Brexit, Bolex and British Cinema: In conversation with Mark Jenkin

Since its premiere at the Berlinale Film Festival back in February, Mark Jenkin's Bait has been shown around the world earning critical acclaim, picking up a number of award nominations and wins along the way. It had its UK premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival on 21st June, before being released around the country in a number of selected cinemas.

"Set within the community of a present-day Cornish fishing village, it was shot on location in Charlestown and Penzance, Cornwall, with a 1970s 16mm wind-up Bolex camera, on black and white Kodak film that was hand-processed by Mark himself. Bait is a beautifully crafted new film with a vintage feel that tackles contemporary issues amongst different social classes and different generations with heart and humour." - BFI

Described by Mark Kermode as a "genuine modern masterpiece", I got the chance to see the film at my local cinema last month. A fantastic viewing experience that felt close to home in its social commentary, I was delighted to catch up with the film's director Mark Jenkin. After a quick conversation about our mutual support for the Welsh national football team, we dived quickly into conversation about the film.

Martin (Edward Rowe) and Neil (Isaac Woodvine) in Bait Neil (Isaac Woodvine) in Bait

Daniel: The first thing I wanted to talk about was Brexit. I’ve seen a lot of reviews mention that it wasn’t until a certain scene, with a Brexit related audio clip in the film that they made the connection. But for me I couldn’t help but think about Brexit throughout. I saw Martin as the manifestation, the culmination of these decades of change, the unrest in society and communities. Brexit didn’t happen over night, it was a response to wider changes. I was wondering how long you had been developing the story and if it had changed much over time?

Mark: I think you’re absolutely right, I think he is the manifestation of that frustration after decades of neglect. I think you’re bang on with that. I didn’t realise that when I was writing that consciously, but I’ve been writing the script for twenty years. A lot of people say Brexit was 2016, but it wasn’t, Brexit had been coming for a long time. I think it’s kind of easy to see that now.

I started writing the script in 1999 kind of at point where there was a pride in being British. I’m not saying that everybody felt that, but there was a promoted positivity about being British, about being inclusive, outward looking, but also nationally proud. People had reclaimed the Union Jack, weirdly through things like music and film, stuff like Britpop and things like that. It was obviously on the back of New Labour, and the feel good - the perceived feel good - of New Labour. What was going on there was this move away from people representing working people and I think they were sort of forgotten about, a lot of working people.

What happened with Brexit was an opportunity, people were given the opportunity to reject something by an establishment who had the confidence to think it was just a bunch of well-off little Englanders who wanted Brexit, when actually there was a huge underclass of people who had been created through neglect who had felt alienated and frustrated and exercised that voice. I think we’re still seeing that at the moment.

I don’t know how much the theme at the heart of my story changed, I think what did change was my understanding of what the film was about. The fact you said you couldn’t get away from Brexit when watching the film, I think that says a lot about you and us as audience members that everything’s now in the context of this thing that has been uncovered. It’s boiled to the surface, something that was there for the last generation since the deindustrialisation of the UK, the disenfranchisement of the working classes and the lack of representation that they’ve had.

Daniel: I thought the film was quite bleak, there wasn’t a happy ending for Martin and by the time we got to the end I thought any resolution felt like a temporary reprieve rather than a long term solution. He seemed rather powerless, he’s just one man in this wider changing society. How do you see the future for him and the community?

Mark: I think it’s interesting that you use the expression “temporary reprieve” because I think that’s absolutely right. Somebody like Martin lives moment to moment, fishing communities live moment to moment. In terms of the inherent danger of the job they live moment to moment, but also in terms of what money they make, what’s going to be in the net, in the pot, it’s very unpredictable. I think there is a moment to moment life and a temporary reprieve is as good as people get. You have moments of despair that pass, tragedy that will eventually pass, and moments of reprieve and joy that are transient. I think that resonates with audiences because that’s the way people seem to be living at the moment.

All he’s asking for is to be able to make a living in the way that he wants to and his people have traditionally done. So I think the end for me is maybe more hopeful than you see it, he’s going out fishing with his brother again. The boat that he wanted turned back to commercial fishing appears to be turned back to commercial fishing. The hope for me in the story for the community is the fact Wenna is on the boat, the speaker of truth within the community, and also very key that she’s female. That character is going fishing and there’s another generation that’s there.

Whether it lasts, whether they can make a living out of fishing out of that harbour, whether they’ll be completely maligned, whether Wenna will keep an interest in doing that, whether the brothers keep going amidst all the acrimony and grief. You don’t know, but for me there’s a glimmer of hope, and for me that’s the magic of film, whilst also keeping it ambiguous as well.

Martin (Edward Rowe) in Bait Mark Jenkin shooting Bait

Daniel: One thing that is immediately apparent is the style of the film. As soon as I saw the trailer I knew I had to watch this film. Watching it, there’s a lack of intricate mise-en-scène if you don’t mind me saying, and instead a focus on realism with close-ups of people and objects. This is mixed with formal elements through editing, with foreshadowing, cutting across different scenes. One of my favourite scenes is the lobster pot confrontation which felt more avant-garde, closer to Sergei Eisenstein or Maya Deren’s work. Who are your stylistic influences and how did you make the stylistic choices for your film?

Mark: Most of my stylistic choices are determined by the limitations of the equipment. So my starting point normally is what equipment do I want to I use? It takes a long time to make a film so I want to do it in a way that I’m excited about. So shooting on film, shooting on a clockwork camera, shooting on a very manual camera, shooting with a tiny amount of equipment so I can be across all of it. I have a real strong talented team of key collaborators but I do sort of stick my nose into every area of the filmmaking because I have a childlike excitement about every element of filmmaking.

I keep the equipment simple which means the filmmaking formally becomes very simple, so the close-ups which I love come out of budget restrictions in a lot of ways. I can’t create these huge wide-shot tableaus full of production design and mise-en-scène, I need to stick the camera in close to hide everything anachronistic that’s going around in the scene that I can’t get rid of or alter, because we’re working on such slender means. So quite often the aesthetic and the style will be dictated by the limitations, which I love and that leads to a simplicity within the shooting of the film.

When it comes to the editing it's the same thing, because of the way that I shoot I don’t shoot any coverage, I don’t shoot wide-shots and then go in for mid-shots and close-ups and reverses, I just shoot the shots that I see in the film when I’m imagining the film before it’s made, during the writing process. So when it comes to the edit I find those gaps, there’s always gaps because I don’t have things to cover me, so that’s when I get creative with the editing. So again it comes out of a limitation but when it comes to shooting it's all about simplifying, when it comes to editing it becomes a more complex kind of tapestry or collagic effect because I have to grab stuff from here, there and everywhere to make up the bigger picture.

The scene that you’re talking about with the lobster pot was very carefully written, I knew it was going to cross cut between the three scenes and I knew it wasn’t going to rely on dialogue but I didn’t know the exact specifics of what was going to be in that scene. What I allowed myself to do was have two rolls of film for each of those scenes and when I shot the two rolls of film that was it and then I knew I could make it in the edit afterwards. So that wasn’t intricately written in the script but there was certainly an understanding in the script that it would be a very intricate sequence that would rely on what was captured on the day.

I really loved the limitations and setting myself up to have to create something new in the edit by not quite getting enough in the shoot. It’s kind of a controlling how much is going to be unknown, but definitely a lot is unknown until the edit happens. The example I talk about a lot is the shot when Wenna gets arrested after throwing the pool ball at the range rover and then headbutts Tim. Before any of that happens there’s a close-up of her having handcuffs put on her, that was supposed to be, in my head and in the script, a shot that introduces the idea that she will be arrested after committing the crime, but actually in the edit I really loved just going straight to the wide shot of the police car, it was more brutal and realist at that point.

But then I had this handcuffs close-up that I had taken the time to shoot, the crew had lit it all, I had hand-processed the negative and had this piece of film that I had spent a lot of time on, if it was anything other than film I probably wouldn’t have thought about it but because I had this strip of film I thought how could I use this shot somewhere else and actually just dropped it in the middle of that sequence in the build up to her throwing the pool ball. The reason I put it in there was because I didn’t have enough footage, enough variation of shots to make the throwing of the pool ball sequence work, I dropped the handcuffs shot into the sequence and it suddenly meant something else, it became a metaphor of how her hands were tied and how her position within the community was possibly predetermined because of who her parents were or something like that.

I think then you get into Eisenstein and the Soviet montage theory where suddenly you have a third meaning where you take one shot that means something, another that means something else, and you combine them and get something else, this metaphor. That was stumbled upon accidentally in that case but it was certainly a situation I liked to setup to find those moments of a new third meaning.

Mark Jenkin with his Bolex Camera Mark Jenkin operating his camera to film Bait

Daniel: I wanted to talk about movies more in general, recently there has been a lot of controversy with filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola criticising superhero films. Without trying to drag you into that debate, it was a pleasure to get the chance to see this unique, handcrafted film at my local cinema. I’ve also recently watched The Souvenir from Joanna Hogg, online thanks to MUBI, which is a great website. So that’s two great British films that I’ve seen this year that I’ve massively enjoyed. So for all these kind of big budget superhero films that are coming out there are these personal, intimate, handcrafted films being made.

Mark: The Souvenir, I absolutely loved that film. I think what’s interesting with The Souvenir is that films like that are being made all the time. I’m not saying they’re all as good as The Souvenir but there are those personal story films being made but they’re not being distributed or seen as much. Places like MUBI are really useful for getting some of those films out, but it’s really a drop in the ocean. What excites me most about the success of something like The Souvenir, or to an extent, Bait, is not that the films are being made but that there’s an eagerness by audiences to not only see them, but see them in movie theatres. That’s really exciting.

I’ve always felt audiences have wanted to be challenged and want things that are an alternative to the mainstream, but I suppose until I saw proof of it there was always a bit of doubt in my mind. Now I’m just thinking about the figures that these films have done, these very small budget films and what they’ve taken at the box office. We had quite a limited release on Bait, it was quite an anomaly, we opened on 24 screens and went up to 50, normally that would go the other way. It is incredible to think how many people have been to see it on so few screens.

Daniel: One of the things Scorsese talked about in his New York Times article was about what people wanted to see, how he doesn’t accept that people just want to see superhero films and there’s a bit of a chicken and the egg situation there.

Mark: I think there is a certain amount of responsibility to challenge the audience, and I think filmmakers do constantly challenge the audience. Whether other people within the industry do, whether they can afford to take risks and try to challenge the audience I don’t know, certainly the BFI with Bait, I couldn’t fault them, they took a big risk.

Daniel: Did you envision the distribution you got, the success?

Mark: I think on one level, yes, because you have to otherwise you wouldn’t get out of bed to do the work everyday, but it’s so much out of the filmmaker’s control that there’s always doubt over whether anyone will ever see it. A slight misstep on the part of the distributor and the release can be totally blown. Everything blew up for us after the Berlinale (film festival) in February when we got an amazing review from Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian, which got the ball rolling. If he hadn’t had seen it, then…

Daniel: You never know.

Mark: Yeah, there’s just so much down to chance. So yes, I always believe there’s an audience for my work, I have to else I wouldn’t make it but there’s always a doubt that it might not happen because everything’s so out of your control. It’s very easy for me now, having had the success of Bait, to say that the good work will get out there but it doesn’t, I know plenty of films that I absolutely loved that are just never seen.

Daniel: Now that you’ve had this success with Bait, do you have plans for a next film?

Mark: We’re shooting a new one in the spring, late spring, which is again quite a small film in terms of the resources, very much like Bait. It’s a genre film, a horror film set in Cornwall, on an imagery island off the coast Cornwall in 1973 but it will be shot in the same way, handmade and shot with a Bolex, post-synced, but it will be colour this time.

Other than that I’m developing a couple of other films with some other co-producers that might be slightly bigger endeavours with longer gestation periods. I’m very keen to just keep working, I’m making short films all the time, I’ve made a twenty minute short since Bait and I’m also working on a triptych of short super-8 films. So I’m always working and just using the momentum of Bait to get another low budget feature done, that’s my priority at the moment.

Daniel: What would your advice be to young filmmakers looking to start or further their careers?

Mark: Just follow your gut in terms of what you want to do. It takes a lot of work to get a film made so you’ve got to start a project that you’re so enthusiastic about, committed to doing and able to do with your resources. Never second guess what you think an audience is going to want, there’s far too much of that in this industry and that's why we get such watered down, produced-by-committee films that are attempting to sort of satisfy fashion and trends, what’s popular at the moment.

It’s all nonsense, nobody really knows anything as they say, so just do what you want to do and make sure you’re making something that when you go to bed on a Sunday night, you’re excited to wake up on the Monday morning to get working on it.

You can find more information about Bait, including cinema showtimes at the BFI website.

Bait will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray by the BFI on 20th January 2020.

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Written by Daniel Metcalf

Daniel Metcalf