In this weekly series, Bhaskar Chattopadhyay talks about six relatively lesser known and yet brilliant films by influential directors which were somehow overshadowed by some of the more popular films in the directors’ filmographies.
Christopher Nolan has often been hailed as a modern-day auteur – one whose films constantly challenge the prevalent notions of its audience and offers a deeply immersive cinematic experience. His highly recognizable thematic styles involve nonlinear storytelling, frequent time shifts, convoluted plotlines and grand scale. Many of his films are considered modern masterpieces – Inception (2010), for instance, or The Dark Knight (2008), or Interstellar (2014), or more recently, his epic war film Dunkirk (2014). But as with almost all great filmmakers, there is one tiny film in his remarkable filmography which not many people have had the good fortune of watching. That film – fascinating as it is, and yet completely overshadowed by some of the great ones mentioned above – is Following (1998).
Dealing with such themes as voyeurism and subterfuge, Following tells the story of an unnamed young man (Jeremy Theobald) who aspires to be a writer. When he is not writing – which is quite often – he wanders the streets of London, following random people to see what they do and where they go. One day, a man he has been following confronts him. As it turns out, the man is a burglar, and he likes breaking into people’s homes – more for the thrill than for financial gains. This man, named Cobb (Alex Haw), takes the writer under his wings and the two break into several homes. But when the young protégé makes the mistake of falling for a woman whose home he has broken into, he finds himself in a whole world of trouble.
While the plot may sound simple to you, it only sounds that way. For one, the story is told in a nonlinear fashion, across as many as three timelines, highlighted by a change in the protagonist’s appearance, his attire and his general level of confidence at doing what he is doing. If telling intricate stories is a hallmark of Christopher Nolan films, then Following is the film where it all began (although his very first film – a short titled Doodlebug – is also equally remarkable in this regard). To make things more challenging, Nolan summons all facets of noir storytelling here, which is why it is virtually impossible to predict who is telling the truth and who is not. The result is nothing short of a puzzle, massive in scale, and yet, thrilling to the core. Despite its production cost of only $6,000, this no-budget film has all the early signs of Nolan-isque features—in terms of theme, scale, style and form.
“…To solve the problem, he shot the first scene of the film in a ‘controlled environment’ with no ambient noise, starting with a voiceover, and moving on to a conversation that was professionally lit. His assumption was that by the time the ‘bad’ camerawork and ‘lousy’ sound recording would come in, audiences would already be hooked on to the power of the story.”
Due to its low budget, the film took almost one year to complete. Since most of the crew members were in full time jobs, they could get together only on the weekends, shooting 15-minute segments at a time. Nolan himself was making corporate films for large organizations at that time, and he would use his leisure time to edit the previous weekend’s shots and prepare for the next weekend’s schedule. Shot in black & white to save costs, mostly with available light, you will find almost all the actors standing next to windows or close to a source of light throughout the film, to ensure that they are well-lit. Each shot was heavily rehearsed, so that one or at most two takes would be enough to get it right. There were no sets used, and Nolan mostly shot at friend’s and family’s homes. The absence of proper light and the grainy and shaky quality of the images that came from a handheld camera did nothing to give the impression of a no-budget film. Instead, they created a sense of intrigue and gave a noir-ish look and feel to the story, which went well with the theme.
Nolan once said in an interview that before he started shooting, he was quite aware that there was a possibility that his audience would reject the amateurish look and sound of the film. To solve the problem, he shot the first scene of the film in a ‘controlled environment’ with no ambient noise, starting with a voiceover, and moving on to a conversation that was professionally lit. His assumption was that by the time the ‘bad’ camerawork and ‘lousy’ sound recording would come in, audiences would already be hooked on to the power of the story. It was a risky little trick, but a calculated one, and it did work—exactly as he had thought it would.
Following is a child of passion. The punch it packs in its 70-minute running time, is enviable, to say the least. It is a brilliant example of how a great work of art can be created with very little technical aid to support you. It is a lesson for all aspiring filmmakers on how to make your first film, undeterred by technical challenges that will always remain with you, even when you will have the fattest of cheques backing you. It is, by definition, a Christopher Nolan film—where dreams are real, and everything is possible.