During LFF I was fortunate to get the opportunity to interview Cornish director Mark Jenkin about his latest film Enys Men (read my 5-star review here Enys Men Review | Film Reviews (ukfilmreview.co.uk)), which screened in-competition later that day. Currently, the director is on a UK-wide tour with the film, screening a series of films he has curated with the BFI – The Cinematic DNA of Enys Men, and the film is due to be released in the UK on Friday 13th January. We discuss all of the above in this lightly edited transcript of the interview as well as his working relationship with partner and Enys Men lead actor Mary Woodvine, the influence of Robert Bresson, his collaboration with Gwenno, a side-track into Cornish independence, and previous works Bait, and Hard, Cracked the Wind.
This interview contains strong language.
Given that the film offers a space to feel scared, upset and hopeless, is it cathartic for you to express that? Do you feel that as you are making it?
Yeah, but not until the edit. The old cliché goes you make the film three times, you make it when you’re writing it, you make it when you shoot it, and you make it again when you edit it. For me, the most important version is the edited version, it’s the only one that an audience will see. After making Bait several people commented it almost felt like a horror film at times, there was a sense of forboding, that it was almost going to tip over into horror. And that got me interested in making what is nominally a horror film as the next film. I got really excited about writing the script but then I read the script back – I thought, “there is no horror in this” – because the horror came in the form. So I didn’t feel it in the writing, didn’t feel it in the shooting of it, because shooting it is such a fragmented process. It’s not like in theatre where you do a set piece and while it is going on it feels scary, it’s very technical. But certainly in the edit. I never think about the audience when making films at all. I don’t want to second guess what I think the audience is going to feel. When I’m making a film there is only an audience of one, me.
So it’s edited to your tastes?
Yeah, completely. I make films that I like, knowing that we’re all the same, ultimately. That doesn’t mean everybody is going to like the film, certainly not this particular film. But there will be enough people who think and feel like me who will connect with it. That’s always what I hope, whether or not that is delusional or not. One day it’ll be delusional. I’m sure one day I’ll make a film that only one person will like and that will be me.
Is that a problem?
No. No. As long as the people who fund the work don’t lose confidence and I get the chance to do another one.
I have just seen the American trailer, I saw it when I was in America, and that was really interesting cause it made me really unsettled watching it. And that was a revelation. Wow, they’ve made something that feels unsettling, it was my material, but their edit.
But you’ve made something that feels unsettling?
Yeah, but when I watch it, I’m still so close to it, all I think is, “oh that was the day when…”
But is it hard then to edit it to your tastes? When you edit it do you feel something watching it back or do you see the mechanics of it?
Yes but the thing is, the most valuable thing in filmmaking is having distance, and it is the one thing that is not built into the process cause you have to deliver the film quickly. So you don’t have that distance which is why I think a lot of filmmakers traditionally work with editors cause other people bring in that distance. Whereas I love editing and I’m not willing to give up that part of the process, so I don’t have that built-in bit of distance in the process. Luckily with this one, I was beginning writing the next one while I was editing this one. So I had enforced breaks where I might not do anything for two weeks and go and write on this other film. And then I would go back and look, and I would really feel it. That bit that I thought was a jump scare was not really a jump scare at all, or that bit that I thought was quite dull, that was the unnerving bit. Sometimes I might watch it back after a couple of weeks and my sound desk is set up differently so one track might be faded higher than it should be, “oh actually that works, if that’s really low in the mix”. Formally, it’s not a subtle film. The sound goes clang and the shots go *clap*.
Yeah, you’re cutting is very aggressive, white to black, red to blue, jump-cutting, and the sound, how much of that comes before or in post?
I have some ideas of sound before but I don’t record any location sound. I allow myself a lot of freedom to experiment with the sound later on. It’s easier to experiment if you don’t have preconceptions of what it is going to be. It’s very difficult to write sound in a script, and visuals too. Words on a page is a very limiting form of communication, which is why we had to invent cinema, which is much more in tune with the way our minds work. They are a useful tool but unless you are a true poet it is very difficult to compete with film language on the page. A lot of stuff is unexplored until the post-production process. Because I don’t have any sound recorded on location, my starting point is silence. Unless I actively do something, scenes are silent which I think is quite rare but it creates a lot of sonic contrast once you do add something. When it comes to the pictures and it being aggressive within the picture cutting, a lot of that is the way I shoot, cause I don’t shoot a lot of footage.
I was going to ask how much footage you had?
About 3:1-4:1 ratio. So maybe 6 hours of footage, not very much. But I don’t shoot coverage, I don’t shoot scenes so that they can be seamlessly edited. Shots crash into each other constantly, and even within shots, literal crash zooms. I like to normally use a single 26mm lens on a 60mm camera, so the equivalent of a 50mm lens like Ozu or Bresson. But in this, cause it was a nod to the 70s, the zooms had to be there. The temptation to bang into a close-up is hard to resist. So there is that sort of aggression within the shots as well as within the edit. There is a great director who lives in Cornwall, called Lawrence Gordon Clark, who was a TV director, then a documentary director and he went on to make most of the Christmas Ghost Story Films. He came from documentaries and as was the way of the BBC in those days he was assigned a cameraman and an editor when he joined the Ghost Stories for Christmas. I think it was the editor who said to him, maybe the cameraman, “Lawrence, what you have got to understand is that horror is the one genre that as a director you have to draw attention to edits, draw attention to the form, cause a lot of the scare is on the cut”. A shot and a reaction to something we haven’t seen yet, individually the shots aren’t necessarily scary but the context, the positioning of those two events that is provided by the edit. Or a zoom, our eyes naturally don’t zoom, we can tilt, pan, kind of pull focus, but we don’t crash zoom into things. It’s a form, a genre that does draw attention to the mechanics of filmmaking which is something I do all the time in Enys Men.
On the flipside the more naturalistic scene, there is only really one, where the boatman turns up, and the volunteer and the boatman have a chat. This was the only scene where I knew when we were shooting it, that “I need to shoot this right”. Cause I want it to feel seamless, I want there to be cuts on action, so he picks up a scone, it cuts from a close-up to a wide, it’s very conventional. It’s how you would be taught to shoot it week one at film school. And it had to be conventional to make the other stuff be deliberately obtuse and aggressive, so it didn’t just look like inept filmmaking.
Did you shoot it fairly linearly? Did you plan it all, or just shoot and find it in the edit?
The budget level we work at it is all dictated by locations, and some locations are cheap and some are expensive. Usually, the expensive ones are easier to control. We shot a week doing the cottage interiors including the buildings in five days, so we shot a third of the film in the first five days. Which you could do cause shooting interior you have weather coverage, you can shoot day for night/ night for day just by masking the windows. So they are all practical considerations, it is never in story order which I find fine because of the way I edit.
It just feels meticulous which is, I guess, why it is hard to believe that you haven’t shot it in some sort of order.
I think it is meticulous. Cause we can’t shoot very much, we have to plan exactly what we want to shoot and then we shoot it in a crazy order. It is hardest for Mary [Woodvine] and the cast, cause for her she has to have an emotional… although my strict direction was that she didn’t emote much feeling.
What does the script look like then, in terms of how much planning is in the script?
I was asked this in New York, cause I’d never been asked it before. Nobody asked what the script for Bait looked like. It looks just like the one for Enys Men, just more dialogue in it. So my action, direction – so you know if it was this scene it would be “Interior, office, day. Two men sat…” Some screenwriters would write, “The sun bleeds in through the window and dappled light across a thesaurus that has been owned by several people and was bought by someone in a second-hand shop…” All this bullshit, which no one needs to know. It’s great if you are writing a short story. There is a good story that John Boorman told about Kurosawa chastising his scriptwriter who would write “The bird flew with a tranquillity that would inspire a restless man”, and Kurosawa said “The bird flew”. That’s it, we never knew what the bird was feeling, we didn’t need to know. None of that flowery language is in there. It is never “The volunteer walks along the moor considering her past”. People have said “It’s a film about grief”, or “it’s a film about trauma”, or “it’s a film about the pandemic”, or “it’s a film about isolation”. So all these different versions of the script say “She wandered across the moor thinking about what had happened since the pandemic”, or “she walked across the moor thinking about what happened since she lost the baby”, or “she walked across the moor thinking about her ex-husband who drowned”. It would prescribe a meaning, and I want the audience to have all of those options and I want that to come after the fact. So Mary has got no clue in the script why she is doing what she is doing. She has to provide that. Because when I am writing a script, every character is me. I can’t write anybody who isn’t a version of me. And I’m what Jung would have defined as a classic introvert. Mary, The Volunteer, is a classic extrovert. So the character, that I have written on the page, in action is an introvert, and then through Mary, in performance, the character becomes an extrovert. But as Jung always said we are all part introvert and extrovert, we’re all on a sliding scale, so you create a character that is somewhere on that scale. I think by giving less information you get a more rich interpretation.
Was it hard asking Mary to do the Bresson model [method of acting]?
It is difficult because she is highly trained and highly skilled whereas Bresson deliberately picked non-actors who had no – what he would call bad habits – I wouldn’t call bad habits, I would say craft. I’ve just picked my top 10 greatest films for Sight & Sound and the first one was a Bresson film.
That would be mine. Either that or Lancelot [du Lac].
That or Mouchette, would be mine. But I love picking a director’s final film, because I don’t think there are many directors who peaked with their final film. And the tragedy of Bresson, if you could say there was a tragedy in the life of a man who lived for ninety-nine years, was that he never got to make his Genesis epic, not the band… that would be a whole other film.
I think Mary finds it challenging but she’s my partner as well, we know each other professionally and personally. She knows what I’m like. The Venn diagram of our film tastes would be two separate circles. She grew up with theatre, her dad [John Woodvine] was an established actor in the theatre, so she grew up in the theatre, became an actor in the theatre, and crossed over into doing TV and film. She is very skilled at being a performer in wide shots, whereas my films – when I’m filming humans – mostly close-ups. I’m constantly saying, not to just her, but to everybody including myself, “think of the camera as a magnifying glass”. Everything you are thinking is going to come out of your eyes, you don’t have to articulate it physically. And she challenges it, which is great in a way that people who don’t know me as well probably don’t. She’ll go, “are you sure?” and it makes me have to justify it, which is really helpful. Because I operate the camera I’ll be right next to the actors, which is why I got into shooting these big close-ups, because I have to be right near them. And when you are sharing that space with your partner in real life as well as the film, half the conversation is about filmmaking and the technicalities, and the other having conversations about whose turn it was to buy the cat food. There’s an intimacy that is professional and personal that is different than me working with any other actor. And sometimes I can be quite short with her, I have a sort of short hand, “you know what I want”, but she’s testing me, like all the other actors do. But the other actors, because I don’t have that relationship with them, I’m more willing to take the time to explain what I am doing. Also, not in a manipulative way, but you have to kind of make the actors do what you want them to do, but not go “do this, do that”. Which is really interesting because the myth around Bresson and models, moving them around…
It’s how he wrote the book [Notes on the Cinematograph]
But if you watch there is some brilliant behind-the-scenes footage on the new Mouchette Blu-ray. He’s such a lovely, avuncular figure. Typical French filmmaker, two-hour break for lunch, everybody sits round and drinks wine.
Well he worked with kids a lot in that period
Yeah, I think what he wrote in his book was more of an intention than a reality a lot of the time.
Yeah, more of a manifesto
I don’t think he could make those films if he had stuck [to his rules], if he had been so cold in his approach
You wrote a manifesto and the last rule, was break a rule. So I’m guessing you don’t always stick to it
Yeah, and you can’t. If you read that book [Notes on the Cinematograph] you think, “that guy sounds like a right cunt”. But he made these beautiful films. Some people do read them as being very cold, I know Mary finds them very difficult to connect with emotionally, but I just think… I can’t articulate what effect Bresson’s films have on me, that’s the beauty of it.
It’s like going to a film, and I know you don’t want to discuss too much into the film [Enys Men], because the point is that you watch the film and you feel it
“Feel it”, that’s my favourite Bresson quote. “It’s more important to feel the film than understand it”. [paraphrased from “I’d rather people feel a film before understanding it”]
Gwenno has a song in the film, and you shot a music video for her, so how did that relationship come about? I’m guessing the answer is Cornwall, but can you talk about that a little
People mentioned Gwenno to me before she released Le Kov, her first Cornish language album, so I knew of her, and I knew of The Pipettes, the band that she was in before. The conscious decision to do something in Cornish was really inspiring. We were introduced, and Denzil the producer of Enys Men had met Gwenno, and then we met up and talked about doing a collaboration at some point. Me and her have this thing where we are always talking about collaboration but we went ages without finding anything to collaborate on. I think it is because we are quite similar – we like to do a lot of stuff ourselves. We did talk about me and her making this film for Tresor [her latest album] but ultimately, I didn’t tell her what to do, but I said “you should make this film, you can direct it, you don’t need a director”. In the same way, I decided I didn’t need a musician to do the score on my films, despite being the world’s shittest musician and not being able to read music or play a note. I know what I like the sound of and I don’t know how to do things conventionally, and so what a brilliant creative space to be in. And so she was like that with the film, she said she didn’t know what she was doing, and that is the perfect starting point, cause you’ll create something new and different. So anyway, that is more recent. I made the Den Heb Taves film, but I actually put that together in the lockdown when I was looking for stuff to do but couldn’t go out and shoot stuff, but I had all that footage already. So I put that music video together after the fact, she didn’t ask me to do that. I did it and then said “do you want to put it out”, and she said, “yeah, great”. And so it was something she put out during the lockdown. I wanted to make something bigger than a music video, and the song is bigger than a song in a way. It is a statement about the Cornish language and it’s got an intro to it that is kind of separate to the song. I was sort of thinking about Derek Jarman’s The Queen is Dead music video for The Smiths.
I was going to ask why there were no Derek Jarman shorts on your programming for the BFI
There is one, A Journey to Avebury, very short film about standing stones.
Ah I don’t think I can read clearly
It’s a very minor work.
So, our direct working relationship came from Tim out of the BFI, when Bait had come out in the cinema and sort of blown up. He said, “we’ll re-release it in the cinema next year, do a few screenings, and when the Blu-ray is released we’ll do an event with a live score”. And I said, “Oh great, who is going to do the live score?”, and he said, “well you did the score, you do it”, I said, “I can’t fucking do it! I can’t recreate those sounds I made”.
How did you make the score then?
With an analog synthesizer and a tape loop. So I play a few notes, with the Bait score it was chords, in the Enys Men score its notes because I was using a new-old monophonic synthesizer, whereas it was a new-old polyphonic synthesizer for Bait. And a tape loop, so literally two tape machines and a loop going around the room, which I can interfere with and pull and stretch.
Yeah, I believe The Texas Chainsaw Massacre used that a lot.
Oh right, yeah. So that was the score, but once it was done it was set in stone, there was no way to repeat it. And attempting to try and repeat it in front of four-hundred people… I’m sure I’ve had the anxiety dream where I’ve tried.
So Gwenno, we’d used Es Kes in Bait, it’s just playing in the jukebox in the pub. I loved the idea of a Cornish language pop song playing in the pub and no one batting an eyelid. That seemed so alien back then. Now, it happens all the time because those two albums are out. So Gwenno did the score live. She wanted some strings in it, she wanted to do all the electronic stuff, and she DJ’d the pub jukebox live with records on stage at the NFT. And she said, “do you know anybody who plays strings?”. Well, Georgia Ellery, who plays Katie in the film, she’s in Black Country, New Road and she is one-half of Jockstrap. Georgia is much more of a musician than an actor, but she acted in the film cause I think she is a fucking brilliant actor as well. I’m kind of hoping she’ll be in something that I do in the future.
So are you still wanting to cast actors going forward?
Yeah, well anybody. Actors and anybody who is right, and mixing it up. When I am in London now I am meeting with actors, cause I now have agents coming to me and saying “will you meet these people”. And I look at the list and think bloody hell, these are A-listers. Part of me is thinking that I haven’t got anything that is appropriate and part of me is thinking just go and meet these people and hang out.
So Gwenno then did the live score, and that was really popular. That was amazing, it was like watching the film new, like being an audience member. When Bait came out everyone said, “it’s such an amazing experience cause it is so different”. And I couldn’t relate to that because it is so the same for me, it is the same as everything I do – I couldn’t watch it as an audience member, the closest I got to watching it as an audience member was with Gwenno’s score. Suddenly it was a different film, all the shots looked different cause the sound was different. Then she went on tour with it, we were supposed to go and do SXSW, but then the pandemic happened. But then what happened during the lockdown was she created her new album, which came out recently, and she went and toured Australia. She did Bait with the live score alongside her album, so some places she did two dates where she played the film and did the live score.
And then with Enys Men we needed an ancient pagan Celtic May song, there are plenty of them around and all of them I suppose will be copyright free, but I didn’t want to use one that existed, I didn’t want it to have the connotations, cause they are so geographically specific. We could have used the Padstow May Song, but you just don’t touch it, that is just for Padstownians, that is just about Padstow. So we commissioned Gwenno to write a brand new ancient May song and she wrote Kan Me, which is brilliant. Sung in a round so the kids could sing it. Then she recorded her own demo version of it which we just loved and we put it over the end credits, and she actually recorded a full version of it.
Yeah, it’s on her album as well.
She said to us, “can I put it on the album?”, cause we commissioned her to write it. And we said, “Yeah, of course”. I mean, she is the artist and the performer. So we have her version over the end credits and it appears in different guises throughout the film. We have worked out ways of working together. She is just brilliant, a force of nature, I have so much respect for what she does, she just goes, “this is what I want to do” and she does it. And through Heavenly Records who are amazing. It gets to a big audience and it has really revitalised the audience in Cornwall amongst young people which is so important.
I was going to say – you have this link to Cornwall, to Cornish, the landscape, miners, and fisherman, do you feel a personal sense of responsibility to that or do you just have an interest in spreading that outward?
Cornwall has a real identity crisis when it comes to all forms of media, whether it’s film, television, radio, music… we’ve got a stereotype that is perpetuated through media. So everything I do that is set in Cornwall, I want to redress the balance. It is not necessarily a conscious thing, I just portray the Cornwall that I see as authentic. And I think people are very good at recognising authenticity. The more people write about it and comment about it the more conscious I become about it, which is fine. I can’t control whether people like the work or not but I can control whether it is authentic or not. I wouldn’t want to be accused of being inauthentic.
What do you mean by authentic?
Representations of Cornwall. So the big thing for Bait was getting the fishing culture right. The detail. The detail of processes. The big scene in Bait where the fisherman makes the kid mend the lobster pot – the way he mends that would last about thirty-seconds back in the sea cause he mends it with a thin bit of twine – but on the whole, getting the knots right, I want to be very specific. The cliché is the more specific you get, the more universal it becomes. Why that phrase makes sense to me is – that you can make the setting authentic, even if it may be foreign to people. People on a very gut level, which is the most important level, recognise authenticity. If they recognise that something like the setting and the context is authentic, they are more susceptible to receive the message of the film, and feel the film. That’s why with Bait for example, when it premiered in New York, I had a woman come up to me who was a New-Yorker but her family were from the Caribbean, she came up to me in tears at the end of the screening and said, “thank you, you have made a film about my Dad”. That was because he was a fisherman in Barbados. So there is a link there because of the fishing, the way we fish and the way they fish is completely different, but there was an authenticity that she connected with. Also when it premiered in Istanbul, I had people come up to me who had been working with people who had been kicked out of a certain neighbourhood because it was being gentrified. They would say, “ This film is about Istanbul”. We’re able to see the universality if you think that the context is authentic. And that’s why when people say, “oh are you always going to make films in Cornwall?”. I think I probably will always make films in Cornwall but they won’t always necessarily be about Cornwall.
Is it hard to move away then? If you are representing Cornwall, and it is important to you – why would you want to go further afield?
I would only go further afield if I wanted to make a film where the context is deliberately alien. Which I might do, like The Shout by [Jerzy] Skolimowski. I was going to put it on my list for Sight & Sound but bumped it off for some reason. But The Shout is a really good example. There is this foreign eye, telling a very British story. So somebody makes that context seem foreign, there is a layer of abstraction there. I think Symptoms is on my list, so Larraz, a Spanish look at the English countryside and it feels deliberately alien. So I think if I wanted to make the context seem slightly abstract then I could go and make a film in a place that I know nothing about. A lot of my favourite filmmakers have done that.
Memoria, is that. The Apichatpong Weerasethakul film.
I haven’t seen it.
It’s incredible, it is his first film outside of Thailand.
It’s like John Boorman making Point Blank so early in his career.
I haven’t seen that one.
You should watch that one. It’s a sort of crime thriller, basically a chase movie, but it feels like a Bresson film, the performances… I think it has a lot in common with Lost Highway in a lot of ways, in terms of what you think is happening, and what is really happening.
I think I’m conscious enough of why I make films in Cornwall to be comfortable not making a film in Cornwall if it was right.
But you have your reasons not wanting to – just go to America cause you can
Yeah, because I’ve seen enough people go, “oh I’ve got a story, let’s go set it in Cornwall”. And that’s not Cornwall. And it’s never about Cornish people, they say, “I’ve made a film about Cornwall”. Fuck you, you haven’t made a film about Cornwall. You’ve made a film about somebody, normally from London, who has problems in their life that they are unaware of, but they go to Cornwall and through a brief interaction with the ‘simple folk’ who live there, they realise that their life is hollow, they adopt some of the lifestyle of the village idiots, who are all portrayed as that on screen, and then they go back to their other life bettered for this interaction with people who ‘don’t realise how lucky they are’ and ‘don’t have big worries like city people’. That can be anywhere. It happens everywhere but if you haven’t got something that is countering that then it doesn’t take long before that is what somewhere like Cornwall is. Say the movie Pearl Harbor or Titanic, they are not supposed to be taken as real but say in one-hundred or two-hundred-years time when there is no living memory they will be taken as historical texts. There is a responsibility to represent a time and a place I think, and why wouldn’t you want to have an authentic setting that you can create universal stories on top of? Luckily I feel that we have a distinct, ever-changing but ancient culture and way of life in Cornwall that I don’t see in some other places because populations are too transient. Things change very quickly and often leave a feeling of a vacuum. I feel really lucky to have a place that I think is distinct.
Yeah, I have moved from Scotland to somewhere that feels less culturally rich
Did you become much more Scottish once you left Scotland?
Yeah, I was in tears when I went back to Glasgow, and I’m not even from there, just hearing the accent.
That’s like me, I spent my youth trying to get out of Cornwall, and then I crossed the border and became the world’s most Cornish person to exert a sort of difference. And then spent the next few years working out how I was going to get back to Cornwall and be sustainable. I have been so lucky that I have been able to do it. Now I love coming to London, but it’s exotic, this is abroad for me. I’m visiting from another country, I feel no less alien here than I did yesterday in New York. That is what I have learned. That’s the complex constitutional position that Cornwall is in, and I envy the position that Scotland is in.
I’m sure we’ll form an alliance.
Scotland, like Cornwall, have their own parliament. If there was a will…
This is getting a bit too exciting now.
That’s my dream, I’m sure it’ll be like Bresson’s Genesis biopic, I want to make that film about Cornwall. It’ll be a historical… somewhere half-between Peter Watkins’ Culloden and Braveheart
Maybe just drop the Braveheart. I mean Bait moves in that direction.
It does, and the beauty of what has happened with Bait, which I can’t take responsibility for and is actually really depressing is that it becomes more and more prescient and relevant every day. The problem with Cornwall is we have this word ‘dreckly’. It has no English translation, the closest translation is the Spanish ‘mañana’. If you say, “I’ll see you dreckly”, then it means “I’ll see you at some point in the future”. So there is a saying in Cornwall which is “Independence… dreckly”. It’ll come. Thing is with Cornwall, there has never been any history of organisation, no trades union movement or anything. The Cornish have always gone from passive acceptance to riot, there has never been anything in-between. So I wait for the moment where enough Cornish people stand up and say, “we have had enough of Westminster now”, and draw the bridge up.
We should probably talk about film a bit more. So I wanted to talk a bit about your short films, Enys Men has this relation to the Christmas Ghost Stories and so too does Hard, Cracked the Wind. Do you want to talk about that a bit?
Yeah, it is kind of, of a piece with Enys Men thematically. That’s a real outlier of a short film for me because I didn’t write it. That was written by a writer called Adrian Bailey – who I was collaborating with on Enys Men originally, before it was even called Enys Men. We had an idea that we would come up with a story together, he would write it, I would direct it. I was looking for that kind of collaboration.
We shot Hard, Cracked the Wind because we had a bit of film stock left over after Bait. So he wrote Hard, Cracked the Wind. I don’t want to speak for him, but my brief was sort of a Ghost Story for Christmas, a sort of M.R. James story, with the haunted writing case. And that was great, but to be totally honest with you I was a little bit lost because I worked with a cinematographer and a writer, both of whom were great. But I was a bit at a loose end as a director cause I normally write and re-write whilst I’m shooting, and I’m normally operating the camera, so I’m normally running on nervous energy and no sleep every second of the shoot. On that film, I just wandered round most of the time just drinking coffee and chatting to people thinking, “is this what a normal director does?”. We shot for five days and on the fifth day I had food poisoning and was wrapped up in the corner of the room just shivering and being sick, basically not saying anything, and the film continued without any input from me. It was like “Oh wow, I’m so unimportant in this thing”. Anyway, it was good experience, the film did well, and we rode the wave off the back of Bait and it opened up some short film festivals that I hadn’t had work at before, which was great.
Then we set to work on Enys Men, me and Adrian bashed out a story together, he wrote a treatment for it. He took it in one way and I wanted to take it in another, so we agreed that I would write it, and he kind of handed it back to me, and he’s got a co-story by credit on the film but then I wrote the script.
In a lot of ways Hard, Cracked the Wind was a really good process for me – working with a cinematographer which I hadn’t done for a long time, which was really illuminating. It made me realise what I wanted to do, which films I could shoot myself and which ones I couldn’t shoot myself. And working with a writer educated me as to how that works, how you can work with a writer and not necessarily hand over everything to them, it can be a collaboration despite the writer having a sole credit. Also if I have a story that I can be very specific about the brief with, which I felt I did have with Enys Men, then it wasn’t going to work with a writer. I thought I might as well write that myself. I’m collaborating with a writer on an adaptation that is going to be a little way off yet, but for Enys Men it was suddenly, by reading the treatment that someone else wrote I realised what film I wanted to make and it wasn’t that film. It was a fantastic treatment, and it would have made a great film, but not a film I could have made.
Oh, that reminds me, back to Bresson, did you ever consider having a voiceover for Enys Men?
I did think about voiceover, yeah. What voiceover quite often is, is a bit of a safety net. Some people work with voiceover brilliantly in a really literal beautiful way, like Terrence Malick. I rewatched The Thin Red Line the other day which is one of my favourite films. That should have been on my top 10 list! That works beautifully, it is an added layer of poetry to a film that is already like a poem. Then there is Withnail and I, masterful voiceover used so sparingly, there is hardly any in it, but it is so beautifully done. Cause it is Marwood, it’s Paul McGann, but the way he delivers it, it’s almost like he is whispering it when Withnail’s not listening, so it has got a performative complexity to it as well. Voiceover – if you are using it like a safety net is like an exposition tool, so when things get too confusing you can drop a bit of voiceover in. I did it with a film I made years ago, I wouldn’t have used it if we had money to do reshoots, but I didn’t have money for it. So what those reshoots were conveying in terms of information I just put it into a voiceover, and then put voiceover over the whole thing, so it became a voiceover movie, which I really like but I was forced into it.
With Enys Men, for two reasons I didn’t go into voiceover – one, I thought there is no use trying to explain anything in this film, if I tried to explain stuff, it would make it look like a film where it made no sense and then I was trying to explain it to an audience. Or it could have been a voiceover that added to the ambiguity, but then I realised that I have three outlets for exposition within the film already: the VHF marine radio with which she [the volunteer] communicates with the land, the AM radio which gives the history of the stone, and her journal. I already had these three channels. And the journal stuff is all a pickup. That’s not Mary’s hand, I wanted very specific handwriting, that’s my First AD, Callum, who writes in the book. Very beautiful hands. So I didn’t have to commit to what was being written until later on. It’s all in the script what has been written, except I came up with the idea later on for the “No change”. When it gets to May 1st and it says, “No change” on the day, and she stops writing about the flowers. This kind of [The] Shining, head on, looking at some text. From principal photography we didn’t record anything she was writing in the book, we just filmed her from behind writing, but I knew in the edit, if I wanted to muddy the water, or clear the water, she could write. Maybe about her relationship with the boatman… Or at any point I could have a stray radio broadcast bring a clanger of exposition without it feel like you are being explained to. So I ruled out voiceover early on because I knew I had those other tools, which are less blatant, less obvious than voiceover.
There’s a writer called [Blake] Snyder who wrote a screenwriting book called Save the Cat! There is an expression he has called ‘Pope in the Pool’, which is a way of doing exposition. He wrote a screenplay, where there is a scene in the Vatican and the Pope’s envoy has to come in, the Pope is sat behind a desk, and just communicates a shed load of exposition for the film to move on, and he couldn’t work out any way of getting around it. So rather than saying it in the Pope’s office, he put the Pope in a swimming pool doing lengths. The envoy comes in doing exposition and the audience are going, “I suppose the Pope would have a swimming pool in the Vatican”, and “I suppose he would do breaststroke”. And you’re thinking that whilst hearing all this exposition, without knowing that you are being hit over the head with it. So I always knew I had this ‘Pope in the Pool’ device with the radio. Not only that but I knew that I had the convention that sometimes it could be inaudible cause it was coming across the sea. If I felt like it was too much information coming out I could put a bit more crackle on it so you only hear every other word. You have to lean forward and engage with it, you have to work for it so it doesn’t feel like you are just being fed it. Long answer to the question, I ruled out voiceover very early.
For the films that you have programmed at the BFI in January (The Cinematic DNA of Enys Men) you have picked Jeanne Dielmann… which is a film that is relatively inaccessible in the UK right now, and it is obviously this centrepiece of cinema, it is towards the top of the Sight and Sound list, what does it mean to you to have films like that as inaccessible? And also your own films, like David Bowie is Dead, which means a lot to me, as inaccessible? [Context: this was pre-2022 S&S list and Jeanne Dielmann… is available to stream now on the BFI Player]
I’m conflicted cause I quite like the fact that some films are difficult to see. It is different if they are impossible to see. But now in the days of streamers, if they are possible to see they are very easy to see, or they are impossible to see. Whereas in the past it was more interesting when you had to go on a bit of a hunt to find a film. I remember trying to get hold of a copy of Long Weekend, which is on my list, the Colin Eggleston, 1978, Australian film. You literally had to try and find a VHS tape from Australia. Pre-eBay. God knows where I was even looking for it. It made things like libraries and inter-library loans a thing, so by the time you got it, you had worked for it, so you were invested in it. It’s a shame that that has been lost. I saw Jeanne Dielmann… a long time ago, once. The reason I put it on the list is because other people kept mentioning it. I thought if other people are mentioning it, consistently, it must be an influence, even though I have only seen it once. It just shows the power of the film. I said to Julie at the BFI I want to programme it and then I asked if they could get a copy of it cause I haven’t seen it in twenty years. This is the luxury of the position I am now in, and a Criterion copy arrived from the States.
Yeah, that’s how you have to do it, you have to pay £30-odd to get it and get a region-free DVD player.
The luxury is I can just ask the BFI, I’m making the most of it whilst it lasts. But then it is nice to put it on [Screen it publicly at the BFI]. Conversely, I said to Julie – I picked Lost Highway, which they have on soon –“shall I take it off the list”, and she said, “No, keep it on, cause people will watch it with a different context”.
It is sad that it isn’t available, but I feel a real responsibility and a real pride, that I can choose to put that on and introduce it to people who haven’t seen it before. It’s a real outlier in terms of endurance to watch it. It was difficult to watch it at home, even though I loved the film. I wanted to watch it, and I needed to watch it for work purposes, but I still had to switch off all devices.
Still two hours left…
It’s a marathon
Yeah, I think it is really helpful. Afterwards, you put on a two-and-a-half-hour film and it feels like you are watching a short. It broadens your ability to appreciate how gruelling cinema can be, and gruelling in a good way, cause it stays with you.
With regards to my own work, it is all down to licensing, people license the work. I’m really pleased that the BFI have got a lot of my back catalogue. These things run in cycles. If you look on amazon or the BFI player, if my film comes up it means that it is coming back.
That’s good to know.
Enys Men is screening across the UK from Friday 13th January. Look out for a Q&A screening with director Mark Jenkin near you. Enys Men | Official Website | 13 January 2023
The Cinematic DNA of Enys Men season is running throughout January at the BFI Southbank. The Cinematic DNA of Enys Men | BFI Southbank
See a selection of Mark Jenkin’s short films at the BFI Southbank as part of London Short Film Festival Buy cinema tickets for LSFF: Mark Jenkin: An Fylmow Berr | BFI Southbank