Yemen perfectly fits the mould of the type of movie David Cameron thinks the British film industry should be concentrating on – accessible with a broad demographic in mind, driven by an appealing script (courtesy of Slumdog and Full Monty scribe Beaufoy), and judging by initial US box office figures, commercially successful. Yet there is something faintly subversive about the film. It’s subtle, but it’s there. Sheikh Muhammed (Waked) views salmon fishing as a soul-cleansing and faith-restoring pursuit, a redemptive ritual rather than a sport. His dreams of introducing it to the arid land of Yemen instead of “turning it into an 18-hole golf resort” as one character puts it, seem to echo what novelist Philip Pullman and Watchmen creator Alan Moore said at last month’s Oxford Literary Festival – that monetising Art is to misunderstand its reason. It exists to inspire, to entertain, to educate.
Given the austere times in which we live then, are feel-good films more important than ever? Emily Blunt, who plays the Sheikh’s envoy Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, seems to think so. “My mum said to me after seeing it how refreshing it was to see such an original, uplifting film. I think there is a sort of audience fatigue with all of these big blockbuster movies. Some of them are great but a lot of them are mind-numbing and I think people are crying out for great stories and at least ones that’ll make you feel something.”
Salmon Fishing’s charms are obvious once you see it, albeit having come from a successful book, but was its quirky title and subject matter a tough sell when getting the thing off the ground? Producer and founder of Film Four Paul Webster says initially, yes. “It took the combination of Emily, Ewan and then Lasse (Hallström) to get us the greenlight to make the movie. I still think it’s quite a hard sell particularly in America, they say, “Salmon Fishing In The Yemen? Is it a documentary?” We thought about changing the title at first, but then we realized you’ve got to play to your strengths. Many years ago, when Four Weddings and a Funeral was made, some of the executives wanted to change the title and suggested it should be called The Best Man. But now Four Weddings and a Funeral has slipped into the lexicon and you make strengths of little complexities like that.”
The film unfolds in three separate major locations – London, the Highlands of Scotland and Ouarzazate in Morocco standing in for the Yemen. The London scenes make great use of Hamstead for the repressed Alfred Jones’ home, “a perfect street of Edwardian houses, identical, with everyone having a neatly trimmed hedge,” according to Webster. “It was perfect for what we wanted, the feeling of repetition for a person feeling trapped in a well-ordered, very comfortable prison.” Up in Scotland, one early pivotal scene has Sheikh Muhammed inviting McGregor’s Alfred to fish with him in the icy waters of Loch Long in Argyll, a scene Amr Waked recalls all too vividly. “It was actually deadly,” he states. “The first time I waded, I waded without insulators and it was three degrees and I thought, “you have to do this. You are from Egypt and they are from the North. Don’t be so wimpy about the cold”. And I did it but I really shivered for forty minutes once I got out.”
“The scenes in Scotland were actually harder to shoot than the scenes in the desert,” Webster recalls. “There’re not many hotels up there and not many people live that far up north, so finding places to put people was difficult.” That was nothing compared to the trouble the shoot encountered in Morocco though, where flash floods due to the large volume of unprecedented rainfall up in the Atlas mountains resulted in the set getting swept away by a freak tidal wave. “It was duly rebuilt and once again it was swept away. Fortunately the floods were always in the middle of the night,” Webster remembers, “so no harm was done. But then seven days before the actors arrived in Morocco to shoot, the set was swept away again by a twelve-foot tidal wave.”
Guiding us through this spiritual-journeying is Ewan McGregor, in what is probably his first proper middle-aged role. I feel Polanski’s The Ghost Writer in 2010 was the film that really introduced his segue into the beginnings of more autumnal parts, and in the possible-Aspergered Dr. Jones, McGregor finds the delicate balance between irate stuffiness and the endearing real-time blossoming of a man re-discovering a zest for love and life. It’s a nuanced portrayal and one that perfectly suits McGregor, now in his forties, even though the book has Fred as being in late-middle-age. “There was some talk of aging me up,” McGregor recalls. “Putting silver in my hair, that kind of thing, but I felt that we could achieve Fred’s uptightness with acting alone. Nobody’s offering me 20-year-old juvenile leads anymore, but I’m in my forties so that’s kind of natural that that would be the case.”
Webster agrees. “Likewise, one of the reasons we cast Amr in the film was, as it’s written in the book, you would expect an older more venerable actor to play the sheikh, coupled with the reality of the fact that not very many actors in the Middle East speak very good English – and of course the sheikh has to speak perfect English – fate intervened very positively for us when we found Amr. We never thought about him until Lasse and I watched him in Syriana and realised he had a fantastic presence.”
Salmon Fishing In The Yemen is, of course, all about fate, faith and believing in the unbelievable. For the sheikh at the center of the tale, the salmon is a mystical creature, its annual migration from ocean to stream an allegory for the human journey towards spiritual achievement. “I quite enjoy being fatalistic about this job,” Blunt reflects. “Not knowing what’s going to happen, being fatalistic about the choices you make.” McGregor nods in agreement, thoughtfully running his hand over his be-bearded face. “There’re some moments when you walk on set and you don’t know how you’re going to do what you have to do, and then later, you walk back to your trailer and you think, “oh, that was alright.” I quite like that”