“Kiss the Water” by Eric Steel

   08.29.13

Fly fishing has inspired two of my favorite films that are not just entertaining but truly works of magical storytelling, A River Runs Through It and Rivers of the Lost Coast. I enjoy them not only for their artistic merit and splendid storytelling but because I enjoy tying my own flies and the creative process that goes into the patterns is presented in a way that shows fly fishing as a work of progressive heritage. I recently saw a story in Variety about a new fly fishing film, Kiss the Water. The film is about a Scottish lady who tied unique salmon flies, and the article was interesting enough to make me read further and check out the movie’s Tumblr page. I found many glowing reviews of the film, but one that really caught my interest was a rave review from comedian Jerry Seinfeld:

KISS THE WATER is like dreaming and eating dessert at the same time.

I tracked down the film’s producer, Eric Steel, and got to watch a screener for Kiss the Water. A former book editor at Simon and Schuster and HarperCollins, and a former executive at Walt Disney Pictures, Cinecom, and Scott Rudin Productions, Eric has producing credits that include Angela’s Ashes and the Nora Ephron-directed Julie and Julia. In a nutshell, Eric Steel is not your average documentary filmmaker, and this film is truly in the same league as my other fishing favorites.

The film is based on the story of Megan Boyd, a Scottish fly-tier whose flies were a work of art.
The film is based on the story of Megan Boyd, a Scottish fly-tier whose flies were a work of art.

How did he conceive of this film? Eric confessed that he has a rather unusual method of finding subjects for his films—he reads the obituaries in The New York Times. Ten years ago, he found the obituary of Megan Boyd:

Whose fabled expertise at tying enchantingly delicate fishing flies put her works in museums and the hands of collectors around the world and prompted Queen Elizabeth II to award her the British Empire Medal… From tiny strands of hair she made magic: the classis Scottish flies like the Jock Scott, Silver Doctor and Durham Ranger… And the fly named after her, the Megan Boyd, a nifty blue and black number famous for attracting salmon at the height of summer, when the water is low, hot, and dead…

Megan Boyd, Eric discovered, was quite a character. “She dressed like a man on top, wore a jacket, and tie over a tweed skirt below,” Steel told me, continuing:

She cut her own hair. She did not fit in well with others, left school at an early age–and learned the craft of fly dressing from an old river warden who had her unravel finished flies and rewind them onto smaller and smaller hooks, over and over until she knew the patterns by heart. All she wanted to do, it seemed, was to make flies. They were everything she was not—seductive, graceful, pretty.

As an adult, Boyd lived almost completely alone, in a small cottage staring out over the North Sea, in far northern Scotland with no electricity, no running water, and no telephone. During World War II she participated in local civilian actions. But otherwise she just tied salmon flies.

Megan’s flies caught fish, but they were not just imitations of food, they were works of art. With years of practice, her flies became more and more beautiful and beguiling. Though the patterns of the flies were familiar and available to fly-tiers everywhere, Megan’s flies were special, magical—as if she put life into them. And if there was a secret to her art, some strange sorcery to it, she revealed it only in an off-hand comment to an apprentice: “You don’t make flies to catch the fish—you make the flies to catch the fisherman.” Eric added, “The phrase echoes a story from Scottish folklore, of the Undine—a water nymph who waits beneath the surface of the pools and eddies of the rivers, singing songs to attract men—unable to secure a human soul unless she can persuade a man to marry her.”

The film features hand-painted animation by Em Cooper.
The film features hand-painted animation by Em Cooper.

As word of Boyd’s talent spread, men began showing up at her doorstep like salmon running upstream: first locals and river guides, then the landed gentry and lords from London—and ultimately the Prince of Wales. She invited the prince in and had him sit in the rickety old chair by the window as she created a special pattern or two for him. Though their relationship was meant to be secret, to protect Charles from the paparazzi, Megan seemed almost eager to let people know he had been to see her. And when the Queen invited her to Buckingham Palace to award her the British Empire Medal, an incredible honor for a fly-tier, Megan declined, claiming she could find no one to watch her dog that night.

The irony is that Megan never fished a day in her life; she disliked that her flies were used to kill fish—and yet she never stopped making them.

To tell the story of the truly unique Megan Boyd, Eric really let his imagination go. With a very small, intrepid crew and support from Creative Scotland and the BBC, Eric says:

I began to stare at her life, letting myself wander in her footsteps. […] And I tracked down the last few people in the world willing to try their hand at making the complex, miniature fishing flies that Megan had created; whispering patterns (as if they were magic spells) and twirling bits of feathers (many from birds that are largely extinct or endangered) and gold and silver tinsel around tiny metal hooks (because nowadays most fishing flies are made with plastic and superglue!). And I listened to fly fisherman give me their theories on why salmon favored Megan’s flies over all others.

Kiss the Water was created from a very unorthodox marriage of facts, fictions, and fairy tale in almost exactly the same manner in which Megan Boyd twirled bits of feather, fur, and fine threads into her miniature works of art. There is a formal, delicate patterning of the story of the film (edited by Sabine Krayenbühl) that weaves together wonderful footage of fishing with interviews with Scotsmen who knew Boyd and the craft of her fly tying (filmed by Ole Birkeland); this is woven together with expressive, dream-like hand-painted animation by Em Cooper and classical music composed by Paul Cantelon. The film, in short, becomes a visual painting and a sound symphony as well as an entertaining story. Eric says, “The animations are not illustration or reenactment they are like the reconstruction of her dream life, as I imagined them. Their roots are in the words people told me, the images I filmed, but their flight path is wholly of my own.”

Kiss the Water had its world premiere at the Tribeca International Film Festival in April 2013 and will be shown at a number of festivals in the near future.

I asked Eric if he fished. He replied, “I don’t fish actually. I’ve been shown how to cast in the river but I’m with Megan on this one. I love the walk up the river though and love staring at it—the idea of reading a river is fascinating to me.”

You can watch a trailer and see some of the gorgeous images from the picture on the website here. Keep an eye on the site for details on buying your own copy.

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