A stylish, artful crime thriller, Christopher Nolan’s Following is the sort of no-budget indie debut whose merits are in danger of being eclipsed by its underdog-made-good backstory. Working only on Saturdays (he had a day job making corporate videos), the first-time British director shot the film in London over the course of nearly one year (the cast and crew also had full-time jobs and worked for free). After Following premiered at last year’s San Francisco Film Festival, Next Wave Films stepped in to provide finishing funds; blown-up to 35mm and enhanced by a new sound mix, it went on to win prizes at both Slamdance and Rotterdam.
Applying classic double-cross permutations to a neo-noir triangle of deceit, Nolan plays off familiar tropes, but he does so with a wit and innovation that elude many modern-day genre exercises. The film takes off from the alliance between a compulsive voyeur and a professional burglar; Nolan says he had been fascinated by the impulses that underlie the invasion of personal space ever since his London flat was burgled several years ago. “I found the experience hard to get out of my head. You come home and you look around at this evidence of someone else having been there. You find yourself visualizing this strange person rifling through your things.” The protagonist’s obsession with randomly shadowing strangers— his Achilles’ heel and the film’s narrative motor— “grew naturally out of asking, well, what kind of trouble could you get into?”
Asked if he has firsthand experience, Nolan laughs. “I’m not answering that. . . . Well, no, not really. Only enough to realize how frighteningly seductive that particular kind of voyeurism is. It’s fascinating how easy it is to invade other people’s privacy. That we don’t, I think, is based on the fact that none of us would want anyone to do it to us. We have these invisible barriers around us, and as soon as somebody chooses to break them down, the rules all change.”
Nolan has been making films since he was seven, collaborating with his older brother and childhood friends Roko and Adrian Belic (the directors of Genghis Blues, an Audience Award winner at Sundance this year) on “little science fiction epics shot with my dad’s Super-8 camera.”
Now living in L.A. (his mother is American), the 29-year-old director is adapting Ruth Rendell’s The Keys to the Street for Fox Searchlight and in the midst of casting his second feature, Memento, a “psychological thriller” that promises to be as much of a structural conundrum as his first film. “It’s seen through the eyes of the protagonist, who has no short-term memory.”
Nolan defends Following‘s fractured, chronology-scrambling narrative as more than a gimmick. “To me, narrative is a controlled release of information, and I don’t feel any obligation to make that release chronological,” he says. “I wanted to construct a story along the concept of parallel time lines, breaking it up and rearranging it so that the forward progress of the narrative wasn’t chronological but based on filling in relevant details. And with this kind of noirish story, the structure can be a way of clueing the audience in to the fact that they should be assessing and then reassessing the relationships between the main characters.”
The most dramatic storytelling is, more often than not, nonlinear, says Nolan, enthusiastically citing, of all things, The Jerry Springer Show as a model. “First they tell you what the story is— my brother slept with my wife, whatever— and then you get the characters up onstage. One of them starts telling a bit of the story. Then one of the others interrupts and introduces this new piece of information, and the story builds in this weird, organic way that’s not at all chronological. It’s not a gimmick or a puzzle, just a natural way of creating suspense.”