We spoke to Mark Jenkin, director and filmmaker, after attending his film BAIT at this year’s Berlinale.
Elle Haywood: Having created both documentaries and short films – is your process different between the two or quite fluid?
Mark Jenkin: There’s always an element of documentary in the narrative stuff that I do, and there’s always an element of fiction in the documentary stuff – I like to blur the lines. In terms of the way I work, I like to do lots of things myself, like operate the camera, I edit and I process the negative myself and work on the score. I do use more crew in a narrative film, but it’s not really a dramatic shift – ultimately I like to keep filmmaking fairly simple.
EH: Was BAIT based on personal experiences?
MJ: Living in that community, you hear the stories second hand and you witness the stories. When you mix it all together that is more dramatic than real life is ever going to be, and you then reduce it down to a condensed space of time. Everything that happened in that film is pretty much based on real life, an amalgam of different things I’ve heard and witnessed. For example, the scene with the guy who is on holiday, who comes out in the morning and shouts at the fishermen that they shouldn’t be making any noise at 8 o’clock – that’s based on a real story, and in real life the guy didn’t even come out – he just yelled through the window.
In terms of working in different ways to earn money, I think the characters sort of represent the situation that places like coastal Cornwall are in. Where you can rant and rave and say, ‘you know what, newcomers are sending the prices of houses through the roof and there’s no place for locals to live’ but on the other hand, I know plenty of people whose wages are paid by those people who do move down. All of their income comes from wealthy people moving in. So it’s really not a black and white issue, and that’s what I’ve tried to show with the brothers. They are polar opposites in terms of their point of view at times, but there is a lot of overlap. It becomes very hard to articulate one’s frustration with it.
EH: You do manage to visualise this tension and frustration; we can feel the anger emitting from both sides.
MJ: Exactly, and what do you do with this helplessness? When you see this community having its guts torn out of it with nobody paying any attention to you. It’s a place being rebranded as something else, who is even looking at what gets lost? It’s like the gentrification of London. At least in Cornwall, a lot of the time the local community and the finishing community end up living on housing estates just out of the old village or up on the hill which is what I’ve alluded to in BAIT, the communities stay together as they don’t care geographically where they live, even going a mile in-land because that’s where their friends and family are, they’re together if slightly displaced.
EH: The film very much embodies the festival’s theme of “the private is political” because it looks at people’s livelihoods and their families. And the subtle reference to Brexit during the radio broadcast in the kitchen scene…
MJ: It’s funny because we never intended it to be so foretelling. It only came about because I said to Kate, one of the producers, ‘We just need a bit of something filling in, maybe we should have the radio on. They would probably have Radio 4 on, they’ll be remainers”. So Kate went into the room and read/wrote this feature just about current affairs. It just so happens it ends up being a state of the nation piece. Because it’s in a scene with not a lot of dialogue, it suddenly becomes more noticeable and becomes a ‘Brexit’ film. You then begin to notice subtler running details through the film.
EH: What’s your relationship with sound and dialogue in the film – it’s quite Foley-heavy and has very refined layering?
MJ: I tend to do a bit of Foley, while I’m doing the offline edit and as you can see there’s quite a lot of montage, sort of collage, style of editing so sometimes to get the rhythms of that I’ll put a few sound effects in because they’ll be cutting to audio cues. I lock the picture cut then give it to [trainee assistant] Dan and he’s always like ‘no, I need four weeks of Foley before we can do anything really creative with the mix’. So there’s a lot to do, and obviously all of the re-voicing as we don’t record any dialogue live. The whole shoot is silent; no sound is recorded at all.
I’ll do an edit first, some characters I’ll voice myself if I really need to hear their words. Other characters I’ll just edit based on lip-reading them which is funny because then you’ll just get a scene where there are three characters and one of them won’t be saying anything but then the other two characters will both be me, which then becomes really surreal.
EH: I would have assumed that some soundscaping would have been done but you would not have noticed at all, it’s all been masterfully dubbed and layered exceptionally well. But why specifically do you choose to have no location sound at all?
MJ: Lots of reasons; one is the camera is too noisy, it’s not a sync camera so the frame rate is all over the place sometimes depending on how hard I’m pressing the shutter on the 16mm. Also, I don’t particularly like having sound recorded on location just because of the logistical problems it brings with it. So waiting for planes to pass, or waiting for a drill to stop or attempting to find the person who owns the location and find out if it’s ok to switch the fridge off for half an hour and then forgetting to switch it back on – and all that kind of stuff.
But ultimately, I think it goes back to my love of being free with the camera. So the sort of idea or theory that is put about is the invention of sound came too early in the development of the art form. You had these great early silent films that were so free with the camera, you could visually do anything and then sound came in and suddenly it was all about the microphone and the visuals just served what was going onto the soundtrack. When working with a low budget, in the past I’ve found that with post-production sound you quite often are fixing problems, and I find that so dispiriting towards the end of the creative process – that you have a massive period of time where you are just trying to fix issues. I love to go in with a clean slate and go ‘what sound are we going to put on this’ and you don’t create problems, because every sound you put on there is perfect.
Sometimes I have these scenes which are just so complicated, people walking and talking, for example three people walking so you have three sets of footsteps and three sets of clothes rustling, three sets of dialogue and loads of things happening in the background. You just think, “I’m not going to do all of that. Let’s not sound design every single thing that is in vision, let’s just keep the key things”. Then you can add and remove bits at your leisure.
What I’ve learnt is that actually once you have done the physical performance, the performance is set. The words can then become quite unimportant, and it’s made me realise how unimportant dialogue really is in film. It’s about the visual prowess, and that’s not to negate the contribution of the actors. In the past, I’ve had an actor deliver a line and it hasn’t been right when I’ve filmed, and then thought, “Oh, I can tweak it with the voice in the studio later…” and you can’t.
EH: So in terms of shooting, how long was the project overall?
MJ: Filming was just four weeks, a straight four weeks. It was really hectic, especially the first two weeks in Charlestown in the harbour which we closed with the beach, but it was harder filming with the boat in the harbour. It is a harbour that dries out, and we knew that by mid-tide the boat had to be out, and if it wasn’t then the harbour would dry out and the boat would run aground. We had a few days when the sea just piled in on a south-easterly storm, and we had to cancel and rearrange. But it’s Cornwall so you’re an idiot if you moan about the weather because what were you expecting?!
The main consideration, especially when you’re there as a result of a lot of good-will from people, the most important thing is to not hack people off. Sometimes that means changing plans, but I love all that! If someone comes along with a limitation, it’s brilliant. If someone comes along with a limitation on the day, like the person over there is refusing to move their car, should we get it moved? You say no. They live here, we can work a way around it.
The cottage that overlooks the harbour, there is no cottage there as it’s actually further up the valley, and the interior of the cottage was filmed 40 miles away. The doorway was made by our amazing art department on a shoestring. But straight away in the viewer’s mind, they know where they are. Not only is it the same location, but it’s the same shot. These shots really help the audience’s visual repetition, and it’s ideal in terms of setting up a language that works with the resources you’ve got, rather than trying to conform it.
The harbour we used is where they filmed Poldark and those period dramas, so the inner harbour is the bit everyone uses with old walls and tall ships. So when people turn up to film there, they film every angle except the one that looks out towards the modern harbour – because you don’t want to see this. Whereas we were in the modern harbour filming every angle we could without seeing the long ships or tall ships – it’s a bit distracting!
EH: How does it feel to be at Berlinale, and competing in the Forum strand?
MJ: It’s amazing, really. In the build-up to the festival, I had so many people contacting me. Not just to do with the festival, but people who were wanting to make films in the same way would contact me, saying ‘will you watch my film’, ‘can you give me advice’, ‘what developer do you use’, ‘what camera do you use’ and so on. Which is really brilliant because it shows how much interest there is in film out there which is really exciting. Even the night before I came out here I was still emailing people and inviting people down to Cornwall to my studio. It’s the little things that help validate what you’re doing.
As my partner and I were getting ready in the hotel, I got a bit choked up. I said ‘I’m going to cry … but I’m really confused. I’m really happy … I think this is being overwhelmed’. This film I’ve been trying to get made for 20 years, that is finally out there. It’s dedicated to two really close friends, one of whom was the producer of the film who died very suddenly, and the other was my mentor who really inspired me to do this story. We had 650 people in the screening, and we’ve had a great response in general. Just thinking of those two people who aren’t here anymore and were such a massive part of it. I did it.