Feel The Film: Mark Jenkin On Enys Men

Fêted director and screenwriter Mark Jenkin is staying true to the purity of filmmaking like few others – he tells Darren Hayman about his new feature Enys Men

“I remember going to a 16mm film screening of David Lean’s Oliver Twist in the hall of the village where I grew up. I remember sitting next to the projector, and just ignoring the film – I just watched the projector and the film going through. I was close enough that I could see pictures on the print going through it.”

That moment kickstarted a lifetime of fascination with the mechanics and science of film-making for fêted director and screenwriter Mark Jenkin. Working with his vintage Bolex camera, he adheres to a stripped-down code, developing his analogue 16mm film in the kitchen sink. The resulting film, scratchy and lo-fi, marks his distinctive style; the unique approach that earned him a BAFTA for 2019’s Bait.

The follow-up film to Bait is Enys Men; a folk horror set on an imaginary island. This time filmed in colour, it sticks to the same discipline and elicits even more extraordinary results.

The Quietus: What’s your relationship like with the film at this point? Are you sick of it?

Mark Jenkin: I’m not sick of it, but I’m finding it difficult to sit and watch it with an audience now. I’ve done that several times since we premiered in Cannes, and now I just want them to have it for themselves. It’s time to let go.

There’s a point where you have to say goodbye, right? A point when the film can’t be altered?

Yes, it’s too soon to look at it as if it’s finished, as an object that exists. But it’s too late to change anything. I keep thinking about that one bit with the sound of the helicopter that I wished came in two seconds earlier.

Do you ever get a chance to fix that? When it comes to the DVD release, for example, do you revise?

No, what will happen is I’ll just get used to it. And the film will become that object that you can’t change, because it’s finished.

You use a process that leaves artefacts on the film; you shoot on 16 mm film and process by hand. The first things you see in your films are flares and scratches on the titles. Are some artefacts or errors too much, or are they all good in some way?

There’s a really good example in Bait. There’s close ups of the fish being hung in a plastic bag on the door handles, no action, just cutaways. When I processed the footage and got the digital scans back, I saw they had this sparkle on them. It was almost like glitter, and I hated it. I didn’t know why it had happened. And then I found out that it was a roll of film that I’d dried in my studio with the door open, and it’s pollen. Pollen had gotten on the emulsion. As soon as I knew what it was, I really liked it.

So I think a control issue is basically at the heart of it. If there are mistakes, and I understand them, then I’m fine with that.

As soon as anything’s out of my control. I don’t like it. So I think that’s the mistake issue. I look at Bait now, and I think Bait is perfect, but it isn’t perfect. I’ve just learned that all of those mistakes and the whole film is about imperfection. There were mistakes that I couldn’t stand that bothered me at the time but they don’t bother me anymore. And that will happen with Enys Men as well. I don’t think there’s anything I’ve done where I’ve looked back and wanted to fundamentally change things.

Do you find it hard to finish things?

No, because I’m normally in a situation where it’s out of my hands.

I think deadlines are undervalued, when I’m speaking to students the two things that they always complain about is lack of resources and deadlines. And actually, once they’re out of education, those are the two things they’ll really miss.

Lack of resources is really important to stimulate creativity. And a deadline is really important, not just to finish a project, but to start in the first place. There’s somebody saying, right, I need this by then. Great, you have to shut down most of your possibilities, because suddenly, you have to do it in a certain timeframe. And so you have to begin.

Why do you like control and then choose a way of making films that increases random results?

I suppose part of it comes from my interest in film and film cameras and working now at a time when film is a lot more expensive than it used to be. If you were going to shoot in the same way that I shoot, digitally, it would be a lot more expensive. So I’ve had to consider film as a financial model. Today, I’ve got my Super Eight camera here, I’m making a short film at the moment. I needed to film a load of stuff from the train on the way up here and so I bought one roll of film with me. Because I knew that if I bought more than one, I would shoot more.

I like to make all the creative decisions before I run the camera or as I’m running the camera. So I shot two and a half minutes on the way up and that will be it, which will be enough. My attraction to film led me to embrace the limitations of it, which then made me create a visual language that is very austere.

It’s drawing in pen as opposed to drawing in pencil.

We make it right, by changing what you do afterwards.

Especially if you only have one piece of paper.

The Bolex camera that I use, it only records for 27 seconds per wind. So my shots can only be 27 seconds long at the very longest, which means that I can’t shoot coverage.

Have you ever been properly stumped or had to reshoot?

I’ve not had to redo anything, but I’ve added stuff in. So there’s plenty in Enys Men, it’s why there are so many birds in it. I went out the summer after the spring that we shot and sat on the cliff and just filmed gulls and gannets, because I knew that I needed something to thread stuff together. It’s a kind of writing issue, because I always think that filmmaking is two bits of writing sandwiching a technical process, which is the shoot.

So in the writing, you’re writing the film and then later in the edit you’re also writing the film. Conversely, you could also say, in the writing, you’re editing the film, and then in the edit you’re writing the film. In the edit, you’re editing with the footage you’ve shot, when you’re writing, you’re just editing with the footage you’re imagining. So I rewrite stuff in the edit.

How important is it to you to be understood? I definitely don’t yet understand Enys Men, but I like it.

You’ve just articulated it perfectly. If there’s enough in the first viewing to want to go back, then that’s brilliant, because people can engage more with it with repeated viewings.

I think the danger is that there isn’t enough in the first viewing for people to want to look again, with regard to Enys Men. It’s a risk because it is quite oblique. I think it’s less clear than Bait, which is a long episode of a soap opera. That linear narrative is much more fractured in Enys Men.

I like the Bresson quote, “It’s more important to feel the film than to understand the film.” I think hardly any of my favourite films are plot-driven.

But you definitely knew that people were going to see it this time, no?

I had to fight the idea that there was an audience for the good of the film. What if I was looking from the outside? What would I expect this person to do next? It was a real battle to not think like that.

How has the success of Bait made things easier or harder? Do you feel under pressure to alter your process?

Before we made Bait, everybody was saying, “You can’t do that, there’s no point in making a black and white film. You won’t make your money back.” Then Bait came out. I was expecting everybody to say, “Oh, you’ve got to do a more conventional film.” Now when I was having conversations with them about this new film, they were asking me not to change too much. You might have to change certain things, but I have to be reminded not to change what made Bait stand out in the first place.

The island in Enys Men doesn’t exist? It’s a complete invention?

Yes. When I was a kid, my obsession was making model railways. When I got to a certain age, I got into making films. Now I look back, there’s a natural progression, it was just world building. I used to spend ages in these tiny little worlds that I was God over.

Filmmaking is exactly the same thing. It’s a challenge to create an island out of a composite of places that aren’t on an island, but it was like the challenge of building a model railway. I could draw a coastline based on bits of West Penwith, they could fit together like a jigsaw. I loved it.

Can you tell me a little bit about Mary Woodvine who plays the main character in Enys Men?

I almost didn’t cast her because it seemed too obvious, because she’s my partner. I’ve written this film about a woman in her early 50s, who in the script looks just like Mary. I’d obviously written it for her or based on her.

She was helping me cast it and offering up ideas because she’s got contemporaries and peers who would be ideal for it, and it just got to the point where I sort of said to my producer, “I think it should be Mary.” He said, “We always thought it was going to be Mary. It was just me worrying what other people were going to think.”

She’s someone who knows your moods and knows the places.

Yes, she knows the landscape and that’s such a big thing. Somebody asked me what the trials of shooting in that landscape were, and there weren’t any, I would find it much harder to shoot a film in Soho, or around here. I knew Mary could handle being outside for 21 days on the moor, with no creature comforts, no trailer, nothing.

I knew that she could do that, and it would enhance her performance. She’s a fantastic actor, and I wanted to put the whole weight of the film on her. She carries it, because she’s a very skilled actor.

I’m introverted, she’s extroverted. I’ve written that character, so the character is naturally going to be an introvert in Jung’s definition. But Mary is very much an extrovert. So having an extrovert come in to play an introvert, I think it adds another layer to it.

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