It’s not often that you see fly fishing on the big screen, let alone in a Hollywood-style feature film. And it’s even rarer to see the pursuit represented accurately by popular media. But that’s exactly what Joshua Caldwell, director and producer of Mending the Line, did. His new movie takes an empathetic look at the healing power of fly fishing for two military Veterans on the famed rivers of southern Montana.
The movie, written by former Field & Stream contributor Stephen Camelio, follows the emotional journey of Colter (Sinqua Walls), a marine suffering from PTSD after serving in Afghanistan. While getting treatment at a VA in Montana, Colter strikes up an unlikely friendship with Ike Fletcher (Brian Cox), who teaches him how to fly fish. Some beautiful fishing scenes follow. But it’s the journeys of the characters that really bring home the emotional impact of the film, which hits theaters across the country on June 9. It’s a damn good movie—and I highly recommend watching it.
In anticipation of the release, I sat down with Caldwell to discuss his connection to fly fishing, the decision to make a feature film about the sport, and more.
I have to ask: Are you a fly fisherman?
I am a fly fisherman, though I’m still in the nascent stages of the hobby. I started in 2017 when I took a two-day Orvis class here in New York. I spent a season with no idea what I was doing, then I met a couple of local fishermen in the Catskills. One of them was Landon Brasseur, a local guide. He started giving me info and tips on euro nymphing. I started doing that, and from there, my love for the sport blossomed and expanded to dry fly and streamer fishing.
You don’t see a ton of feature films with fly fishing as a central subject. Why did you choose to make a movie that puts it front and center?
In some ways, it was because there are so few films that feature it. Really, the one we all know is A River Runs Through It. The challenge with fly fishing is: What’s the story? A River Runs Through It is not really about fly fishing. It’s the same way with our movie. Fly fishing is the vehicle by which we tell the story.
After I got into fly fishing, I wanted to find ways to feature it in my work but could never figure out how to until I read Camelio’s script. He wrote the film as a love letter to his father who passed away from cancer from Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam. Camelio found himself fishing through his grief and started to craft a story about it. He did a remarkable job, and when I was first pitched the idea, I immediately wanted to bring it to the screen.
How did you get the fly fishing scenes to look natural?
It started with the fact that Stephen Camelio and I are both fly fishermen. But we couldn’t do it alone. We brought on a number of partners to facilitate an accurate portrayal. Camelio connected us with FarBank, and Sage became our tackle partner. With that, we were able to work with world-class fly caster and gentleman Simon Gawesworth. He was our fly fishing technical advisor and taught the actors how to cast.
We also partnered with Joe Urbani. He was the original “fish wrangler” on A River Runs Through It. He’s a fisheries biologist and his job was to get the fish for the movie. In A River Runs Through It, the fish are dead. But our movie shows catch-and-release, so we needed live fish. So Urbani’s job was to procure those from a hatchery or catch them and then take care of them so they could be released. I’m proud to say all of the fish swam away at the end of the day.
Simms provided all the waders. RO Drift Boats loaned us a boat for a day. Tom Morgan Rodsmiths hand-built two bamboo rods. Mike Craig from No Leaf Clover Nets hand built all of the nets. And we shot in Angler’s West Fly Shop in Emigrant. We got a lot of buy-in and help from the fly fishing community.
Did any of the actors actually try fly fishing?
Perry Mattfeld who plays Lucy was the only cast member with previous fly fishing experience. She’d gone out for a couple of days a year before. She really bought into it. We would go fishing on weekends. Mattfeld, Gawesworth, and I fished one day in Yellowstone National Park, which was a real treat. In the movie, her character is also one of the better fly anglers.
I know that Brian Cox got really into the casting, but we couldn’t actually fish when we were filming. For one, there were twenty people stomping around the water. But we also couldn’t make the movie on a fish’s schedule, so we had to do some movie magic.
When Colter is beginning to learn about fly fishing, Ike makes him do a bunch of menial tasks. It reminded me of a Kung Fu Movie.
Right. There’s a little bit of Mr. Miyagi in that. There was this idea that Ike does not take fishing lightly, and he’s a little bit of a loner. And he’s still struggling with PTSD. A lot of those older guys think the new generation is all on social media and not doing things for the right reasons. Ike is really just testing Colter to make sure he’s for real because he holds fly fishing as sacred.
I can’t remember the exact quote, but it could’ve been from John Gierach: “It’s no small thing to take someone fishing.”
The representations of military service members struck me as empathetic and realistic. How did you accomplish that?
I’m not a Veteran. I was making it up, but to do it accurately, we had to pull in other people, much like we did with fly fishing. Allison Whitmer who works for the Montana film office connected one of our producers to the U.S. Marine Corps. Entertainment Liaison Office. They read the script, gave us feedback, and approved our request for assistants. They gave us technical feedback, put us in touch with Veterans and the VA, and we were able to shoot our opening sequence at their Afghan Village Simulator with real marines. That was instrumental to making sure we got it right.
We also worked with Warriors & Quiet Waters, who help post-combat Veterans find peace on the river. Some of those guys opened up about their challenges and how fly fishing impacted them emotionally with us. A lot of that made it into the film.
Casting Forward (Lyons Press) by Steve Ramirez was central to the story. What led to that decision?
In the original script, there were other quotes from different books, but one of the challenges of filmmaking is you need to get it all cleared for permission. It can be very challenging. So we started looking for other books.
My parents had just gone fly fishing with guide Cinda Howard, who told them her friend had just written Casting Forward. My parents bought it and sent it to me. Even though Ramirez’s book is largely about the Texas Hill Country, I found so much of what he was writing connected to fly fishing in general. I loved a number of passages and took one of them and added it to the front of the script. Camelio reached out to Lyon’s Press about the book. Ramirez graciously allowed us to feature the book. Beyond that, Ramirez has become a friend and fishing buddy.
Why did you choose to film in Montana?
It was in the script from the beginning. Camelio had set the movie there. When he wrote it, he was working in the book shop in Gardiner at the entrance to Yellowstone. He felt the Paradise Valley area was a great place to set it.
There were early discussions about whether we could shoot it there because there were logistical challenges. It’s not necessarily a destination for filmmakers. We thought about shooting in Canada or Utah, but I didn’t want to fake it, and I didn’t really want to move it. Montana is such a storied fly fishing destination that it felt right to set it there. And it felt as far from war and Afghanistan as you could get.
I live in the Hudson Valley and fly fish the Catskills, which is the birthplace of American fly fishing. But there’s just something about the big sky in Montana and the way it looked on camera. We shot on the Yellowstone and the Gallatin—the same place where old Norman stands and fish at the end of A River Runs Through It—and on the famed DePuy Spring Creek.
I appreciated that everything wasn’t easily resolved at the end of the film. That approach seemed connected to fly fishing as a practice.
I’m always interested in stories that reflect a version of reality, which is not tied up in a neat little bow. Fly fishing is not a cure for trauma, it’s a tool that might get you to a place of healing. To suggest that Colter’s life would be totally fine now that he found fly fishing would be a disservice to his journey.
Life is complicated. It’s not easy. And there’s no real ending until we’re done, ourselves. Life continues. And it’s going to be a series of ups and downs, trials and tribulations. But if you have a good outlook, a community, and a way of seeking therapeutic values, like fly fishing, it can be manageable, even for those who are really suffering.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
The movie comes out in theaters on June 9. I hope everyone goes out and sees it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.