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Enys Men: How the films you watch are becoming more sustainable

The producer behind indie hit Enys Men on the responsibility of the film industry to slash emissions

“I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” said Robert Duvall as the line of palm trees burned behind him. But one of cinema’s most iconic quips came at a cost. The fiery set piece from Apocalypse Now involved pouring 1,200 gallons of gasoline over acres of trees and filming the results.

“The environmentalists would kill you,” said director Francis Ford Coppola about the prospect of doing the stunt in the US. Forty years later, a new wave of filmmakers are showing how the environmentalists are taking over, with indie hit Enys Men a prime example.

Following a researcher pottering about the Cornish countryside (to oversimplify things), Enys Men is a far cry from Apocalypse Now. Part of a new wave of folk horror, director Mark Jenkin’s follow up to cult hit Bait has opened to critical acclaim. It’s unsettling, mesmerising, and sure to feature on countless “best film of 2023” roundups come December.

Denzil Monk, the founder of Bosena, the environmentally conscious film company behind Enys Men, says the film “digs really deeply into that psychic cultural space about the connection between people and culture: the activities of society, industry, belief and the landscape. And how that changes.” So it was only natural the team tried to reduce its impact on that land.

A typical hour of television produces, on average, 5.7 tons of CO2 emissions, roughly the equivalent of 10 flights from London to New York. Small films typically produce 391 metric tons of CO2. Enys Men, which comes in at 91 minutes, produced just 4.5 tons.

Making a film creates carbon emissions in three main ways: travel for the crew, energy consumption on set, and accommodation for the crew. Monk and Bosena used a number of tricks to reduce these. They sourced electric generators for the lighting, replacing typical fossil fuel generators. The crew stayed in accommodation that had solar panels, used to recharge the generators. Where costumes could not be rented, their life after the production was considered. Were the film not shot during lockdown, a minibus would have been hired for the crew to travel in.

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Enys Men
The generators on the set of Enys Men were recharged using solar panels at the crew’s accommodation. Credit: Steve Tanner/Bosena

These details may speak to the practicalities of taking an idea from the page to the screen, but they also embody something more meaningful about the films we watch.

“There’s a practical nuts and bolts thing, about the process of how we make films, and then there’s a deeper, more fundamental editorial thing about the stories that we tell and the meaning behind them,” says Monk.

“What’s important for us is to have that integrity, so we’re not just telling stories about these things, but we’re thinking about the impact that making process has on the people involved, and the people around the planet, and more than human environments around it.”

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Making films in this way is not, however, just a nice thing to do. If society survives to keep making films, it will have to be sustainable. Thankfully, the industry as a whole is slowly moving in this direction. In the UK, some broadcasters mandate the use of a toolkit made by Albert, a Bafta sustainability offshoot, assessing their carbon footprint. Globally, Netflix set itself a goal to reach net zero by the end of 2022, and points to the success of films like 2021’s Don’t Look Up – in which Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio struggle to convince the public of the severity of their impending doom – as proof audiences care.

If it’s easier for small budget productions such as Enys Men, there are unsurprisingly challenges when the budget balloons. The napalm scene from Apocalypse Now shows how satisfying it can be to watch stuff get blown up, and the “love letter to Hollywood” genre – take Damian Chazelle’s Babylon – tends to equate the best bits of Hollywood with excess. That’s a hurdle for sustainability.

“The bottom line is that the A-list talent’s time is more expensive so we cannot stop shooting for one minute because of any kind of small little hiccup,” says Zsofia Szemeredy, describing the mentality on many big shoots.

“Because it doesn’t matter how much diesel we burn, or how many items we have to buy, the show must go on.”

Szemeredy is the co-founder of Green Eyes Production, a company which goes onto sets and helps crews reduce their impact on the environment. Some of her work is bound by confidentiality agreements, but she can tell me that she’s worked on Marvel’s Moon Knight and Amazon’s Jack Ryan series. A lot of her work, in effect, is trying to change that mentality.

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Diesel generators will be running constantly so that everything’s ready, budgets will be exceeded to make sure nothing can go wrong, and items will be bought multiple times just in case. “Imagine a circus of 250 people or more all running around using all kinds of equipment,” Szemeredy explains. There’s hesitancy to change. What if trying out a new battery puts an unexpected halt to the production? 

“You have to speak the language of the production, which is: ‘On time, within budget’,” she says

The big question is: Does going green compromise what we see on our screens? Creating huge sets or colossal explosions – both carbon-intensive activities – might not be necessary all the time, thanks to the rise of visual effects. Instead, you can use them simply when they’re the best option, Monk says.

Enys Men
Enys Men was shot on location in Cornwall. Image: Steve Tanner/Bosena

“The vision should never be compromised, but the vision you’re working with should be something that exists in the world, and have an awareness of it, and is hopefully resonant with it in some way,” he explains, arguing that connection helps films find their audience.

“That’s not to say it needs to have any overt environmental theme, because it doesn’t, but we’re human beings on a planet that has finite resources. There’s a tacit acknowledgement of that in everything we do.”

Nevertheless, things aren’t all travelling in an even direction. There are questions over greenwashing, and just how worthwhile offsetting is. Netflix’s net zero plan involves cutting its emissions by 45 per cent and investing in offsetting projects. Carbon credit firm Verra, which is also used by the likes of Disney and Shell, featured prominently in the streaming giant’s plans, but is now facing allegations that its offsetting projects are “largely worthless and could make global heating worse”. Verra questioned the methodology of the research. Meanwhile, Tom Cruise is going to space to shoot a film.

But, as both Szemeredy and Monk argue, films can show us a future where things can be better than that.

“Fundamentally, you know what it comes down to? There are some big, big changes that need to happen in our society, but big changes only happen when individual people change their assumptions and behaviours and attitudes,” Monk says. 

“What better than cinema to stimulate conversations and get people thinking and talking about those things?” 

Enys Men is in cinemas now.

The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future.

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