I'll go out on a limb and declare that Christopher Nolan is the best filmmaker of his generation, or at least the most consistent. When I look at the work of his peers -- say, Quentin Tarantino, Bryan Singer, and Wes Anderson -- I see talent that's all over the damn place, peaking magnificently in one film and veering way off course the next. Not so with Nolan, whose work to date (Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins ) demonstrates a steady grasp of cinematic storytelling with spectacle firmly rooted in human emotion.
He now commands one big-budget superhero film franchise, will soon take the reigns of a much-loved sci-fi cult TV show (The Prisoner), and his lavish magician extravaganza The Prestige opens later this month. With all this money and power at hand, you might think Nolan doesn't know the first thing about low-budget filmmaking, or if he ever did, that he's long since forgotten it.
Not so. Monday night Nolan spoke at the Egyptian Theater as part of the No Budget Film School, which cites his first film, Following (1999) as a textbook case in how to make a movie with extremely limited resources.
Following is a neo-noir tale that Nolan shot on a shoestring budget (around $12K) on weekends over the course of a year, using friends from college as the main actors. It's an imaginative 16mm black-and-white tale that prefigures his breakout follow-up Memento with its innovative use of a fractured timeline.
In Following, a lone wanna-be writer (Jeremy Theobald) starts following people at random. He says he's simply looking for characters to write about, but we know he's really craving human contact in a world that seems to ignore his plight. When one of these seemingly unsuspecting strangers abruptly confronts him, this pale and dissheveled writer is drawn into the hidden world of small-time crime, and he starts to like it -- at least, until the rug is pulled out from underneath his feet.
Although he now oversees big-budget films, Nolan was frank about the importance of knowing one's limitations and how to effectively work within them. In prepping the shoot for Following, the then-unknown Nolan and his producer/wife Emma Thomas made lists of shooting locations they knew they could use for free: deserted alleyways, friends' grungy apartments, even his parent's house. When it came to lists of available props, nothing was purchased, they simply took stock of what was at hand.
Nolan's apartment had been recently robbed, and from the police he gathered fascinating information about the petty thief underground that pulled such jobs. With his lists of limitations (or, rather, opportunities) in mind, Nolan set out to write Following on a manual typewriter (which was also pressed into service as a prominent prop in the film).
Nolan knew he wanted to play with the timeline, but first he had to figure out the story from A to Z. He ended up with essentially three linear acts and started shuffling scenes around, looking for emotional or visual resonances. The writer, Bill, has a distinct look for each act that helps the audience track the progression of events, while also building suspense. Just how did he get those bruises on his face? And when did he cut his hair? And is that a psychiatrist he's confessing to, or a detective?
Theobald he knew from earlier short films they'd done together. Once he'd cast Alex Haw as the enigmatic Cobb and Lucy Russell as the femme fatale, Nolan made use of another free resource most filmmakers ignore: rehearsal.
Nolan said he appreciates how actors in theater, because they know their roles through repeat performances, can cover dropped lines or goofs with nary a blink. The audience never knows if they've just seen a "mistake," and such uncomfortable frissons can actually add life to some scenes.
Because they'd be shooting with no control over their environment, Nolan knew mistakes might happen. Instead of letting this become a pressure point for his cast, he wanted them to inhabit their characters as fully as if they were performing them during a theatrical run. To this end, they spent many weeks rehearsing scenes at the actual locations. When it came time to shoot, mistakes probably were made, but nobody in the audience can spot them. Indeed, Nolan revealed that what you're seeing in Following are either first or second takes, because they couldn't afford to shoot third takes.
Nolan's miniscule budget barely covered the film and processing, so any official film permits were out of the question. Exteriors were planned and shot using a small hand-held camera that could be tucked under a jacket for a quick getaway. Although Nolan now commands huge armies of film tehcnicians, he smiled proudly at the fact that Following's entire film crew (and gear) could fit into the back of a taxi (which it often did).
16mm black-and-white not only lent itself aesthetically to this bleak noir tale, but also eased the demands of cinematography and scenic design. "Bad lighting in black-and-white is so much better than bad lighting in color," Nolan quipped. Later he pointed out how many scenes feature characters standing beside windows to take advantage of natural light. "Besides," Nolan grinned, "people just like to stand by windows."
Following also makes great use of rooftops to open up the film's otherwise claustrophobic world. Finding a good rooftop is free and much safer than shooting on the streets, he said, and Following benefits from these occasional wide-scale vistas of working-class London.
Saturdays were their shooting days, because Nolan and everyone else worked during the week. Sundays were much-needed days off. The shoot was initially planned for 12 consecutive Saturdays, but that schedule quickly fell by the wayside. On and off, the shooting took the better part of a year.
Nolan joked about the number of no-budget film projects that never get off the ground because everybody sits around arguing how they should split the millions that will undoubtedly come from, say, a killer deal at Sundance. Nolan was careful not to promise any payment to Following's cast and crew. He insisted they understand their work and effort would probably pay off with nothing more than a movie nobody would ever see, and they'd have to be content with that. As the film won festival prizes and landed a subsequent distribution deal, everyone was dealt a fair cut of the proceeds.
At the Q&A afterwards, so many audience members wanted to foist their own movies on Nolan that the moderator actually asked: "Is there anybody with a question who doesn't have a DVD for Mr. Nolan?"
At least they were polite. Before the screening even started, Nolan was unfortunately accosted by a desperate, crazed filmmaker in full view of the entire audience. Apparently this toxic sociopath was trying to hand off a script or solicit some promise of future employment -- he was literally huffing like like an adenoidal hippo as he insisted on Nolan's annointment of his talent. This unbalanced, rude bastard glued himself to the helpless director, invading his personal space to such an extent it's a wonder that Nolan didn't push him away. Thankfully, American Cinematheque staff members quickly rushed in to pry away this deranged man.
As the rejected prick ascended the Egyptian's stairs toward the exit, he sucked in a deep breath and bellowed, "Motherfucking goddamned Hollywood nepotistic motherfuckers!" and slammed the door behind him. The stunned audience applauded his departure, although this guy's obviously so fucked in the head that he may have mistaken their roar as confirmation that, why, yes, this is the right way to pursue a career in Hollywood.
Nolan, to his credit, took the uneasy incident in stride, and settled back calmly to watch his movie, demonstrating one rule of filmmaking that, big-budget or no-budget, always pays off: be polite and never lose your cool.