“There are shots in the film that I know were taken from rolls of film that I must have been processing when I was wearing a woolly jumper, because I can see the little bits of fibres.” Mark Jenkin on his film-making process.
Bait, Jenkin’s beautiful and jolting film, looks at the gentrification of a Cornish fishing village and what it means for both long-term residents and wealthy incomers.
Filmed in black and white, then hand-processed by Mark to introduce the fizzes and crackles of aged film, it harks back to gritty kitchen sink dramas while also making us question our own nostalgia, as well as our complicity.
Focusing on fisherman-without-a-boat Martin (played by Edward Rowe) it’s a sometimes ambiguous study that explores Martin’s anger, new residents’ wealth-cushioned cluelessness, and the awkward position of other local people who are just trying to make the best of it.
I spoke to Mark about that ambiguity, his incredible filmmaking process, and the health and safety regulations around getting an actor dressed as a giant penis onto a boat… (read my 4.5/5 review and article here)
Sarah: How long has it taken you to get Bait to this point?
Mark Jenkin: 20 years it’s been. It started in August 1999. I was living in London and working in that building [points out of the window across the road from the BFI where we’re talking] cutting film trailers for Channel 5. I took a couple of weeks’ holiday and went back to Cornwall just after the eclipse in ’99, and made a film with and about my friends in North Cornwall at the time.
While I was there, a friend of mine’s dad – a very famous Cornish playwright called Nick Darke – we used his house for several locations.
I pitched this idea to him of a film that’s really about disenfranchised locals in a tiny little village who are rising up against these very affluent incomers who were trying to rebrand the place. It was allegorical, it became a kind of civil war movie at the end, and the British government called in the military and just carpet bombed the whole place and everything started again. And he said “this is brilliant, you’ve got to make this film”.
Once I started thinking about the logistics of actually doing that and what it was really about, the theme of it, I toned it all down, reined it all in and wrote a screenplay for a video diary – effectively about a fisherman who picked up a video camera to make a film about his way of life.
But, once he was looking through the viewfinder he realised the way of life was gone. The camera became a catalyst for all this trouble in the village.
It was that film up until about ten years ago, then very tragically a friend of mine who was producing the film passed away suddenly. So the film got shelved – and in that time, I established a new way of working which was working with film, working with hand processed film, post-syncing everything. Working in a very old-fashioned way.
Post-syncing, is that because you didn’t record the audio at the time, you do that later?
Yeah, no location sounds. So, adding all the dialogue and all the sound effects and Atmoses and everything later. I made a mid-length film called Bronco’s House in 2015, which got quite of a lot of attention due to the way it was made. It was about the housing crisis in Cornwall.
Then I hooked up with producers from Early Day Films, Kate Byers and Linn Waite, who had a model of raising money privately. They wanted to work with me on a project so I took this video diary film idea off the shelf and reimagined it for this new form working on the film.
That was probably five years ago and they raised the money incredibly quickly for it. We were delayed by a year for unseen circumstances and then we shot it in September and October 2017, and finished it this time last year.
It took 20 years to get to this point, but actually the making of the film was very quick.
When I saw it in the screening, I sat down not really knowing anything about it, and was then “oh my god, what’s this!” Weirdly, despite the fact that it’s so visual, the thing that really got me is the ambiguity of it. You do really feel for Martin, and like him, but he’s black and white in his thinking and these are complex issues.
I know as I’ve got older I’ve become more aware of grey areas and ambiguities. In the time that it’s taken you to get Bait to the screen, have you found that happening?
I think that’s exactly how I feel about it. When I was younger I did see it black and white and it was very simple. It was an “us and them” story.
I’m really glad that you think it’s in the grey areas because I think that’s the important thing, especially at this time in our society where there aren’t any grey areas at the moment.
No and I think it’s very polarised.
And that’s really problematic. I try not to demonise anybody in the film. The one character who is I think is without much redemption is Tim [the wealthy incomer who, with his wife, has bought Martin’s old family home].
He’s awful isn’t he.
But I think there is a moment that he does have a moment of redemption, he has a moment of reflection. After he and Sandra, his wife, have eaten the lobster [bought to them by their wayward son Hugo], and all of this stuff’s gone on in the pub that they don’t know about, he kind of senses that something’s not right in the village. He then goes and has his expensive single malt whiskey by the fire. And he has a moment where you see him thinking, and I think there’s some ambiguity in there that suggests that he has a moment of self-awareness.
To be fair to Simon Shepherd who played that character, it was his idea. So I think maybe he looked at the screenplay and thought “I’m the only one in here who doesn’t get any redemption”.
You can’t be irredeemable can you?
No, or else you’d be a caricature. There was a conversation I had with Simon about how to play that part. I said just play it like David Cameron. You be charismatic, and confident, and charming, and the life and soul of the party until somebody tells you you can’t do something that you’ve been brought up to believe you could always do. And then you chuck your toys out of the pram.
They’re a particular kind of posh aren’t they. They’re moneyed and privileged, but they’re not flash. Or they wouldn’t think of themselves flash as they tuck into their lobster.
Somebody wrote a brilliant review saying that their grotesque extravagance only becomes apparent when you stick them in that village. If they were somewhere else…
Our area has some similar tensions, you can see it on local forums and things.
Well that’s what the film is supposed to be about, where do those tensions go if they’re not addressed? I think through an unfortunate fluke of timing, it’s become very current. If you’ve got alienated people, their frustrations manifest themselves in pretty odd decisions.
And they retreat back into their little tribes, don’t they?
Exactly. I really like the idea that you saw it as existing in the grey area. Because I don’t think there’s anybody in it who’s bad, I think the system is the villain in a way. But when Martin the fisherman says “I’m just trying to earn a living” and Sandra says “so are we”, she’s not lying.
You can see that Tim works. This holiday when they come down to Cornwall is the bit he spends with the family. The rest of the time he’s getting in late and all this kind of stuff. I think her little pet project, now that her kids have grown up a bit, is probably running these Airbnbs and she probably works quite hard in her context.
And then the couple that come down with the baby who stay in the net loft [the net store attached to Sandra and Tim’s house that they’ve renovated and let out to holidaymakers] and he comes out with absurd demands like it’s illegal to make sounds at 7am. That scene is supposed to be absurd but I don’t want to demonise him because he’s been sold a lie. He’s booked this on a website where you don’t click a sound file…
You look at these beautiful pictures and it’s croissants on a white duvet overlooking the harbour. And we don’t know anything about their life. They might have a really stressful life. They’ve got a new baby.
You’ve got people who all think they’re doing the right thing, and all think they’re not doing something wrong, colliding in a very small claustrophobic space.
All the way through I was terrified someone was going to steal Martin’s boat money in his tin. “Why are you leaving it on your windowsill with your window open and your door unlocked…”
Load of people have said that to me! I live in a village where no one shuts their doors, let alone lock them, so it didn’t occur to me.
Also I thought afterwards – and this is a reverse-engineered meaning really – that he’s so trustworthy that he would have the window open, and the tin would be there, which makes the fact that somebody robbed his lobster pot so difficult for him to comprehend.
When I was watching it, I know you’ve got Sandra and Tim cooking the lobster, and then you’ve got the pasta meal being made [by their daughter Katie, and Martin’s nephew Neil] in the other house. It looked to me as if Sandra and Tim, they weren’t worried about the provenance of their lobster, but they seemed to be quite worried whether the lobster would suffer when they boiled it in the pot.
Right, that’s supposed to be ambiguous.
It’s that idea of if you’re privileged you have the space to worry about how a lobster feels rather than how you’re going to pay the rent. I wasn’t sure if I was projecting!
A little bit but that’s fine! It’s more to do with that moment where you drop that lobster in there and the horrible sounds that it makes, which people think is screaming but it’s just the air coming out or the carapace. Also the fact that once it’s in there, she feels complicit in the crime of their son having come home with a couple of lobsters. It’s a bit ambiguous as to whether they know that he’s stolen them, because they didn’t know that he goes out with his spear gun and he goes fishing.
The dad does say he’s finally used his initiative. Even though he’s done something that’s wrong, let’s concentrate on the independence and personal development of our fine son.
It’s interesting what you said about complicity because I came out angry on behalf of the local people even though I’ve been going on holiday to the South West since the early 1970s. And you don’t want 4x4s full of Tims going down there now who’ve seen your film! But we are all complicit.
Completely. I mean the film I did before, Bronco’s House, which was about the housing crisis, I wrote that one staying in a second home.
Martin is very isolationist isn’t he?
Yeah and he exists by catching six fish and then raising a little bit of money so he can buy a boat. You know, totally separate. But, actually if you look at it, that money in the tin all comes from holidaymakers.
It feels more ethically acceptable to him.
Yeah because his point of contact, the business transaction he does is with the landlady of the pub, a local. And he’s at the backdoor of the pub, in his work gear. The working door. He’s still completely reliant on those tourists. That’s not to say that’s a great system, but his character doesn’t acknowledge that in the film.
In terms of your filmmaking technique, I read somewhere that you said that once digital came in, the knowledge of the old filmmaking ways became cheap. How much of you doing this was artistically driven and how much financial practicality? Because it looks labour-intensive.
I like that. I do like to think of myself as working hard.
It’s a craft isn’t it.
Yes, and it’s physical. There’s an armchair in my studio and when I’m in the armchair, I can’t do anything. I just sit there and listen to music, or read a book. Other than that there’s no chairs. I’m not sat down when I’m working because I’m either working in the dry area of the studio which is cutting and splicing or the wet area of the studio where I’m processing stuff so it’s all about the physicality of working.
A few years ago I had a minor operation, which meant I couldn’t do anything for about two or three weeks. I was laid up on the sofa and I watched Mark Cousins’ 15-hour Story of Film documentary. He’s so passionate when he talks about film. Listening to him made me realise that I had fallen out of love with it a little bit. And I thought, when was I that passionate about film? And I realised it was back when I was shooting Super 8 when I was a teenager.
So I bought a new old, or an old new, Super 8 camera and started shooting. At that time, it had been announced film is dead, all this kind of stuff. So all of the information about processing stuff, the conventional ways of getting stuff processed at labs had disappeared, but all this information was in the public domain about how to DIY it. So I collected bits of equipment, I started processing Super 8 and developing it in a bucket in the bathroom. I just thought, this is it. This is the craft.
At some point along the line was moving on from even linear tape, so mini DV which is what I used originally for my first film, that linearity of working where you have a tape and you rewind and it’s an object. As digital filmmaking became more and more convenient, the actual physicality of it disappeared. That was really exciting at first, because you think, oh I don’t need all of that stuff.
But then I began to realise, actually, in the excitement of what I felt I was gaining through that, I hadn’t noticed what I’d lost. It was the tactile nature of it. It was the random events of, you got a Super 8 camera and I take a shot of you, say. And then put the camera down for a couple of weeks and then I take a shot of a bird flying, and the suddenly at the point where I just want to watch the film back, because it’s linear it’s suddenly like, oh it looks like she’s thinking about freedom. Suddenly this juxtaposition.
That was a big thing for me. Going back from a memory card which is a series of clips, to looking at film as a set of fragments that are greater than the sum of their parts – which, I think, is the point of my films.
What you’re saying about the physical side – I’ve never made a film, but recently on Twitter we were remembering things from childhood. I was talking about cassette tapes that got unspooled and you’d have to spool them back on with a pencil. Or two fingers poised to record the Top 40 on a tape recorder on a Tuesday.
I talked about those things on the radio earlier. I’ve had this tape in the studio. I’ve never owned this in a digital form. This is the tape that I always listen to. Then at Christmas as a treat for myself, I managed to find a copy of it on vinyl in Germany. Paid a fortune for it. So I’ve gone from cassette to vinyl and no digital. The idea of having a piece of media that doesn’t automatically start from the start, that’s really alien – to even me, and tapes were my life all through my teenage years.
Everything’s perfect now isn’t it.
You’d have to think “oh so I have to rewind it, or to find a bit, I have to rewind and then stop and play, listen to it to see where you are”.
I videoed Derek Jarman’s The Garden off the TV, it was trailed before an advert break in 1991 or ’92. I thought “this sounds amazing”, so I put a video tape in, recorded it and paused the adverts, so there’s no adverts in it. But, one advert break I paused it too late, so its got 15 seconds of an advert. And then I forgot to unpause it so a bit of the film’s missing. And the only version of the film I watched was this VHS tape.
Until in Berlin in February when we were over there for the world premier of Bait, the BFI restored The Garden and there was a press screening of the reissued version so I went along and I watched it.
And it was a different film because it didn’t have the bit with the advert in the middle, and it had this extra bit that I’d never seen before. But because my experience watching The Garden was based on an actual artifact that couldn’t be changed, it was bizarre to then see it how it should have been seen.
The fizzes and cracks and pops in Bait, how do they come about?
Mostly from the washing and drying. So the film’s pretty immaculate when it gets loaded into a development tank, and I’ll wind the film backwards and forwards through the developer over and over again. That’s a good way to develop. Depending on the speed I wind it, if I wind quicker, it’ll be in the developer for less time. So, it might be less grainy and a bit more underdeveloped. But that’s normally quite clean.
I’ve got no way of washing film. Normally you’d have the film on rollers which you’d run through running water, but I do it in a ten-litre bucket, I put 100 foot of film in. The edge of the film, the acetate is sharp and the emulsion is kind of soft, like a jelly. So when it’s in the water being washed, quite often the acetate will nick the emulsion, so you get scratches then.
And then everything that’s stuck, all the little bits of dust and clothes fibres, happens during the drying. I’ll hang up in my studio, which is dusty inevitably. Normally you dry it in a very controlled, dust-free environment. Mine’s just in the studio and I’ve even got a bit of carpet – carpet’s the enemy of film drying, because every time you walk on it dust comes up. So all of that’s just in the air.
Watching the film last night, there are shots in the film that I know were taken from rolls of film that I must have been processing when I was wearing a woolly jumper, because I can see the little bits of fibres.
And there’s other bits that sparkle and they’ve almost got glitter on them. The cutaway after Martin has hung the fish in the plastic bags in the doors, I shot all of that on one roll of film in about five minutes. All of those shots sparkle. I worked out the studio door was little bit ajar when I was drying it, and that’s pollen – little microscopic pollen that’s on the film.
In terms of what you’re doing next, have you got something in process?
Yes, working with pretty much the same team, with Kate and Linn from Early Day Films who were my brilliant producers on Bait. And also another producer who produced my film Bronco’s House. We’re a doing a film called Enys Men which in Cornish language means Stone Island.
It’s a horror film. It’s set in 1973 about a woman alone on an island who’s a volunteer for a wildlife trust, observing a very rare flower and what it does through winter and into spring. The island was previously home to miners because there was tin on the island.
So there’s an old Cornish engine house and a derelict mine, and the flower may or may not grow there because the waste from the mine has created a mineral bed where this flower can exist. So she’s there to observe that, but also on the island is this six foot high standing stone which is on the brow of the hill in the middle of the island.
A lot of people have watched my stuff and said the films feel like horror films without any horror in them.
So I was tempted to write a horror script, but actually what I’ve written is a horror script that hasn’t got any horror in it. It’s all suggested. But it’ll be done in exactly the same way on the shot side: clockwork camera, short takes, all post-synced, but it’ll be colour.
Colour as in looking like 1973? That kind of washed out look?
Yeah, almost like it was made in 1973. A slightly awkward aesthetic to it. A formalism much like Bait really. It’s almost a single-hander, it has a few other characters and the drowned crew of a lifeboat from the late 19th century turn up at one point. It’s all about timelines.
Didn’t you have that in Bait too, jumping forward and sometimes it was hard to work out where you are.
Yeah, very early on in the film there’s a shot of two ghosts that, it’s right at the beginning.
In Bait? When’s that?
When he walks down to first shoot the net on the beach. The old fisherman and the nephew, there’s a shot of them on the quay looking down.
It wouldn’t make sense at that point, but what I hope is that on a second viewing people will realise that both those characters are not alive.
I did like the comedy. The human condom getting onto the boat.
That was the first assistant director. That was the most complicated thing to shoot because of the risk assessment. It’s actually a cock and balls. The problem is if he’d fallen into the water, because of the inflatable testicles, he would have floated upside down and not been able to get back up.
So a huge amount of risk assessing that had to be done. And it was really ridiculous because we were having these very serious fraught conversations about somebody dressed as a penis.
In a nutshell, that is the absurdity of filmmaking.
Bait is on Film4 at 11.20pm on Thursday 17 September 2020