Director Christopher Nolan Discusses Making His First Film, Following
Last night, director Christopher Nolan visited the IFC Center in New York City to screen his own restored print of his first film, Following. After showing the film (as well as one of his early shorts, Doodlebug), Nolan and incoming Village Voice film critic Scott Foundas discussed the film’s restoration, the challenges behind making Following—and how it compares to making big budget films like Inception and the Batman trilogy.
Shot in London over the course of a year with practically no budget, Following is a non-linear neonoir about a struggling writer who follows people in hopes that they’ll provide inspiration for his first novel. The restored version of the film will have a Criterion Blu-ray release on December 11. “It makes me feel very old, to talk about restoring my first film,” Nolan joked. The director shot Following in black and white 16mm in 1998. “We cut a negative, made one print from that, [and] it looked amazing,” he said. “It played the first film festivals, and then we had to blow it up to 35mm for distribution, and it never looked quite like what it was supposed to look like or sound like it was supposed to sound.” For the past couple of years, in preparation for the Criterion release, Nolan has supervised the restoration of the film, “going back to the original negative and finally making it look the way it was supposed to look.”
Two things inspired Nolan was inspired to make Following: Life in his crowded London neighborhood, and the burglary of his apartment. “You’d go out of your flat and you’d be surrounded by people. I became interested in the idea of looking at individuals and saying, 'What’s that person’s story?'” Nolan said. “Right around that time, somebody broke into the flat.”
Particularly powerful for him was coming home to see that his door had been smashed in. “I realized that the door was just plywood, and that was never keeping anybody out,” he said. “What was keeping people out was the social protocols that we have that allow us to live together. I was interested in the certain types of people who would stop observing those protocols, and why that would be.”
Writing and Filming
Though the film was always intended to have a non-linear structure, Nolan wrote the script in chronological order first, then went back and rearranged it—“on the page, not in the edit suite,” he said—which taught him a valuable lesson. “What I found was that there was so much rewriting involved to try to make a comprehensive and flowing narrative that when it came time to write Memento, I did the opposite, and I never looked at it reordered in any way,” he said.
Nolan wanted a non-linear structure for the film in part because it would fit the sporadic shooting schedule. “We’d shoot one day a week and we kept that up for most of a year, sometimes skipping a weekend or whatever,” he said. “It was truly a no-budget effort, and I’d written the script to accommodate that. The non-linear chronology helped us keep continuity in an organic way.”
Shooting in black and white rather than color gives Following its highly stylized, neonoir feel—and there were other benefits, too. “In black and white, it's much more possible to hide some of your budgetary constraints,” Nolan said. “When you have absolutely no money and absolutely no resources, [trying] to achieve color cinematography is extremely difficult. [With black and white,] it’s much more possible to get some kind of level of style to the thing—quickly and easily throwing in some lights and shadow and going with that.”
He and his friends filmed in their own apartments and in friends’ restaurants, and grabbed many shots on the fly. Only Lucy Russell, who plays the blonde, would go on to have a career in acting.
Independent Filmmaking versus Studio Films
Because he didn’t have a ton of money for film stock and processing on Following, Nolan wanted to avoid doing a large number of takes—so he had his actors rehearse for 6 months, as if they were doing a play. “When there’s a little mistake [in a play], the actors don’t stop and go ‘I need another one.’ They just get through,” he said. “So I thought we could [go] to a location that we had for an hour, jump in, do a scene we’d done 100 times before and film it, and give them one or two takes—most of the film is first takes, some are second.”
Knowing what he now knows, he said, “I would never try to do something like that. It was mad, really. But that’s the joy of when you’re first starting out—you don’t know the restrictions you’re putting on your actors and they just rose to it and gave these great performances.”
Whether or not Nolan runs rehearsal these days, he said, depends on the actors. “It’s is a peculiar proposition, because you can get maybe a few days, maybe a couple of weeks,” he said. “There are directors who massively value that, and I went into that process valuing that. But for me it’s about what the actors want and need. Quite often, larger scale films accommodate [rehearsal] on the day.”
But there's one thing that hasn’t changed: The work he does as a screenwriter and director. “It’s exactly the same,” he said. “And that’s what I’ve always loved about filmmaking. Your job as the director is to really have blinders and not be aware of the artifice—where the crew is, where the trucks are, and that kind of thing. Your job, really, is to try to be the audience on set. So I found that process of trying to devise a shot, trying to understand how it’s going to make you feel as an audience member, and how it’s going to fit into the story, to be exactly the same process [just on a bigger scale]. So however much things change, it’s the same process, and that’s the process you value. That’s what you love.”