While innovative, hugely popular big budget blockbusters are Christopher Nolan’s staple these days, life wasn’t always so glamorous for the English director. Sixteen years ago, Nolan made his foray into feature-length filmmaking with the ultra-low budget (£3,000) Following.
This often forgotten gem of an independent film is unquestionably nascent Nolan. Watching Following in the context of his subsequent productions offers a fascinating insight to the director’s burgeoning thematic preoccupations and filmmaking techniques. Many of those ideas recur in his work to this day.
Warning: Spoilers for Nolan’s entire body of work follow from here.
One Nolan’s most prominent hallmarks is his use of overt exposition. Both techniques are immediately noticeable in Following. The opening sequence of panning shots through crowded streets is overdubbed with the protagonist explaining his peculiar hobby to the audience:
The following is my explanation. I’d been on my own for a while… and that’s when I started shadowing. Shadowing – following. I started to follow people.
The unemployed protagonist, a nameless wannabe writer (“the Young Man”), finds himself taking up the titular pastime for both voyeuristic pleasure and writing inspiration.
One of these “shadowing” excursions ends when his target, Cobb (Alex Haw) – a sharp dressed, barbed tongued man frothing with equal amounts charm and condescension – confronts him. After an initially frosty exchange, a mutual intrigue emerges between the opposing personas.
We learn that Cobb is a master burglar in the mould of the suave Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief. He says he is willing to take the young writer with him on his unconventional criminal jaunts. Of course, being a Nolan film, this venture into the illicit spirals into a deeper, darker and more complex suspense thriller.
Nolan sets the context for the act of “following” straight away with meticulous rules of engagement. Not only is the shadowing outlined, but so is Cobb’s unique take on breaking and entering. His mantra is, “You take it away… to show them what they had.” Cobb is like a morally dubious 20th century Robin Hood.
We see this blatant exposition in his other films, too. In Inception, the fittingly named Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) describes the parameters of dream infiltration to Ariadne (Ellen Page). Leonard Shelby instructively talks about his amnesia in Memento. Even Batman has his obsessively strict rules on vigilantism in the Dark Knight trilogy.
Nolan explicitly conveys these self-imposed conditions to the audience in each of his films. This exposition works in Following and his other movies to anchor the characters in a purposeful, predictable existence. From there, Nolan can play with these guidelines by using a nonlinear narrative style.
The most overt use of Following’s exposition is in The Prestige. There, Cutter (Michael Caine) explains the tripartite magic act – “The Pledge,” “The Turn” and “The Prestige” – to Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman). This cleverly managed three-part reveal, not only used by the film’s magicians but by Nolan in his three-act narrative structure, brings a slick and satisfying conclusion to the story.
In hindsight of The Prestige, Following shares a similar tripartite structure. In the Following’s case, “The Pledge” is the apparently mutually beneficial partnership between Cobb and the Young Man. “The Turn” comes when this dynamic breaks down due to the emergence of a mysterious femme fatale, The Blonde (Lucy Russell). Finally, “The Prestige” is the final twist that unveils how these three characters’ fates have been entwined from the start.
Exposition feeds a narrative framework in Inception, as well. Cobb states the acts of the film in dialogue-driven sequences before they become the structure of the film itself. The plot moves through each dream level – as described by Cobb – until the story lands somewhere in Limbo. At that point, the audience reaches the end of the information they’ve been provided and Nolan is free to conclude his narrative in whatever way he chooses.
Nolan’s exposition is essential because it predicates his chronologically twisting narratives. Of course non-linear plots aren’t a new invention; D. W. Griffith’s time travelling 1916 film, Intolerance, precedes even Orson Welles’ use of the device in the classic Citizen Kane. Yet few directors seems as at home splicing up a story as Nolan.
Following presents us with the first example of Nolan’s mastery of this idea. As Cobb and The Young Man’s worlds merge, the plot spliced with snippets of a barely recognisable Young Man stashing money away, bloody and bruised. It is unclear whether these moments take place in the future or the past, but they provide an ominous and intriguing slant on the film’s direction. In the finale, these cutaways expose themselves as a part of a complex narrative arc.
The Nolan film most indebted to this fragmented, flashback/forward storytelling was his subsequent movie, Memento. If Following was where the director tried his hand at unconventional plot structure, then Memento is where he mastered it. Telling Guy Pearce’s amnesia ridden tale backwards catapults a simple thriller to an enthralling journey that entrains the mind as much as it challenges it.
Nothing happens by chance in Following; every small moment has a purpose in the end. Nolan’s two sci-fi outings, Inception and Interstellar, bend time, space, mind and reality in a similarly complex style. However, each film climaxes in a reveal that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Interstellar may break the fourth dimension, but its nonlinear structure and a final plot twist merely build on Following’s foundations.
While the nonlinear and expositional nature of Nolan’s films is well documented, Following reveals another trend. In his first film, we see Nolan’s focus on duelling protagonists with contrasting, often assumed, identities. Following’s two protagonists are not only polar opposites – Cobb suave and confident, the Young Man scruffy and naïve – but they also exist without a sense of true self.
Cobb, in the unlikely event that is his real name, makes a career out of living other people’s lives, stealing occupations and residencies in order to masquerade as someone he isn’t. The Young Man isn’t even afforded a name, let alone a job (beyond aspiring writer). In fact, the Young Man’s identity is so weak and malleable that when Cobb jokes that he should get a haircut and a suit, he immediately does so. His willingness to follow (here the title takes on double meaning) is emblematic of his inability to feel comfortable in his own skin.
The most glaring replication of these character traits is in The Prestige. In that film, working class magician “The Professor” (Christian Bale) has an interchangeable twin. His rival, from aristocratic heritage, goes under the stage name “The Great Danton” (Hugh Jackman). These are two characters desperately trying to reinvent themselves through competitive stage personas to escape the banal anonymity of their real lives.
Similarly, in The Dark Knight, “Batman” and “The Joker” function as pseudonyms. They are masks to the public that allow the humans underneath to act out their deepest illegal urges: revenge-driven vigilantism and mindless, chaotic murder, respectively. Nolan predicates most of the film (drawing from the comic book source material) on this yin yang dynamic.
Nolan’s much overlooked 2002 film Insomnia also advances the idea of duelling identities. Detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and murderer Hap Eckhart (Robin Williams) share more in common than their good/bad professions suggest. Their tense dance forms the emotional basis for the entire murder case.
Even Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) in Interstellar can’t escape an identity crisis no matter how far he travels. He struggles internally to balance his life as a father and farmer with his potential as an astronaut and saviour of humanity. All the while, his unshakeable positivity rivals the nihilistic outlook of co-stars Matt Damon and Michael Caine.
Nolan also reveals his hand in Following by constructing what I’ll call a “relatable reality.” Movies (even documentaries) create some alternate version of “real.” Nolan’s works are no different. However, his goal is to both create something new and offer enough touchstones to keep the audience engaged. For instance, Following unfolds in London. There’s no sensational surrealism or fantastical landscapes – just the bustling streets of a city we know from everyday life.
Nolan’s most famous work to date is undoubtedly his Dark Knight trilogy. It is also his prominent example of the director’s vision of a “relatable reality.” In stark contrast to Tim Burton’s expressionist caricature of Gotham City in Batman and Batman Returns, Nolan’s films resemble a darkly gothic Chicago.
This grounded setting makes another appearance in Superman adaptation Man Of Steel (where Nolan served as both producer and story consultant). In that film, an alien from the fictional planet Krypton lands on Earth and eventually saves it from destruction. This is all made surprisingly plausible because director Zack Snyder, writer David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan work to establish Metropolis as an ordinary, everyday American city.
Even the dreamscape of Inception is rooted firmly in reality. Nolan’s vision of the mind manifests in wintery fortresses and crumbling metropolis and not abstract surrealism favoured by films like Videodrome and Mullholland Dr. Likewise, in Interstellar, Nolan’s alien planets resemble environments we might find on Earth instead of the fantastical wonderlands of Star Wars and Avatar. Nolan grounds mindbending plots in believable landscapes for both of his sci-fi epics.
In Following, the Young Man’s decision to follow members of the public calls out to the seductive nature of voyeurism – the allure of cinema itself. This hints at Nolan’s later trend: creating films where fantastical plots happen in a recognisable world. And Nolan, saddled with a camera, looks on with us in childlike wonder.
Dreams. Space. Magic. Superheroes. Voyeurism. Memory. These are all subjects of interest that dominate our childhood and lead of our most prominent thoughts of escapism. It is no coincidence that they are also the focal points of Nolan films.
Interstellar, The Dark Knight, Inception and Following may look and feel lightyears apart, but Nolan’s inimitable and distinctive approach to filmmaking means that the same themes, narrative devices and stylistic concerns crop up in each of them. The definition of an auteur is “a film director who influences their films so much that they rank as their author.” Even the most ardent anti-Nolanists would struggle to deny him that title.
Following is an excellent crime thriller in its own right, but its true value has only become more clear in the past decade as Nolan’s career has blossomed. We don’t know what his next film will be, but chances are we can find its roots in Following.