This was definitely one of the more compelling watches at this year's New York Film Festival. Set around Mary Woodvine’s breathtaking performance as a wildlife volunteer struggling to determine what is and isn’t real, Mark Jenkin’s latest offering, Enys Men, has been hailed by critics, and is an astonishing entry into the folk horror canon. I was able to speak with the film’s director and star over the weekend in a conversation that ranged from their creative processes to favorite horror films. Many thanks once again to Mark and Mary for taking the time, and I hope you enjoy the read!
Mark, from the opening shot, something that fascinated me about this film was the soundscape. Along with the omnipresence of radio transmissions, echoes and gusts of wind, what really stood out to me was the use of silence. I was wondering if you could speak to that decision in the sound design: how do you see silence operating in this film, and what was the creative process that went into that decision?
Mark: Well, silence is the starting point. I shoot everything silently. We don’t record any location sound at all, including dialogue. The whole thing’s shot on a clockwork 16mm Bolex, which is a non-sync camera, so [while] we could record sound, I use it as an excuse to not record any sound. I cut all my own films because I think, for me, editing is filmmaking. You make the film three times: you make it when you write it, you make it again when you shoot it and you make it again when you edit it, but the edited version’s most important because that’s the only version the audience will ever see. Editing for me is a big thing. But editing isn’t just picture, it’s sound. I like to keep complete control of that, to the point where I go into editing with no sound at all. So, the starting point is silence. I could cut two or three shots together, and they’re silent, so I always work up from there. I think most filmmakers, if they’re creating silence, they’re removing stuff. If I want to have silence on the soundtrack, I just don’t add anything, you know? A lot of low-budget filmmaking is all about mending sound. The sound person on location is putting their hand up at the end of a take and going ‘can we do that take again because there was an airplane or I could hear the fridge,’ something like that, and the first AD or director or whoever will say ‘no, we got it, we’ll move on and sort it in post,’ which means that the first creative thing you do in the sound edit is start mending stuff, which is a terrible starting point for a creative process. Starting with nothing and then just adding what you want is the [preferred] starting point—and that can either come from my imagination, which is okay, but is always going to be limited in terms of abstract things I could do, mutating sound or creating naturalistic sound and then subverting it in some way. Mostly it comes from not wanting to do the boring stuff. So, instead of thinking ‘god, I have to Foley 800 footsteps,’ maybe I can just put a wind sound over that, so we don’t hear the footsteps. Then I go ‘well, what kind of wind could it be?’ and then I got the choice of any kind of wind. So, partly it’s my imagination, but partly it’s the limitations and not wanting to work endlessly on naturalistic sound. I could work hours and hours and hours and hours doing naturalistic sound then at the film screening nobody knows, they just think ‘oh, it’s naturalistic sound.’ Or, you do something a bit bat-shit crazy, because you don’t want to do all those hours of naturalistic sound, and then somebody comes in and says ‘oh, I really love the sound design and the abstraction,’ and it’s a double win [laughs]. But I try not to separate the sound and the picture, so the picture edit and the sound edit is done at the same time; and also, if I am doing elements of natural sound, maybe put something in that is a bit abstract without anybody noticing what it is. In the film there’s a clock that ticks a lot of the time, but it doesn’t necessarily tick at the same speed throughout the film, and I think when you watch something like that—David Lynch is the master of doing that in sound design, something will be slightly off. You can’t work out what it is, so you can’t rationalize it like you could if it was visual. If there was something surreal within the picture, you would spot it and you would rationalize it, but if it’s sound, it’s just there and you don’t know what it is, you can’t rationalize it, so it becomes even more unnerving. So, sound for me is where most of the creativity and playing with the form comes.
Mary, you’ve mentioned in other interviews how difficult it was to manage the subtlety of this role with your theater background, which often called for amped-up dialogue and heavy physicality, and I’m curious what was your process like managing that balance in this project? Did you find yourself drawing from that past emphasis on the body to help bring this character to life, considering she’s given spare dialogue? How did physicality work its way into your approach for this movie?
Mary: Thanks to the lack of dialogue, sometimes I felt there was a huge amount of pressure so that when she did speak, it’s got to really matter. People are going to scrutinize it because it’s the first time that we hear her speak. In terms of the physicality, the environment we filmed in was a very physical environment, and I’m really happy in a physical environment. A lot of the theater I did was outdoor theater, so I’m not squeamish. I don’t mind getting dirty feet or dirty hands or climbing up a cliff, I’m not frightened of heights. So, there was always physical confidence in walking and moving around the island. The rest of it, in terms of the performance, was just honing it down and thinking the thought, but not showing the thought, which is actually what I do in life, isn’t it [Laughs]?
Mark: Yeah, but not what you do in theater.
Mary: No, in theater you have to physicalize everything. You physicalize statements in theater, especially outdoor theater, which is what I worked in quite a lot. I mean, I’ve worked extensively in television as well, but I’ve spent most of my last few years doing theater. So as a character, [I was] very confident in her physicality, but it was the internalizing that I found the hardest.
Since it’s October, and you’ve given us one of the more unique horror films to be released this year, I’m curious what are some of your favorite horror films, maybe one that you each drew on for this movie?
Mark: Generally, Nic Roeg is a big influence. People have flagged Down Look Now (1973)—especially because of the red coat—which wasn’t a deliberate homage. But, I feel there’s a kind of horror element in the form of the way he works which I think I draw on a lot. If you read the script for Enys Men, you wouldn’t think it was a horror film. In fact, some people have watched it and said it’s not a horror film, but I think that the horror’s kind of in the form, which is what I’m interested in. Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout (1978) is a big influence and José Larraz’s Symptoms (1974), which are two lesser-known British horror films made by foreign directors, and have that kind of sideways look at what a weird country Britain is that can only really be pointed out by outsiders.
Mary: [to Mark] You’ve watched a lot of horror as well over the last couple of years. I hate the visceral stuff: I hate blood and stuff like that. So, the more psychological things, the old jump scare and the things that unsettle you, I think, are more frightening, because I don’t even want to know about pulling people’s heads off [laughs].
Mark: There’s another [movie]: Long Weekend (1978) by Colin Eggleston, which is an Australian film from the 70s, which hardly anybody seems to have seen, but that’s well worth looking at. That’s an influence. It’s quite a broad film but it’s basically about the natural world ganging up on a couple and terrorizing them. The earth appears to become sentient, which is something that I was interested in when we were developing Enys Men.
Be sure to watch Enys Men in a theater near you! I’ll be covering New York Film Festival throughout the next week, so be sure to stay tuned for more reviews, interviews and press conference highlights! You can do this by signing up to The Chicano Film Shelf’s mailing list (for FREE)! Just click ‘Sign-up’ on the drop-down menu. Members are updated anytime there’s new content or exclusive giveaways!