Eerie Rock: Enys Men’s director and star on crafting their Cornish folk horror

Mary Woodvine stars as an unnamed wildlife volunteer in Mark Jenkin’s atmospheric folk horror Enys Men. 
Mary Woodvine stars as an unnamed wildlife volunteer in Mark Jenkin’s atmospheric folk horror Enys Men

Enys Men director Mark Jenkin and star Mary Woodvine on the complexities of shooting on 16mm, being labelled ‘experimental’ and making DIY films with loved ones.

I think all films should be labeled experimental for an art form that is only 125 years old. The idea that we’re not experimenting with the art form anymore is depressing.

—⁠Mark Jenkin

Record-breaking director James Cameron has found an unlikely rival in the windy shores of Britain: Cornish filmmaker Mark Jenkin. Jenkin’s latest feature Enys Men has bumped the technological extravaganza Avatar: The Way of Water to box office runner-up in the Cornish town of Bodmin, where previews for Enys Men, shot just a few miles away from the small independent cinema where the film now plays, have attracted a flock of eager viewers much more interested in the wonders of their hometown than those of CGI-built Pandora.

In 2019, Jenkin’s breakout feature Bait, a film about the rhythms of a fishing village in Cornwall shot on a vintage wind-up camera with a microbudget, became the most successful Cornish film ever made, achieving the rare combination of rave reviews and a successful box office haul—Bait made over £300,000 ($370,000 US) in its first month alone. Just as he was set to begin working on a very anticipated follow-up to his miraculous debut, the director was faced with the setback of a global pandemic, delaying Enys Men to 2022, when the film arrived in Cannes along with some of the hottest tickets in town.

Much like Bait, Enys Men (Cornish for ‘stone island’) is about the patterns of a remote location in Cornwall, with the director looking back to 1973 to trace the routine of an unnamed wildlife volunteer (played by Jenkin’s real-life partner, Mary Woodvine) living on an uninhabited island. Here, she spends her days carefully observing wild flora and making cups of tea. Slowly, the boundaries between reality and delirium blur, leading the woman into a nightmarish spiral of unsettling paranoia in a film that has drawn comparisons to 1970s giallo classics such as Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (the lead character often wears a crimson-red slicker as a direct homage).

 The unnamed volunteer (Mary Woodvine) in a Don’t Look Now-esque red coat.
 The unnamed volunteer (Mary Woodvine) in a Don’t Look Now-esque red coat.

Shot in beautifully textured 16mm, Enys Men is a visual spectacle carefully designed to allow for full immersion. “Enys Men assaulted me with a feeling, an evocation of a specific space and time and emotion,” writes Letterboxd member Dozzyrok. Jesse Williams’s review says it’s “about the story behind every object, [such as] the mythic origin of a rock. It’s a ghost story of a woman haunted by her fate, and by the past… it’s an expression of Cornish spirit and history, the isolating distance from London and the importance of folklore in study, psychology and nature, and in that way it really is a worthy successor from Bait.”

Letterboxd member Milo describes Mary Woodvine’s eerie, almost entirely silent performance as betraying “a sense of unease and inescapable dread as the flashing images confuse her character as much as the audience—avoiding just being a nostalgic ode to the folk horror of Quatermass and the Pit.” This sentiment is echoed by Oscythegrouch, who says Woodvine “creates a phenomenal performance with basically no dialogue or arc or identifiable personality, conveying everything through action and reaction, leaving it all on the table.”

Sitting side by side in one of the many hotel rooms the duo will occupy during an extensive festival run, director Mark Jenkin and actor Mary Woodvine speak to us about finding a balance between the personal and the professional, their creative process and how being labelled as “experimental” is a reflection on the current state of filmmaking.

 Director Mark Jenkin and his 16mm Bolex camera.
 Director Mark Jenkin and his 16mm Bolex camera.

Bait was a rare phenomenon upon its release in 2019. Did it add any pressure for you? Did you feel pressure going into a sophomore film?
Mark Jenkin: I’ve told everybody I didn’t but I did. At first, I didn’t, because we always planned to do a film really quickly after Bait and get it out before we felt any pressure on delivering anything. Then Covid came along and delayed us by a year, so a lot of pressure did build up. I think it was just me feeling the pressure—most people were worrying about Covid rather than worrying about what film I was going to do next—but in my head, I was beginning to think.

I’m not complaining about Bait being a success, but then there is this sort of strange pressure to repeat that success, which is impossible to do because you can’t ever make that first film again. So I tried not to think about it; I told everybody I didn’t feel any pressure, but I was feeling the pressure a lot.

Mary Woodvine: I rang Ed Rowe, who plays Martin in Bait, right before Cannes. I said, ‘Oh my God, I’m terrified about going to Cannes. Is this what you felt before you went to Berlin with Bait?’ and he said, ‘No, no one knew who Mark was, and no one knew who I was.’ He wasn’t worried about it, but it does feel like people are watching now.

Isaac Woodvine in Jenkin’s acclaimed 2019 fishing feature, Bait.
Isaac Woodvine in Jenkin’s acclaimed 2019 fishing feature, Bait.

I know the film wasn’t inspired by the pandemic, but it’s hard not to think about isolation and loneliness while watching it. How was the experience of translating these notions to the film?
MJ: It was the first time in a year that we’d gotten together with other people, so although the film was about isolation, the process of making the film was the first time that I didn’t feel isolated, to a certain degree. That’s the kind of paradox of filmmaking: what’s going on behind the camera is completely different to what’s going on in front of the camera.

Once I got into the edit, then certainly—all of the rest of the creative team disappeared, and it was just me. So I did start thinking about what the film meant really, and how people might interpret it. Since people have seen it, it’s been quite interesting that people have picked up on it, I think, in the same way that Bait may have accidentally picked up on the zeitgeist at the time. Enys Men may have accidentally stumbled across something that was very relevant to a lot of people, which was the idea of being isolated.

MW: For me, it really helped. As an actor, I found that I have definitely felt that sense of isolation. I couldn’t work out whether it was just getting older or whether it was because of the pandemic that I’ve felt much happier, being in my own company. Of course, that worked perfectly for the filming—I was really happy and had a sense of peace and comfort with just myself.

Woodvine finding solace in the solitary set.
Woodvine finding solace in the solitary set.

It’s interesting you’re mentioning feeling so comfortable on your own, since you’re so heavily featured in this film and the camera closely follows your every movement. There are also a lot of close-up shots of your face, which is an incredibly intimate way of framing. How did you feel about this proximity?
MW: Some of the time I wasn’t aware of how close the camera was; I didn’t always see it. Sometimes I’d ask, but I didn’t always see what was in frame. Because of the direction, I often had a feeling. Mark would say, ’This is really close,’ and I realized I couldn’t do too much.

There is also a vulnerability that comes with the exposure of your body and the way it’s captured under soft candlelight. I know you’re partners and there’s a very tangible sense of intimacy between the two of you, so how did it feel to not only shoot these scenes but to see yourself through Mark’s lens?
MW: Luckily there is only a tiny crew in the room. I don’t have many kinds of inhibitions physically. I don’t mind getting naked in front of people, so that was okay.

MJ: We actually had to talk Mary out of doing this interview naked. [Laughs]

MW: I was pleasantly surprised. I was really pleased with what it looked like. Because one of the things I was worried about when we had to delay the filming was, ’Oh my god, my body is going to be another year older and my face is going to be another year older by the time we shoot it again.’ Then I just kept thinking that, when I look back at it in ten years and see I shot this at 53, I will go, ’Wow, this is brilliant!’

One of many intimate close-ups of Woodvine.
One of many intimate close-ups of Woodvine.

Mark, you’ve mentioned being very limited in the number of takes you could shoot while making Bait because of the restricted budget of the film. Was it the same with Enys Men?
MJ: With Bait, every shot was planned and I had two takes of everything. With Enys Men, there are a lot more bits of script and I didn’t have specific shots. Quite often, there was only one take, and it was much better in the edit because it removes another layer of decision-making—you have one shot and you either use it or you don’t. I would use it, but it wouldn’t be perfect, so I’d have to cut away to something else. That’s when I got back into the fractured timeline and fractured montage filmmaking that I like to do in the edit. I want to eventually be Clint Eastwood-style: just single takes, and if it works, it works. If it doesn’t, then you have to find a way of working around it in the edit.

MW: See, my first take is always the best one. So hopefully I’ll be in those films. [Laughs]

MJ: Technically the first take is always the best take because everybody is concentrating; the tensions are there and the nerves are there. Maybe I’ll work with an actor one day who is better on a second take, and there will not be enough film. [Laughs]

Uncanny hallucinations cause the volunteer to lose her tenuous grip on reality.
Uncanny hallucinations cause the volunteer to lose her tenuous grip on reality.

This takes me nicely into your editing process, which is quite unique in its essence. How long does it usually take you to edit a film?
MJ: I started editing at the beginning of May and we had an edit by the end of that summer. Then everything really slows down, because it is all the technical stuff. That’s when you’re really finalizing the only version the audience will ever see, so it has to be absolutely right. It takes a while because I do it all at once, but once I’m at the end of the first cut, then I’m almost done because I’ve been re-editing as I go.

I work at an editing bench on a computer using digital proxies of the film footage. I’ve got my analog synthesizer that’s wired up to a tape loop, which creates all these echoes and all the sound distortions, and that goes straight into the edit. Plus, I stood on a piece of fake wooden flooring while I was doing this one, so I could record footsteps. It is like a one-man band where I’m editing the picture and creating the score and sound effects. It seems like this chaotic nightmare of editing while I’m doing it, but then, as I said, I get to the end of the film and there is a working edit.

Jenkin in the process of shooting Bait, which he also directed, wrote, edited and scored.
Jenkin in the process of shooting Bait, which he also directed, wrote, edited and scored.

You write, you shoot, you edit, you write the score… How much of a toll does this octopus-like process have on you?
MJ: It’s the way I’ve always worked. I’ve always wanted to do as much as possible because I love every aspect of it, and I can’t bear handing over all of that fun to somebody else. It’s why I don’t record any location sound, because I like to be in control of all of the sound afterwards, so I can start from scratch once I get into the sound mix.

It’s not quite as simple as it sounds, because although I do take sole credit for directing as I shoot everything myself, I work very closely with somebody who does much more on the lighting than a traditional gaffer and who works very creatively with me; there’s quite a lot of overlap of roles. It’s a lot of work to do, but I think it would take much more of a toll on me if I handed over creative control to other people. Mary would testify that if I’m waiting for other people to do stuff, I become quite a bit of a nightmare.

The eerie setting of Enys Men, where the volunteer is understandably upset by frequent visions.
The eerie setting of Enys Men, where the volunteer is understandably upset by frequent visions.

I was just about to go to Mary because I watched an interview where she jokingly said, ‘Mark having that much control over the film makes it easy for me to put the blame on him if it doesn’t go well.’ How is the creative relationship between the two of you? Does the period when you are working together on a film change your relationship in any form?
MW: When Mark is going through that editing process, he just gets up and goes to the studio. Then when you come home, you don’t really talk about what you do, partly because you’re still internalizing and trying to work it out in your head.

When we did Bait, Mark was a producer and it really felt like it was his thing, so I felt like I could support him and just be beside him. But with [Enys Men], we had a chat before we started filming where we sort of discussed how we both needed to be looked after. We both needed to make sure that the other one was okay, because we were both going to be tired and wanting to be the one who had a little bit more attention. It worked really well, didn’t it?

MJ: Are we in therapy?! [Laughs]

MW: It’s difficult because it’s working with both of our vulnerabilities.

Nightmares come with the territory of filmmaking—both behind and in front of the camera.
Nightmares come with the territory of filmmaking—both behind and in front of the camera.

MJ: We don’t work with any sort of strangers, so our personal domestic life goes on to the set. Most of the crew are all my best friends, and if they’re not, they’re our family. You have to have personal and professional conversations that can end up in disagreements, which is the downside of working with friends and family—it puts that pressure on. I take my work home with me quite often in negative ways. I’m quite bad company when I’m writing because it’s all-consuming and such a horrific experience; trying to write a screenplay is such a bad thing to attempt to do. I’m just constantly staring into the middle distance thinking, ’How do I get that character to do that?’

Mark, your work has been labeled as experimental, which is fairly odd as a lot of your filmmaking goes back to very classic elements of cinema—especially in your attention to characters, your generosity with the camera, your world-building… How do you feel about the ‘experimental’ label?
MJ: Firstly, I think all films should be labeled experimental for an art form that is only 125 years old. The idea that we’re not experimenting with the art form anymore is depressing. That seems a bit of a damning indictment of where we are now, to a certain extent, that you can do something that is slightly different—even though it’s relying on traditional ways of filmmaking—and people have to pigeonhole it as ‘experimental’. If this was a film in the 1970s, it wouldn’t be seen as being experimental; it’d be pretty mainstream. It says more about what else is going on in the industry.

A still from Enys Men that may or may not be experimental. 
A still from Enys Men that may or may not be experimental. 

As long as we don’t actually get sidelined into being seen as ‘experimental’ and not being considered as, for the lack of a better word, a ‘mainstream’ film, then I think it’s fine. Any label ultimately draws attention to the work; it differentiates it. If we’re being experimental and we are also commercial, then that’s all my dreams come true, really.

 ‘Enys Men’ is now playing in limited theaters in the UK courtesy of BFI Distribution, with a US release via NEON forthcoming. 

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