For as long as I can remember, I have been reading the obituaries in The New York Times first thing every morning. It sounds like a morbid fascination, but I don’t read them to see who has died, but to let my mind wander into the lives of others, perhaps searching for clues or clarity or examples of how to find and follow my own path. Ten years ago–long before I had made The Bridge or imagined that I would actually be a filmmaker–I found the obituary of Megan Boyd, a woman who made fantastic fishing flies from a tiny cottage along the remote northern coast of Scotland. I am not a fisherman, had never been to Scotland, and don’t eat salmon–so there was no immediate reason I should have found her story all that interesting.
And yet I cut it out, and pinned it to the wall near my desk.
And then I made The Bridge–and I learned some important things about my craft and about people. What I discovered, watching the Golden Gate Bridge for most of an entire year–was that if I stared at something long enough, I began to get glimpses of things others could not or would not noticed. And I came to understand just how significant the difference was between the image one presents to the world, on the surface–and what one might be feeling and living inside, beneath the surface.
So when I returned to the story of Megan Boyd, I began to wonder if her life had been the gilded fairy tale her obituary suggested – or if I was missing something, between the lines, under the surface. For more than a decade I had been reading the words over and over–until I could recite them by heart:
Megan Boyd, whose fabled expertise at tying enchantingly delicate fishing flies put her work in museums and the hands of collectors around the world and prompted Queen Elizabeth II to award her the British Empire Medal, died Nov. 15 in Golspie, Scotland. She was 86.
From tiny strands of hair she made magic: the classic 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.
With a very small, intrepid crew I began to stare at her life, letting myself wander in her footsteps. I collected all the stories about her from people who knew her wonderful tales from great characters in their own right. And I spent long days peering into and out of the windows of her now abandoned and collapsing cottage. We marched up alongside the rivers and glens of the spectacular Scottish countryside and looked out over the grey expanse of the North Sea. 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 her 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 listed to fly fisherman give me their theories on why salmon favored Megan’s flies over all others–what secret magic hers might have contained–because salmon, unlike trout, don’t need to eat in the rivers, they don’t need to go after bait. They come back to the river for just one thing–to spawn, for love. Salmon fishing is all about the seduction.
A part of me wanted to believe that Megan Boyd was the content woman everyone made her out to be–all alone in her little cottage, happily spinning away like mad, never lonely. Until one of her students told me that she once said to him: “You make the flies to catch the fisherman, not the fish.” And I began to see finally, or perhaps just to imagine, that she must have had longings of her own–a desire to be spun around and danced with and romanced, the way the fishermen used her flies to seduce the fish.
Kiss the Water was created from this very unorthodox marriage of facts, fictions, and fairy tale–in almost exactly the same manner in which Megan Boyd twirled bit of feather, fur and fine threads into her miniature works of art. Scotland was an ideal place to let my mind really wander.
There is a formal, delicate and original patterning to the way the film (edited by Sabine Krayenbühl) weaves together interviews, the craft of fly tying, and landscapes (filmed by Ole Birkeland) with the expressive, hand-painted animation of Em Cooper and the classical music composed by Paul Cantelon. The animations are not illustration or reenactment–they are a construction of her dream life, as I envisioned them. Their roots are in the words people told me, the images I filmed, but their flight path is wholly of my imagination.
At some point, the distinctions between documentary and narrative become immaterial.