Simon Beaufoy is consistently drawn to characters in impossible situations. It’s what led the Oscar-winning screenwriter to such films as “The Full Monty,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours.”
Beaufoy’s latest work, “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” features the requisite challenging experience with his two protagonists, played by Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor, charged with the difficult endeavor of bringing salmon to the arid desert of the Middle East. Yet, what really attracted Beaufoy to the project — based on the novel by Paul Torday — was the mere challenge of adapting it.
“It’s a very strange book,” said Beaufoy in a phone interview from New York on the second leg of his press tour for the film, which opens today. “It’s made up of letters and emails and interviews and Post-it Notes. And it’s many points of view and multiple time frames. It didn’t have a normal novel structure at all.”
On top of that, it’s a novel that combines both satire and romance, two genres rarely compatible on the big screen. “Normally, they are like fire and water. Satire has such a cold edge to it that it kind of kills romance. But the novel had a warmth and generosity despite it being satirical about the politics of the time and the political system,” Beaufoy said. “I just sort of fell in love with the tone of it, really. It’s such an eccentric piece of work with an eccentric tone. I loved the idea of turning it into a movie.”
In the film, directed by Lasse Hallstrom, McGregor plays a stuffy fisheries expert lured into a ridiculous adventure by Blunt’s British investment consultant, whose rich Middle Eastern client wants to bring his favorite sport, fly-fishing, to his native land.
One of the movie's particularly bright spots is Kristin Scott Thomas' turn as the British press secretary. Beaufoy changed the character from a man, as he was in the book, to a woman and for the first time in his career wrote the role with a specific actor in mind.
“When I started out writing many years ago, I quickly discovered that Robert De Niro is busy that week and can’t do your film in Yorkshire. It never works out, it just never works out,” he said. “When I decided to make the press secretary a woman, I thought, I really, really want Kristin Scott Thomas to play this role. And she did, which is just a joy to me and she is very funny at it.”
Beaufoy has often been part of small movies that have become Oscar-winning surprises, but his next project sees him tackle what is arguably the most high-profile writing job of his career: adapting the sequel to the dystopian adventure “The Hunger Games.” Although the Lionsgate film isn't due in theaters until March 23, Beaufoy is already fine-tuning the screenplay for "Catching Fire," based on author Suzanne Collins' second novel in the bestselling series.
Beaufoy was reluctant to share many details about the project, but he did say that he's been charmed by Collins and her knowledge of warfare.
“She’s fascinating,” said Beaufoy. “Her dad was a military expert, historian and lecturer and used to be in the forces. It’s fascinating hearing her talk about the thesis for the three novels: The first is about survival, the second is rebellion and the third is about all-out war. She’s very compelling about all of that.”
Beaufoy was impressed by the boldness of Collins’ writing, specifically her treatment of young people. “The books treat teenagers exactly how teenagers want to be treated — with great seriousness. The situations are life and death and we don’t have to sugarcoat that.”
He went on to say that he believes gender matters very little in the “Hunger Games” saga, which, of course, revolves around the experiences of young heroine Katniss Everdeen (played in the film by Jennifer Lawrence).
“What I really love about the books is it isn’t even up for discussion that she’s a girl," Beaufoy said. "There’s no discussion that she shouldn’t be killing people because she’s a girl, and she shouldn’t be killed because she’s a girl. We’ve done gender politics. This is about life and death. It makes the gender politics seem finicky and not terribly interesting.”
— Nicole Sperling
Photo: Writer Simon Beaufoy with Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor at the premiere of CBS Films' "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" in Los Angeles. Credit: Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images