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If any filmmaker was prepared to deal with the limitations that Covid-19 placed on their film shoot, including a year-long delay, it was Mark Jenkin, the Cornish director of the breakout 2019 fishing drama Bait.
Jenkin, whose mantra is “Small team. Quick shoot. Tight budget” and who has in the past hand-processed his films with instant coffee, among other ingredients, is no stranger to kindling creativity out of restrictions.
He also relishes rewrites: “Any film would be improved if the director was dragged out of bed at 4am on the morning of the shoot and told to read the script aloud and make changes,” he tells me over Zoom as he and his producer Denzil Monk await the last batch of rushes on their new feature Enys Men (Cornish for ‘Stone Island’).
Fortunately, the four-week shoot mostly took place on the cliffs and moors of West Penwith, so at least not too many Covid-related 4am alterations to the script were needed.
“Enys Men is set in 1973,” Jenkin explains. “It’s about a woman [played by Mary Woodvine] who is alone on an island off the Cornish coast as a volunteer for the Wildlife Trust, observing a rare flower that just grows in very small numbers on the cliff edge [by] an old abandoned tin mine.” As the seasons change and spring blooms, all the different worlds and timelines that have inhabited the island begin to collide around her. “[The film] is about her trying to make sense or trying to gain some kind of control over what’s going on.”
Unlike Bait, Enys Men is shot in colour – to make it feel like a 70s film, and to capture the hues of the flora and fauna and some items of costume that are central to the story, Jenkin says. But it is shot on 16mm with the same clockwork Bolex cameras, and Jenkin’s signature post-sync sound will be even more prominent here: “There’s very little dialogue within the film; it’s almost like a silent movie. A blank canvas is such a brilliant starting point to be creative with.”
Enys Men arose from Jenkin listening to people’s reaction to Bait: “So many people told me they felt like it was going to tip over into a horror film at any moment. So I thought, I’d like to have a bit of fun and do an outright horror.”
Jenkin points out how the horror in Bait, and his previous short Bronco’s House [►] (2015), comes from the form not the plot: “We’ve tried to amplify that [in Enys Men] and use the same tools that the horror directors were using in the 70s. So not trying to hide the edits, and using things that have gone out of fashion, like zoom lenses.”
Along with the influence of Cornish folklore and the landscape, Jerzy Skolimowski’s 1978 British horror The Shout – about a man with killer vocal cords – looms large. Jenkin likes the critic Kim Newman’s description of the film in the DVD commentary as “a nearly horror picture” and his interpretation of the stones within the film as holding the soul of the lead character. He is now thinking about the meaning of the stones in Enys Men, something he’ll probe further in the edit, which he is due to start on that most auspicious of days in British folklore: May Day.
Enys Men is not a folk horror, though, but an ‘ecosophical’ horror, ecosophy being a philosophy of ecological harmony, Monk tells me. The film “will investigate the grey area when it comes to the survival of the planet: whose responsibility is it? What can an individual really do?”
Jenkin admits to having a love/hate relationship with horror. “I lose it a bit once the horror is very explicit, and in the third act when they’re trying to create a logic out of it. We have been very careful not to show too much horror and not to explain too much. It is quite a risky approach and we’re going to be walking a fine line in the edit. The challenge now is to create the kind of atmosphere in films like The Shout, where the more I watch it, the less I understand it.”
Mark Jenkin on Bait: “A sense of otherness is important”
By Philip Concannon
Bait first look: Mark Jenkin heralds the new weird Britain
By Ian Mantgani
Encounters with celluloid: Bronco’s House and the film revival
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Sight and Sound November 2021
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