AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH CHRISTOPHER NOLAN (part 2) ^ Tell me about “The Following,” which played at Slamdance ’99. I remember only hearing raves about it. ^ It’s a film I made with a bunch of friends basically. I sort of developed this production method with a few of my friends for making short films where we shoot black & white documentary style. I do the camera work myself, minimal lighting, basically stand the actors by windows throughout the movie and try to get a visual style simply by selecting things through the frame like a good documentary cameraman would try and do. I decided to try and apply that to a feature length project. Got together with actors who I knew through college and all the rest and got them to agree to shoot one day a week, because we’re all working full-time jobs in the week. I worked and the job I was doing I could afford to pay for about 15 minutes of film stock and processing every week. So I was aiming at 2 to 1, it’s a very tight ratio from footage to finish film. That’s what we set out to do, and in fact it took about a year to film the whole film. The story is kind of a noirish story. It has a very fractured narrative, a little bit like Memento, although Memento I think it’s much clearer what the reason for that structure is. The sort of subjective storytelling where there’s somebody that doesn’t know what’s just happened so it’s all backwards, it’s linear but it’s backwards. “The Following” is a fractured structure that attempts to tell the beginning, middle and the end of the story at the same time. Kind of like, my thing was, well, in everyday life that’s very much how we receive information. Like a newspaper article where the headline tells you the whole story. In the process of telling the article, the person is expanding the story in three dimensions, almost a kind of fractal approach where you just go deeper and deeper. In newspaper terms, the next day you read a story about the same story, so you’re really just filling it in, filling it in, and growing it in all directions. That’s what “The Following” tries to do. It’s 17 minutes long, black & white. It has no padding whatsoever, because of the structure you are able to just give the relevant glimpses through the story that you need to fill in the rest with your mind. So, it’s very tight and I’m absolutely pleased about it. A much tidier ending than Memento, I felt that in “The Following” we had to some extent, obscured some of the more interesting qualities of the movie by the tightness of the ending. I think it’s a really interesting ending, but it’s a little bit showy and people tended to sometimes miss the way that the premise of the movie underlines the whole movie. You see it the second time, and it becomes something a bit different. Those are the kind of movies I’m very much interested in. If you’re interested in coming back for a second viewing, or even a third, you’ll get something new.
One of the things I like about Memento is: One of the directors today is M. Knight Shamalyan who did The Sixth Sense. I guess he’s become famous now for the ending that changes your perception of the entire movie. Yet, I feel with Memento, that’s happening every scene. How did the story come about? ^ My younger brother Jonah, who’s kind of more the American side of the family, if you heard us both talking you’d be surprised he has an American accent because of where we grew up and when. When I moved to LA about three years ago, just as I was finishing “Following,” I flew to Chicago, which is where he was with my older brother who lives there now, and we drove cross-country to Los Angeles, and at a point along the drive he quietly said “Well, I’m writing a short story and this is what it is.” And he told me this concept of a guy with no short-term memory looking for revenge, who’s taken to tattooing essential information on his body. Pretty bare bones, but that concept to me was very exciting and I immediately said “can I take this and do a screenplay from it while you finish the story?” And he said yes, and in the end it took him as long to finish the story as it did for me to make the whole film. It’s being published next month in Esquire Magazine; he’s very excited about it. It’s very different from the film, which is kind cool. The web site that he’s done, he created and he built totally himself, the web site for the film I think provides a really interesting link between his story and the movie.
Your brother built the web site, which is “memento” backward. Which is brilliant. ^ Well, and that was his idea, because “memento” was gone and we were like, it should be memento backwards, and he even registered the misspelling backwards because everyone always spells it with an “o” instead of an “e”. He’s done some great stuff for the web site. We talked a lot about notions of three-dimensional narrative, because what the web suggests, but isn’t there yet, is an extraordinary balance between the active and the passive in terms of exploring the story. So what we try to do is create a network of objects that you explore more or less all around and make your own connections. The movie I think is as close as you can get with a strip of film running through the projector, but these are the kind of things we were aiming at. All of this came from one of the first things we discussed as soon as he told me the story was by far the most interesting approach to this material is to try to tell it in the first person. That was my suggestion to him for writing the story to try to write it in the first person, because if you could do that it would be amazing. I didn’t really think about applying it to the screen until I started thinking about who this character is and what am I going to do with it. Then I came up with the idea of withholding knowledge from the audience that’s withheld from him by telling the story backwards. Once I hit that, the script came together quite nicely.
I heard raves about the script around town, that this was “the” script to read for some time. I know some people you even met with who said “this guy is great – we want to work with him in some way.” ^ It was definitely a script – it was actually very easy for me to get it made, I’ve been incredibly lucky, but it certainly was a script that a lot of people – and this is one of the frightening things about Hollywood, unnerving when you come to it and you realize, when you’re outside you think it’s run by complete idiots. You think, once I get there I’ll tell them “you should make this movie because it’ll be good” and they’ll go “Oh my god, never thought of that.” It’s not like that, they’re a lot of very bright people in Hollywood who have the same taste in movies that I do, but just getting them made is a tough thing. There were a lot of people who said “great script, can you please find somebody else to make it because I want to go see it, but I’m not going to make it.”
I talked to a lot of people at the studios and they say, “look, we don’t set out to make a bad movie.” Hollywood is so difficult. It’s difficult to make a film to begin with, but it’s difficult to make a film that’s fully realized and exciting. ^ It’s very tough, I mean, I’m just dipping my toe into the studio system now and it’s just very tough. With the sums of money involved, you know the amount of people it has to appeal to, people get very nervous about what you can put in a movie to keep that big audience or bring that big audience. The thing I see in Hollywood – people that I see discussing films that I think is a little bit negative is this incredible focus on box office. As a responsible filmmaker and I definitely consider myself that, I think a film has to make a certain amount of money for what you spend on it. But every week this kind of obsession with seeing what made what, and not taking into account that if you’ve got ten shitty movies in one week, people need to go to the movies, so they’ll go see it anyway even if it’s crap. So the fact that it makes money, doesn’t mean that it’s good.
I personally despise the fact that this industry has become so obsessed with the horse race at the box office. I can tell you that my mother, who lives in Michigan, can tell me that a certain film was number one at the box office, which is sort of a way that the marketing machine uses to recommend a movie. It use to be that after seeing a film we would talk about the merits of the film, now everyone, people who have no inside knowledge whatsoever, are saying “well, I think this will be number one at the box office.” ^ And you’re comparing apples and oranges anyway, because you’ve got a list of ten movies which cost very different amounts of money to make, which have had very different amounts of money spent on the marketing, which need to make very different amounts of money, etc. This is what I’m saying, you’re looking at a comparison between something being number one, or something being number five, it’s a meaningless figure anyway, because it doesn’t tell you whether the film is going to be profitable. Every now and again Variety or Hollywood Reporter will point out that all the number one movies of the year lost money. You’re comparing the wrong things. I mean my thing is if you spend a lot of money making a film, yes, you’ve got to be trying to appeal to a large audience. But I have a lot of faith in the audience; I really feel there aren’t that many movies. And when we got into Memento this is an unconventional movie, you know we had to shoot it in 25 1/2 days, I mean, I made it as small as I needed to keep creative control of it. That was the equation, you’re familiar with that equation. I honestly feel that there aren’t that many great movies that haven’t got out there in some way. That the audience, once it gets to them, haven’t some way responded to them. Yeah, it doesn’t appeal to everybody, but the people who it would appeal to get it. You know, I’m always asking people to name a movie that never got out there, and there aren’t that many. To me it’s encouraging – I have a lot of faith in audiences, if they’re presented with something more interesting, or a bit more challenging. Yes, it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, a film like Memento, but I think the studios sometimes forget, or the whole big machine sometimes forgets is that if you only offer people a certain kind of film, then well, yeah it’s going to do fine. If you offer them something different, then maybe that would do fine too. Every few years there’s a total surprise and that kind of reminds people.
It’s funny, the studio people that I talk to say “we want something original” then you present them with something original, and then “hhhmmnnn, that’s not exactly what I want.” When what they’re looking for is the new line in the same old bottle. ^ The interesting conversation I wound up having with a lot of people about Memento at script stage was: They would say “what we’re looking for in this type of movie is the next Usual Suspects.” And I would say “that’s exactly what this is, because this is a movie that will kind of take people by surprise a bit. They’ll talk about it afterwards, they won’t have understood everything that’s gone on and they’ll be interested to know what somebody else thinks. And that’s kind of what makes it something like (Usual Suspects).” But what they mean when they say “something like the Usual Suspects” is a copy of the last “Usual Suspects,” and that isn’t the new “Usual Suspects.” “The Usual Suspects” was original in certain significant ways at the time it came out. You can’t do that again, because you’re not doing the same thing, you’re not providing the same film for the market place. It’s got to be an update; it’s got to be something really different that maybe occupies that territory between independent film and something more mainstream.
Read the rest of our exclusive story in part 3 of NOLAN CHRISTOPHER WITH INTERVIEW EXCLUSIVE AN>>>