There’s a palpable tactility to the 16mm films of Mark Jenkin, the Cornish director whose Bait and Enys Men are boldly edited, transportive journeys with a sense of impressionistic storytelling that feels radical in today’s era. In his 1973-set feature, which premiered at Cannes Directors’ Fortnight last year, Mary Woodvine plays The Volunteer, a woman immersed in studying the environment on an isolated island and starts experiencing strange happenings as it’s related to the history of her location, evolving into hallucinatory Cornish folk horror.
Ahead of Enys Men‘s U.S. bow, which is paired with Bait‘s long-overdue release, I spoke with Jenkin about how he trusts his audience, why his films wouldn’t be considered experimental in the 1970s, the influence of Jerzy Skolimowski, how nature doesn’t care about humanity, crafting his Sight and Sound top 10 list, and his experience with Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse.
The Film Stage: While they have a shared aesthetic, Enys Men is a stylistic departure in some ways from Bait, especially in the tempo of the film. How conscious were you of wanting to do something a little bit different while retaining a similar vision with both films?
Mark Jenkin: I think it’s quite conscious that we could do something quite different based on the script, but because of the way that I work formally there would be a continuity to it. With Bait, in a lot of ways, that script formed itself a long time before I established the way that I work formally. So it was a much more conventionally written script, and I think I wrote Enys Men with my formal approach in mind to see how I could best exploit the strengths of that form. And also, on a practical level, to create something under quite difficult circumstances. There was maybe avoiding certain pitfalls but I think actually what happened was: we embraced some other quite big pitfalls whilst making it, which we just about got away with.
The big stylistic difference is that the film’s in color and that wasn’t a decision where it was, “All right, I’m going to make a color film this time.” It was more that I came up with the idea and wrote the script and when we packaged it all, it was obvious that it needed to be color because of certain plot points within the film, certain iconography within the film that was color-dependent and also just the evocation of the era that it’s set in. It was crying out for color. And the other big difference was that with Bait we shot the whole thing on a single prime lens. And for this one I wanted to get a big old zoom lens out and use it. [Laughs] Which I did.
With both your films, and especially this one, I really love how you trust your audience. It’s much more about a hallucinatory kind of visual journey. You’re just trapped in it, like a nightmare, which is exciting. You mentioned if this film was released in the 1970s that wouldn’t even be seen as experimental, which says more about like the way our industry has changed. As a filmmaker, how exciting is it to work in that mode, and why do you think the industry is pushing away from this kind of filmmaking in some ways?
I think, to be honest, this film wouldn’t stand out as being oblique or ambiguous in the ‘70s in cinema, but also on TV––specifically British TV. Something this oblique would just go out on primetime on TV in that era. There’s been a move away from that where the ambiguity in the space, those sort of films have been pushed into sort of the experimental area. They still exist, but they’ve kind of been pushed over there, which is a kind of shame because I think the audiences want to be challenged and audiences are intelligent and the audiences are incredibly sophisticated, and audience members are really demanding.
I’m talking about myself as an audience member because I’m an audience member a lot more often than I am a film director. And I want to be challenged, I want to be confused, and I want to be puzzled. It’s not all about just pure entertainment. I think that that feeling of being entertained is a side effect of a much more visceral reaction. So when I was making the film, I can be quite contrary at times; and when I’m writing it now, I’m going to underwrite that. I’m going to take that out. It’s too much exposition. And then when we’re shooting it I’ll be the same. And then in the edit I’ll be the same guy. “No, you know, the audience will get this, though.”
But then, of course, I’m human. When we premiered the film in Cannes in a nearly 1,000-seat theater, and the lights go down, and then I start thinking “Oh, have I gone too far? Maybe there needed to be a bit more exposition. Maybe I should have put a bit more exposition in the radio broadcasts or something like that.” But by then it’s too late. And actually what you then get is a certain amount of polarization. So you get people who just are frustrated by the lack of a sort of logical resolution or an explanation. But then the people who do go with it really go with it and really connect with it.
And for me there’s no other route to go, really. I don’t want to try and please everybody because the danger is you please nobody. So I make the film for me. I make the film that I want to watch because I know there’s an audience out there who think like me. If I try and make a film that even I don’t like, there’s a danger then that nobody will ever connect with it. So I’m sort of weening myself off looking at Letterboxd reviews and things like that, because I took a screengrab actually for Denzil [Monk], the producer, the other day. I just clicked on it and it was within three reviews it was a five, a three, and a one.
That’s the best you can hope for. The most exciting films are almost all five stars on one side and almost all one stars on the other.
Well, that’s what I thought we’d get, you know? I thought it would be: this will be fives and ones and I was surprised by the number of people who are three, but then the comment is, “I’ve just got no idea,” and that’s the comment. “I don’t know whether I love this. I don’t know whether I hate it.” And I expect that. They’re the people that I hope going to see it again, because that’s a good commercial model. [Laughs] If you can make a film that people want to go back, you can double your box office really quickly. So maybe that’s what I hope for.
I had actually watched Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout for the first time right before seeing Enys Men, then I noticed you referenced it as an influence. When did you first see it and how did it work its way into this movie?
I saw The Shout a few years ago, actually. I saw it when it was on BFI Player but I’d never heard of it. It’s shot in Devon over the border here, but it’s up on the north coast. It’s a very Cornish landscape up there. I’ve just made a five-minute homage to The Shout for Skolimowski because he’s over here later this week because the retrospective of his work starts at the BFI. So I’m going up for that and going to see The Shout and hear him talk about it. And I’ve been commissioned by the Polish Cultural Office to make a film about what The Shout means to me. So I went and visited all the locations and shot a couple of rolls of film and then wrote a voiceover over the top of it.
Yeah, that film means so much to me. I think it’s the British critic Kim Newman who said that it’s one of those British not-quite horror films that were made in the 1970s. And when I saw The Shout, I thought those are the horror films I like. The ones that: Are they horror? Aren’t they? There’s something horrific about them. But if you went through, like, a checklist of what a horror needed to do, then maybe they aren’t horror, but horror is so broad that they are horror. Even Deep End is kind of a horror film, really.
So I programmed a season of films at the BFI during January around the release of Enys Men here, and I selected 12 feature films and then a load of supporting short films. And I didn’t include The Shout because it was almost too obvious to me. So I left it out. And then, a couple of weeks later, I found out that the retrospective around the release of EO was happening. So it worked out quite well, and hopefully I get to meet the great man next week.
In the Cornish history you are pulling from, you’ve mentioned how this island has long been deserted in some ways and you are trying to represent the people that used to live there. How has the response been from people that know the history and others who might recognize a version of this lost history in their own lives?
Like the theme, I think people read the setting in different ways and the different groups of characters––the background characters are read in different ways, and you don’t really need to understand the specifics of it to kind of connect with the film, I don’t think. It didn’t really cross my mind how specific to Cornwall some of this stuff is, because you don’t kind of realize how alien your own culture and history is to other people until you sort of go out into the world or hear back from other people. Like, “What the hell are those women dressed like that on the cliff for?” But there’s been a lot of speculation and I’ve had loads of chat about what certain things mean in terms of characters.
But ultimately I don’t think the specifics really matter. I think what’s more important is that they feel authentic and to go back to the sophistication of audience members. I think the audience can read something that’s authentic without necessarily really understanding the specifics of it. There’s broader stuff there that is beyond the Cornish specifics, the idea of an industrial past that has been consumed by the natural world and how transient that is. The paradox that we can do immeasurable damage to the planet but the planet will take back most of what we do, and it will adapt and it will change.
We talk about saving the world as a concept. What we’re really talking about is saving ourselves, because one way or another the world will continue without us. The world couldn’t care less about us. We’re the only ones who care about us. The whole idea, in the Western world, the idea of industrial glory that is passed and turns to ruin and the kind of melancholy that’s attached to that. Also the distance that you can look back at that kind of stuff and we celebrate or we mourn this loss of industry. But actually it was all off the back of working people who got very little reward and died in their millions just to support an economic structure. It still goes on now. We’ve just farmed out to other unfortunate people who are going exploited. So hopefully that kind of the idea, of that kind of decaying industry, is not specific to Cornwall, sadly.
I loved reading all of the Sight and Sound top ten lists and yours was especially eclectic. I had just watched Distant, an incredible movie, for the first time in theaters. There are others, like Big Wednesday, which I had never heard of. I’m curious about the process of coming up with your list and if there’s any you deserve feel more recognition.
Yeah, well, it was a very difficult process. I think I had my ten and then Mary, my partner, just said “Oh, Big Wednesday is not on it.” I was probably thinking I was trying to be too clever. I was like “Yeah, but Big Wednesday is just like a big Hollywood blockbuster macho flop.” And she was like “Yeah, but you watch that like three or four times a year and you have done since you were a little kid. That’s got to be one of your favorite films.” So I was like “Yeah, fair enough.” But yeah, Big Wednesday. That was a huge, huge deal to me. I’d never heard of Malibu. We didn’t even know where L.A. was and California and all that stuff. When I first watched that film I thought that was a film about Cornwall, because I wasn’t looking at the setting. I was just looking at these guys who were just surfing. And I grew up on the north coast of Cornwall as a kid. Everybody surfed and that was the culture. So there was a VHS tape of that film that got handed around. And I remember the first time I saw it, a friend of mine that rang me––I was probably ten years old––saying “Oh, so-and-so’s come down to stay with my brother, and he’s got the VHS of Big Wednesday.” And my mum dropped me off at the house. We watched it.
So some of those things have been with me all my life and other things are just things that just hit me, like Distant or Uzak, the Nuri Bilge Ceylan film. I saw that in 2007, pretty sure it was in Bristol. It was Watershed and I don’t know why it was on. Maybe they were re-showing it because he just released Climates. It was just one of those films I just walked out and it was a transcendent experience. So I just walked out of the cinema and kind of didn’t know where I was. And then when Bait played at the Istanbul Film Festival I went over there and I kind of spent quite a lot of time trying to find the locations. And I’m going to be in L.A. in a couple of weeks and I’m already looking at possible Big Wednesday locations that are close enough, within a few hours travel from L.A., to go and visit. So I love all of that. I love going to the locations and I’m sort of a bit of a sucker for destroying the magic of cinema by visiting locations going “Oh, this is really boring but the film made it so, so magical.” [Laughs]
There are other things like Jarman’s film The Garden, which was just something that I saw when I was just on the dole, unemployed in Cornwall when I was sort of 18 or 19 years old. And on Channel 4 over here they used to show really experimental stuff late at night. And I just come back to the house and the continuity announcer introduced this and said, “We’ve got a film by British artist Derek Jarman. It was shot in his garden on a Super 8 camera.” And I thought, “This sounds amazing.” And actually before I even saw it I put a videotape in and recorded it because I thought, “This sounds like something that I want to watch again.” The tape is actually up there on the shelf, with the advert breaks in it and all that.
So that’s a film that really changed me because it was the first film I watched where I realized there was somebody behind the camera making the film, and he even shows it within the first few frames, Super 8 footage and the camera pans around and it shows other people with Super 8 cameras shooting different angles. I just thought it blew filmmaking inside-out. It destroyed the sort of facade of filmmaking, and in the act of destroying the facade made me think, “That’s what I want to do.” As a kid in North Cornwall, on the dole, not knowing what to do, I suddenly said “I’m going to go to film school and that’s what I want to do.” So it was a real cross-section, that selection of films. I was really honored to be asked to contribute to Sight and Sound. And then it became, I think like for most people, a real pressure. I was thinking, “What had I forgotten?” But Stand By Me was the one that I left off, which was right on there from the start. That film is so special to me as well. But if I did the list today, it might be a little bit different and it might be a little bit different tomorrow.
That makes sense, always evolving taste.
Lastly, I was going to ask, when Bait premiered just prior to The Lighthouse but hadn’t got U.S. distribution yet, I kept banging the drum after people praised Eggers’ film to go track down Bait because they shared a kind of kinship with this black-and-white, experimental-minded form and the settings. As a filmmaker, did you appreciate a film like this could reach a bigger audience?
Yeah, I heard about The Lighthouse when it was in Cannes, so I think Bait was in Berlin in February, and then The Lighthouse was in Cannes in May. And I remember everybody going crazy about it. And I didn’t see it until the London Film Festival in October. What happened was a friend of mine was at the first screening at the London Film Festival and in the Q&A, somebody got up and asked Robert Eggers, “Have you seen Bait?” And he said, “No, I’ve heard of it, but I haven’t seen it.” And he was a bit like, you know, what is this film? But through the BFI, I got a ticket for the second screening at London Film Festival. They got in contact and said, “We got you a ticket.” I was in northern France at the time, in Brittany, and I got a boat crossing overnight and then jumped on a train up to London, got to London, and had my duffel bag with me, and I ran across North London to get to the cinema in time. And I hadn’t slept all night. It was a really rough crossing. And I jumped the queue because it was a queue for standby tickets and I ran past this massive queue of people desperate to see the film because I had this BFI comp and got in there, took my seat, sat down, and then watched the film falling in and out of sleep. And it was kind of an amazing way to watch it.
And I have told [Eggers] subsequently that I did sleep through the first viewing of it, but then the next day I had to go to Belgium for a film festival. And on the way there, when I got picked up from the station by the festival director I said, “What’s on tonight?” He said, “The Lighthouse.” I said “Oh, can I get a ticket?” And he got me a ticket. And I was in this huge theater, massive screen. I was in the front row in the middle, wide awake, and I watched it and just completely blew me away. And then I actually they did a screening just after the BAFTAs in 2020 when Robert had to go back to the States and he asked me to introduce a screening at the BFI. So actually, the night after the BAFTAs, I introduced the film, which was a massive honor. I just love that film so much. And I love the lack of logic at the heart of it and the refusal to explain. And actually I had a theory that I said to him, and I spoke for about 10 minutes on a call one day, just saying “Oh, this happens. And I noticed that at the beginning this happened. So that means that. And this means that.” And then I looked at him and he was like, “Interesting.”
And that really sort of set me up for the reaction to Enys Men in a way. I have people who really want to pitch a meaning at me. I love listening to it, but it’s the same thing. “I’m not going to ruin it for you by telling you, because actually the act of you trying to unpick it all, that’s the joy.” That is the type of films that I like, where you constantly try to create the third act for weeks after the film finishes. I think like The Lighthouse, Enys Men, and Skinamarink––which I saw a couple of nights ago––these are films that are three-act stories where the third act was never shot. The audience makes the third act, and that’s why they stay with people, hopefully. It’s also why people are sometimes repelled by them, but that’s the risk you have to take, because there’s no point trying to please everybody.
Enys Men and Bait open on Friday, March 31, with select sneak previews for the former on Wednesday, March 29. Learn more here.