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Unveiling the Complexities of Christopher Nolan’s Debut: ‘Following’

A lot more than just a director: Christopher Nolan (3)

“Everyone has a box!” Following

Christopher Nolan, one of three children of an advertising executive father and an English teacher/hostess mother, first encountered a camera at the age of 7 due to his father’s profession. As a child and a devoted Star Wars fan, Nolan filmed his early movies under the influence of these films. For example, he animated figurines he made using the stop-motion technique and named his film “Space Wars.”

Growing up in a educated family, his childhood was split between London and Chicago. His uncle working at NASA became the foundation of his interest in space. The origins of his future film “Interstellar” can be traced back to these experiences.

At the age of 11, he decided to become a director.

While still in university at the age of 19, Nolan and his childhood friend Roko Belic collaborated to make the surreal short film “Tarantella.” Although Nolan is credited as a co-director in the credits, he was primarily involved in assisting, and the film’s screenplay was his creation.

The term “Tarantella” phonetically evokes “Tarantula,” and it’s actually the name of one of the early examples of cinema (1906). Over time, various Tarantella stories of different lengths and times were adapted into cinema. According to legend, Tarantella refers to the dance one must perform when bitten by a tarantula to extract its venom. The name “Tarantella” is derived from the city of Taranto in southern Italy. The Tarantella, which evolved into a rhythmic dance, also attracted the interest of many classical music composers. Renowned musicians such as Liszt, Rossini, Chopin, and Shostakovich have composed works with this name.

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The film tells the story of a troubled youth’s encounter with spiders and demons. Roko Belic portrays the youth, Christopher embodies the darkness by wearing black, and his brother Jonathan represents the light by wearing white. (You can watch this film, discovered by a cinephile named Henry Adana in 2021, here.)

The reason he wanted to study at the University of London was that the school had extensive production facilities and film shooting opportunities.

After joining the school’s film club, he met someone special. Emma Thomas, a student in the Ancient History department and a resident of the upper floor of the same dormitory where he lived.

Emma was also passionate about cinema but preferred to focus on production tasks such as finding locations, arranging equipment, setting up shots, and feeding the crew.

Their first collaboration was during the shooting of “Doodlebug,” where Emma and Christopher decided to unite their lives. They have not only maintained a successful professional partnership but also a marriage that has endured admirably to this day, resulting in four children. However, the heroes in their films were not so fortunate. Most of Nolan’s male protagonists were widowed, and in many cases, their wives had departed to the afterlife. By the way, I strongly recommend not missing the section in Nolan’s films about “wife deaths.”

Instead of going on a honeymoon immediately after getting married, the Nolan couple delved into writing the script, and they made their famous debut with “Following.” It’s worth noting that Emma has very brief and subtle appearances in the film.

The Freshly-wed Nolan Couple on the “Following” set. Emma has three small roles in the cafeteria scene. A top-notch entry into the industry: “Following!”

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Christopher Nolan’s first feature-length film, “Following” (1998), is the sound of a great filmmaker’s footsteps. At the beginning of Nolan’s cinematic career, before diving into big-budget Hollywood productions, “Following” serves as a model film that contains some fundamental elements and techniques we will see in his later works. Christopher Nolan, figuratively speaking, signals in his first film that he is already an “auteur” director.

The most striking feature of the film is its adoption of a non-linear narrative structure, a hallmark we will see in Nolan’s other films as well. While the film appears to progress as the main character recalls past events, the director mixes the audience’s perceptions like a blender and complicates the temporal dimension. This is a feature we will also observe in other Nolan films like “Memento” and “Dunkirk.” When we closely examine Nolan’s films, we see recurring situations or events that don’t necessarily fall under the category of a “theme.” Thematically, Nolan’s films are independent of each other and each deals with entirely different subjects.

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For example, in “Following,” it explores the tension between the main character’s aspiration to become a writer and his desire to mimic the lifestyle of a thief. Similar situations are also present in “The Prestige” and “Inception,” where Nolan twists and turns the boundaries between identity, imitation, and reality.

Before continuing with “Following,” I would like to mention a classic film. The 1951 renowned thriller master Alfred Hitchcock directed “Strangers on a Train” has a very interesting plot. In fact, this film is an adaptation of a novel. Patricia Highsmith, a crime and suspense novelist, had many of her books adapted into films, and the Ripley series, in particular, became a worldwide bestseller. Highsmith caused quite a stir in 1991 with her novel “Ripley Under Water,” which she wrote as part of the series. The book had a very interesting dedication at the beginning:

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“To the dead of Intifada and the Kurds, to those who rose not to be counted, but to be shot…”

As expected, this dedication was drawn from the repression in Israel and Turkey!

So, what does “Strangers on a Train” tell?

The book (and the film) begins with the encounter of two strangers, Guy Haines and Charles Bruno, during a train journey. Guy is an architect trying to divorce his wife, and Charles is the idle son of a wealthy man. Charles makes Guy an offer: If Guy murders Charles’s father, Charles will murder Guy’s wife in return. This way, both murders will have no apparent motive, so they won’t be caught by the police. Guy rejects the offer, but Charles goes ahead and initiates the plan by murdering Guy’s wife. This event puts Guy under tremendous pressure, and the situation becomes increasingly convoluted!

For some reason, “Following” has always reminded me of the atmosphere and mood of “Strangers on a Train.” Although there are almost no direct similarities between the two, they are both artistic works with different concerns!

For example, in both works, the main characters form deep relationships with strangers they happen to encounter. These encounters change the course of events. Additionally, in both “Strangers on a Train” and “Following,” an innocent character falls under the charm of a sinister stranger. This interaction causes the innocent character to question their moral values. In both works, a simple encounter at the beginning leads to a series of complex and dangerous events.

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Both Highsmith (and Hitchcock) and Nolan delve deep into the psychological aspects of crime and the consequences of individual actions. However, the two works diverge significantly in terms of themes and outcomes. “Strangers on a Train” focuses on the psychological aspects of crime and guilt, while “Following” explores themes of obsession, identity, and manipulation. Both works provide profound insights into the consequences of their characters’ decisions and actions.

I guess I compared the antagonists in the two films. Two unsettling individuals: Charles and Cobb.

Nolan’s first feature film, “Following,” is notable for maintaining the same themes that revolve around his filmography. This is oddly encouraging because despite the success of hit films like “The Dark Knight” and “Inception,” which led to increased budgets for his films, Nolan seems enchanted by the intersection of time and identity. He continuously manipulates time to separate his audience from traditional chronology and better showcase his characters’ fears and weaknesses. For Nolan, time has an artificial structure that can be bent to shed light on the story of a broken-hearted man (almost always a man). Our protagonist either succumbs to his ego or is in some form of acceptance that allows him to move forward.

“Following,” released in 1998, is a truly independent film, and Nolan almost shot it with a “zero” budget.

The film was shot with almost “zero” artificial lighting, with a significant portion filmed in natural light. There’s an interesting detail: Nolan was careful to keep the film materials to an amount that would fit in a taxi. During the shoot, when the props to be stolen in the film were actually stolen from the set, production was temporarily halted.

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Here’s the story:

A writer, out of boredom and disappointment, randomly selects strangers from the crowded streets of London and starts following them. This amateur writer, who follows people to see where they go and how they spend their days, deludes himself into thinking he’s collecting useful material for his writing. He has long exceeded the goal of creating characters; he has become a voyeur.

One day, he makes a mistake and starts following the same people multiple times. His intent, once focused on character development, has now turned into straightforward voyeurism.

He encounters Cobb, a professional thief, who wants to know why he is being followed. With Cobb (played by Alex Haw) entering the scene, the protagonist, who was once the hunter, finds himself in the position of prey. Cobb is somewhat of an observer himself, delighting in consciously disrupting the lives of his victims by “taking what they have” and distorting their ethics. The young man is deeply influenced by Cobb’s teachings and becomes almost hypnotized, willingly following his orders. The situation becomes even more complex when he introduces him to a “femme fatale” named the Blonde (Lucy Russell), who has ties to a crime boss (Dick Bradsell).

Cobb later takes him on a heist, shows him the intricacies of the job, and demonstrates his ability to deduce things from the belongings of their victims. The young writer becomes increasingly entangled in Cobb’s treacherous activities and develops an obsession with a woman whose home they’ve robbed.

We will continue with a deeper analysis of the film.

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