"Following" Britain's Neo-Noirist, Christopher Nolan
By Jason Margolis
Christopher Nolan’s intriguing debut film follows an aspiring writer who
stalks people to spark his creativity. The film has won praise at major
international film festivals in San Francisco, Toronto, Vancouver, and
at this year’s Slamdance where Zeitgeist Films picked up the film for
domestic release. Much attention has been focused on the unique
narrative structure, which allows for a fresh approach to themes of
voyeurism and the film noir genre.
“Following” is the rare no-budget British production to find some
success on this side of the Atlantic. After screening at the San
Francisco festival, the film was selected for assistance from Next Wave
Films, granting it funding for a proper 35 mm film finish, sound mix,
and expert resources for securing distribution. And it paid off;
“Following” opens in New York this Friday. Vancouver filmmaker Jason
Margolis spoke with Nolan about narrative structure, film noir, shooting
black and white, limited budgets, and British independents.
indieWIRE: How did you come up with your multi-linear narrative
Christopher Nolan: My idea was quite a simple one, which is just to
tell a story in the fashion in which we are actually used to receiving
stories in real life. It’s very rare — when you think about the way
that we receive information, or the way we receive a story — to receive
it in any kind of chronological order. The model I have in my mind, in
a funny sort of way, is if you watch “The Jerry Springer Show” or
something like that, you have this headline story – “My Wife Is A
Transsexual!” or whatever. You are given a beginning, and then you
watch these people argue with each other. They don’t say “What happened
next?” They say “Yes, you did this, but you did that because I did
this, and you did something else earlier.” So if you think of it in
time terms, you’re jumping around the whole time. You’re building up a
more detailed picture of what this story is. The best example I can
give is newspapers. You read a headline, then as you read, you are
receiving more details, so you actually know the whole story in rough
form, and you start to organically build your understanding of the
entire story. It’s done in novels with no problem, but for some reason
in films, which lend themselves very well to doing that, people are less
used to it. I see narrative as a controlled release of information and
I don’t think there’s any reason we have to do that on a chronological
basis. You can do that in all sorts of ways.
iW: The modern take on film noir looks great, especially considering
Nolan: Well, I hope so. My idea was to take what I consider to be the
essentials – the spirit of film noir – which to me is actually more
about people. The triangular relationship, who’s doing what to whom.
Those kind of elements have a visual style. Where it obviously starts
from a film noir perspective in terms of writing, and shooting in a
documentary style, so you have a whole film that’s basically hand held
apart from about four shots. Mix those elements up and see what you
come up with. People seem to pick up on that, which is nice, because it
is a noirish story, and a sort of noirish visual style, but I hope it’s
a bit different as well.
iW: Did you choose black and white film because of the film’s genre or
because of the budget?
Nolan: When you have no money, it can be shrewd to find subject matter
that lends itself to that sort of black and white, noirish type
approach, because you can do harder lighting. You can do quicker
lighting set ups. You’re not worrying about color balance from the
tungsten lamps and things light that. I think at the end of the day,
hard shadows and that sort of lighting looks a lot better in black and
white than it does in color. If you have no money, it’s quite often
that you’re better off shooting like a documentary, and shooting what’s
really there. You try to use the available light. The sort of light
from windows that you can get in London has a gloomy, cold feel to it.
In black and white, you can make that look stylish in the way that you
want. If you start trying to create an artificial world, you start
needing a lot more resources.
iW: The credits at the end of the film caught me off guard. Your
production crew was four or five people.
Nolan: I shot the film myself. If you don’t have the money to have a
video feed off the camera, and you’re going to shoot a handheld film,
you kind of have to shoot it yourself. You don’t have any choice
because you’re just going to have to make too many compromises. Unless
you happen to know a director of photography that you absolutely
trust. I have a reasonable knowledge of sound recording and things like
that, so I could work with a variety of different sound guys. Whoever
was available on that weekend. Basically, we were all friends who made
short films with each other before, so we knew each other quite well.
We would just have the bare minimum crew. We only had a couple of
lights. I did the lighting myself. I did the camera myself. We had a
sound guy. Then we would have an assistant clapper-loader. That was
about it really. Us and the actors. We shot over a long period of time,
over a year, shooting one day a week. So we could get our rushes back
and see exactly what we were doing. Keep refining the process.
iW: What were your other tricks for completing the film for such a
Nolan: We came up with a plan of how to make the film with no money.
We only had enough money for film and processing, so the fewer takes we
could do, the more money we’d save, obviously. We really could only
afford to do a couple takes of each thing, so my idea was to find actors
who had done stage work, and rehearse each scene like a small play, so
that as they would have to on stage, they could just get through it the
first time. There wouldn’t be a question of “Stop, I can’t get that.
Let’s retake it.” They would just get through it. That way, we could do
two takes and cut something from that. So we wound up rehearsing for
six months before we shot the thing. I don’t know if it was
workshopping; it wasn’t a question of improvising the script. The
actors stuck fairly close to at least the sense of the lines, but it was
more to do with getting on to know it so well that they felt confident
about performing in front of the camera without stopping, without too
much trouble, because certainly with this sort of low level production,
the actors are the last thing on everybody’s mind usually. It’s a
question of when everything else is right, you just say to the actor,
“Okay, just do it.” I think they did a marvelous job. It’s very
difficult to do any kind of performance in one or two takes.
iW: That must have been especially challenging to your actors since the
characters in the film are themselves often acting a role.
Nolan: I think it’s very tricky because you have this paradox – if
you’ve got a character who’s pretending to be someone else, do you try
to get the actor to play it on both levels at once or do get them to
play it straight? I think they did a very good job of getting some of
those things in, because to me, if you watch the film a second time, I’d
like it to play better then it does the first time.
iW: The jumps between timelines would take on different meanings in a
second viewing, such as when the main character suddenly has a black
Nolan: Obviously, it has to be good enough the first time that someone
would be interested in watching a second time. If you watch the film a
second time, the ironies become the main substance of the story. It
becomes a different kind of film, and I think it’s a better film,
because the first time (the audience watches the film) it’s a very plot
driven thing. I think too few films are made to be viewed a second or
iW: Most of the English films that make it to North America are at
least partly financed by institutions such as Channel Four or the BBC.
How many truly independent, non-assisted films are being made in England
Nolan: Fewer than in North America. There are a few reasons for that.
Most of my contemporaries over there, people who were helping me, who I
sort of came up with, tend to do more short film. That’s obviously a
bit more controllable. Things are a bit more expensive there. There’s
not as much (independent production) over there as there is here, but
really there shouldn’t be. Hopefully that’s changing, and I’d like
think to that our film will encourage people as well. There’s
tremendous expertise, but a lot of my friends work in commercials, in
video post production. There a lot of young people with skill who are
quite keen to projects like this. It’s a great untapped resource.