Cornish film aficionados will be familiar with the names Mark Jenkin and Denzil Monk; the former a successful writer/director who created a stir with the 2007 feature film Midnight Drives and the latter a producer and former chair of the Cornwall Film Festival (amongst other things). For the uninitiated, you might want to remember those names as their latest feature could revolutionise the way we see film, both literally and metaphorically.
Described as ‘an interwoven seaside hymn to gift-wrapped promises and unwanted pressure’, Happy Christmas doesn’t sound like your typical holiday film. But listening to Denzil and Mark talk about their latest creative effort with such passion can only stir that kind of excitement and intrigue within me as a film geek. I talked to them as they prepared to set off for their premier at Dinard Film Festival.
The prestigious event, dubbed the ‘capital of British cinema’, previously played host to Mark’s first Cornish feature, Midnight Drives, where it was screened alongside such British indies as Brick Lane, Hallam Foe and Once. The festival has welcomed him back with open arms and the Newlyn-based filmmaker can’t wait to show them how far he has come in the last four years.
‘Dinard has got a long history entwined with British Film and when you’re there it feels like the entire town is made up of cinephiles,’ Mark told me. ‘The audiences are large and passionate and last time we were there we got a fantastic response for our film. The festival team makes you feel very welcome and can’t do enough for you, which is great after the slog of making a film. The town also has a prom and a salt water lido so it’s a bit like a home from home.’
Happy Christmas, Mark Jenkin’s second feature, is a subtly compelling drama that follows the various members of a disparate family as they attempt to come together under the strain of a single dysfunctional Christmas Eve. Set in West Cornwall around the small coastal market town of Penzance, the stunning locations are integral to the portrayal of each character’s emotional journey. From the wintery backdrop of Mounts Bay, to the evocative Mousehole Harbour Lights, the characters weave their stories through an expressionistic timeline.
Mark is keen to discuss his influences, citing the great Jean-Luc Godard amongst his favourites. ‘My inspiration came from 1959. From John Cassavettes making ‘Shadows’ and Jean- Luc Godard making ‘A Bout de Souffle’. Just getting out on the streets and shooting and seeing where it went. If it didn’t go anywhere, you put it down to experience, but all the time taking risks… that’s what they were doing,’ he said.
When Awen Productions and the Midnight People first decided to make this film, the budgeted production cost was around £300,000. This would have taken at least a year to raise, with no guarantee of success. However, they were determined to make and release the film in a single year, unhampered by institutional limitations. Everyone involved invested his or her time and resources under deferment to realise the vision in just nine months. This meant working around everyone’s other commitments.
Mark found it more compelling to work in this way, with no defined script and with just a rough shooting schedule. ‘We allowed practical limitations to inspire creative ingenuity, working to a single guiding principle -adapt and flow -adjusting to blocks and challenges on the fly, towards an inexorable deadline. We shot a character’s story, then edited, and so on until we had four stories completed. We used that fifth and final story to fill in the gaps, tie together the threads and consolidate how the film was flowing.
‘The film was done very much in the style of a couple of filmmakers saying, ‘Let’s get a group of people together in a space with an idea and a small crew for a defined period of time and create the material.’ All the effort that would normally be put into development, financing, pre-production -went straight into production, through to post-production and into direct digital distribution. It was high-risk but also very liberating,’ he said.
The cast is made up of both professional and inexperienced actors, all with a willingness to trust in Mark’s vision and improvise their way out of difficult emotional situations. As a result the performances are fresh and unmannered.
‘Because there was no script in the traditional sense we never reached a point where the film was compromised because we couldn’t get this prop, or that location, we just said, ‘Okay we can’t go that way with the story, which way can we go’. It was always much more about mood than specific narrative.’
In fact nothing is traditional about the production of this film. Producer Denzil Monk of Awen Productions said: ‘Our intention from the off was to explore new possibilities opening up in digital distribution.’ So he was particularly excited that the film is to be previewed at Dinard. ‘This is a great endorsement for the film and gives us an opportunity, pre release, to raise its profile in Europe.’
If you’re as eager to see the final cut as I am, don’t worry about forking out on getting to France. You can catch it at our very own Cornwall Film Festival at the Lighthouse Theatre in Newquay November 4-6.
Or download it into your home in time for Christmas. You can follow the film’s progress as it makes its way round festivals on Twitter @happyxmasfilm and be the first to see it when it’s released later this year at facebook.com/HappyChristmasFilm