“One of the things independent filmmakers don’t necessarily understand is just how long [this] process is going to be,” Christopher Nolan said before an audience at the L.A. County Museum of Art on Friday. “Getting the film made is one thing, that’s hard enough, but then actually having to get out there doing film festivals, just trying to get it seen by distributors and then ultimately trying to promote it…well, I’m still here promoting this film. It’s been 15 years and I’m trying to get more people to see it.”
As Elvis Mitchell, who conducted the conversation for Film Independent after a screening of Nolan’s first film “Following,” he doesn’t need to try quite as hard these days. Though it’s out of the ordinary to see the 600-seat Bing Theater completely filled for a 70-minute, black-and-white film featuring unknown actors, Nolan has grown his fanbase considerably since embarking on what remains one of his most daunting productions, cobbled together on a $6,000 budget and shot one day a week over the course of a year to accommodate its skeletal cast and crew’s day jobs.
For those who haven’t seen “Following,” the film offers a proper introduction to the filmmaker, promising the type of mystery that Nolan has become famous for as soon as it opens with a shot of a box being unlatched by hands in latex gloves. It isn’t coincidental that Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in “Inception” takes his name from the lone character bestowed one in “Following,” a thief (Alex Haw) who becomes the focus of a writer (Jeremy Theobald) who tracks people in his neighborhood for inspiration and eventually finds himself in over his head with his latest curiosity.
Nolan shared a few anecdotes from the production such as how the film is comprised of mostly first or second takes since that’s all their limited supply of 16mm film would allow and when Haw caught the director offguard by appearing at a party near the end of the filming with his head shaved and news he’d be leaving for Australia in three weeks, creating scheduling and continuity concerns. (“Just about works with the timeline,” Nolan conceded now with a slight smile.) But whereas most retrospective screenings ponder time in relation to memory, Nolan was prodded by Mitchell to discuss the way time has been a crucial element in his films, leading to some of the most interesting portions of the discussion.
“I’ve always been most fascinated by subjectivity and the difference between a subjective view of the world and the idea of an objective world and time is one of the most subjective things that we deal with,” said Nolan. “And movie grammar, the way films lay out time for you, is one of the most certainly mysterious and interesting parts of filmmaking. The relationship between the film running through the projector and time is not examined very much by us as audience members, so you’re able to mess around with that a lot.
“One of the peculiar aspects of films is you go and see a two-hour film and particularly with mainstream films, you very rarely have a sense of how long the time of the story you saw was, particularly if it’s not a true story or a defined period. If it’s a thriller for example, you’ll very rarely have a sense of if it’s two weeks, two days, three months…it’s an interesting phenomenon because films kind of work on their own weird sort of subjective clock and it’s another way in which you can fool the audience, fool the characters within the story.”
Nolan also reflected on being a filmmaker in the first generation to be raised with home video, realizing the possibilities of how being able to pause and rewind might change the way one tells a story onscreen after his family got a VCR when he was 11.
“In an era where you can stop [a film], which we’ve all grown up in now, that changes what you can do with narrative and density of narrative and you don’t need as linear a narrative anymore,” Nolan said. “You can have different layers, you can have different rhythms to it because people are, in a way, paying more attention. They’re able to pay more attention to structural issues as opposed to the other issues.”
While Mitchell pressed a notion that Nolan was heavily influenced by the rule-breaking of auteurs such as Nic Roeg and Alan Parker who the director championed in previous talks with him, Nolan continued to acknowledge the influence of technology on his work and of film in general. Outlining a history of breakthroughs in business and media consumption that few filmmakers seem to give much thought to, Nolan cited the sale of films to television as a reason why few movies attempted the narrative adventurousness of “Citizen Kane” in the years that followed for fear of advertising breaks, which in turn had a great impact on films when directors such as Ridley and Tony Scott and Adrian Lyne “were really experimenting with cramming an enormous amount of input into 30 seconds, so the audience’s expectations of editing rhythms and so forth is completely different now.”
Also different is how audiences can watch a movie, which Nolan told Mitchell as early as when he began screening “Memento” had played into how he approached it for future viewings.
“Once people started buying movies and owning movies the way they owned music, there’s a different expectation of what a movie is subtly,” Nolan said. “Certainly a film like ‘Memento’ or some of the other films we’ve made, they do try to give value for money in that sense. It fits in with a peculiar aspect temporally with filmmaking, which is it’ll take me at least two or three years to make a film, so I have all this time to plan it, to put things into it and not only am I working on it for two or three years, but I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of other people working on it. Then the viewer watches it once for two hours. You have all this input going into the thing, so I think it’s appropriate there’s a density to that.”
This has led Nolan to embrace what he termed a “newspaper headline approach to films, the idea most interesting stories are the one where we think we know the whole story, so upfront, you tell everybody the story, then you tell the real story, the underlying things, so it’s showing everybody something that will happen or has happened and then why it happened, how it happened or what’s really going on.”
“The way we receive stories in real life tends to be you have the newspaper headline version,” Nolan continued, noting it can be seen as early as in his first film. “You have the article that fills in the detail of that and then two days later, you read another article about the same subject that gives you even more detail and reappraising things, so the structure of ‘Following’ was a pretty specific attempt to try and present a story with its different aspects and look at the different aspects throughout the process of watching the film rather than receiving it in a chronological way.”
Like “Memento,” “Following” has been released on home video with a chronologically linear edit — a new Criterion Collection release is responsible for Nolan’s renewed tubthumping appearances in New York in Los Angeles, but as Nolan reinforced on Friday, this shouldn’t suggest that he believes a movie should give an audience all the answers, nor does he think wanting all the answers is a good thing, as he’s learned from experience.
Nolan got a big laugh from the crowd when he said that when they gauged reaction to “Inception,” “We found that people who went into the film feeling they had to understand everything got really pissed off with it and didn’t like it whereas people who would just go to sit and relax and enjoy it and understand that there’s no test afterwards, they’d get right on into the film.”
Joking that “I’m getting bored with people asking me about that spinning top,” Nolan wouldn’t take the bait when Mitchell asked if the director tired of fans asking for specific explanations of the meaning of his films, but did pinpoint when it was he discovered it was best to keep his personal intentions vague, shortly after the premiere of “Memento” at the Venice Film Festival in 2000.
“I did a Q & A with a bunch of journalists afterwards and somebody asked me about some of the ambiguities of the end and I remember I told him exactly what happened,” Nolan recalled. “My brother Jonah took me aside and said, ‘You can’t do that.’ And I said, ‘Why not?’ He said, ‘Because you’ve made a film where quite specifically you’re telling an audience they can’t know these things, so your opinion isn’t any more valid than anyone else’s.’ He was absolutely right…and he said we’d make a lot more money that way too.”