With his latest offering Inception hitting cinemas this July, Trevor Hogg profiles the career of British filmmaker Christopher Nolan in the first of a three part feature...
While studying English Literature at University College London, British director Christopher Nolan discovered the two loves of his life – his long-time producing partner and wife Emma Thomas, and cinematic storytelling. “While I was making films with the college film society, 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.”
Employing guerilla film techniques, the undergraduate student shot a series of 16mm films, one of which was a three-minute grainy black and white short called Doodlebug (1997). A man (Jeremy Theobald) tries to catch a bug running around his room. The tense action unfolds within the confines of a dark and tiny apartment; it concludes with a mind-bending twist. “I think audiences get too comfortable and familiar in today’s movies,” observed Nolan. “They believe everything they’re hearing and seeing; I like to shake that up.”
After his home had been broken into, Christopher Nolan wondered about what the thieves thought as they were looking through his belongings. The robbery served as the basis for his feature length debut Following (1998) which once again starred Jeremy Theobald. Struggling novelist Bill (Theobald) indulges in voyeuristic trips where he follows strangers; trouble arises when he is confronted by one of his stalking subjects, Cobb (Alex Haw), who in turn takes him on a series of burglaries.
“Following was always planned as an ultra-low budget film, so the substance of the film was both inspired by and planned around a shooting style which we developed to accommodate our limited resources,” remarked Nolan. The entire cast, crew, and equipment were squeezed into a single London taxi cab for the $6,000 production. “Even for a “no-budget” film our production methods were extreme. All of us were in full-time employment throughout the production, meaning we were only able to shoot on Saturdays. As a result, it took us a year to get all the filming done, a blessing in disguise as it allowed me to pay for all the stock and processing from my salary without getting into debt.”
“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,” stated Christopher Nolan who had Jeremy Theobald also serve as a producer and acting-talent spotter. Theobald turned to his college drama society days to find performers Lucy Russell and Alex Haw. “We rehearsed two evenings a week for six months before shooting anything,” revealed Nolan. “The actors developed a familiarity with the material which meant that the finished film could be edited using almost exclusively first and second takes.” The aspiring director adjusted his filming approach with an eye to helping his cast. “By operating the camera myself and by using minimal lighting, I was able to place the actors within each location in a relatively natural and interference-free environment.”
“Locations were begged, borrowed, stolen…for the most part the film was shot in our own friends’ flats,” recalled Nolan. “The main location was my parents’ house, which worked perfectly – no only because the house is great, but also because the catering was excellent. The only hitch came when the house was burgled and ironically enough, some of the items which are stolen in one of our fictional burglaries, were stolen in real life. Thankfully, we had most of what we needed although some of the inserts I had planned were now impossible to shoot.”
Submitting the finished project to various international film festivals led to Following being nominated for Best Production at the British Independent Film Awards, and winning the Silver Hitchcock at the Dinard British Film Festival. Nolan was lauded with Best Director at the Newport International Film Festival, while the picture contended for the Jury Award for Best Film. The Rutterdam International Film Festival presented the movie with the Tiger Award, and the Slamdance Film Festival handed out the Black and White Award as well as a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize. Subsequently released in the United States, Following earned $48,482 in American box office receipts.
“The structure of Memento is weirdly less self-conscious than it was with Following,” observed Christopher Nolan when discussing his sophomore effort released in 2000 about a man (Guy Pearce) suffering from short-term memory lost who attempts to avenge the murder of his wife (Jorja Fox). “In Following, the relationship between the subject matter and the narrative divides. It’s a bit harder for people to figure out, it’s a little more subtle. Memento is very clear to most people, even if they hate it. It’s like we try to put them in his head and that’s why the story is told backwards.” The director had a certain viewpoint in mind when positioning his camera. “What we tried to do with Memento was simply block the film from the character’s point of view as much as possible. He walks into a room and you’re looking over his shoulder, exploring the room as he does.”
“It’s been a weird organic process, because my brother told me the concept when he was writing the story,” explained Christopher Nolan, who frequently collaborates with his younger sibling Jonathan. “He told me it while we were driving from Chicago to L.A., across country.” The Nolans chose to explore the concept using two different mediums. “We had decided that in our own ways we were going to try and tell the story in the first person; me in film and him in a short story...I was going for something that lived in its own shape which was slightly built from the standard linear experience.” Two years later as Christopher Nolan completed the movie, Jonathan wrote the final draft of his short story titled Memento Mori. Though both versions maintain key elements such as the main character leaving notes to himself as well as having tattoos containing information about the murderer, they significantly diverge from one another in their conclusion. Unlike the film, there is no ambiguity in the short story as to whether the right perpetrator is killed.
Contemplating what makes him and his brother artistically different, Jonathan Nolan remarked, “I’ve always suspected that it has something to do with the fact that he’s left-handed and I’m right-handed, because he is somehow able to look at my ideas and flip them around in a way that’s just a bit more twisted and interesting. It’s great to be able to work with him that way.” When writing the screenplay for the picture which features Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano of The Matrix (1999) as well as Callum Keith Rennie (Hard Core Logo), Christopher Nolan found inspiration in literature. “Certain books had a big influence on me, particularly Graham Swift’s Waterland. It’s a really fantastic novel that I read years and years ago where he has this incredibly complex juggling of parallel timelines.”
“The weird thing is you go through these tortuous creative machinations and then you look back at the original script and it’s pretty close to what’s on the screen,” confided the London-native who pointed out one particular difference. “There is probably more voice over in this film than there was in the script. I kept missing it when it wasn’t there for twenty minutes because you just needed to keep drawing people into his mind.” The first person perspective left audience members as perplexed as the main character. “I find it quite satisfying that people will come out of this film arguing about who are the good guys, and who the bad guy is. Not because there isn’t one but because we are using an unreliable narrator.”
Maintaining a hectic principle photography schedule which resulted in fifty-seven camera setups being done in a single day, there was no time for second guessing. “You have so many points along the way where the film stops being real and you just have to say, ‘This is what I’m making,’” reflected Christopher Nolan whose major creative challenge was assembling the footage for the $5 million production. “It was very tough in the editing to get down to the right length because you could not lose a scene, otherwise you lost your link [between them].” The director prides himself on being meticulous. “I feel like I’ve got three years to work on this and as a viewer you’ve got like two hours to watch it, so I ought to be functioning at some level of greater sophistication than you can absorb in one viewing.”
Premiering at the 2000 Venice Film Festival, Memento received a standing ovation. Unlike their international counterparts, U.S. distributors labeled the picture as being too confusing. Encouraged by a public campaign of support by American filmmaker Steven Soderbergh (Traffic), the movie’s production company Newmarket chose to distribute Memento itself. The risky decision paid off as the psychological thriller grossed $40 million worldwide; it also became a darling of the awards circuit. The British Independent Film Awards presented the movie with the trophy for Best Foreign Independent Film – English Language, and the American Film Institute handed the picture the award for Screenwriter of the Year along with nominations for Editor and Movie of the Year. At the Oscars, Memento contended for Best Editing and Best Original Screenplay, while the Golden Globes nominated the film for Best Screenplay; other nominations included one from the Director’s Guild of American and another from the American Cinema Editors for Best Edited Feature Film.
Having captured the attention of Hollywood, the next project for Christopher Nolan was to remake a 1997 Norwegian picture, with a trio of Oscar-winning actors.
Continue to part two, and be sure to cast your vote for your favourite Christopher Nolan film in our poll.
Read Jonathan Nolan's Memento Mori, and for more on Christopher Nolan visit fan sites ChristopherNolan.net and Nolan Fans.
Short Film Showcase - Doodlebug (1997)
Movies... For Free! Following (1998)
Thoughts on... Inception (2010)
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.