Bait, the story of the tensions between locals and holidaying Londoners in a Cornish town, stole the hearts of many when it arrived in cinemas in 2019. Shot on a 16mm clockwork camera with the sound added later on, the black-and-white drama announced writer-director Mark Jenkin as a new force in British cinema - it feels like you're watching a treasure he recovered from the bottom of the sea.
Up for two BAFTAs next month - Outstanding Debut and British Film - Bait is out now on Blu-ray and on demand. Here, Mark Jenkin tells Harry Guerin about making the film, and how it had such an effect on viewers.
There's always something each day that's a bit of a surprise with Bait.
The story is that nobody buys DVDs and Blu-rays anymore, but we just had some presales figures through yesterday and they're all flying off the shelf. The word of mouth has just been amazing, the reaction from the public has been incredible and that's driven everything. In some ways that does surprise me each day, but in other ways it doesn't, because I think the audience are always underestimated. I speak as an audience member myself!
People think the audience don't want to be challenged; they don't want to see something that's new.
I was forever told a black-and-white, 16mm, hand-processed, post-sync film about fishermen wasn't going to be a commercial proposition - and that audience has just proved everyone wrong. I've got quite a contrary personality - if somebody says I can't do something then I'll definitely do it.
While I'm making a film I never think of the audience.
The audience is just me when I'm making it. Anything else is just guesswork. I think it's a terrible way to work - to make assumptions of what an audience might want. Quite often I don't really know what I want as an audience member! I want to be offered new things. I always think if I can make a film that I like [then] there'll be an audience for it, because I'm not so dissimilar to everyone else on the planet.
When I'm shooting a film I'm always thinking, 'I haven't got a film here'.
The whole way through the shoot. I'm always thinking, 'I've got enough footage that I could probably edit something together as a gallery installation'. I'm always doubting whether I've got something that's going to work dramatically and narratively. It's a very strange situation to be in.
With Bait it was actually quite late on in the edit before I really began to think that the film was working.
I really had to chip away at it a lot in the edit to get to that point. I thought we had great moments - and that's no [negative] comment on anybody I was working with on the film - I just couldn't see how the overall film was going to work based on what we had. I think it's always the case that in some way the worse the shoot feels - and it wasn't like it was a bad experience, the shoot - but the more fraught and challenging the shoot is, more often than not the better the material. It's because all that tension and all of that energy and all of that desperate collaboration to kind of salvage things is there in the work. Somewhere.
What constantly excites me is how much the film has hit home with an ordinary cinema audience, rather than cineastes, rather than just a festival audience.
The fact that people - ordinary people who maybe don't go out and see a lot of films at the cinema - have gone out and not let the form of Bait get in the way of their enjoyment of the story that's at the heart of the film. Form is something we acclimatise to very quickly with a film. We can chuck up the most crazy structure or approach to filmmaking on the screen and within four or five minutes, as long as the audience sticks with it that long, then the suspension of disbelief we all have kicks in and you can have an experience.
With Bait, it's the most simple story.
You couldn't really get a simpler story. But the form is different and the theme at the heart of the film is hopefully complex. But audiences have come out and it hasn't been a problem for them. That even sounds a little patronising - I mean that as an audience member myself as well!
Nicolas Roeg is never that far away from my thoughts.
When you rang I was looking at images online of Don't Look Now. I'm putting together a colour palette for the way we're going to shoot the next film and Don't Look Now is one of the references. I love his work and I love his approach to communicating ideas about what time is on the screen. I didn't watch Don't Look Now until I was studying - probably in my early twenties. It really affected me. I'd be pretty disingenuous to say that Nic Roeg isn't a big influence on what I do. I don't think anybody made films like him. He picked up the thing that he was doing and continued working in that way and challenging the audience in terms of the way that time can be communicated.
For me, cinema is really simple. It's two things: it's capturing light and it's communicating time.
We obsess about different ways that we can capture light through cinematography. That's written about and it's studied and it's very front and centre when you're talking about film. But conversations about how time can be communicated through film are really neglected. And it's the only art form that can really communicate temporal and geographical dislocation through editing. I just don't think there's enough experimentation with that. The art form's only 125-years-old and we seem to have settled on a language that's very linear in keeping with the way that we live, which is chronological time. But actually, it's very artificial in life, and I think it's very artificial in film. And film is the one medium where we can really explore what time actually means.
The biggest lesson I have learned from Bait is to follow my gut instinct.
That goes from the initial idea for the film, and the way I wanted to make it - I followed my gut with that. And that decision has now borne out with the critical and relative commercial success. If maybe the film had been panned and nobody went to see it I'd have to start questioning the way I was working and the validity of just going with my gut instinct. Certainly for the next film it's given me a real belief that if I think it's the right thing to do, then I should do that. It won't necessarily lead to commercial or critical success again, but at least it will lead to the film being the film I want to make and being a project that I'm excited about.
My next film is a Cornish horror.
Set in 1973 on an island just off the coast of Cornwall - an island that doesn't actually exist in real life. A woman alone on an island doing some ecological research with only a standing stone - an ancient Neolithic standing stone - on the island for company. It may or may not be pursuing her... I've probably said too much already!
Bait is out now on DVD/Blu-ray, released by the British Film Institute (BFI), and available on BFI Player, iTunes and Amazon. It will return to the IFI in Dublin on Friday, February 7 as part of its tour.