Monday, June 14, 2010

Salmon Fishing In The Yemen

Genre: Drama/ComedyPremise: An eccentric billionaire Sheikh tries to buck conventional wisdom and transfer 10,000 salmon to a river in the Middle East.
About: This was one of the top “Brit List” (the British version of the Black List) scripts from last year. It’s Simon Beaufoy’s follow-up adaptation to his smash hit, Slumdog Millionaire, which he won an Oscar for. Beaufoy is no stranger to surprise hits. He also wrote “The Full Monty” back in 1997. Recently, Beaufoy finished up an adaptation of one of the more interesting books I’ve read in awhile, the Charlie Kaufman’esque “The Raw Shark Texts.”
Writer: Simon Beaufoy based on the book by Paul Torday
Details: 117 pages – 5/11/08 draft – first draft revised (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time of the film's release. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

Those be salmon.

Before I get into the actual script, I want to discuss Simon Beaufoy’s previous effort, Slumdog Millionaire, because there’s an aspect about the movie that brings up an interesting question. During that film’s historic Oscar campaign, there was an article written (maybe somebody else can find it; I couldn’t with a Google search), about how the film almost went directly to DVD. The company didn’t know how to market it as a theatrical release so they were essentially ready to give up. Eventually, Fox Searchlight stepped in and figured out how to release and market the film, and of course it ended up making over 300 million dollars and winning 8 Oscars.

Now here’s my question. Is marketing so important that it can actually be the difference between a direct to DVD title and a huge worldwide mega-success that wins 8 Oscars and grosses 350 million dollars? I know marketing is important, but the disparity between what Slumdog was and what it supposedly could have been seems ridiculous. I guess another way to look at it is, are there dozens of hidden direct-to-DVD gems on video store shelves that could’ve won Oscars and made hundreds of millions of dollars if only they had the right marketing campaign?

I’ll let you chew on that in the comments. In the meantime, let’s discuss Simon Beaufoy’s follow-up to Slumdog, “Salmon Fishing In The Yemen,” a script I’ve been avoiding forever because, let’s face it, the title makes you want to take a nap.

Fred Jones is a serious man. He’s particularly serious when it comes to fishing, and has a high ranking job at the British Center of Fishing Excellence, which is apparently some sort of government fishing body, where he studies flies and conceives of schematics for future potentially award-winning fishing lures. One day, Fred receives a letter from a woman named Harriet, a “gentle and curvaceous English beauty” who works for a very rich but mysterious Sheikh out of Yemen. The Sheikh is a fishing fanatic, and his dream is to bring salmon to his own personal lake so he can fish there. As is such, he’s asking The Center of Fishing Excellence if he might pay them to bring this outrageous plan to fruition.


Fred is so put off by even the thought of such a hideous and irresponsible act that he tells Harriet, in the nicest way possible, to fuck off. Problem is, some doofus fighter pilot with bad aim blows up a mosque in Iraq and the press is persecuting Britain for it. Bridget Maxwell, the frigid press officer to the British Prime Minister, thinks that some good press between the West and Middle East might make the public forget about the Mosque. So she pays Fred a visit and tells him, whether he likes it or not, he’s going to get those damn fish to the Yemen.

Now here’s where it gets funny. The logistics of the operation (somehow round up 10,000 salmon, find a way to get them from Britain to the Yemen, put them in an adjacent body of water, and hope they swim up to the Sheikh’s lake) are basically impossible. But Fred’s the only one who knows that. So he figures the only way to get these people off his back is to make up the most ridiculous laborious complicated expensive plan in the history of the world, so they’ll realize the craziness of their idea and give up on it. Except, guess what happens? The Sheikh goes for it and signs a 30 million dollar check to fund the plan. Now Fred finds himself responsible for tens of millions of dollars and the political dependency of his country, all for a plan he basically made up on the spot and is reasonably certain can't be done.

Fred is forced to work with Harriet (the woman who works for the Sheikh), who’s recently fallen in love with a man who’s run off to the army. Fred himself is in a loveless marriage. He just hasn’t realized it yet. All sorts of problems invade upon these adjacent relationships and the two find themselves bonding over this impossible task and possibly even falling for each other.

Ah, nothing like a movie with a bunch of big sweaty naked men.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is like finding a hidden stash of chocolate chip cookies on a Sunday afternoon. I mean who ever thought a script with that title would be so good? Despite taking a little while to get going, the script comes together once the impossible task of achieving this goal is put into motion. If you read the site regularly, you know I love stories about impossible goals. The more improbable the task is, the more exciting it is to see if they can do it.

I also loved the idea of this man who never wanted anything to do with this thing in the first place, being held to a plan that he made up just to get everybody off his back. It provides plenty of conflict, but more importantly, it provides tons of laughs. And I think that’s what I liked most about Salmon Fishing. It’s really fucking funny. I mean it has all this dramatic tension, but every few pages or so you find yourself laughing.

Another aspect I loved about Salmon Fishing was how deftly it balanced its subplots. Weaving subplots in and out of a story is one of the harder aspects of screenwriting. You have to know how many to add, when to step on the gas, when to let up, as well as never allowing them to overshadow your main plot. In Salmon fishing we have quite a few subplots, from Fred’s deteriorating marriage to Harriet’s soldier boyfriend to Fred’s battles with his boss to Bridget’s (press officer) battles with the media to Fred and Harriet’s friendship/romance. All of these subplots pop into the story for just the right amount of time, before leaving to put the focus back on the fishing plot. I know how hard it is to choose which parts of a novel to keep and which to throw away. I haven’t read the novel but it looks like Beaufoy struck just the right balance.

I’m kinda begging these guys to get rid of the title here, because I’ve had this script for a year and had zero interest in reading it because of the title. It makes you imagine a Middle Eastern man fishing in a river for 2 hours. That’s going to prevent a lot of people from seeing what I’m guessing will be a pretty damn good movie.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Define your characters by their actions, preferably as soon as possible. Even the quickest and smallest actions can tell us everything we need to know about a character. For example, there’s a moment when Fred walks into a room and is introduced to Bridget (the press officer for the Prime Minister). Bridget is busy reading something, and raises her hand to shake Fred’s without looking up. Right there, you know exactly who Bridget is: A hard-nosed worker who doesn’t respect other people. Go back to your favorite movie characters and you’ll usually find that moment early on in the film when they perform an action that tells us exactly who they are.