Nathanael Smith caught up with Eric Steel at the Edinburgh Film Festival, to chat with him about Kiss The Water, a documentary about Megan Boyd, a Highlands woman who crafted fishing flies.
Eric Steel is, first and foremost, a film fan, as evidenced by the fact that instead of getting straight into an interview with him, we end up discussing director Lucien Castaing-Taylor – who made Leviathan– and his earlier film Sweetgrass. ‘It’s about sheep-herders in Montana, it’s one of the most of beautiful films… I think it’s better than Leviathan,’ he comments. We eventually drift onto salmon flies and Kiss The Water, where he reveals he has never fished, but saw something universal in Megan Boyd’s story. This leads me onto my pre-prepared questions, but we don’t stay there long, and there’s no need; Steel is so eloquent when discussing his film that it becomes infectious, different ideas flowing in and out of the conversation instead of a stilted question and answer structure. Needless to say, he had a lot to talk about when it did come to his film.
He first got the idea to make a film about Boyd when he read her obituary in the New York Times in 2001, and he says that the appeal was that ‘the original obituary read like a fairy tale, that was like one version of her life that had been spun. Kind of spun in the way that you spin a fly.’ Clearly attracted to the idea of Boyd’s story being paralleled with the art of making a salmon fly, he explains that, ‘the construction of flies, there’s the silk and the wings, it’s layered… I think they have a life, and I was attracted to the idea of building her life in a series of layers that are connected.’ Kiss the Water is as much about story-telling as it is about fishing tackle.
The anecdotes relayed by the interviewees within the film are punctuated by animated sequences that add another layer in the fly that Steel weaves with his story. ‘The animation was like her imagination of what these creations were doing. Megan never fished, so she wasn’t making flies on a practical level, it was purely from her imagination of how a fly would look. I think to do that, she would have imagined herself as a swimmer and a dancer and a river.’ These sequences show a side to Megan that is entirely realised by Steel’s imagination and his animator Em Cooper. ‘When you stare out of a window, what you are actually doing is imagining what isn’t actually there but what you long for,’ he notes. ‘All the people who knew her really well, nobody could account for what it was that Megan longed for. They were happy to talk about her eccentricities, but no one could really understand her mysteries.’ Steel hopes with his film that he unveils some of the inner longings behind this reclusive artist.
In talking to Steel you soon realise that the magic of Boyd’s story doesn’t stop at the credits of his film. The film mentions that she would just disappear every Sunday, and one of the speakers mentions a place called the Glen of the Fairies. Steel’s eyes light up when talking about this place, telling of how Boyd’s apprentice had told them about it very early on in the filming. ‘We kept going back, looking at maps and asking ‘where is this Glen of the Fairies place?’ and all the people in Brora looked at me like I was mad, like this is some cockamamie, made up story, there is no Glen of the Fairies. It was in the middle of winter time, and we were getting ready to leave. We had a scout in the next little town and we found a little trail that said ‘Glen of the Fairies.’ We didn’t know where we were going or how far the walk was. All our equipment was heavy, but we went on a trip with it all and after walking and walking for about 45 minutes we could hear a little sound of a stream. We were following and following and we came to this beautiful place and I thought ‘I’m sure she walked this, and no one else knows it is here.’
This mythical tone that Steel talks about contrasts with the picture of a woman who was incredibly pragmatic and sensible. ‘The story of her wearing a man’s jacket – I guess you could look at like her desire to dress like a man – but there’s the story about how when she first got money she went to buy her father a suit and she was one of those people who didn’t like to waste one fibre of a feather. She didn’t like to waste anything. After her father died, she must have looked at all these suits and thought that they are the most sensible jackets that one could own. Men’s jackets were infinitely better jackets, so she would put them on.’ Steel seems enamoured with both the image of Boyd as a mythic figure, but also Boyd the country dancing, waste-hating hermit. To him, her life was almost ‘monastic.’
His enthusiasm for Boyd and everything she represented is what led Steel to tell her story now, twelve years after she died. ‘I think in a way, it’s not like there is an expiration date to her story, but there was a sense that… I’ve been sitting on the story for a long time. When I finally got round to telling her story, one of the things I discovered right away is that there is a sense the craft is dying out. It’s kinda vanishing. People now can make them with superglue. After the real devotion for that craft is dying, the salmon population is always threatened, so fly fishing is maybe becoming slightly endangered as a sport. But also, in her house you could almost still feel her there, and that house, in a big storm, it could all just topple over, or a tree could swallow it up. And the people who had her stories were themselves mostly advanced in their age.’
‘I guess I liked the idea that if I didn’t get the story, if I didn’t catch the story, then it might just disappear, it could go out to sea and I’d never see it again. It felt like a real privilege to hold on to that story or that fish, and then put it back.’