Travis Lowe On the Art of Making Fly Fishing Films
Interview by Mark Hume with Photography by Kris Keller and Travis Lowe
Travis Lowe, a television news cameraman based in Kelowna, British Columbia, is one of the emerging film-makers who is pushing the fly fishing genre in new directions.
His latest work, Thai One On, reviewed elsewhere on this site, is featured in the 2013 F3T Film Festival, which is touring 150 cities in North America.
It is a multi-layered story about the journey three anglers from the Montana Fly Company make in pursuit of the mighty Mahseer, in the jungles of northern Thailand. It’s either that, or a story about how they survive Bangkok, learn how to tie the Cherry Bomb, and get schooled in the art of voodoo witchcraft. Either way, it is one heck of a yarn.
In this Q & A with Mark Hume, editor of ariverneversleeps.com, Travis talks about the making of Thai One On and his philosophy about truthful, dramatic documentaries that have real stories to tell.
Q: Tell me about the film competition.
A: F3T. There are three film competitions in the world. F3T is the first one, based out of Boulder, Colorado. It does 150 dates across the U.S. and Canada throughout the year. It will be viewed by 40,000 people or so. It’s a competition that goes on every year, of the best films.
Q: How do you get in there?
A: You apply. They have a deadline in November. They have a screening with a bunch of people and decide which ones will go in. Last year I had a film called Canvas Fish which didn’t make it . . . there wasn’t a lot of fishing in that film. It was about an artist . . . but they really liked the film and called and said we have this grant program. I was the first guy to receive the F3T film maker’s grant. Which was basically $1,000. They said do what you want.
I was going to Thailand to do a corporate film for Montana Fly [which has fly tying facilities there]. So I was basically going to get some stuff for a corporate film and while we were there I said let’s go fishing, and they said, well we’ve got this conservation program here. I said, well, why don’t we make a film and give it to F3T?
So that was in the fall, October 2011….I went to Thailand in January 2012 for two weeks, a week in the jungle…and then I went back for another two weeks in March and spent the majority of my time in the jungle.
So four weeks of shooting for that film. Now we have the festival cut ready …but I would hopefully go back and shoot some more stuff, fish porn…and make a 45 –minute version that would go on DVD and sell.
For now it’s a film festival cut of about 20 minutes. I submitted 30 minutes and they said, look, you got to cut it back.
In the end though, it’s a losing proposition making films. You’ve got to do it because your heart is in it, not because you think you are going to make any money. My credit card was maxed to buy all the gear…and when the cheques came in I just cashed them and gave it all to Mastercard.
Q: So why do you do it?
A: I do it because film making is my art. I’ve been in broadcast news as a cameraman for some 20 years plus. Fly fishing has always been my heart’s passion for 18 years, but I never wanted to cross the two. For some reason I was just afraid of what would happen – like I wouldn’t be the best. I was just worried about applying film making to fly fishing.
And then I saw the advent of basically what was this fly fishing film-making thing where kids basically . . . with their wide angle lens and their snowboards were making fishing films. I just didn’t think it was very good.
What I felt was missing, and I think still is missing from fly fishing films, is a story. I thought with my background in news I had an advantage in telling a story, so I want to apply that to all the film making that I do for fly fishing.
Basically I got involved in doing this Spring Creek project [a documentary he is making on water withdrawal problems] on the Kettle River [near his home in the Okanagan Valley] and it motivated me. I said, OK, I’m going to make a proper film.
And then I got sidetracked by a million different projects. Abel Reels wanted a corporate film, so I flew down to California. Then it was Montana Fly….all these other places were asking for corporates….while I was trying to make my passion project. You can’t really say no. It’s like the chance of a lifetime to fly to Thailand to make a film
Q: What’s your dream?
A: What I would like is to stop working in news ….I would like to sustain myself through corporate work and then do my projects where it’s narrative film or documentary style.
I think it’s possible.
Q: Now, Thai One On. In that film you don’t rush off to the river and do the typical shots of guys catching fish. In the first half you are in a city where there is no fishing going on…there is a story here and it’s not one about buddies going fishing.
A: Yeah. Frankly there is too much of that shit…I guess the thing I set out to do was to make a film that was completely different than anything else that was out there. And I wasn’t going to be motivated by fish porn, which is basically lift, grin and grab. I just didn’t want that to be the focus of the story. And the subject was so large there were things I couldn’t even touch in film. One was that the next thing to do to ensure the river becomes catch-and-release is that MFC is going to bring aquaculture to the Karen people and have them grow tilapia in ponds. Wean them off the Mahseer. In order to do that we have to have money coming in…and they will have fish year round because right now they can’t get fish during the rainy season.
And there was so much stuff going on with the elephants, the witch doctor, the stuff in Bangkok. There were so many story elements I only needed to focus a little on the fish porn, at the end, as kind of a pay-off.
I have taught film…I have an understanding of story telling . . .and I was able in that film to bounce around in different ways and use different techniques to reveal the story in a way that wasn’t linear. . .the one thing I didn’t focus on was the fishing. You can have a fly fishing story and the fly fishing film doesn’t have to focus on the fishing.
Q: Tell me about how fly fishing films have been evolving. Those early films, which were basically I am a hero, watch me catch big fish, have been changing.
A: There are more people who are moving towards it who are skilled film makers so the product is getting better. And because of that the audience acceptance for bad films or films without a story is becoming smaller and smaller. You will no longer get your film into a festival, I don’t think, if you don’t have a story.
There are some guys…making completely narrative films about fly fishing. There is a script and it’s all done like a Hollywood film…the interesting thing about the way film making is evolving is it is starting to evolve to narrative story-telling .
[Some] guys have gone beyond documentaries…with me there is a documentary style, but I’ve thrown a narrative into it. I take my latitude with the story so far but not beyond truth.
These guys are making up narrative film…and inventing a story line. In one they make a film about a [fictional] guy who went into the wilds in New Zealand 25 years ago and was never seen again. Like it looks fantastic. It is shot so well. The problem with it is, I think, is that because fishing is so full of lying, a liars history, that people are unwilling to accept being told a story that is false…they are not really there yet. …but I think that will evolve. They will make A River Runs Through It…and it will evolve from those guys who just had that screwed on lens to a skateboard or snowboard, just trying to show their buddies what they were doing, to evolving some style of cinema.
Q: Well, Salmon Fishing in Yemen.
A: Yeah, exactly. The River Y….I think that’s where it’s going. Fly fishing film has evolved from fish porn to where you have to have a story.
The watershed moment for me came three years ago when I started this fly fishing film festival [in Kelowna]. The first year it was 7 guys in my back room drinking beer. The next year it was 50 people in a restaurant. We played this film, Against The Current, it was a T.U. film…basically about an American rancher who had a creek on his property that ran into the Yellowstone River. For years and years and years they had spawning cutthroat…through five generations they dewatered that stream. T.U. came in and dug an artesian well for them, and the stream ran again. The first year the stream ran it had spawning cutthroat. It was just a phenomenal story.
Then I had a friend of mine from New Zealand, a guide in New Zealand, that had [a film of] nothing but 9 lb. brown trout. Just beautiful fish. Everyone yelled and screamed through that fish porn film. But no one said a word, you could hear a pin drop, through that conservation film. I understood it right away. These people are interested in conservation stories. You know, fish porn is great, but it’s not going to hold their interest.
Q: You are the camera man in Thai One On. Did you also do the editing?
A: Yeah, it’s entirely mine. I shot that film, I produced that film, I edited that film, I voiced that film. It’s entirely my production . . .I run my show by myself and am limited by that. But I’m proud of that film. I think it’s a good film.
In all honesty this is like my debutante ball. This film is my coming out to Americans…
But I’m a little bit upset about the five minutes that got hacked. I had to cut it out in one day.
Q: It’s OK. When the DVD comes out you call it the director’s cut.
A: Here’s one quote you can put in your story. You should see the cutting room floor, because there is stuff there that would never have made it past any censor. What happened in Thailand was absolutely insane. I would liken it to being on a trip with Hunter S. Thompson through Bangkok. That place ate me up and didn’t spit me out until five days past my due date.
END NOTE: Look for a review of Travis Lowe’s film, Thai One On, also posted on this site. The DVD Trailer for Thai One On is on Vimeo here. For more information on the F3T Film Festival go to: http://flyfilmtour.com/2013-schedule and you can check out Travis Lowe’s website at: www.springcreekfilm.com
An exclusive clip from Thai One On – for A River Never Sleeps