Christopher Nolan’s “Following” (1998)

Around the time of the making of his short DOODLEBUG (1997), director Christopher Nolan found himself the victim of a burglary.  Whereas most people would be understandably distraught if their apartment had been broken into and their belongings stolen, Nolan’s chief reaction was curiosity.  He wondered what the burglars were thinking as they rifled through his things– what conclusions could they come to about his life based solely on the artifacts and totems of his existence?  In time, he would shape these musings into a story for a feature-length film he called FOLLOWING.  Having learned his lesson not to rely on the favor of unsympathetic British film institutions, Nolan fashioned the film as a lean, mean, razor-taut little thriller he could shoot for as little money as possible.  Taking the idea of a low-budget production to its very extreme, Nolan self-financed the film with the earnings from his day job– stretching the value of his dollar by shooting on weekends, employing friends and family as cast and crew, and commandeering their homes and flats as free locations.  This approach naturally caused the shoot to drag on in fits and starts over the course of a year, but when all was said and done, Nolan had his first feature film in the can– and it only cost him six thousand dollars.

Jeremy Theobald’s protagonist is not given a name– a fitting choice for a lonely writer who lives vicariously through the strangers he follows around his grimy London neighborhood.  Owing to the down-and-dirty nature of the film’s production circumstances, Theobald’s performance isn’t exactly the most natural or convincing, but it’s compelling enough to sustain the audience through the breathlessly-brief 70 minute runtime.  It helps that he’s given a charming and enigmatic antagonist in the form of Alex Haw’s Cobb.  Cobb is an impeccably-dressed, charismatic thief– his cavalier philosophy towards burglary as a cathartic form of human connection is presented as seductive and cool, almost like a boarding school Tyler Durden.  FOLLOWING borrows many elements from the well-trod noir genre, not the least of which is the inclusion of a blonde, morally-ambiguous femme fatale– played here by Lucy Russell.  There’s a photograph by Theobald’s character’s desk of Marilyn Monroe, and one can’t help but notice Russell’ eerie resemblance to the iconic movie star.  Like Theobald, Russell also isn’t given a name– she’s credited only as The Blonde, a conceit that lends some fuel to critiques that Nolan’s female characters on the whole are not particularly well-developed.  Russell is perfectly convincing within the film’s framework, but the stock-character nature of The Blonde’s personality doesn’t afford her many opportunities to transcend the material.  Funnily enough, however, Russell would be the only member of FOLLOWING’s cast to go on to a larger acting career.

Nolan has pioneered the use of large-format film mediums like IMAX to create a super-sized canvas for his high-stakes narratives, but even within the square confines of FOLLOWING’s 16mm frame, he’s able to convey a palpable, larger-than-life approach.  While the scope of his later work would command some of the highest budgets the industry has ever seen, the single largest expense for FOLLOWING’s scrappy production was the 16mm film stock itself.  Nolan and his crew conserved as much of their precious stock as possible, rehearsing extensively prior to shooting so they could nab what they wanted in one or two takes.  Indeed, his insistence on celluloid is what separates Nolan from his peers, most of whom got their own no-budget projects off the ground by embracing the relative cheapness of digital video.  FOLLOWING’s photochemical cinematography points to Nolan’s purist attitude towards the medium, and foreshadows his eventual position as one of the industry’s most vocal defenders of celluloid in the face of digital’s unstoppable advance.  In shooting FOLLOWING, Nolan acted as his own cameraman, utilizing mostly natural light to expose his grainy black and white images.  The majority of Nolan’s camerawork is handheld, which gives the film a kinetic and swift energy thanks to the fluid mobility and quick setup time afforded by the technique.  While Nolan used handheld camerawork primarily as a way to keep costs down, he was concerned that his choice might also lead to the impression that the film was amateurish, or that he didn’t know what he was doing.  To counter these concerns, he employed the smooth, polished movement of a dolly track during the interrogation scene that opens the film as a way to communicate to the audience that the predominant use of a handheld camerawork was a deliberate, stylistic choice.  While Nolan essentially acted as a one-man crew during production, he used post-production as an opportunity to enlist the collaborative efforts of musician David Julyan, who provides FOLLOWING with a pulsing, grimy score comprised of droning synths and jittery staccato tones.  

By virtue of its shoestring budget, FOLLOWING’s aesthetic is easily the most radical within Nolan’s canon.  It speaks in a language born of necessity and deprivation, a world apart from the style that he’d solidify in his studio work.  However, FOLLOWING does establish techniques and ideas that Nolan would further develop in the years to come.  For instance, he’s gained a bit of a reputation as a meticulous dresser, showing up to set in a business-casual wardrobe he’s refined into something of a uniform.  This aspect of his personality makes its way into his films, as many of his characters are given a palpable sartorial sensibility that’s high on functional style and low on extraneous embellishment.  Even in the context of a no-budget film like FOLLOWING, Nolan still places an emphasis on his characters’ costuming, using it as a story tool to highlight the strategic advantages of a presentable appearance in the world of burglary.  

The structuring of FOLLOWING’s narrative signals another key component of Nolan’s aesthetic: the non-linearity of time.  Simply put: time is never a straight line in Nolan’s films– whether it’s BATMAN BEGINS utilizing a recurring flashback motif, MEMENTO unfolding entirely in backwards chronological order, INCEPTION playing out against multiple parallel planes of space-time connected by a relativistic relationship, or INTERSTELLAR exploring gravity’s ability to warp our perception of time itself.  Nolan cites this aspect of his aesthetic as being inspired at a very young age by Graham Swift’s novel “Waterland” and its parallel structuring of time.  FOLLOWING pays tribute to this conceit by jumbling the order of its scenes non-sequentially– a decision made in large part to disguise the story’s major twist.  Indeed, the only visual clue Nolan gives to clue us on in which shard of the fractured timeline we’re in is via Theobald’s changing appearance from scraggly slacker to polished businessman and then to his final form as a defeated mound of ground-up beef.  While presented as something of a random shuffling of loosely connected scenes, Nolan’s ordering of the narrative is actually rather surgical, meticulously designed to enhance the impact of the mounting drama while constantly challenging our assumptions about what’s going on.  And just to show that the integrity of his story isn’t dependent on the gimmick of its nonlinear presentation, he even goes as far as assembling the scenes into proper chronological order in a completely separate linear that’s no less surprising or structurally sound and including it on the Criterion Collection’s 2012 Blu Ray release.  Just as the Batman logo on Theobald’s apartment door foreshadows his eventual cinematic involvement with the Caped Crusader, FOLLOWING’s unique structure portends the puzzle-like, revelation-based storytelling style that Nolan would build his career on.

Like so many no-budget films of its kind, the completion of FOLLOWING in 1998 wasn’t greeted with instantaneous acclaim or a great deal of attention.  It almost even didn’t get finished in the first place, had it not been for the saving grace of indie producer Peter Broderick, who secured completion funds after screening Nolan’s rough cut.  Thanks to its lack of star power and technical polish, FOLLOWING was shut out from several major film festivals– event those devoted to truly independent cinema like Sundance or Slamdance (in Slamdance’s defense, however, they would eventually accept the film into their festival after Nolan submitted his completely re-tooled final cut a year after his rejection).  FOLLOWING would ultimately premiere at the San Francisco Film Festival, gathering modest (yet consistent) praise as an engaging, if obscure, little thriller.  The film would find a distributor in Zeitgeist Films, who would release it to a tepid box office haul of fifty thousand dollars.  Nolan didn’t have much cause for concern though– by the time FOLLOWING had wound through its interminable festival circuit and theatrical release window, he had already optioned the script for a follow-up that would give him the breakthrough he needed and desired.  As Nolan’s career has since played out, the thematic similarities between FOLLOWING and his 2010 dreamscape thriller INCEPTION have become more pronounced.  In his essay “‘Nolan Begins”, former chief film critic for Variety, Scott Foundas, goes so far as to dub FOLLOWING a first draft for INCEPTION, citing that both films are in effect “a heist of the mind” masterminded by a slickly-dressed career criminal named Cobb.  On its own merits, FOLLOWING is a fascinating insight into the early voice of a massively influential contemporary filmmaker and the raw directorial powers he could exert with minimal resources and a tireless drive.