Since Bait premiered at Berlinale last year to critical acclaim, Director Mark Jenkin has found himself on an unexpected journey with the film. Bait is a 16mm, black and white, hand-processed, post-synced feature film about a Cornish fisherman struggling to face the evolving societal landscape that is slowly encroaching towards him. It’s the kind of film we’re told isn’t commercially viable or that audiences won’t be able to connect with, yet looking at the numbers Bait did in cinemas last year, it’s clear that isn’t the case. Bait has resonated with audiences so much that it’s now nominated for a BAFTA alongside the likes of 1917 and Rocketman. Jenkin, who we’re proud to count as a long-time DN alum, is welcomed back to our pages today to converse about his filmmaking journey, beginning with Bait’s latest venture; a presentation of the film accompanied with a live score performed by Gwenno.
At the BFI Southbank last Friday, Gwenno performed a live score to Bait, how was that experience as evening? But also how did it change the film for you?
It was an amazing evening and completely overwhelming. It was my first chance to see the film as an audience member, which I’ve never done before. It was the same as if I’d handed over the film to somebody who would reshoot bits of it and reorder it. It was that much of a different experience. I’ve not had the experience of watching the film I’ve made because I’m so familiar with it. There is no distance. I can’t look at it objectively. It was liking watching a different film. At times it was really scary but other times I completely fell into it and found it euphoric. I was sat in the middle of the auditorium and I could pick up a bit of what the people around me were feeling. People were actually having a verbal dialogue with the film on the row I was in and I was able to pick up on how certain bits were working.
What Gwenno did was take the film in ways that I wasn’t able to take it in. Not just technically or musically but thematically. I think she really transformed Martin at times into a mythical godlike figure. There are a couple of sequences in the film where he’s walking in slow motion which, in my version of the mix, has just got footsteps on it. Albeit very abstract and heightened footsteps, but she was able to add triumphant drone sounds which created this mythical figure. This meant that when he did fall down either ethically or morally that the fall was even bigger. She also mythologised the physical processes of the fishing, which I communicated in the film in a more documentarian way. She turned them into something that was almost like a spiritual moment, which I loved. There were moments where I almost felt like standing up out of my seat, not to applaud, just through a physical reaction to the film.
What instruments did she use to create her version of the score? How was it performed?
She was using synthesisers. I think she was using the Korg Volca which is what I used to create the drones originally. I used that because she recommended it to me. When I went to her and asked her to do a rescored version for the BFI the first thought was to use the same kit. She also sampled my score and reinterpreted pieces. Georgia Ellery, who plays Katie, was accompanying her on violin, and they were both singing in Cornish too. Also, the diegetic music had been taking off, so all of the music that plays in the pub was DJ’d live by Gwenno on vinyl. There was a real performance element to it. They were on the stage and weren’t hidden. You could see the workings.
Did you find yourself ever watching them instead of the film?
A little bit. I acclimatised to them being there. I think very quickly you get used to it and you do start watching the film but then something will happen and five minutes afterwards you will think they did that and that would remind me that they were there. There’s a suspension of disbelief, if the film is working then you stop looking at them and you’re engrossed in the film.
Could you talk about developing the score? Was a self-created score something you always set out to create?
I didn’t plan to do a score. I didn’t think there would be a score. The film is shot silently so there was a huge amount of sound design to do. There was a point where I was sitting and thinking about how much there was. For one scene, I needed to foley two pairs of feet on the shingle whilst the fishing net is being hauled in whilst syncing up the wave sounds and find a sound effect for the net being rolled up. Ultimately, Dan Thompson, our sound designer, replaced most of it. But to get the edit to work I need to drop that stuff in and get the sound and rhythm of the edit right. So, whilst contemplating all that work I had to do I did start thinking about maybe even putting music in. Plus, I get attached to stuff if I see it in the film so it’s no good me putting in something pre-existing that we can’t get the rights to.
To put myself forward as any kind of musician seemed very disingenuous which is why there’s no credit on the film for the score.
And this all happened at a point where I really needed a distraction from the film. I was in the studio every day, sometimes working ten or twelve hours a day then coming home and staring into space before going back to the studio again the next day to work again. I needed something that would be a distraction from the film and I’d been chatting to Gwenno about getting hold of a little synthesiser. Part of my relaxation was listening to drone music. I got really obsessed with Discreet Music by Brian Eno. Gwenno mentioned this really amazing range of cheap synthesisers and I bought one with a view that it was something else creatively to focus on to give me a bit of respite. But these drones were getting played in the studio whilst I was working on the film so by accident they were becoming part of the film. So, in these big gaps where I really need to do a lot of sound design and foley, I used these drones.
When we first watched the film with drones we had a conversation with the producers about whether or not they would stay in the film and it was agreed that they should stay. I was very self-conscious about putting myself forward in creating the score. I’m quite happy to take credit for the other bits I did but to put myself forward as any kind of musician seemed very disingenuous which is why there’s no credit on the film for the score. Invada Records then got in contact after they saw the film and asked if they could put the original score out. It’s all sort of blown up in a way that I didn’t expect.
And what about the choice to include audio snippets from the film on the official score too, was that something they requested?
Simon Fisher Turner’s score for Derek Jarman’s The Garden is my favourite album of all time. I listened to it when I was 18 and wasn’t in the habit of listening to film soundtracks or scores. What I loved about that was that you got these little snippets of the film. So, as soon as Invada asked about doing it I thought it would be really nice to weave some of the dialogue from the film in and out of it to change the context of what you’re listening to. I did worry about comprising the minimalist nature of the drones because there’s no point in pretending the album is eight tracks of absolute bangers. It’s a very minimal dronescape. In the end, I just thought it would be great to get some of the actors on the record, and that was really fun.
We had to turn it around really quickly, and I was concerned that it would be ten slight variations on one track. But I went back through the library I’d made and there was enough there. I think I sent Invada ten tracks and they suggested eight of them because one was about 17 minutes long. I agreed to get rid of that one. As far as naming the tracks ‘Polmeor Rising’ and ‘Palmeor Falling’, ‘Polmeor’ is the actual name of the cottage we shot in the film and the Cornish name for Charlestown. The other titles are just references to people and things that happen within the film. It was all really good fun.
We spoke to you after you made Happy Christmas and created your filmmaking manifesto, I’m curious to know what you feel you’ve learnt from working from that manifesto, and how much of that bled into Bait and what you’ll do next?
The manifesto was all about imposing limitations or recognising the limitations in the way that I would need to work whilst working on film. I never intended for the manifesto to be something that I would religiously stick to. The limitations are the key to the form anyway, without them the work wouldn’t exist. Not having infinite possibilities is the big thing. That’s the biggest hurdle to creativity. We’re told that there are endless possibilities but the problem with me is that I don’t end up doing anything. If I’ve got all the possibilities in the world then I won’t commit to doing anything because I’m not quite sure about the thing I haven’t thought about yet.
The limitations are the key to the form anyway, without them the work wouldn’t exist.
I remember when I went to buy a digital camera years ago but hesitated and thought “Well, maybe I’ll wait because the newer version will come out” and it’s very easy for it to be ten years later and you’re still waiting for the newer version to come out. There’ll always be a newer thing. Technology will always move on. Looking at the way I work, there’ll never be a newer version of the camera I use so there’s no reason for me to hang around and not buy that camera and work in a way that camera would allow.
Similarly, Colin Holt, who was the Lighting Camera on Bait, had three lights and a reflector. So, very quickly, you know what you can do and what you can’t do, and that’s really liberating. Same with the location and finding a new angle to use in Charlestown because it’s been used as a location so many times. We didn’t have the money or resources or authority to be able to clear a scene so we moved the camera closer. Very quickly, that dictates the style of the film. What I’ve learned is that you have to be disciplined and work within limitations. It’s the best possible thing.
What are the main attributes in your filmmaking that you’ve seen progress or develop throughout the years?
I think I’ve recognised the power of simplicity and not doing anything fancy. Which seems ridiculous because I’m sure a lot of people would say shooting on 16mm and post-syncing it is quite an affectation and is a complicated way of working. But, for me, it’s the simplest way. It’s the way I started making films. I’m obsessed with simplicity now; how can I work and tell a story in the simplest way. I cannot follow plot as a viewer, I can’t follow exposition. I always find myself looking for something else and usually miss the story. What I’ve realised is that the more simple the story, the more complex the theme at the heart of it can be. That’s something I’ve tried to refine. To make the thematics more complex by refining the story.
The other thing is, I’ve got a retrospective of my work in the south of France in March and I’ve been going back through some old work to create dialogue lists for the subtitlers, and even going back to Bronco’s House in 2015. I was immediately finding myself thinking “I wouldn’t do that anymore” or “There’s a simpler way to do that”. Which is really exciting because it makes me realise how much I have moved on from Bronco’s House and how Bait, for me, is artistically, creatively and technically better. Which is encouraging when I’m getting ready to make a new film because Bait has had this insane success and a huge amount of attention and it’s really being scrutinised and analysed and championed.
I’m always discovering new ways to work. The art form is still so young with so much more for everybody to discover in it.
It’s quite daunting for me because I’m now making another film thinking “I’ve got to do that again” and really all I can do is fail because there’s not going to be another moment for me like Bait. It might be a different moment which is good but it won’t be that same moment. There’s going to be a lot of attention on the film and by reflecting on Bronco’s House, I was filled with a lot of optimism yesterday. I’m always discovering new ways to work. The art form is still so young with so much more for everybody to discover in it and if I can keep discovering little things, in terms of my process, that it should be okay.
This might be a really obvious question, but do you think you learn more as a filmmaker when you’re actually making work? There’s so much you can read on filmmaking and so much you can watch with interviews and, of course, there are also film schools but do you believe that the best way to become a better filmmaker is by making films?
I do but I always think it’s really simplistic when people say that the best film school is just going out and making a film. There are certain things that you can only learn through doing but also there’s only a tiny amount of your time as a filmmaker that is spent making films. I’ve just rewritten the new script and I’m spending a lot of time reading and a lot of time watching. I’m learning a huge amount at the moment by reading what other filmmakers are saying and reading what critics are saying and listening to podcasts. You do learn a lot while you’re making the film but I think that there are other ways of learning that go hand in hand. The research I do before I start working, I realise I’m learning at the time. I may have read something last night that I’ve learnt something from. I’m very conscious of it whilst it’s happening. In regards to learning whilst you’re making, you don’t realise that till afterwards. The lessons I learnt on Bronco’s House, I didn’t realise were learnt until yesterday when I was going through the dialogue lists.
The shoot is such a weird thing, it’s chaotic and sometimes unpleasant because it’s damage limitation to a certain degree because you have an idea and you go to shoot it and nothing you planned happens and you have to readjust your expectations. So, you are learning a hell of a lot but at the time it doesn’t cross your mind. To be a filmmaker you’ve got to be making films but that’s not to say you can’t or don’t need to put in the work elsewhere in order to put yourself in the best position to make a successful bit of work.
Since presenting Bait in Berlin and experiencing the press cycle that comes with the film, has there been anything that has come up or that you’ve learnt about yourself or the film that you’ll be looking to implement into your next feature?
The main thing I’ve realised is how important it is to follow my gut instinct, and that’s a really dangerous thing to say as well because I could end up justifying all sorts of outlandish and indulgent ideas. That’s come from the reaction to the film when people keep saying that it’s uncompromising and that the film is so different to everything else out at the moment. For me, it took a long time to make the film and a lot of it was in quite isolated circumstances. So, by the time it was finished I didn’t feel it was that different. I was sick to death of the way it looked. But that passed quickly once we put it in front of an audience because their excitement is contagious.
I think the film, in regards to a certain audience, has been a relief, a real tonic from ‘normal’ filmmaking. It’s really important to keep hold of that.
So, I’ve realised the way I’m working is quite different. The beauty of it is in the difference. Maybe so much of the critical attention of it is because of its difference. A lot of the commercial success is probably because it’s different. I’m an audience member as well as a filmmaker so I think the film, in regards to a certain audience, has been a relief, a real tonic from ‘normal’ filmmaking. It’s really important to keep hold of that. What I need to do is keep experimenting and keep learning. People have said this film looks like nothing else, when in fact it’s a hundred years old, the way that I made this film. But what I’ve done is made a film in a hundred year old way about a contemporary story. That story exists and that way of filming exists but they haven’t been put together in that way before.
I’ve realised that I’ve got to keep experimenting and not for the sake of it. But keep doing it to keep my passion for filmmaking alive, and if that passion means I see the film through and it gets done then an audience will see it, and there’s no way to know whether they’ll like it but if I’m happy with it and it works for me then there will be an audience of some sized that will embrace it.
Talking about Bait since its release with people I went to university with, not just on the film course, but people who also saw Bronco’s House, we all responded back then to the experimentation that you preach and the ethos behind your filmmaking because I do think it’s ethos-driven filmmaking. That is so refreshing because you get told as an up-and-coming filmmaker these days that you need to be thinking about the commercial side of it and who’s going to be in it, and you’ve now got a film where the lead actor is the Kernow King and it’s up for a BAFTA.
I’ve had a lot of messages from actors and writers who have got in contact to say how much they love the film, and to kind of criticise the state of the industry. They say the film is such a refreshing change from everything else that’s out at the moment. And some of the messages have been from people who are making that stuff, and I just think, why are you making it then?
If it took them to see Bait to realise there was the potential to do things differently then that’s fine. But if people know there’s a different way to make stuff and they’re still unhappy with it then who are they making it for? If they’re just doing it to pay the bills then I suppose that is a legitimate thing to do but I get excited by the potential of the form and doing something new and distinct. It’s such as young art form. But I do as an audience member despair that there is so little experimentation with the form because I don’t think anybody is telling people to make stuff in a certain way, people are sort of censoring themselves and thinking it has to be made a certain way.
If people know there’s a different way to make stuff and they’re still unhappy with it then who are they making it for?
What I’m most proud of with Bait is ‘ordinary’ cinema goers have gone out and watched this black and white, academy ratio, hand-processed, post-synced film about a fisherman in quite big numbers. There’s obviously an appetite for it and somebody has underestimated the audience. They are underestimating how challenged the audience want to be.
And finally, what can you tell us about Enys Men?
During both Bronco’s House and Bait I had comments that described both films as having elements of horror about them, so I thought I’d like to make a horror film. I think it was Mark Kermode quoting Kim Newman about Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout saying that it was one of those peculiar British films, despite being made by a Polish man, that was a horror film that contained no horror. People have said similar things about my films. So, I thought I’d actually write a horror film that’s actually got horror in it and that’s Enys Men.
I wrote the first draft over the course of three feverish nights last year and when I read it back I realised that there was no horror in it. I’d written another horror film with no horror. What I realised was that the horror is in the form. Enys Men is going to be a film exploiting the way I work to try and unsettle an audience. It’s a film set in 1973 about a woman who is alone on an island working for a wildlife trust observing a very rare flower that grows in the contaminated soil around an old tin mine around this island. She’s there for a winter and into the spring on her own with just an ancient standing stone for company that may or may not be walking slowly down the hill towards her cottage. It’s a story about a site where lots of ley lines cross but also timelines seem to be crossing as well.
I’ve heard you talk a lot about the universal nature of Bait’s themes, does that make you conscious of placing similar themes in Enys Men?
I want to make something that’s distinctly Cornish. Even more Cornish than Bait. I made a change in the press release that went out last Friday to remove the word ‘folk’ from horror because it is kind of a folk horror but I realised that it’s a Cornish horror film and folk horror is so connected to Englishness. This film is not an English film, it’s a Cornish film. It’s linked to a historic Cornish cultural tradition. And it’s also about what the position of the Celtic fringe is post-Brexit, post-the possible break up of the UK, and I think we’re going to get a lot of folk horror films and films that investigate what Englishness is as the English try to attempt to recreate a cultural image of themselves post-Brexit with what I think is the inevitable breakup of the UK now.
Whether that’ll be in there, we’ll have to wait and see. I never know what the final film will be. I have a strong idea but it’s crazy to think that the film I’ve got in my head now will be the film that people will be watching in 18 months time. The starting is certainly from a very Celtic and Cornish perspective and the thematic investigation of Cornishness to a certain extent.