Telling the Tale by Unraveling It

“We tried to make a film that was about the mystique and fairy tale of fly fishing.”
Eric Steel’s film “Kiss the Water” explores the life of the late Megan Boyd, who made fishing flies in a remote Scottish town. Morgan McGivern

    When Eric Steel read an obituary in The New York Times for Megan Boyd, a Scottish woman whose expertise at tying fishing flies earned her a British Empire Medal from Queen Elizabeth, he cut it out and pinned it on his bulletin board.

    “I still to this day don’t know exactly what it was specifically that was telling me, ‘cut this out, it’s going to be important to you.’ I just sort of followed my subconscious,” he said recently of the first step that led to his documentary film, “Kiss the Water,” which will be shown at the Hamptons International Film Festival this weekend.

    His instinct led to a film, he said, that is neither “river porn” — a shamelessly glorious documentation of the challenges of river fishing — nor a story about the hows and whats of freshwater fishing using hand-tied flies.

    Instead, Mr. Steel said, “We tried to make a film that was about the mystique and fairy tale of fly fishing.”

    “It really isn’t about catching fish; it’s about a connection to nature,” he said. The film weaves together its various elements — the sound of the river water running, ethereal music, stunning views of the Scottish Highland landscape, the remembrances of Ms. Boyd’s acquaintances in Scottish brogue, and a voice that could be Ms. Boyd herself reading instructions for how to tie certain flies (like “magic spells,” Mr. Steel said) — to create a mythological tapestry from her life.

    “Wings of mottled brown,” the quiet voice describes a fly. “Narrow strips of teal on the upper edge. . . .” “Tail of white silk, turned once, twice, three times . . .” as the screen shows two hands wrapping a hook with the bits and pieces of flotsam that make a fly. The flies were sold to fishermen of Ms. Boyd’s acquaintance for less than a dollar, and are now collector’s items. Among the fans who use them is Prince Charles.

    Mr. Steel, who worked in Los Angeles for Disney and for the film producer Scott Rudin, produced and directed both “Kiss the Water” and a controversial 2006 documentary, “The Bridge,” and has been a producer on four other films, including “Angela’s Ashes,” “Shaft,” and “Julie & Julia.”

    But, he said, “when you pick up the camera, you start to hear the storytelling voice in your head.”

    “I’ve been a reader my whole life,” he said.  In storytelling through film, “there’s some sort of combination of story and image . . . a fusing of the DNA,” he said.

    His discovery of the blog by Julie Powell about cooking her way through Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” led to “Julie & Julia,” which was written and directed by Nora Ephron.

    And it was an article in The New Yorker about people committing suicide by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge that started the imaginative wheels that resulted in “The Bridge.”

    Having been in close proximity to the World Trade Center when the planes hit the towers on Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Steel said he thought about the people who jumped from the upper floors. It was “the marriage of an image,” in his mind, he said. “They must be jumping out of their own personal inferno,” he thought about the Golden Gate suicides.

    Mr. Steel and his crew filmed the bridge during every daylight hour for a year, capturing several suicides on film. The footage was combined with interviews with family and friends of the deceased, and witnesses.

    He knew when requesting permission to film on the bridge, he said, that on average, someone bent on suicide jumped off it every two weeks, and he made an “ethical decision” to report potential suicides to bridge officials. Still, some pedestrians walking across jumped off the bridge before anyone could intervene.

    The film, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2006, created controversy as Mr. Steel was accused of misleading Golden Gate Recreation Area officials about his intent when seeking permission to film and of failing to tell family members of the deceased who he interviewed that he had footage of the suicides.

    He said in a recent interview that he kept his intentions to film on the bridge quiet, worried that “someone who wasn’t thinking clearly . . . might take that as an opportunity to be immortalized on film.”

    “You see people all the time, and you think you know what their lives are like,” he said. “You say, ‘How are you?’ and they say, ‘Fine.’ It would be different if you knew what was happening under the surface, he said. “That’s the place to be.”

    “Kiss the Water” intersperses interviews with people who knew Ms. Boyd — described in her obituary when she died in 2001 at age 85 as an “eccentric master of fish flies [. . .] whose fabled expertise at tying enchantingly delicate fishing flies put her work in museums and the hands of collectors around the world” — with luscious footage of the remote countryside where she lived along the River Brora, a salmon-fishing mecca, and dreamy, hand-painted animation sequences.

    The most interesting part of doing the interviews, the filmmaker said, was that the subjects “all had these almost fairy-tale, mythological stories.”

    A fishing fly itself is a kind of mystical thing, he said. “It’s one bit of fantasy, and bits and pieces and a hook, all tied together.”

    Ms. Boyd created them with everything from feathers to bits of human hair. “There was something about the idea that she learned to tie flies by unwinding other peoples’ flies,” Mr. Steel said. Likewise, to tell a story, he said, “you have to unravel. We all have our riddles,” he said. “What is it that makes a salmon take a fly — it was Megan’s riddle.”

    “She never fished a day in her life; she just had to imagine what would work.”

    “I had this idea that the flies were a metaphor for her life,” Mr. Steel said. “It contained great stories and craft and artistry and loneliness; an empty landscape, beautiful but melancholy . . . also her imagination.”

    In telling a story through film, he said, “you’re trying to find the meaning and the subtext. That’s really what I do.” To get to the depths of the story, he said, “I had to almost imagine unraveling all the myths and stories and embellishments of this woman’s life.”

    She lived in a “remote, crumbling cottage” overlooking the North Sea, where, he learned during his visits to create the film over the course of two years, the climate can be cold, damp, and inhospitable. The process required “a lot of hiking and walking and walking in rivers,” Mr. Steel said.

    Living alone, he said, Ms. Boyd probably often sat and looked out over the sea. “It really made me think a lot about the difference between ‘looking’ and ‘staring,’ ” he said, and being “willing to understand what was underneath the surface.”

    “And so I imagined a whole sort of dreamscape story for her that connects to the pieces I learned about her life. I made up a fairy tale for her.” It is told through the animation sequences, when the documentary morphs from reality into a parallel, underlying world, with a river suddenly made of watery brushstrokes or a blue fishing fly flying through the woods suddenly arriving at a real woods path.

    “The animation has its own role that you don’t know till the end,” the filmmaker said. “There were a lot of naysayers,” who questioned his use of the unusual technique. “A lot of people said, ‘This will never work.’ ”

    But, he said, as with any creative project, “You have to just believe, and keep going. You have to believe in what you’re doing with a great deal of passion.” In the editing process, he said, “all these pieces have to connect.”

    A stepson of Charles Gwathmey, Mr. Steel said the renowned Modernist architect demonstrated for him “a devotion to something he believed in” and taught him about “what it means to be creative.”

    When not in New York City, he lives in the Amagansett house that Mr. Gwathmey built for his own parents in the early ’60s and often visits the bay at Louse Point. He has optioned the book, “de Kooning: An American Master,” by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, about another regular visitor to Louse Point, for a possible next project. Once an art history major, he is pondering the Abstract Expressionist’s work, the bayside landscape, and the many layers one can see through the density of the water “because memory is like that, too.”

    Before starting a film, he said, “I have to know in my mind what the sort of DNA of the movie is. I have to have a belief that it exists, and then you kind of discover that in the editing room.”
    “Kiss the Water,” which was created by Mr. Steel’s company, Easy There Tiger, along with Slate Films, a Scottish production company, and BBC Scotland, which will broadcast the film next year, will be shown at the Sag Harbor Cinema tomorrow at 3:15 p.m. and at the East Hampton Cinema on Sunday at 11:45 a.m. It has already been shown at the Tribeca Film Festival and the Edinburgh and Vancouver International Film Festivals. surface, he said. “That’s the place to be.”

    “Kiss the Water” intersperses interviews with people who knew Ms. Boyd — described in her obituary when she died in 2001 at age 85 as an “eccentric master of fish flies [. . .] whose fabled expertise at tying enchantingly delicate fishing flies put her work in museums and the hands of collectors around the world” — with luscious footage of the remote countryside where she lived along the River Brora, a salmon-fishing mecca, and dreamy, hand-painted animation sequences.

    The most interesting part of doing the interviews, the filmmaker said, was that the subjects “all had these almost fairy-tale, mythological stories.”

    A fishing fly itself is a kind of mystical thing, he said. “It’s one bit of fantasy, and bits and pieces and a hook, all tied together.”

    Ms. Boyd created them with everything from feathers to bits of human hair. “There was something about the idea that she learned to tie flies by unwinding other peoples’ flies,” Mr. Steel said. Likewise, to tell a story, he said, “you have to unravel. We all have our riddles,” he said. “What is it that makes a salmon take a fly — it was Megan’s riddle.”

    “She never fished a day in her life; she just had to imagine what would work.”

    “I had this idea that the flies were a metaphor for her life,” Mr. Steel said. “It contained great stories and craft and artistry and loneliness; an empty landscape, beautiful but melancholy . . . also her imagination.”

    In telling a story through film, he said, “you’re trying to find the meaning and the subtext. That’s really what I do.” To get to the depths of the story, he said, “I had to almost imagine unraveling all the myths and stories and embellishments of this woman’s life.”

    She lived in a “remote, crumbling cottage” overlooking the North Sea, where, he learned during his visits to create the film over the course of two years, the climate can be cold, damp, and inhospitable. The process required “a lot of hiking and walking and walking in rivers,” Mr. Steel said.

    Living alone, he said, Ms. Boyd probably often sat and looked out over the sea. “It really made me think a lot about the difference between ‘looking’ and ‘staring,’ ” he said, and being “willing to understand what was underneath the surface.”

    “And so I imagined a whole sort of dreamscape story for her that connects to the pieces I learned about her life. I made up a fairy tale for her.” It is told through the animation sequences, when the documentary morphs from reality into a parallel, underlying world, with a river suddenly made of watery brushstrokes or a blue fishing fly flying through the woods suddenly arriving at a real woods path.

    “The animation has its own role that you don’t know till the end,” the filmmaker said. “There were a lot of naysayers,” who questioned his use of the unusual technique. “A lot of people said, ‘This will never work.’ ”

    But, he said, as with any creative project, “You have to just believe, and keep going. You have to believe in what you’re doing with a great deal of passion.” In the editing process, he said, “all these pieces have to connect.”

    A stepson of Charles Gwathmey, Mr. Steel said the renowned Modernist architect demonstrated for him “a devotion to something he believed in” and taught him about “what it means to be creative.”

    When not in New York City, he lives in the Amagansett house that Mr. Gwathmey built for his own parents in the early ’60s and often visits the bay at Louse Point. He has optioned the book, “de Kooning: An American Master,” by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, about another regular visitor to Louse Point, for a possible next project. Once an art history major, he is pondering the Abstract Expressionist’s work, the bayside landscape, and the many layers one can see through the density of the water “because memory is like that, too.”

    Before starting a film, he said, “I have to know in my mind what the sort of DNA of the movie is. I have to have a belief that it exists, and then you kind of discover that in the editing room.”

    “Kiss the Water,” which was created by Mr. Steel’s company, Easy There Tiger, along with Slate Films, a Scottish production company, and BBC Scotland, which will broadcast the film next year, will be shown at the Sag Harbor Cinema tomorrow at 3:15 p.m. and at the East Hampton Cinema on Sunday at 11:45 a.m. It has already been shown at the Tribeca Film Festival and the Edinburgh and Vancouver International Film Festivals.

“Kiss the Water” explores the mystique of the fly-carving craft and what makes a salmon take a fly.