Once you reach the stars, perhaps it’s time to make a return trip to Earth. Writer/director Christopher Nolan’s hotly anticipated new film Interstellar has been described as his grandest and most ambitious work yet (if not necessarily his best), and this inspired me to revisit his very first film: Following. Far from the $150 million plus budgets of his blockbuster work, Following was made on a peanuts budget of only $6,000 (even less than the many cheap found footage horror movies), but it already lays the groundwork for the common thematic material and stylistic touches that Nolan continues to explore to this day.
The film is about a young man (who goes by multiple names) who is intrigued by the lives of strangers to the point where he’s willing to follow them around all day and become invested in their daily routines. One day the stranger he is following notices and confronts him about it. This man, named Cobb (a name that would be repurposed for Leonardo DiCaprio in Nolan’s own Inception), is a burglar who brings the protagonist along on break-ins and eventually seduces him into the lifestyle of a career criminal. In the guise of his new identity, the young man soon begins a relationship with a woman whose house he broke into, and that’s when everything begins to unravel around him.
Of Nolan’s later films, Following most closely resembles his breakout hit Memento in its affinity for film noir tropes as well as the psychological uncertainty of its characters’ motivations. The Young Man falls in line with many of Nolan’s obsessive protagonists, and his striving to live through others who have more than him provides a real character-based reason for the familiar “ordinary man sucked into a life of crime” story. As it becomes apparent, though, not everything is as it seems, and each character keeps their motivations close to the chest.
With many filmmakers working on low resources, their first films can feel like rough sketches of ideas that would be more fully explored in their later works, but with Following it’s clear that Nolan already had a clear picture of the kind of story he wanted to tell. Apart from missing cinematographer Wally Pfister, whose crisp and sterile imagery, in contrast to the grainy black and white looseness of this debut, would define each of the director’s films from Memento and on, Following works as more than just a cinematic curiosity.
With frequent early collaborator David Julyan handling music duties (whose minimalist work is a refreshing, far cry from the Hans Zimmer bombast found in the Batman films and Inception), Nolan pulls a Robert Rodriguez by controlling most production duties but with much more success in executing his intentions. Rodriguez’ super low budget debut El Mariachi is an obvious comparison on multiple fronts, including the feeling of creative freedom and discovery as we see a budding filmmaker find his groove. Nolan fans that prefer his more grounded output like Memento and especially The Prestige will greatly appreciate the use of non-linear story structure and plot twists rooted in character work.
It’s these qualities that show how Following isn’t just an anomaly or a prelude for what was to come in the director’s career, and was even deemed worthy of a recent Criterion Blu-ray restoration. Fans of Christopher Nolan’s work will greatly appreciate the recurring themes and visual touches that would materialize later on. Meanwhile, neophytes will also enjoy seeing a filmmaker utilize their limited resources to their advantage in creative ways, much like other filmmakers such as Darren Aronofsky and Sam Raimi did with their first films, Pi and The Evil Dead, respectively. And if you thought Memento was Christopher Nolan’s calling card, then it’s time to correct this by seeking out Following in the near future.