THE obituaries page is a must visit for any keen observer of life.
In the case of Eric Steel, a New Yorker, a trip to the back of the paper took him on a flight of fancy and eventually a plane to Scotland to make a documentary, Kiss The Water.
It was in the obits section of the New York Times that Steel found the story of Megan Boyd. Miss Boyd, from near Brora, Sutherland, was a maker of salmon flies famed the world over. Her customers ranged from locals to royals, and many a visiting angler in between. Since her death in 2001, aged 86, her ties have become the stuff of legend and high prices.
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For Steel, it remains a mystery to this day why he was so moved to cut out the piece and pin it to his wall. He was not a fisherman, he was not Scottish, and at that stage in his life he was not even a filmmaker (his debut documentary, The Bridge, about suicides in San Francisco, would not come along for another five years).
"Some of it must have been the poetry of the words and the names of the flies, they sounded like little magic spells to me," says Steel, on the phone from New York. "The shape of the story reminded me of fairy tales, the woman in Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold."
In pondering how to do the film, Steel settled on the notion of fly making in reverse, unwinding Miss Boyd's life and putting it together again using interviews with her friends and customers together with animated sequences. After securing a Scottish producer and support from BBC Scotland and Creative Scotland, Steel came over for the first of seven visits.
"When I went for the first time in 2010 there was part of me that thought there would not be very much left, or that there would not be anyone left who knew her," he says. At first, there was some puzzlement among locals as to what this American, this non-fisherman, was doing. "I'm sure I must have sounded like some strange foreign interloper." But the more Steel returned the more willing people were to talk to him. Miss Boyd's cottage, where she worked without electricity, was still standing, albeit barely.
The result of Steel's travels is a beautifully made, warm-hearted film about a singular woman and a Highlands way of life. Among its fans is Jerry Seinfeld, a family friend of Steel's, who saw it at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and said watching it was like "dreaming and eating dessert at the same time". Steel could see the connection between a stand-up honing his craft and Boyd's lifelong devotion to her creations. Filmmaking is a bit like that as well, he reckons.
While in Scotland he did try fishing once. Did he catch anything? "Oh God no," he says, laughing. But he now has plenty of ghillies willing to teach him.
At the Timespan in Helmsdale tomorrow there will be special screenings of the film before it goes on wider release. Steel will be there for the evening screening via video link. Stuck in New York, the producer (Angela's Ashes, Shaft) turned filmmaker is looking forward to hooking up again with Scotland.
"I'm curious to see how the people in the town who have suddenly become big screen movie stars, how they like it."
Timespan, Helmsdale, January 17, 2.30pm and 7.30pm; Eden Court, Inverness, January 17-23; Glasgow Film Theatre, January 28-30; Screen Machine, January 26-February 18, various locations; Mareel, Lerwick, February 5.