Bait premiered at Berlinale 2019 and made a splash with its unique retro-aesthetic and modern tale of clashes and strife in a Cornish fishing village. Director Mark Jenkin shot the film with a handheld 16mm camera, with no on-location sound.
The film has gone on to other festivals and screenings across the world, and recently had a UK Q&A tour before receiving a UK release on August 30th. Ahead of the screening in Edinburgh, director Mark Jenkin spoke with Vague Visages about Bait’s inspirations, how the film has been received in different communities, and about attracting audiences to theatres in the modern cinema landscape.
First of all, congratulations on the film. I thought it was absolutely fantastic. For folks who haven’t seen it, can you tell us just a little bit more about Bait to set the scene for how you approached it?
It’s funny talking about the story now and the themes that are involved in the film, because I’ve been out at festivals so much with it doing a lot of Q&As, and I’m a bit lost as to what I think the film is about, and what other people have told me they think it’s about. In some ways, it’s a film about Cornish traditional cove fishing, and otherwise, it’s about gentrification, it’s about class, it’s about alienation. In the context of the moment, it seems to be more and more considered a film about what happens when people who don’t feel they’re listened to — for whatever reason — decide to kick back. That seems to be the modern context. When I came up with the idea 20 years ago, it was really at the height of the summer in North Cornwall when it was very busy with a specific set of visitors who were quite young people, mostly private school educated, who came down en masse in groups from their schools. They were, really, a stronger community than the local community, which had become very fractured due to the decline of traditional industries. Over the years, other groups from other schools came down, and there seemed to be a sort of antagonism between the school groups and this ended up with huge fights and disturbances in North Cornwall. This was probably 15 years ago, by which time I’ve been developing the film for five years. I just got interested in where the locals were in all of this. I decided to I wanted to make a film about a fisherman, and it could have been about any person working in a traditional industry. However, I really wanted to make a film about the fishing community because it’s a community that I’ve always grown up around and a community I think has always been badly represented on screen and simplified. There’s stereotypes that have lived a long time regarding the fishing industry, when actually they’re all nonsense. I think it was a combination of all of those factors. Over the course of 20 years, I’ve picked it up several times and it’s changed into something else really. But the heart of it is still wanting to show the fishing community, but also what happens when a community becomes alienated and disenfranchised. To some extent, the success of the film has been a bit of luck with regard to timing and what’s going on in [the United Kingdom], but also all over the world in terms of the the gaps between the “haves” and the have-nots” growing.
Some folks have picked up on a Brexit parallel, mainly because of something added in the sound edit. That slipped past me when I watched it at first. Can you maybe explain how that reading came about and what your feelings were when that analysis of the film started to take off?
It was a huge surprise. When we were just about to complete the film, we were in the final stages of the sound mix and there’s scenes in the kitchen of the holiday home with the lead “incomer” family. There was dialogue between characters, but it was very fragmented. I became very aware that there was a silence over the scene, that became much more ominous than it needed to be. So, I thought we can just go and record a little bit of radio for style sound to go in the background. Kate Byers, who’s one of the producers of the film, is a voiceover artist, so I just got her to write a little piece — a kind of current affairs thing. She wrote it very quickly, went into the voiceover booth and we just recorded it straight onto the soundtrack. It was about Brexit and what may or may not happen, and I thought nothing of it. I can’t even remember whether we discussed whether it would be about Brexit. We seem to be on a bit of a hiatus right now, but you switch on the radio or the TV, and it’s all been Brexit: it’s not something I even really hear anymore, it’s just white noise in the background. That’s what I really wanted it to be in that scene. I didn’t really think anything of it, although I did slide it slightly on the timeline — a shot of some fresh fish being handed over married up with the sound of them talking about imported chlorine-washed chicken from the USA as a nice little bit of juxtaposition. But it was never meant to be a statement on Brexit one way or another, and I didn’t think anybody would notice it. But what then happened was we went to Berlin for the World Premiere and the German subtitles included the radio report. So, suddenly this Brexit stuff that was being spoken in the background, that I didn’t even really notice, was suddenly at the foreground. One of the first questions in the Q&A at the World Premiere was a question about Brexit. It was always meant to be background, but it was interesting because then people did start to read the whole film as an allegory for Brexit — and if they see it as that, then of course it is — but it was never my intention for it to be that. I think it maybe passed you by because, for English speaking audiences, it does operate as a background noise. I also think, having travelled around Europe with the film, people in Europe are keener to talk about Brexit than we are really. So, as soon as there’s a little signifier in there about Brexit, then people seem to hook on to that. Whereas I think I recoil from it because it’s all a bit too grim at the moment.
Quite a lot of filmmakers speak about how creativity comes from restriction. Is that something that you were consciously looking for in the approach that you’ve taken: hand developing the film, not shooting sound on location, and so forth? Does it make you think creatively about how you can capture the story you want?
Yes, exactly. It’s about realising that I can’t compete in terms of resources and budget. You cannot compete with multimillion pound films with huge, huge crews and huge resources. In one way, you think the odds are stacked against us but where the playing field is absolutely level is in terms of access to your own creativity. What the limitations force you to do is to think creatively straight away. The formalism that a lot of people have commented on, and the rigour, isn’t set out beforehand. That’s dictated to me through schedule and budget locations. It completely informs the way that the film looks, and then I embrace that. That then becomes the film as if it was always meant to be that way. I think it’s very disempowering to have complete freedom because you are kind of blinded by choices. You’re always thinking there’s a better thing that could come along. If you tell yourself this is all you’ve got, though, then you just get on with it. The sad truth, if you look at great cinema, is it’s always important to look at what restrictions it was made under. Just think about somebody like Tarkovsky and the restrictions that they would have to work under: creative, artistic, logistic. Some amazing art comes out of that. The restrictions are hugely important. In fact, on Bait, we lost some money not that long before we were going to shoot the film. We realised we had to lose something from from the script. Originally, the two brothers in the film were at war, but they both had fishing boats. A lot of the confrontation between the two brothers happened at sea. The obvious thing to lose when we lost some of the budget was to cut one of the boats, which meant that then there had to be a rewrite. The rewrite I came up with was that he would instead be shooting a net off the beach. I wouldn’t have thought of that, but I had to think creatively, and that becomes such an iconic piece of action: a desperate fisherman that hasn’t got a boat. I wouldn’t have written that in the script unless I’ve been forced to.
Is the story informed by the fact that people of rural communities are frequently used in stories as an awakening for some sort of privileged urbanite, which is something that happens quite a lot?
Yes, I wanted to redress the balance a little bit. I talked about Cornwall because it’s where I’m from, and the place I understand, but I’m sure it’s similar in other regions all over the world. Cornwall was used as a background to other people’s stories all the time. Like you say: awakening stories. Normally, somebody from the city who thinks they’re happy ends up in a misadventure. Through an interaction with the simple indigenous folk, they learn a life lesson, which then they can take back to their other life. The locals never have any sort of narrative journey. They’re just background and devices to help the more “sophisticated” character refine their existence.
Like a strange, slightly banal form of exoticism.
Yeah, it is. And that character takes the good stuff and goes away: the community spirit, collectivism or whatever they learn. They don’t have to stay and live through the winter or the poverty or anything like that — it’s all a bit sickening, really. So, it was about redressing that and actually showing the people who live there, whether they’re Cornish or not, and what they do to get along: the good side of it and the bad side of it. Bring that texture to the foreground, rather than it being a background because it is very rare that people do that. There are exceptions: I would say that Local Hero is a film that really does nail that, mostly because of the ending, which I think is a little bit of a reference to the films where everything is fine once the protagonist goes back to their urban life. It is dripping with humanity, for all the characters, but that’s a very rare example of this type of film.
You were at the Edinburgh Film Festival, and you’re coming back on the 27th of August. Are you hoping that there’s maybe a bit of resonance with the local audience? Your Q&A is going to be immediately after the Fringe Festival has finished, and there’s been a lot of discussion in Edinburgh about the impact of extreme levels of tourism and short term rentals on the wider community.
A little bit. I’ve also got five dates in Cornwall, and then the film’s out on the 30th of August. I wonder whether, by the end of August, the film is going to be riding a populist wave at end of the summer, with people looking forward to September and the quiet months? Maybe it’ll be the same in Edinburgh. What I have learned is that it’s not a film about Cornish fishermen –, it’s something much more universal than that. Everywhere I go, there’s communities that feel that they haven’t got a stake in their own future. In New York, at the Walter Reade at Lincoln Center, this woman came up to me at the end of the film and said, “Thank you, you’ve made a film about my dad.” He was a fisherman all of his life in Barbados. It was a similar story, and I think I never realised that the film could be as universal as it appears to be. The sad truth is there is a lack of discussion about who’s making these decisions to change places in a specific way. Who are the people who are losing out? Who are the people who haven’t got a voice? I’m normally quite surprised that there is similarity with what’s going on in a Cornish fishing village, in what appears to be quite an affluent urban area. Regarding Edinburgh, I’m quite interested in in the Scottish independence issue as well as the Catalan one. What people read into that with regard to the Cornish issue is interesting. It’s not addressed in the film, but I think it’s there sub-textually. It will be interesting to see what a local Edinburgh audience makes of it, rather than the the largely visiting festival audience.
You’re clearly a filmmaker who is very invested in the process of making the film and what that can bring to the storytelling — how it can harmonise with the look of the film to heighten the impact of it. A lot of big films are getting limited runs on, for example, 35mm or 70mm. Do you see that as a preservation of a way of creating a story? Or do you think that maybe it’s being approached in a slightly gimmicky fashion?
Yeah, it’s a good question. As far as what I’m doing with Bait and how we’re exhibiting it, which is sometimes digitally and sometimes the 35mm print, it’s difficult to say. The way I look at it is, at the moment, anything to get people into theatres is to be encouraged. It seems like the cinematic experience is becoming more in line with a theatre experience, where you you pay a premium, go for a meal, and it becomes a real evening out, rather than a populist art form. With my film, I was always thinking it would be the very arthouse circuit, but for whatever reason, there seems to be a little bit of crossover that we’re enjoying where where we may well just be in some cinemas where it’s projected digitally and the ticket prices are not extortionately expensive. Looking at it from the eye of the storm I’m in at the moment, anything to get people into theatres. Home streaming and all that is great, but getting people to that theatrical experience? I think we have to continue it. It’s worth continuing and preserving, and getting people in to see. I’m not massively precious about how my films are seen. I make films in an analogue world because I like the craft element of it: I consider myself a working person who’s come from a working background. Physically making a film is really important for me, not as a statement, particularly, but just because that’s the type of person I am: stood up, using my hands, photochemical processes, using a manual camera, shooting it myself, cutting it myself — all of that kind of stuff. I don’t make the work in that way as a statement — that’s just what excites me on Monday morning. I’m not really thinking about anything other than my own enjoyment at that point, and I do understand that the large proportion of my audience are in a digital world. Although I make the films in an analogue way, I’m quite happy for them to go into a digital world and be consumed in whatever way an audience wants. Obviously, sitting as we did the other day there in NFT1, at the BFI in London, watching a 35mm print in a 500 seat auditorium? That’s obviously a high point. I’m not expecting that to happen in every single town and city, in the country. My aspiration for the film was to get on a handful of screens. So, to think it can be on lots of screens from the DCP? I’d be very happy with that.
If you want to get films to people and have people making films as well, then I don’t think cinema has the luxury of being precious about it.
No, absolutely. I’d say I’m in a privileged position. I still work on tiny budgets, but I am in a position where I shoot on film. But the digital distribution has been incredible. We’ve got a cinema in Newlyn — which is the fishing village I live just up the hill from — which is a two-screen digital cinema. That wouldn’t exist if the digital distribution didn’t exist. I will quite happily watch something that’s been shot on film and projected from the DCP. The cheaper the running costs to the cinemas and, hopefully, lower ticket prices are going to be more accessible to the masses — it was the art form of the masses. I think it still is, it’s just maybe the theatrical experience isn’t for the masses anymore. I’ve been reading about cinemas who’ve got a slight in enhancement on ticket prices, in order to offer lower ticket prices for other people. I just think things like that are so great, in terms of getting the younger generations into the habit of going to the cinema and a habit based on the exhilaration of watching something on a huge screen communally. With the Tarantino 70mm roadshow stuff, I think that’s great, but it is almost like it’s a marketing thing. When The Hateful Eight went out on that, there was only one print in Europe — so that can’t be a form of distribution if you’ve got one print. Films can be 30 years old by time every cinema has had it. But it’s great in many ways, as it does single out cinema as a very idiosyncratic art form. When Dunkirk came to Cornwall, I drove an hour to another cinema to see a 35mm print, and it was sold out.
I was in Cambridge when Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master came out, and I went to the Odeon in Leicester Square, London, which was a 40-minute train ride. Seems a bit like overkill looking back, but I’m glad I did it.
Yeah, but you’re you’re talking about it now, aren’t you? Life is about experiencing something. Travelling to do something or going the extra mile makes the whole experience very distinct. Going to the cinema has always been a special experience. We’ve got a preview screening in Wadebridge in Cornwall on Sunday. That’s where I grew up, and that’s the cinema that I went to every weekend. It was like a second front room, and I still remember all the films I saw. It’s emblazoned into my memory. The more we can preserve that – not for the sake of nostalgia, but because it is an amazing experience even now — then whatever way we can do that, I think we should be doing it.
Bait was released in the UK on August 30th.
Jim Ross (@JimGR) is a film critic and film journalist based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is the Managing Editor and co-founder of TAKE ONE Magazine, which began as the official review publication of the Cambridge Film Festival and now covers film festivals and independent film worldwide. Jim hosted a fortnightly film radio show on Cambridge 105FM from 2011-2013 and joined the crew of Cinetopia, on Edinburgh community radio EH-FM, in 2019.