I recently interviewed Mark Jenkin for my column in The Idler magazine. He’s a British film-maker who has adopted very traditional techniques for his latest films. This is the full version of my fascinating conversation with him.
Mark Jenkin is a Cornish film-maker. He has been widely praised for his recent films Bait (2019) and Enys Men (2022). An enthusiastic early adopter of digital movie cameras, an enforced period of rest and reflection after surgery led him to rethink his approach completely. He rediscovered his passion for making films by going back to techniques dating from the earliest days of cinema. His latest films were shot on a hand-cranked 16mm film camera, and he uses a very hands-on, 100% analogue approach to editing and post-production.
Mark’s work has a very strong sense of place, with Bait examining the tensions that develop in a Cornish fishing village when wealthy incomers buy property. Enys Men is a folk horror film set on a remote island in the 1970s, drawing strongly on Cornish folklore and the heritage of the region.
I enjoyed an hour of fascinating conversation with Mark, and it was really interesting to hear how his slow tech approach had come about, and shaped his work.
Lee Osborne: How did you start making films, and how has your career evolved?
Mark Jenkin: When I was about 17, I started making little short films on Super 8. I was studying A-level photography, and I was doing photographic narrative stories using stills. My photography lecturer said that he thought I was trying to reinvent moving image, and that I might be better off with a movie camera, and he recommended that I should get a Super 8 camera, because this was the early 90s, so there were video cameras around, but they weren’t thought of as a serious endeavour at that point, because they were like these huge VHS cameras. So he recommended a cine camera, and obviously he was talking from the perspective of photography as well, so obviously he was going to push me that way, so I bought a cine camera and I started doing little short Super 8 films on Kodachrome 40, you know, I sent the films off, edit it all in-camera, send the films off, and then get the camera film back, the same piece of film developed as a positive that I could then put on the projector, and then I’d make soundtracks on an audio cassette, and then I would play them off the projector, and off the cassette, press play at the same time and they would almost, but not quite, syncronise. It wasn’t that I was obsessed with Super 8 or anything at that point, just that was the format I was using, and it was quite difficult in a lot of ways, and quite expensive, as a teenager and that sort of stuff, but it was just what I fell into. As I progressed, then started using digital video, when I got to university and studied production, we were using Hi-8 video and then the mini DV camera came out towards the end of my time at university in about 98, 99, then got really into using Mini DV video, which was the format I really loved, ‘cos it was cheap, and it looked great, I didn’t realise how great it looked at the time, but now I look back on it I realise how great it looked, and then I just sort of progressed with my film-making, keeping up with technology really, and just Mini DV, and then started shooting on a DSLR and other high definition video cameras, and I made a film in about 2010, which I really…it was a film I quite liked, but I didn’t enjoy the process of making the film and specifically the post-producing the film, and I fell out of love with, or realised I’d fallen out of love with film-making. I was kinda making films off my own back, but I was doing a lot of teaching, and that was really my living, doing film making in my spare time, but had loads of projects in development with various production companies and just felt, I’m just not into this, it’s just…bullshit, you know, but what made me realise was that I had to stop, I had a minor operation which meant I had to lay down on the sofa for a few weeks to recover, and it gave me the chance just to sit…you know when you get ill and your head…when you’re forced to stop, you know, you stop and think about what you’re doing, kind of prioritising what you want to do when you’re able to do it, and I decided when I’m back on my feet I’m going to make a film I’m really interested in, and I thought actually the form is really key, so I kind of went back in my head to when I first fell in love with making films, and I was when I picked up my Super 8 cine camera for the first time, and I thought, well, I’m gonna start again, I’m just gonna pick up a Super 8 camera, so I bought a new one, a new old one, on eBay still probably under some of the effects of the anaesthetic, so I probably spent an unnecessarily large amount of money on a Super 8 camera, and I started shooting Super 8 again. It just…I just fell back in love with film-making, making these little short films that I would never really show anybody, they were just for me, but then, showing them to people, there were a couple of producers I’d been chatting to and I put a little clip on Twitter, and a producer got in touch and said “What the hell is this?”, and I said “just a clip from a short film I’m making”, and she asked if she could see the rest of it, and I sent it to her, and she watched it, and was like “this is great”, so I put that film into some festivals, and it got screened all around the world, and I did another one, and then another one, and after a while I started thinking all of these big feature films I’ve got in development have been in development for ages, that I’ve lost interest in, why don’t I re-conceptualise those projects to be made with film in the hand-made way that I’m working? So I had a film called “Shooting the String” which was a digital video found-footage film that was shot in a Cornish fishing community, and I thought what if I rewrite that to be shot as a very formal, formally experimental hand-processed 16mm black and white film, and that’s what I did, and that’s what became “Bait”. From a time when I had lots of projects in development and I couldn’t get a meeting with anybody in the industry or get any interest, we kinda went away, me and the two producers I was working with at the time, they were very supportive of the idea, we went away and just raised a bit of money privately, and made the film in this kind of crazy way, and it really broke out and broke through and was that sort of British independent breakout film of 2019, and you know, that’s how I got there really.
LO: It’s interesting you mention that Super 8 rekindled your love of film-making – I’ve shot some myself, and really enjoyed it. I also shoot quite a lot of film still photography, and I can relate to how it makes you approach things differently. It sort of answers my next question, about whether there was a moment when you rejected digital, but it sounds like perhaps it was a more subtle process than that?
MJ: I think there was a moment, and it was after I had that operation, and I was laid on the sofa, and what I did was watch Mark Cousins’ 15-hour documentary “The History of Film”, which I had on DVD, and it was 15 hours long, so I’d never watched it, and I wanted to watch it all in one go, and ordinary life doesn’t offer you that opportunity, certainly pre-pandemic, the mindset of thinking “I’m gonna take 15 hours to watch something…”, you just, life just keeps moving, but I was incapacitated, I thought “I’m gonna watch this” – actually I watched it two or three times. The thing that really struck me was how enthusiastic he was about film, just his narration of this documentary, I was like “this is incredible, this is how I used to feel about film”, and I think I did have that lightbulb moment, I didn’t realise I’d fallen out of love with film until that moment, I thought “this has become a slog, this has become development hell”, all these projects waiting for people to give us permission to do them, and actually when I was a kid, nobody was…I wasn’t waiting for permission, I was just making them, because there was no audience waiting, I didn’t even show them to anyone other than my mum and a few friends, so I think there was that moment where I thought, “right, what is it that’s happened?”, and I was able to think it IS digital cameras, and digital film-making, that I’d become detached from, and that’s not a criticism of the format or anything, it’s more an acknowledgement that my brain doesn’t work in that way, that I don’t want a digital camera to be making all of these intelligent decisions for me, I wanna be in complete control of everything, and I don’t want a little camera to be doing all of these processes for me, I wanna be doing all of those things. I think there definitely was that moment when I kind of rejected that, and I thought, “I’ve got no film career, nobody’s waiting for my next film, why am I working in a way that doesn’t excite me?” It was at that point I was effectively a university lecturer, that’s how I was earning my money, telling anecdotes of when I used to make films, and not making any myself, because I’d drifted away, but I didn’t realise I’d drifted away.
LO: When you started shooting with 16mm, did you have to learn any new skills, or were they skills you already had?
MJ: Well, when I picked up the Super 8 camera again, it was at a period of time where all the labs had closed, or were closing, and it looked like Kodak were gonna disappear, so I thought, “right, if I’m gonna shoot film, I need to do it now”, because I might not get another chance to do it, this might be my final hurrah as a film-maker, making something on film, and then that would be it. Because there was so much uncertainty with the labs, I wondered how difficult it would be to process my own film. I could get hold of the film, and that would be my main cost, could I then save hassle and save money by developing my own film? I was shooting black and white, and I just thought I’d always processed my own still photographs, Tri-X or HP5 or whatever, so I thought actually, the emulsion on a piece of Super 8 film is the same as the emulsion on a piece of still film, it’s not conscious, it doesn’t know that it’s one thing or the other! So, if I use the same process, I could process Super 8 film, which was just mind-blowing to me, because you always sent it to Germany or Switzerland, or wherever Kodachrome used to go, and it would come back and it would be like Christmas day, but you didn’t really know where it had been or what had happened to it for it to come back. So, demystifying that…I did it in the bathroom to start with, in a bucket of developer and a bucket of fix, and no safelight, so in complete darkness in the bathroom, I would just dunk 50 feet of film in a bucket of developer, and when I thought it was ready to get out, put it straight in the fix, and I had no way of timing it, because I was so worried about light, I thought I can’t even take a watch in there, I was so green to the whole thing. With stills I had it in a tank and you knew it was light-proof, but with the buckets, I was just counting and guessing and the first roll I did came out! It was all scratched and stuff because it was in a bucket like a ball of spaghetti, but I liked that, because I was coming from the perfect world of digital, so seeing all these scratches, dust and imperfections was great. Also the fact I didn’t time it accurately, but the image still came out, I thought there’s a huge latitude here you don’t get with digital. Digital is ones and zeros, and they’re either there or they’re not. With film, you can do it in a kind of half-arsed way and it’ll still come out. In some ways I was learning new skills, but I was reapplying old skills. I remember being on a photography forum trying to work out the developing mixture and timings and temperature and stuff, asking questions, and someone would give me an answer on the forum, then I’d ask another question, “if it’s one degree hotter than it should be, how many minutes should I take off the developing time?”, all of these conversations, I wouldn’t let it go, then one guy on the forum just said “Just stick the film in the developer, it’s not fucking rocket science!” That’s what I say to people now – just do it! It’s a format that’s been around since the dawn of film, the form was invented before the language, so it’s incredibly robust, incredibly forgiving. The only time something hasn’t come out has been when there’s a fault with the camera. The process of sticking some film with a latent image into some chemicals and an image coming out is kind of, touch wood, almost foolproof, so having said that, I had to learn skills to use the 16mm camera, but the Bolex camera that I use is actually so simple, and it’s the same as photography, you’ve got three variables, the sensitivity of the film stock, you’ve got the shutter speed, and you’ve got the aperture, and that’s all you’re working with, so it’s really so simple. I think it’s more a mindset where you’ve gotta trust that you’re not gonna see an image just after you’ve shot it, you can’t check it, so you have to trust it’s on there, and I think the fact that you don’t see it means that you have to be more rigorous when you’re setting it up, measure twice, cut once, sort of, theory needs to be applied – check your light meter readings, check you’ve put the film in the camera, check the shutter speed’s correct…all of that kind of stuff. The first film I shot with the Bolex 16mm was a 45-minute short called “Bronco’s House” which was a dry run for “Bait” in the end. That was my film school, really, I learned everything I needed to know shooting that film, even down to the fact I’d never hand-processed 16mm when we shot “Bronco’s House”, I shot about 40 rolls of film, I thought “well, I’m gonna shoot it and then I’ll work out how to process it”, I had all the kit but I hadn’t looked into it, it was a different kind of tank, a rewind tank rather than a spiral tank, so it was lots of research and time, but halfway through the shoot I noticed a little screw on the camera body had come out, and there was a hole, just going in, and I don’t know when that screw had come out, but light had been leaking into the camera, for however long, so I just thought, one night, we’d shot all day and I was going to have to check, and process a roll of film to see if it’s all fucked. So I wrapped the shoot, went to the studio, and overnight processed a roll of film, not knowing really how to do it, doing something like that in the middle of the shoot is the worst time to do it, when you’re sleep deprived and slightly mad, and should be planning for the next day, but I did it, and it came out, so despite the hole in the camera, and despite the fact I’d never processed 16mm with that setup before, it all came out, so it was a real baptism of fire shooting that film.
LO: Interesting you mention talking about developing film yourself. Am I right in thinking you can’t process colour, or is it more complicated to do yourself? I wondered if you’d developed the film for Enys Men or not.
MJ: I do process colour myself, but for Enys Men it was too much footage. I process colour Super 8 quite a bit, colour reversal is quite an easy process, colour neg I’ve done Super 18 and 16mm, because it’s much more temperature dependent, it’s just harder in my studio to be able to maintain that. Black and white I would say is very easy to process to a negative, anything black and white to a positive is trickier, because it’s just nastier chemicals, then colour is just trickier because of the temperatures you have to work with. And also I think with Enys Men, we were working with Film4, we were working with public money, so there’s certain assurances you have to make, for insurance and things like that, so Enys Men was lab processed but we had to send off film twice a week, so I think it was to do with our insurance being valid and things like that. I wouldn’t want to put myself through processing that much colour footage.
LO: You mentioned the incident with the screw falling out of your camera, and I’ve had a few disasters when using old equipment that have led me to lose work. Have you ever lost significant amounts of work yourself, and had to shoot things again?
MJ: Touch wood no. There were two incidents on Enys Men, one where the film jammed in the camera, when I was shooting close-ups of Mary round the stone, which was quite technical, as in they were close ups I could use anywhere in the film, so I had a list of different shots I wanted of Mary I might use in the edit. Quite often you do that, you think “oh, I’ve done four shots, that’ll be enough in the edit” and then you get into the edit and think “oh, I actually needed eight shots”, now the camera jammed, or I thought the camera jammed shooting those shots, so I shot them all again, but actually when we got them back from the lab the camera hadn’t jammed, and I shot them twice, but what actually happened was I needed twice the shots I thought I needed, so my paranoia and the odd sound the camera made actually did me a massive favour and avoided a huge problem that would’ve occurred in the edit. The one sequence we did reshoot was the closeups of Mary’s hand writing in the book, that’s a hand double because I wanted a very specific style of handwriting, so we didn’t shoot them as part of the shoot, because they were very technical shots, to have the whole creative team stood around while we’re shooting these shots, a hand writing in a book, so we did those after the shoot, and we did them in the attic here in the house, and in very controlled circumstances, without the chaos and confusion of the film shoot, with a very small crew, we did them over one day in the attic, very relaxed, listening to music, drinking cups of tea, doing this writing, and I underexposed the whole lot! So they came back, and I tried to use them in the film, but they stuck out because they were incredibly grainy and lo-fi looking, so I said, “right, we’re gonna have to do it again”, and it wasn’t a big problem, because as I said, it was an enjoyable day, it was in very controlled circumstances, and I used a different light metering system where we metered it constantly and they came out brilliantly, and actually they’re the best exposed shots in the film, and they should’ve been all along, there was no excuse for messing it up, upstairs in controlled circumstances, but I think that’s an example of when you think everything’s going wrong on the shoot, and you don’t know, everything’s a bit mad, and everyone’s sleep-deprived and it’s just chaos, and you think, “oh my god, is anything we’re doing any good?” and normally that’s the time you do your best work. When you’re most relaxed, it’s probably when you’re making mistakes, and you haven’t got enough adrenaline forcing through your body, or you’re not taking enough risks, so it was kind of predictable in the end that the bit I would fuck up would be the bit when I was most relaxed. But that was the only time, that was entirely human error. Touch wood, there hasn’t been anything where there’s been anything I’ve had to reshoot. There were a few bits in Bait where the camera jammed a little bit and got sort of very jittery images at times, what I tended to do was take those shots and save them and use them as flashbacks to things we’d already seen, so as long as there’s an image there, I always sort of try and think about how I can use that somehow.
LO: Do you think there ever might come a time in the future when the way that you’re working ceases to be viable?
MJ: Yeah, possibly. As long as people are making film, and there’s chemicals to process film, and there’s ways of scanning film, then I think we’ll be OK. The big barrier is cost. But at the moment, I’m just in a very lucky position where I’m getting my work financed, and people are financing my work knowing what types of film I make, so it’s not like they’re financing a film, and they have a meeting and then I say “by the way, I shoot on film”, I seem to be getting support for my work because of the way I make films, rather than people being oblivious to it. So at the moment, I’m in a very lucky position where the cost of the film stock and the way I work isn’t an obstacle. Also I don’t go out and film hundreds of thousands of feet of film, we have a shooting ratio of about three to one, so actually the cost of the stock and the processing and the scanning isn’t the big part of the budget, really. It’s still craft services, art department and wages and that kind of stuff, that will dwarf the actual way that I’m making the film. But also it feels to me that there’s a real resurgence in film. I was at the BFI a couple of weeks ago for their inaugural Film on Film festival, where they just screened films off film, and some of these were very old prints, like old nitrate prints, but a lot of them were brand-new prints that they’d just had made through their scheme to have new prints of films made, and with international partners as well. It was amazing seeing a brand-new print of Malcolm X, alongside a 35mm print of Jaws, an original release print of Jaws, and all those screenings were sold out – it was really difficult to get tickets. And part of that is because 35mm screenings are so rare, but they’re becoming less rare. Sight and Sound magazine just did an article about the network of 35mm theatres in the UK, and there’s still a huge amount that can show 35mm, and I think there’s still an appetite for it, but amongst a cineaste audience. I hope it doesn’t ultimately become elitist, but I think arthouse or independent cinema will increasingly become like that, but there does seem to be a greater number working with film. The work Kodak have been doing in terms of engaging with filmmakers has been really positive, so I think within my career span, I think it’ll be OK. But I’ve got a fifteen-year-old stepson who’s now interested in film. He wants to get a 35mm stills camera, he’s also looking at buying a Mini DV camera on eBay, so there’s this kind of retro thing going on, which isn’t based on nostalgia, I don’t think, because he didn’t live through any of that in the first place, you can’t be nostalgic for something…you can romanticise them, but it’s not like what I get accused of sometimes, “you’re just nostalgic for this kinda stuff!” – you could argue I am, but with that generation, it’s really interesting they wanna go back to something that’s physical, because they’ve grown up in a digital world, whereas our generation, we lived in an analogue world, and the promise of the digital world was so exciting, and we were really eager to engage with it. I think people who have just grown up in the digital world, and that’s the normal thing, looking for something that’s real, it’s not a rejection of digital for them, because they still live in the digital world and most of their life is digital, but as tactile analogue animals, looking for something that is real, they might be going out to a football pitch and playing football in real life rather than just playing FIFA, it might be going out and filming something, or taking photographs on a stills camera rather than taking a billion photos on an iPhone that just go onto Instagram and then disappear. I hope with all that taken into consideration, I don’t think I will have to change the way I work. If I change the way I work it might be because I need a new challenge, I might regress to hand-drawn cel animation or something! Or go back to shooting Mini DV, or something like that. At the moment, I’m still very excited every day by the prospect of shooting on film. And also there’s more and more film stocks, more stocks to be discovered, combined with new ways of scanning and new ways of processing, there’s a whole big eco movement in terms of film processing as well, which is all really exciting, within the art world predominantly but crossing over into commercial film-making as well. I’m excited for the future, and on a commercial level you just look at the press release Kodak put out during Cannes, and the amount of films that are originated on film, that screened at Cannes this year, and it’s like twice the number that were there last year, and last year when we were there I thought it was pretty good, the amount of films that were shot on film, so I think the hype around digital, the honeymoon period, is over, and things are settling down into a balance, where it will be predominantly digital, but importantly, there’s still this choice to be made to go the other way if film-makers want to do that.
LO: It’s interesting that your career has coincided with the rise of digital. I remember seeing 28 Days Later when it was released in 2002, which was one of the first films with a lot of hand-held digital footage in it, where the chaotic street scenes were shot very quickly very early in the morning. It seems there’s a place for that, which is something that would be much harder to do with your way of working. It’s encouraging to hear things are on a stable footing for the future.
MJ: To be honest, I could have done that 28 Days Later sequence because of the specific way I work, because I work with a small camera and I don’t record any location sound, and I shoot very little footage. I could have gone in and out in half an hour. I think the big thing with that example is art department, and that’s kinda the same for whatever you’re shooting. I don’t imagine somebody who’s got the aesthetics of high-end 35mm, like Christopher Nolan, I don’t think would be interested in shooting a sequence like that, but I think the way I shoot, I’m so light-touch in terms of locations, and my team are light-touch, we could go in and do that. I understand your point, I think there’s other examples where digital filmmaking makes things possible, and the way I work isn’t possible, but saying that I could have done that, sounds really arrogant, doesn’t it? “Oh, I could have done that!” I think if you put Danny Boyle, if you’d given him a bunch of Super 8 cameras, rather than Mini DV cameras, it would have been exactly the same result. It’s an art department issue, that one.
LO: Your work has a distinctive style. Bait and Enys Men feature a lot of visual story-telling, and are both very light on dialogue. How much of that is driven by the limitations of the way you shoot, and how much of that is an artistic choice?
MJ: I think they’ve developed together, really. I’ve become very aware of things that work very well on film, that I can do, and a lot of things I just can’t do, and that now informs my writing. So my new film, which is a much bigger budget film that I’m working on at the moment, was written during the pandemic, during the lockdown, when I couldn’t really be sure the film would ever get made, because the cinemas were closed. So I had a freedom to write it, thinking “well, this is never going to get made”, because the world is over as we know it! It was great to open up my brain and allow me the freedom to go wild. Then the cinemas opened up again, then we made Enys Men, then it became apparent that films would carry on being made, and the cinemas were open, and the audience were coming back, pretty much. Now I’m rewriting it, based on how I’m actually going to make it, so I’m going through putting a line through stuff, saying “I cannot do that!” Also, when you cut something out, because you can’t do it because of the way you work, you can’t just leave a hole in the script, it has to be replaced by something. What was that scene doing, how can I now write a new scene that does the same thing, but in the way that I work? So it becomes quite organic, and what I think is important for me with film, is that form is as important as content, which is like a cardinal sin to say that, because people say, “it’s just style over content”, which is sometimes a criticism I get, but ignoring the form of a film is so irritating to me, when people say “film’s about storytelling”, well, it is about storytelling, but story isn’t the only thing, because if it’s the only thing, then just tell it as a story, and don’t go to the hassle of fucking wasting so much money making a film! Get your audience round the fireside and tell them the story! If you’re gonna make a film, embrace the format, and so much film that I find so tedious is just like filmed theatre. That’s not a criticism of theatre, but it’s just, get on the actors together, and the actors kind of perform the scene, and we watch them perform the scene, in a rehearsal, and then you decide where to set the camera up, and that all happens at the same time, you set the camera when you set the actors, and don’t tell actors this, but actually the camera is the most important thing, because you can have the actors, and no camera, you won’t have a film, they’re performance will disappear into the air like it does in theatre, which is fantastic, but that isn’t film. The camera, the actors, you won’t see the majesty and magnificent work of the actors unless you’ve thought about what the camera is doing. By the camera I also mean the editing as well, so the form is in the writing. I don’t write scripts that ever mention the camera or ever mention the editing, in an overt way, but it’s all implied. So, yeah, I think as I’ve gone along, people have always commented “you always have a lot of close-ups of stuff”, big close-ups of faces and inanimate objects, and I think I’ve fallen into the habit of having big close-ups of faces because I operate the camera myself, and I wanna be the person that’s closest to the actor, being able to talk to the actor before the camera’s rolling, and I wanna be able to do that up until the camera rolls and just after the camera rolls, so if I’m away from the actor, shooting that in a mid-shot or even a medium close-up, there might be somebody else that’s closer to the actor than me, and I don’t want that, I wanna be the person that’s closest to them, if I’m the closest, and I’m operating the camera, as I get close, the camera has to come with me, and you end up with close ups, which has kind of become a stylistic trait of my work. Because I work with an Academy frame, because I don’t work widescreen, the human face is so suited to that frame, that I love those close-ups. The close-up on inanimate objects is another thing that people comment on, and I think there’s several reasons why that’s happened. One is that the way I shoot is that I shoot on hundred-foot lengths of film, and I always have a bit at either end of the roll that I don’t know whether it’s going to come out or not because it might have been light-fogged, but I don’t want to not film anything on those rolls, so quite often I’ll just grab a cutaway of an inanimate object, at the end of the roll, so when I get in the edit, I’ve got all of these cutaways, and I think well, if I’ve got all of these cutaways, if I insert them into this scene, do they add meaning? Do they create something? Also, an inanimate object shot on film is alive, because the grain is moving, so you can get away with shooting an inanimate object and it seems like it’s alive. Plus, if there has been a light leak, you get the orange and red fogging on the film, which then brings these inanimate objects to life as well. Another reason I end up shooting this stuff is because quite often if I’m on the set, if I need a minute to myself to think, because quite often I’m asking or answering lots of questions with all my collaborators, I kinda just stand in silence somewhere and have a think, or wander off set, and quite often I’ll just go and shoot an inanimate object, and spend five minutes setting it up and filming it, so that I can have a moment to myself and get my thoughts together. So there’s lots of reasons why I ended up like that. Some of it’s by design, and some of it’s by accident. Somebody said to me, “it must have been really complicated making a film that’s not only set in 1973, but looks like it’s been made in 1973”, but apart from the art department I work with two production designers, who are just real magicians with the resources that we give them. They create these amazing worlds for me in terms of design. Quite often they’ll populate the set with props that I’ll just get fascinated with, and props that are supposed to be in the background are then very foregrounded. But the main thing that makes the film look like it would have been shot in that period, is just that I’m using equipment that somebody making a film in that time would have used, so I don’t have to think about it. I use lenses that are from the seventies and earlier, the film stock, although the grain has got finer, the Kodak Vision 3 film stock still looks like a timeless film stock. I’m using a manual zoom lens, which means you can’t do smooth zooms and all of this kind of thing, so once I’ve made the decision to use that equipment I don’t have to think about what the film’s gonna look like any more. It will just look like it looks within the limitations or the strengths or possibilities of that equipment.
LO: Enys Men’s bold colour palette certainly struck me – it really looked like a lot of the films I’ve seen that were shot back in 1973.
MJ: Well, they were very unsubtle, films from that era, in a good way, they celebrated the form, so if they were colour, there was a lot of colour, and I really wanted to do that. I didn’t want there to be any subtlety in the form, I wanted crash zooms and jump cuts and bright colour, and also the soundtrack, for that to be no subtlety at all, celebrating the form in all its’ splendour, which I think films used to do, and now there’s a tendency, and these things are fashion really, but there’s a tendency to be a lot more muted, and also a lot of digital film production, you don’t really necessarily commit to a look, until post production, and I think that’s always a bad time to be committing to anything. Just commit to it in the moment, and there’s no way back, you just have to go for it. I really liked that. When I speak about digital, my opinions are quite ill-informed, so don’t take anything I’m saying about digital as truth! As a viewer, that’s what I tend to see. DCP projection as well sort of waters everything down again, so the best way to see Enys Men is to see the 35mm print, because this is how we saw it, when we were doing the colour retiming, whereas if you see a DCP, the DCP is the pastel version of the film, and if you’ve already shot a film with quite a muted colour palette, then you’re in quite a flat zone by the time you see it on the DCP.
LO: What is being done to preserve the skills you use, and pass them on to others?
MJ: I don’t do the lecturing any more, so I’m a bit out of touch with that. I’m now a professor at the university, which means I don’t actually do any hands-on teaching any more. The university in the last ten years, I managed to get them to introduce film production onto an experimental film module, so we bought Super 8 cameras and some developing tanks and stuff. The students who chose to do an experimental film module in the second year would get to work with film, and it was a collaboration with the photography department as well, because we used their process room and that kind of stuff. Since then, the university’s got 8mm, 16mm and 35mm cameras, so students can now shoot on film for their final films, so they shoot 16mm, sometimes 35mm, graduation films. I think that’s incredible that that’s happened. One, that the university has facilitated that, and two, that the students have gone for it, and I don’t know which came first, whether that student desire to shoot on film came first, I guess they fed each other to a certain extent. So that’s exciting, and I know graduates, there’s a guy who shot his graduation film on 16mm about five years ago, who I met as an extra, one of the students who came along for the pub scenes in Bait, then he went on and shot his graduation film on 16mm, which was a homage to a Jacques Tati movie. These students then go on and work in the industry, and have that skillset, and quite often they’ll go into, you have students who want to write and direct, and they get a job to pay the bills and then they concentrate on get a project up and write and direct, but you have these students who go into camera departments, as trainees and stuff, and gradually work their way up, and they’ve got this experience of shooting on film, and it’s great to have people who can say “I’ve shot film, I can load”, all this kind of stuff. That’s amazing, because I think there was a generation who don’t have that, who were probably my generation, who went in and started doing production degrees when film had stopped, who don’t have any experience. Middle-aged people in the industry have got no experience of film, and now there’s a generation coming through who are in their early twenties, certainly from the School of Film and Television in Falmouth, who are in the industry who have got film experience, and also they’re not scared of film, and in fact they’re enthusiastic about it. So I hope those institutions that are shooting on film are creating these generations who have got this experience, so if a film shoot comes up, they can do it, they can crew these things. A lot of music videos and stuff are still shot on film, and they’re the things that turn over the most amount of workers, so I’m kinda hoping that it’s happening organically, and motivated by commercial reasons, which is always the thing which is gonna make it last the longest. Also I think the resurgence of film in general, I hope organically keeps all of these skills going. The danger is the cost, I tried to buy a roll of 35mm stills film the other day, like Kodak Gold colour neg, and like the price of it was insane. I don’t know whether it’s just the state of our economy, whether it’s Brexit, cost of living crisis, Putin, whatever people want to blame it on, the worry is whatever’s driving that price hike, whether those prices ever come down again, because people tend to use them as excuses to keep the prices up, but then film production has always been at the mercy of the price of silver, which has fluctuated in the past. I have quite a lot to do with Kodak now, and I was in LA at the beginning of April, and was with the Kodak motion picture heads, and had a couple of dinners with them. Enys Men was opening in the States, so they were taking me out and celebrating what I was doing, and they were very supportive, because Kodak came back from the brink, because of filmmakers, and some of that was Chris Nolan and Tarantino and Spielberg, lobbying hard for film to be kept as an option, but I think Kodak were also aware of this grassroots movement that was there, and artists that were using film, who were making films using a hundred feet, whereas the Hollywood directors would run off a hundred feet before action was even called. I think they do recognise that value, and are very supportive of people, because obviously it’s got to work commercially, because of the world we live in, but they’re film people, and they’re excited by it, so I’ve got a lot of optimism around their attitude.
LO: What advice would you give to someone thinking of picking up a film camera for the first time?
MJ: Well, I would give the advice that the guy on that forum gave me, “just do it, it’s not fucking rocket science!” It’s easy to say that, and it’s difficult to press the shutter when you’ve just spent fifty quid on a roll of film, and you know it’ll cost you another hundred quid before you can even watch it. I just say shooting film is the best thing to shoot, shooting 8mm and 16mm is the best, operating the camera yourself is the best way of doing it, hand-processing it if you can is the best way of doing it, and printing it back onto film to project it to an audience is the best way of doing it, but that’s the best way for me, and what filmmakers have got to find is what their best way of filmmaking is for them, the thing that excites them, and get to the stage I got to, laid up on the sofa at my mum’s house, after having that operation, actually the films I like making is Super 8 and projecting film, and from that moment I’ve been excited by film making ever since. The result of that is now, at least for the time being, my work is getting financed, the first film I did in that way won a Bafta, the film I’ve done just now has been picked up by Neon and distributed in America, I didn’t have that plan, I didn’t think “what can I do to win a Bafta and get American distribution?” – what I did was I identified what I loved doing, and made films in that way, because films take a lot of energy and dedication and concentration, and if you don’t start with 100% enthusiasm, you won’t get to the end. By the end, your enthusiasm might be down in the low 20s, but you started on 100, and that’s allowed you to get to the end of it. If you start and your enthusiasm is 50-50, by halfway through you’ll have run out of enthusiasm, so my advice is I don’t want to dictate you should shoot film, because for some people it’s not the right way to go, but if you are going to shoot film, just go for it, but just understand it’s a completely different way of working, and it takes planning, because you don’t want to be shooting loads of footage, you want to plan it in your head, and even if you’re just planning the unknowns, acknowledge what the unknowns are in your shoot before you go, it’s not like digital where you can just hoover up loads of images, then make the film in the edit. The beauty is you do all the editing really before you start shooting, which means when you’ve shot it the editing is a kind of joy and a creative exercise, rather than trawling through billions of minutes of digital footage. Just acknowledge it’s different, and that’s what I always think. They’re not better or worse than each other, they’re just different, and they can co-exist, we don’t have to wipe out analogue film because digital’s here, or we don’t have to rail against digital because you’re an analogue person, it’s the difference between a car and a saucepan! They’ve got nothing in common with each other, you can focus on the specifics of what each thing can do and what it can’t do. The right tool for the job.