Thursday, 10 June 2010

Nolan Fest, Week One: Following

Made for a shoestring on weekends over the best part of a year, Christopher Nolan's stunning debut feature with its fractured narrative, ingenious editing, and dark, twisty core, laid out the narrative and thematic template for everything that was to come from the young filmmaker who is probably closer to Stanley Kubrick in terms of methodology and output than anyone else working today. 

The plot is a simple one. A young man who calls himself "Bill" (although on the DVD commentary track Nolan says he doesn't believe him when he says it), played by Jeremy Theobald, spends his days shadowing — following — random strangers on the streets of London. A wannabe writer, Bill uses these "encounters" as a way to stave off boredom, to satiate his voyeuristic tendencies, and, perhaps even more importantly, in an attempt to connect with those around him. 

One day, while following a man in a suit carrying a sports bag, Bill finds the tables are turned on him when his latest target, Cobb (Alex Haw), calls him on it. Cobb, it transpires, is a burglar and the pair partner up, as the enigmatic thief schools Bill in the finer points of his profession. But after breaking into the flat of a blonde femme fatale (Lucy Russell), Bill decides to go it alone, finding himself increasingly drawn to his victim, following her to a bar, and asking her out. The pair swiftly becoming romantically attached and Bill is only too willing to break into the underground bar of her ex-boyfriend, a psychopathic pornographer and club owner, to retrieve some incriminating photos. Only things and people aren't what they seem and Bill discovers he's been set up, like every other patsy in the history of film noir.

"The script was written along the lines of what I see as the most interesting aspect of film noir and crime fiction; not baroque lighting setups and sinister villains, but simply that character is ultimately defined by action," says Nolan. "In a compelling story of this genre we are continually being asked to rethink our assessment of the relationship between the various characters, and I decided to structure my story in such a way as to emphasize the audience's incomplete understanding of each new scene as it is first presented.

"We rehearsed for a very long time beforehand, about six months, because I could only really afford film stock for one or two takes," continues Nolan who shot the film using a handheld Bolex 16mm camera. "The actors had to know the film like a stage play so that we could find a location at the last minute, go there and just do it." Locations included Nolan's parents' house while Bill's flat was Theobald's. The Batman sticker on the door was his and already there, and not some prescient art direction by Nolan. 

A smart, assured, film noir shot, appropriately, in black and white, Following shares a similarly fractured (if not similar) narrative structure to Memento as past, present and future events are revealed in parallel timelines, although Nolan originally conceived and indeed cut the movie in more a linear fashion (you can see that version as a DVD extra). The structure clearly adds to the film's success, engendering a remarkable and mounting sense of unease. 

In a 2002 interview at the BFI, Nolan talked about his fondness for non-linear narrative structure:

"The thing that fed into that was probably my time at college, I studied English Literature. I wasn't a very good student, but one thing I did get from it, while I was making films at the same time with the college film society, was that I started thinking about the narrative freedoms that authors had enjoyed for centuries and it seemed to me that filmmakers should enjoy those freedoms as well.

"When I look back at film history and wonder why that hasn't happened yet, well, it's a young medium, a hundred years old, and the significant reason is television coming along in the Fifties. As soon as television became the only secondary way in which films were watched, films had to adhere to a pretty linear system, whereby you can drift off for ten minutes and go and answer the phone and not really lose your place.

"I think my generation of filmmakers is the first to have grown up with home video, and as soon as you have VHS — we got our first one when I was eleven — you can stop the film when the phone rings, and suddenly viewing films in the home become more like books. I think with things like DVD this will carry on. So I think there is more freedom and potential for filmmakers working now to create more dense and structurally complex narratives.

Trivia note: Leonardo DiCaprio's character in Inception shares the same last name, Cobb, as the antagonist in Following.

Following is available on DVD. 


Julian Simpson said...

Sold! Ordering the Following DVD right now!

Mark Salisbury said...

You can always mine if you like.

Nice of you to stop by.

Gerard said...

Bring on week two! Capital stuff. Big fan of Following. Looking forward to the Insomnia edition.

Mark Salisbury said...

I'm looking forward to Insomnia, too. Haven't seen it in a while.