Following is the first movie made by Christopher Nolan, who you probably know as the guy who made the new Batman movies. If you’re a little bit of a film nerd, you probably also know him as the guy who made Memento. He also made The Prestige and that movie where Al Pacino couldn’t fall asleep. Following is mostly only interesting to film nerds, like me.
Consider this: In the early 2000s, Warner Bros. was looking for someone to revive the Batman franchise after directer Joel Schumacher had made two cartoonish Batman movies wherein Batman’s suit was made into something horrifically homo-erotic with rubber nipples. The studio was looking for a director who could make a Batman movie that was actually good. The leading contenders were two independent directors: Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky.
Aronofsky had directed the brilliant and groundbreaking Requiem for a Dream, a visually engrossing and atmospheric film about heroin addicts in Coney Island. His first movie, π, was a neo-noir film about the mathematical discovery of everything. It explored the mystery behind the number pi, Kabbalah, life, the universe, and everything else. It was also shot with a tiny budget on grainy black and white film.
Aronofsky didn’t get the job of making Batman. Instead he made The Fountain, an ambitious and underbudgeted film that was brilliant despite its flawed, and which flopped at the box office.
Nolan got the Batman job. But before he made Memento, a structurally engrossing and atmospheric movie, he made Following, which was shot on a tiny budget on grainy black and white film. The similarities between the two filmmakers’ early careers are interesting to film nerds like myself.
Following starts with a young man explaining to someone about how he is a young, unemployed writer in London who took to following people he thought were interesting. He began following a man who befriended him in a cafe and revealed that he was a professional burglar. The two of them burgled a beautiful woman’s apartment, who the young man later encountered at a bar and fell in love with.
The film follows conventions of film noir. The woman the young man falls for is the femme fatale. Neither she nor the burglar he befriends are who they seem to be. The ending, when their intentions are fully revealed, is trite and not as interesting as the setup.
But Nolan keeps things interesting through a non-linear plot structure, which allows for dramatic revelations and two or three plot twists. He used non-linear storytelling artfully in Memento, and also to great effect in Batman Begins, The Prestige. In Following, the lack of linearity isn’t necessary, except to allow for plot twists. Here, Nolan is essentially prepping himself for his later films.
But it is interesting how he uses sets to define people. In an early scene, the burglar takes the young man on a venture breaking into someone’s apartment. He speaks about how people’s personal space can define who they are. Nolan takes advantage of this idea by having different characters enter apartments with recognizable landmarks. These apartments indeed define the characters. The young man’s apartment is small and stark, like an employed person’s would be. The femme fatale’s apartment is well-furnished and has a piano.
Interestingly, Nolan used his friends’ apartments as location. All of the actors are amateur, but some of the apartments may actually belong to them, and may actually define them.
And Nolan’s film is furnished with his characteristic plot structure. Despite the grey and the grain, it looks visually similar to his other films, especially Memento. One idea behind Following is that we cannot escape who we are. Nolan is no exception.