Salmon Fishing in the Yemen - Writer Simon Beaufoy
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen - Writer Simon Beaufoy for the US Premiere at The DGA Theater in West Hollywood, CA on Monday, March 5, 2012 © 2011 Yemen Distributions Ltd, Photo by Alex J Berliner/abimages

Simon Beaufoy won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screening for Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire. His other works include 127 Hours, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and The Full Monty.

His new movie, the quirky comedy Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, which stars Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt, spotlights a visionary sheik who is determined to bring his favorite pastime of salmon fishing to the not so fish-friendly desert.

Simon Beaufoy spoke of his unique new movie, and his upcoming project which is certain to spark interest, at the press day for the film.

Can you talk a little about the process of writing the screenplay for this, because the book had no narrative, it was made up of diaries and letters?

Poster featuring Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) and Dr Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) © 2011 Yemen Distributions Ltd

It was all done in diaries and letters, which made it a really tricky proposition from the start. The entire book was e-mails, interviews and diaries, which was quite a tough starting place.

If something looks like it’s not possible, that it can’t be done, a bit like some of the characters I write about, I think, ‘Let’s have a go.’ And this seemed like a really unlikely one to adapt, because it was in such a strange form.

But I found a tremendous and very unusual combination of satire and romance. The two don’t usually sit together at all. I fell in love with it because of that tone. It had these people trying to do the impossible, which I always think is a wonderful part of the human spirit.

There are questions of faith in the movie, are you a person of faith?

Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor arrive for the US Premiere © 2011 Yemen Distributions Ltd

I’m incredibly drawn to people and characters who against the odds will carry on going. It’s an amazing part of the human spirit. And that sometimes does tip over into faith and spirituality, or it’s a belief of some kind, I suppose.

I greatly admire people who do that.

I’ve never deliberately written films that have these people in them, but that seems to be something that crops up a lot, whether they’re people looking for their lost love in a slum or trying to set up a salmon fishing run in the Middle East.

How did winning the Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire change your life?

Sheik Muhammed (Amr Waked) and Dr Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) © 2011 Yemen Distributions Ltd

I tried very hard to make it not change my life or my career, and it probably did as a consequence of me trying so hard for it not to. It wasn’t a film that anyone expected to win Oscars or do anything. It wasn’t a film for awhile that was even going to come out in cinemas.

I make the films I want to make because I get completely absorbed and obsessed with them, and I guess it gave [director] Danny Boyle and me the license to go on and make another strange film, which was 127 Hours.

I think the only direct consequence of winning eight Oscars was that we were given some leeway to do something else a little bit risky, and that’s the biggest privilege that you can have in the film world.

For me, superheroes are entirely out of my world. I love the flawed human beings, their very ordinary-ness is what makes them great. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things is always, for me, much better than extraordinary people.

What are you working on now?

The Hunger Games – Poster featuring Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) ©2012 Lionsgate

I’m adapting the second in The Hunger Games trilogy called Catching Fire.

You were talking about superheroes not being your interest. Granted these are not superhero characters.

That’s what I love about them, they’re not. They are very ordinary people, being forced into this appalling situation where they are having to kill other people.

Is Gary Ross directing it?

Yeah, I think so. You didn’t hear it from me, but as far as I know, yeah, Suzanne Collins and Gary and I have met and talked through the whole adaptation.

It’s an interesting predicament to put yourself in, because the first film is about to come out, so certain aspects of the world have already been created for you rather than you being able to start from scratch. Also there’s this huge fan base that knows every syllable of the novel.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) ©2012 Lionsgate

I know, it’s very different than from the way I normally adapt, which is to read the book twice and then put it to one side. You can’t do that, because you’d get fire-bombed by the fan base.

I never see changing a novel a lot, [when I’m] turning it into a screenplay, as disrespectful to the novel at all, or the novelist. I see it as the opposite of that really. You are making something different, and to do that you have to be free with the material.

I had many concerns about taking on Catching Fire, because my usual approach is to be very free with the way it’s adapted.

But what I hadn’t realized and luckily now do, is that Suzanne Collins used to be a TV and film writer, so she sort of adapted it already. The novels are very filmic structurally.

So luckily I haven’t had the battle going on in my head, where I thought, ‘I have to discard everything,’ which is good, because you’re right, the fan base is incredibly loyal to everything.

This really takes teenagers on at face value and respects the world that they live in, and they’re completely at home with the levels of violence and the complexity of the political satire that’s going on in that book, which makes it a very exciting adaptation for me.

It’s teenagers killing each other with spears, it’s not Harry Potter, nobody waves a magic wand and you’re alright again. Once you’ve been shot with an arrow through the heart, you’re dead.

Have you seen the first film?

I have, yeah. It’s terrific, genuinely bold. Brilliant.

When do you have to deliver Catching Fire?

I’ve delivered the first draft. Am I allowed to say that? I’m sure I am. And it’s really good!

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter. More by Judy Sloane