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“With Digital You Have to Spend a Lot of Money Before It Becomes Free”: Mark Jenkin on His Hand-Processed 16mm Bait

Isaac Woodvine in Bait (courtesy of BFI)

If you’ve heard much at all about Bait, the breakthrough feature of British filmmaker Mark Jenkin, it’s likely concerned the anachronistic means by which he’s constructed the experimental drama. Shot on a hand-cranked Bolex camera in black-and-white 16mm, then hand-processed by Jenkin himself with an assortment of unusual materials that lend scratchiness to the images, the film offsets potential accusations of gimmickry in making these aesthetic choices relevant to evoking something specific about where it’s set, an unnamed fishing village in the county of Cornwall in southwest England. As writer Ian Mantgani describes in his review for Sight & Sound, the film “feels pounded into existence by hand, or possibly belched up the angry sea.”

Bait looks and plays like something unearthed from the depths of the British Film Institute’s archives that just so happens to feature contemporary fashion and vehicles, with the odd reference to the news of the day in the UK—a brief radio excerpt in one scene, that has a newsreader discuss Britain’s attempted departure from the European Union, has inevitably seen the film discussed under a broad banner of so-called “Brexit cinema.”

The actual story concerns a gruff, resentful fisherman, Martin (Edward Rowe), coming into conflict with both his brother, Steven (Giles King), and the Londoners to whom the siblings have been forced to sell their late father’s harbor-facing home. The new owners stay there in the summer and rent part of the cottage out to other tourists, having redecorated the establishment in a way that profoundly insults Martin as both its former resident and as a local displeased with the prevalent attitudes of the annual influx of visitors to the seaside region during the year’s sunny months.

The film premiered at the Berlinale Forum and opens across the UK on 30 August, distributed by the BFI and screening from 35mm at select venues. Ahead of that release, Jenkin spoke in-depth to Filmmaker about the strict limitations he imposed upon himself, shooting on film and doing so for cheap, abstaining from using location sound, hand-processing, how the film plays overseas and why directors have a responsibility to experiment with the artform.

How are you finding the film’s reception from audiences that don’t have any connection to Cornwall, or any awareness of southwest England?

Jenkin: When I first started this idea for the film 20 years ago, I thought I was making a film about a very specific part of the world. Now I think the film I made is even more specific to that part of the world than I thought I was going to make, but the response has been incredible. I had a woman come to me after the premiere at Lincoln Center, a New Yorker, and she said, “You’ve made a film about my dad. He was a fisherman in Barbados all his life.” So, I think it’s the old cliché that the more specific you go about something, the more universal it becomes. Apart from all the surface gestures, we’re all pretty much the same underneath.

Filmmaker: How did you go about visualizing the locations you used?

Jenkin: There’s two things. One is the logistics of creating a town—the decision to not set it in one place and to not name that place. Cornwall isn’t named in the film. I’d done that before when I’d made a film, and not only did I piss people off when I was filming it, but when people saw it, they thought I was making a comment on the community and even specific individuals, so I knew I didn’t want to do that again. So, in Bait, the town is made up of about six different places that create a composite. So that’s nice. I don’t feel any responsibility to representing a specific place.

I worked with huge limitations that are imposed technically, but then creativity that comes as a result of those limitations—it’s not by design. There’s not a huge amount of wide shots in the film. It’s quite claustrophobic. There’s not a huge sense of geography to the place, like where the pub is in relation to the quay and where that housing estate is in relation to the harbor and all that kind of stuff. I like the idea of building up a big picture from fragments. That goes all the way through the work, from the way I write to the way I shoot and edit it together.

Filmmaker: In terms of imposing limitations on yourself, how far back in the project’s development was that decision made? Was that influenced by anything in terms of the films you’ve made before?

Jenkin: I made a film in 2007 called The Midnight Drives, which was really low budget. It was, creatively, really successful—I’m really proud of it, and it played a lot of festivals. What it did was get me an agent, get me links to certain producers and allow me to move up a little bit, for want of a better expression. I went into development with several projects, which are all still in development now, one of which was Bait but in a different incarnation. What happened was, I started not making films but talking about hypothetical films and hypothetical budgets and hypothetical audiences and hypothetical successes, and actually didn’t do anything—because when everything’s hypothetical, anything’s possible. I think I learned that I needed to work within restrictions.

In Bait, for example, we lost a lot of money not long before production and had to cut something from the script. We cut one of the boats, because the original idea of the film was that there were two boats. Taking out one of the boats created much more clarity in the story—there was much more of these two brothers at odds. Not only were they arguing and one had a slightly bigger boat than the other, now one of them didn’t have a boat at all while the other did. It became very clear these lines that were drawn. I wouldn’t have been forced into that if we hadn’t lost that money. So, quite perversely, I like moments like that when somebody says “You can’t do that,” because if you’re working on something big budgeted, you won’t have that comment. Working with film on a low budget, I’m constantly in that situation where I can only shoot one take and one safety. I work with a camera that doesn’t record sound, so we do ADR, which creates loads of possibilities in the sound design that aren’t there when you’re working with low budget location sound. I never have the footage that I need to make the film that I’ve written when I get to the edit, so then I have to create something else. Because I’m shooting the start and end of rolls of film that may or may not be fogged, I shoot random cutaways which help me out in the edit and create scenes and juxtapositions that were never in the writing and that I could never imagine from the start. I can only see them when I need to, at the end of the process. Total freedom in making a film would be a nightmare.

Filmmaker: Does your general process differ between your documentaries and your more fiction-based work?

Jenkin: A lot of my stuff gets labeled as experimental, some gets labeled as documentary, but I see it all as the same thing. There’s a great quote where Derek Jarman said, “I’m not an experimental filmmaker, I just make documentaries.” He made fiction as well, but he knew what he was saying when he said he makes documentaries—he just documented his own mind. The more documentary stuff that I do is often quite staged. If I’m working with people, I’ll observe an action that somebody is doing, then get them to recreate it for the camera. It’s totally fabricated and artificial, but I love the artifice of film.

When it comes to drama, I’ll often watch something play out naturally, then work out how I’m going to film it based on how it happens naturally. In Bait, an example would be a lot of the fishing process. Martin Ellis is an actor in the film but was also the unofficial fishing consultant. I would watch that process, and then film that in the fewest amount of shots, which is quite documentary-like.

Filmmaker: Since the initial idea apparently came 20 years ago, is Bait based on personal experience? Where did the story come from?

Jenkin: I always think everything is based on some kind of experience, even if it’s from the subconscious. I’ve just finished writing a horror film that we’re shooting next year, which is a kind of supernatural thing, which obviously isn’t based on real experience but based on what’s coming out of my mind and my interpretation of the world.

With Bait, it was about 20 years ago. I’d just moved home to Cornwall. The north coast of Cornwall used to always feature in the broadsheet newspapers in the summer tensions between rich holiday-makers, or tourists, and the locals in communities, which is something I’d always grown up with and been aware of but taken as just the way things were. Reading it from somebody else’s perspective, I started thinking that a lot of this journalism is quite irresponsible because it actually stokes up more issues. And then as soon as September comes and all the schools go back, everybody gets back to their lives, it’s forgotten about. So, I thought it’d be really great to make a film that documents that in a fictionalized sense that would be permanent. So I created a premise that was fictional, but something I could hang a lot of true stories off.

Filmmaker: Did you envision a specific approach to the framing of faces?

Jenkin: As I operate the camera, I want to be close to the actors, and that means closeups. I shoot everything on a 26mm lens,  which is a good portrait lens on a movie camera. I don’t want to have other crew members between me and the actors. I want to be the one that’s up close and chatting to them as I would be if I wasn’t operating the camera. Also, I shoot academy ratio, which is perfect for faces when you’re working with no budget. The things that you get for free, you’ve really got to exploit. I quite often cast based on what I see in people’s eyes and people’s faces and then I want to show that on the screen.

I think film language is quite limited. We’ve set ourselves a language without really exploring how far the form can be pushed. There’s experimental film, obviously, but within narrative filmmaking we’ve settled in this very vanilla style of telling stories, quite often based on photography or theater. Photography can’t do time-based montage and theater can’t do the closeup. So, combining the closeup with time-based montage is something that you’ll notice is present in a lot of Bait. There’s this thing called experimental film, but I still think we’re at the stage where every film should be experimental. If we’re not experimenting one way or another, then it’s all over, really.

Filmmaker: Could you discuss the approach to sound and dialogue in the film? It’s quite foley-heavy.

Jenkin: I love going into the edit with just pictures and creating sound from scratch, because there’s nothing to fix. When you do a picture cut, quite often you’re fixing stuff—editing around performance or continuity or technical problems with the focus. With sound, there always seems to be issues, so to start with a completely blank slate I find really exciting. To have a shot of the harbor, watch it silently, then add in a sound of water washing against a wall—suddenly this thing lifts, but then abstracts it a little bit. At the dialogue stage, you take out all background sounds so the dialogue exists in silence.

If there’s a scene where there’s two characters walking on a shingle or something, I think I cannot be bothered to foley every single footstep. What can I do to get away from that? You know they’re on the beach, you can’t see the sea, so you don’t know how rough the sea is—what if I just put in a sound of a really rough sea? Slap that in, then there’s no need for footsteps. Suddenly the scene’s much more tense. I get the actors in and go, “You did it on location when the sea was dead calm. Now, in the film, the sea’s rough, so you’re going to have to talk up a bit.” Suddenly the energy of the scene comes out.

Filmmaker: How does that lack of location sound affect the actors?

Jenkin: I think it affects them thinking about it before the shoot more than it does in the actual reality. The thing is, when they’re performing, they’re still saying the lines. There’s nobody there recording it, but I don’t think they’re conscious of that. There was a worry with some cast members that they wouldn’t be able to replicate it in the studio months later. I go away, hand-process all the film, get it scanned, do the cut, then get them back in. But there’s never a problem, because they’re voicing their own faces so they say things in the same way. It’s very difficult to say something in a different way, because it’s to do with the shape, the inside of your mouth and your lips and all this stuff.

It’s easy for me to say because I’m not doing it, but I think it’s quite easy for them to replicate that. I’ve learned you can tweak the performance a tiny bit, but not very much. Early on I thought I could change or decide on the performance once we were in the studio doing the ADR, but you can’t at all, because the actual performance is set by the physicality set by the eyes. The eyes never lie. Some lines I softened and hardened, but there’s only a tiny little margin you can work within. If I was an actor, I think the chance to go in and get my dialogue recorded well technically would be a real joy—to know that that line you delivered in a howling gale on the beach, that might be a bit muffled and all the nuance has disappeared—to get a chance to go and record it absolutely clean, albeit through ancient valve compressors and all this stuff I use, I think that’s quite a nice position for them to be in.

Filmmaker: Speaking of anachronistic resources, why the Bolex H16 camera and hand cranked?

Jenkin: I love the reliability of it, the history and legacy. I understand everything that it does. A lot of people who haven’t shot film are afraid of film, but I know exactly why that camera does what it does. I know its little foibles, its little idiosyncrasies, and  how to work with or work around that, or completely embrace its slightly mad way of working at times. The camera that I was using is exactly same age as me. Our second camera—the one that was over-cranked for the slow-motion stuff—is from the ’60s. It had actually been used to shoot footage for David Attenborough’s series’ in the ’80s and ’90s.

With hand cranked, I love the fact that there’s no battery charging. You don’t have to worry about that. You just wind the spring, you get 27 seconds—another great limitation, as it means you time stuff really carefully if you are going to go for something that’s a longer shot. I love how small the camera kit is. Also, it’s one of the best Bolex H16s you can get, and with a lens, it cost me under 400 quid. So, when we talk about film being expensive compared to digital—when it comes to the equipment, the equipment is so cheap, whereas with digital you have to spend a lot of money before it becomes free. I’ve got three of those Bolex cameras. One of them doesn’t work and it’s just on a shelf in my studio because it’s like a work of art. I don’t mind talking about the kit, but I am aware that people sometimes think I fetishize it. But without form you’ve just got somebody stood around telling a story—which is great, but that’s not cinema.

Filmmaker: The democratization of filmmaking is great and welcome, but it can also feel like anyone who does prefer the old shooting methods gets somewhat chastised for expressing those preferences.

Jenkin: Quite often I’ve met people who are heroes of mine, or people I respect from the film industry, and I think, “Oh, they’re going to be interested in the fact that I’m shooting film.” And they’re usually the ones that go, “Oh god, you still shoot on that stuff? Why don’t you shoot digitally? It’s so much more interesting, so much easier and cheap.” It tends to be younger people who are more interested in it. I do get called a hipster quite a lot, which is weird. I’m not complaining because I choose to do it, but if people knew how much work goes into creating a handmade film like that, I don’t think they would ever think of it as being like a hip gesture.

I own the means to production and I’m not in debt through buying this kit. I got a camera that was made in 1976. It won’t go out of date, because it went out of date a long time ago, and it’s not going be superseded by a brand new super Bolex—well, they did that, actually. They built the digital Bolex, but that’s all disappeared now. I can get that camera serviced and maintained. I’ll never have to buy another camera, I don’t think—all being well, touch wood. If you shoot in an appropriate way, it’s no more expensive. I don’t have any lab fees because I taught myself how to process film, which takes a lot of hours but it’s a great counterpoint to the communal, hectic experience of being on a shoot, to then be in a studio for a few weeks on your own, editing it all. For a nearly 90-minute film, we had four-and-a-half hours of footage. The day the footage came back from the digital scan, I watched all of the rushes twice in one day, and by the end of that day I had an edit in my head. If I shot the film digitally, I would have just shot the shit out of everything. I’d have shot everything in a safety wide, then gone in for mids, closeups, extreme closeups, cutaways. I’d be constantly thinking, “Oh, I’ll go do some pickups,” because I can just rush out and do a pickup. So, I could be in post-production forever, wading through this footage, but actually our post-production is really quick. That sounds nuts, because I do nearly three months of hand-processing, but it’s incredibly quick post-production because I’ve got one take of everything and one safety. I’ve got no choices, so timewise, it it’s very quick, and time is money. We’re in a privileged position because Kodak are really on board with the way I’m working. They subsidized stock and things like that. But I don’t shoot a lot: 130 rolls, so 13,000 feet is very little. I saw the stats for Chris Nolan shooting Dunkirk and that’s what he shot in the first two hours of that shoot.

There are two worlds to the way film is shot. One is Tarantino, Chris Nolan and Spielberg, and I’m not particularly into those types of films. I love the fact that they’re shooting on film and they’re purists in that way, but there is a danger that film is thought of as being elitist. What I would like to think is that it’s not. Since I’ve gone back to shooting on film, I’ve made so many more films because I’ll order a roll of Super 8—one roll, two minutes and 45 seconds of footage—and make a two minute and 45 second film entirely edited in camera. That’s my limitation. So, there’s no post-production, as all the editing is done before I start. I do my shot list, go to the place and shoot within these set limitations. To buy that roll of film is maybe 30 quid. I process it myself, which is almost nothing, then scan it. That’s 25 quid. So, it’s 55 quid for a film. That not a big budget, really.

Filmmaker: In terms of making the most of what you’ve got, what were you using to process the film?

Jenkin: I made a 45-minute film a few years ago called Bronco’s House, which was processed in a developer made of instant coffee, vitamin C powder, washing soda crystals and a little pinch of potassium bromide to keep the grain down. You can make developers from anything, really, as long as you’ve got an alkali base and an active acidic ingredient. I quite like that side of things. I like experimenting with how you can create pictures.

With Bait, I worked with Ilford ID-11, which is a standard black and white photographic developer, which I mixed up from powders but is a little bit quicker and easier to use. It’s all quite nuts. As a stills photographic developer, I use a Bakelite 1950s rewind tank to develop, which was developed by the US military to process film out in the field. I’ve heard they would film incredibly high frame rate of, say, a gun on a ship that was misfiring They couldn’t work out why it was misfiring because you can’t see it with the naked eye, so they’d shoot incredibly high frame rate on a Bolex, then process the film there and then in a little rewind tank and, with a magnifier, look at the 60mm film and analyze the different frames. So, like most things in the western world that are beautiful, incredible and really progressive, they were actually originally developed as part of the process of learning how to kill each other.

A lot of people say to me, “Why do you process your own stuff instead of sending it off to the lab and getting it back a day later?” But I just think, “Why would I want to let somebody else have all that fun?” I’m still like a kid with a chemistry set. And I was always crap at chemistry.

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