Ewan McGregor Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Ewan McGregor Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, Kristin Scott Thomas
Director: Lasse Hallstrom
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Rated: M
Running Time: 112 minutes

Synopsis: A romantic, contemporary fable, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is the tale of government employee Dr Alfred, or Fred, Jones (Ewan McGregor), a rather introverted scientist at the Department of Fisheries and Agriculture. Trudging along in his day job, with his marriage stagnating, his world is suddenly thrown into turmoil when he's drawn into a scheme hatched by a fly fishing-obsessed Yemeni Sheikh (Amr Waked) who dreams of achieving the seemingly impossible - introducing salmon to the wadis of the Yemen.

When the British government, desperate for a good news story in the area, gets wind of the Sheikh's plan, the Prime Minister's fearsome spokesperson, Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), seizes on the idea - it's a good news story that will deflect attention away from the government's latest blunder. She appoints Fred to oversee the project, which pleases him not at all. For a logical, rather stuffy scientist like Fred, the idea of introducing salmon to the Yemen is one step short of madness.

Fred, however, is eventually won over by the charismatic Sheikh and his mystical worldview, while he also begins to fall for the Sheikh's representative, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), a gentle and engaging English beauty who joins on him his journey into the Yemen. When Fred is drawn into helping Harriet try and fix the troubles in her life, he learns to cast off his deep-set cynicism. With Emily's encouragement and support, Fred then rises to the Sheikh's eccentric challenge, and embarks upon a journey of self-discovery and lateblooming love.

Release Date: April 5th, 2012

About the Production

Taking the Bait: From Book to Film
A book that prompted one reviewer to write, "if you imagine The Office crossed with Yes, Minister, you may get an inkling of how very funny it is", Paul Torday's 2006 debut novel, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, thrilled the critics with its witty mix of comedy, drama, romance and cutting political satire. The moment that producer Paul Webster read the novel he knew that it could translate to the screen.

"It did seem to me that it could make a film as soon as I read the book," Paul Webster says. "I enjoyed its quirky Englishness and its mix of romance, and almost fantasy, and hardcore political satire. I also enjoyed the boldness of the writing."

The story tells the tale of Fred Jones (Ewan McGregor), a fisheries scientist enduring a loveless, "functional" marriage, whose world is turned upside down when he's charged with overseeing a project that he believes is utterly ridiculous: the introduction of salmon fishing into the arid wadis of the Yemen. The impetus behind this seemingly hare-brained scheme comes from a Yemeni Sheikh (Amr Waked), the owner of a sporting estate in Scotland, who believes that taking his fishy hobby into his home country will help promote peace and spiritual reflection in a land ravaged by internecine conflict.

When the British Prime Minister's chief PR-spinner Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas) gets wind of the Sheikh's plan, she spots an ideal opportunity to exploit a positive, interesting story and thereby deflect attention from the government's latest blunder. The pressure is on and Maxwell tasks Fred with ensuring the scheme's success, aided in his unwilling efforts by the Sheikh's young and energetic representative, Harriet (Emily Blunt). As Fred's journey unfolds, his intransigence abates; he falls under the Sheikh's infectious spell, and finds himself warming to the plan, and to the attractive and effervescent facilitator, Harriet. As with many debut novels, there's more than a hint of the author in the character of the leading man.

"When I had lunch with Paul Torday who came down from Northumberland one day on the train, suddenly there he was and it was like Fred Jones himself had walked in," continues Paul Webster. "It was very, very resonant for me and that really sealed it; that one could take this very personal vision of a man, and this very quirky British story, and then communicate it internationally. I think we're very good at that in this country."

For all Paul Webster's optimism, however, the task would prove challenging. Paul Torday's novel is composed entirely of emails, memos and letters. There are no first- or third-person exchanges, and while it is technically a very accomplished piece, it left the potential adapter with a Herculean task. Paul Webster turned to The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours screenwriter Simon Beaufoy.

"Simon Beaufoy was a brilliant choice to write the screenplay," says Paul Webster, "because the story feels somewhat like a natural stable mate to something like The Full Monty. Simon Beaufoy is a dab hand at comedy and he is also an expert adaptor."

"His main challenge was uniting the political, satirical thread with the romantic comedy, the story of Fred and Harriet's journey to each other. Satire's natural home is either on the page or on television or stage and it rarely works on film."

Hence, while the essence of the novel's political thread remains intact, the situations and circumstances in the film are not as tightly tied to real-life political events and people. "As they were working on the script, they decided not to include the daily political topic and satire, because it would not survive so long," explains the film's director, Lasse Hallström. "They decided to avoid the specific topics and to make it more accessible for any audience at any time."

Indeed, Lasse Hallstrom believes that Simon Beaufoy's script is one of the best he's read "in many, many years". He adds, "It has a very British sense of humour that you cannot normally find, especially day-to-day in the US. I loved the tone, the sense of humour and the range. It's a fable-like, farcical, emotional journey, ranging from real emotions and relationships to more bizarre elements and I like that mix. I can relate to the European sense of humour and to have Simon Beaufoy as the screenwriter makes it such an honour. I really like his writing."

Actress Emily Blunt, who takes on the role of Harriet in the film, was equally entranced by Simon Beaufoy's screenplay. "I absolutely loved this script," she says. "It had such charm and wit and actually captures how human beings speak to each other, and it's quite rare to find that, because often things are very clichéd, especially when you're dealing with a love story or an unusual relationship between two people."

When the actress's parents heard that she had been offered a role in the film, they broke with tradition and got straight on the phone. "It is the only time they've called me and said, 'You have to do this!' It was their favourite book at the time," Emily Blunt recalls, "and they thought that it was really special. The script has a different flair from the book, and the characters are maybe a little bit more colourful in the script. The political elements are still there, but they're not as specific."

Oscar-nominee Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays the hardnosed political manipulator Patricia Maxwell, agrees. "I read the book ages ago and it absolutely made me fall about laughing," she says, "but the script is written in a completely different way. My character in the book is a man, for a start and the book is a bit more political. The essence is still there though and it is still extremely funny."

It was the humour in the script that excited leading man Ewan McGregor. "I liked the tone of the whole piece," he says. "I thought the tone of the comedy was very interesting. It seems to be broader at the beginning and then gets less broad as it goes along. Also, it didn't just feel like one of those big British movies that we're used to. The comedy was in a very specific place and I liked that a lot."

Swimming Upstream: Faith and Fable
As the story's impossible title suggests, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a tale of believing in the unbelievable. For the Yemeni Sheikh at the centre 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. As the story unfolds, the Sheikh's way of thinking eventually strikes a chord with Fred, who starts to believe that the impossible can become possible. Along the way, he also discovers love for the very first time.

"It's about believing. At the beginning, Fred doesn't have any belief," explains Ewan McGregor. "He's got a very practical mind. Fred's a fisheries scientist, and is a very repressed and very locked-up person. He is someone who has been to college, specialised in marine biology, and ended up in a job doing nothing but scientific research on fish. He's in a marriage and they're not a happy couple. His wife refers to them having a 'functioning marriage' and their scenes together are quite sad.

"And then through the Sheikh wanting to introduce salmon fishing to his country, Fred's introduced to Emily's character, Harriet, whom he falls in love with," Ewan McGregor continues, "and by meeting the Sheikh and Harriet, he's brought back to life spiritually, as well, although I don't mean religiously. He just starts to believe in something - that fish will run upstream in the Yemen, for example. From where he starts to where he ends is a brilliant arc, and it's always nice to have that an as actor."

Fred's budding relationship with Harriet lies at the heart of the story. "They're sort of like the odd couple, and they do find themselves falling for each other albeit under very unlikely circumstances," says Emily Blunt. "In the meantime, my character has a boyfriend who she has just met, and has fallen for him very quickly. He goes off to Afghanistan and goes missing, so for most of the film he's away, leaving Fred and Harriet to embark on this strange journey."

The character of the Sheikh, brought to life by Egyptian superstar actor Amr Waked, is another unique voice, a wise and witty gentleman, whose Islamic world is mystical rather than malevolent. He helps imbue the story with its occasionally fable-like tone. "It is such a clever script; the unpredictability of how events unfold," says Amr Waked. "You think they would go a certain way but constantly you are misled. That's really clever and quite entertaining, especially in our industry where so many stories have already been told. And my character is a dream to play.

"He sees salmon fishing as a metaphor for finding God. Going against the current seems to him like the trip of the human being towards God; the good believer is the one that persists and if he persists he will be rewarded in some way. It is a story with many layers."

To piece these layers together and to juggle the story's diverse and quirky elements, the producers required a director with an appreciation of subtly and nuance. Producer Paul Webster says he could not believe his luck when Swedish filmmaker Lasse Hallström asked whether he could direct. "He was a fantastic choice," affirms Webster. "We were very lucky in that he read the script when we were on our director search and he called me out of the blue and said he loved it.

"One of my all time favourite movies is My Life As A Dog and I am also a huge fan of What's Eating Gilbert Grape, so coupled with my admiration for things like The Cider House Rules and The Shipping News I knew we had somebody who had the right offbeat sensibility, was excellent with actors and who had a free-wheeling easy attitude towards the making of the film, which gave a lot of freedom to the creatives."

Lasse Hallstrom says that he thought the story would be a good match for his sensibilities. "There are so many ways to approach this story, which is the great thing about it," says the director. "It has this range and you cannot define it; it is real-life, depicting people truthfully, and if you want to be truthful you have to have both dramatic and comedic elements. It's not a dramady, not a drama-comedy, it's a mix of romance, fable, drama and comedy."

The Swedish director is no stranger to comedy - his 2006 film Casanova has some very broad moments, and he also worked as a producer in TV comedy early in his career. "When I started out in TV as a producer in 1966 I did sketch comedy, so I'm not foreign to it. When I came to make those programmes," he laughs, "they said that Swedish comedy was a contradiction in terms! But with this movie maybe I could compare it more to Chocolat that anything else I've done, because it's quite nuanced.

"Really, in many ways it's also about a very honest meeting between Western and Eastern cultures," continues Lasse Hallstrom, "and how we can get along. One of the wonderful effects it had on me was that it could help visualise, even in a small way, the integration of, or the acceptance between Eastern and Western cultures. That's a positive thing in the times we live in."

Fly Casting: An Excellent Catch
The character of Fred in Paul Torday's book is a man in late middle age, but producer Paul Webster envisioned a younger man for the film adaptation, and he really wanted Ewan McGregor for the role. "The first big step was that the character of Fred even in the script was written as an older man but we were very, very keen on casting Ewan McGregor," he says. "Ewan McGregor is certainly not old, but he is an extremely experienced screen actor. What I think is happening with him now is that the kind of glamorous Hollywood boy star thing is morphing and maturing into something which is really interesting.

"I think he can be our Harrison Ford for the next few years. He's got all the attributes, the masculinity, charm, good looks. He is a fabulous actor in drama and comedy equally, he's got great timing and I think he is coming into a bit of a purple patch. For my money I think this is the best work he has ever done."

Co-producer Nicky Kentish-Barnes agrees. "Fred is very introverted and he's rather endearing at times," she notes. "It's a great role for Ewan." McGregor concurs, and drew particular enjoyment from finding his character's voice. "My own voice is a little too laid back for Fred," says the actor, "so we made it a bit more uptight, and there's a poshsounding Scottish accent that's really fun to play - from Kelvinside, or Morningside would be the Edinburgh version."

To play opposite Ewan McGregor's uptight fisheries scientist, the producers wanted an actress who was young and vivacious, at home with both comedy and drama. "Emily Blunt again was a very easy choice," says Webster, "and she fits perfectly in that Harriet needs to be a bit younger than Fred and she is a natural comedienne. You have to do your best to stop Emily Blunt laughing and corpsing and wisecracking throughout the filming.

"She plays a fairly strait-laced girl," he continues, "but she brought a different shape to it as any good actor would. She has elaborated what was on page and made Harriet a looser and more bohemian character than was originally anticipated. I think the story is all the better for it. She is a movie star and she brings her own quality. Movie stars don't always bury themselves entirely in character; they do shine out and that's what Emily Blunt does."

It is Harriet's lively, positive outlook that warms Fred's heart. "Harriet is very effusive and upbeat about everything, which is very different from Fred's voice, which is quite imperious and stuck up," says Emily Blunt. "And I think that Harriet finds the Yemen quite a magical place. It's a very different environment for all of them, and that's why the characters take leaps and bounds and take risks. They get swept up in this whirlwind of being in a unique place with a unique project."

For the role of Harriet's boss, the salmon-loving Sheikh, Webster wanted an Arab actor. "We didn't want to go down that 'Hollywood comedy casting' route but then it turned out that very few of the older Arab actors had worked in the English language, and our character had to speak perfect English. The classical style of Arab acting is also very demonstrative and quite theatrical so it proved to be quite a challenge. Then we started to look at younger actors."

And they chose one of Egypt's hottest starts, Amr Waked. "Amr Waked is a huge star in Egypt and here he's been thrown straight into it but has been totally brilliant," says co-producer Nicky Kentish-Barnes. Indeed, the filmmakers realised that today, many Arabian businessmen investing in the West are in fact young men. "Sheikh Mansour, who owns Manchester City, is a young guy, for example," adds Paul Webster, "so we decided this would be our man." And in Waked, Webster says that he cast "the George Clooney of the Middle East."

A veteran of several English-language productions, including the 2005 Hollywood thriller Syriana, Amr Waked says that he jumped at the chance to play the Yemeni Sheikh. "It is one of the nice Arab roles written," he notes, "unlike the terrorist-type role, which I played in Syriana. You get asked to play a lot of those. You don't find a role like this one very often at all, once every few years if you are lucky." Paul Webster says that the filmmakers were very keen to ensure that all the Arab elements were accurate, "and that all those parts were played by real Arabs and real Yemenis where possible". All the extras in Scotland, who form the Sheikh's entourage, for example, were drawn from Britain's small Yemeni population.

The final major cast member is, of course, the woman determined to ensure that the Sheikh's plan comes fruition, Patricia Maxwell, and Paul Webster was delighted to capture as accomplished an actress as Kristin Scott Thomas. "My character's the communications person to the Prime Minister, the go-to person and she is the one wanting to make this scheme work," says Kristin Scott Thomas.

"She's the end of the line as far as decisions are concerned and she's verbally aggressive and basically unpleasant. It's fun to play but at the same time you don't feel very nice. She has no redeeming qualities. Communications people generally try and get on the right side of everyone, which she does, but she's frightening. This woman has no grace."

Paul Webster believes that the part of Patricia Maxwell is especially challenging, and yet key to the pace and tone of the story. "I think the challenges for Kristin Scott Thoams were much tougher because this character doesn't interact with anybody else even when she is with other people," he says. "Basically, she is paying no attention to them. She's always on to the next twitter, email, text - whatever it is. She is constantly multi-tasking. There's a reality to that which reflects modern-day society's obsession with means of communication, as opposed to communicating."

Sink-and-Draw: Shooting and Locations
The story unfolds in three separate major locations - London, the Highlands of Scotland and the wadis of Yemen - and with travel to the Yemen proscribed, Webster scouted locations in Jordan and Morocco, settling on the latter, the region around Ouarzazate, as it is more mountainous and "is also very film friendly".

Paul Webster explains, "You are never supposed to work with children, animals and I would add water. And of course we had a lot of water in this film. There were no problems in Scotland; that was all fine. The water behaved admirably there."

The production's water problems arrived in Morocco. "Cue flash flood number one: unprecedented rain in the highlands of the Atlas mountains leading to a tidal wave which swept away our set," the producer continues, "which was then duly rebuilt and once again it was swept away. Fortunately, the floods were always in the middle of the night 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 12-foot wall of water."

Once the production arrived in Morocco and was set to film, there was no water at all. "We had all this water with the floods, but all the wrong kind of water and at the wrong time. It just washed everything away and left us with no time to do the original plan of drilling down and getting our own water. There's a scene with Fred and Harriet swimming in the river. In fact, they were swimming in about 18 inches of water as that's all we could get!"

The story, of course, opens in London and for Fred's home in England, Lasse Hallstrom shot in a suburb of Hampstead, "a perfect street of Edwardian houses, identical, with everybody having a neatly trimmed hedge," according to Paul Webster. "It was perfect for what we wanted, the feeling of repetition of a person feeling trapped in a well-ordered, very comfortable prison." Fred's place of work, meanwhile, at the offices of the Department of Fisheries and Agriculture, was cast as "a very grey place. To emphasise the contrast we shot The Harrison Price Consultancy, where Harriet works, in the Blue Fin building, a fabulous building down in Southwark, with marvellous views, glass and chrome. It's a beautiful place, a wonderful space to work in, and stands in stark contrast to Fred's miserable little cubby hole."

For the Sheikh's Scottish estate, the filmmakers shot around the village of Arrochar on Loch Long in Argyll and Bute in the Scottish Highlands. "We have a very interior, repressed world that Fred occupies which slowly opens up when he goes into The Highlands," says Webster. "Our location up there was stunning, although you realise that you have chosen your locations for their beauty and aesthetic appeal but you end up spending half your time driving to these places. The distances are great between areas in Scotland. The Scottish stuff I would say was more physically demanding than the Moroccan shoot!"