Interviewing Christopher Nolan and Jeremy Theobald [part 1/2]

On the very last day of the Rotterdam film festival we got the chance to meet Christopher Nolan and Jeremy Theobald who presented 'Following' to the audience in Rotterdam. A European premiere of their home made no budget film noir which had to compete with nine other films in the Tiger Awards competition. We met up with them right before the award ceremonies in what would become one of the shortest interviews of the festival. Short only in terms of time, because the conversation is packed with information. Enjoy.

Tom: The first thing that we were wondering about is the way you financed this film. From what I understood you were working your day job and shooting in the weekends?

Christopher Nolan: That's right The way we made the film is.. we didn't have any money, so we were all working full time jobs. We'd work during the week and we shoot on saturdays. And we shot probably about twenty, twenty-two full days and then odd little bits, but I paid for the film from what I was earning with my day job. We spread the shoot out over about a year. Whenever I would run out of money or people would go out and do other things we would take a break for a month or something, earn more money and come back and shoot some more. So that was the way it was made and we managed to finish the film without owing any money to anyone.

Tom: Didn't you have real trouble with the continuity, shooting over a one year period?

Christopher: It was difficult from a continuity point of view, but I knew that it would be. It was one of the reasons for the structure of the script as well as I wanted to experiment with that kind of narrative and tell the story that way. It makes it much easier from a continuity point of view. Because what you're doing is showing a scene and then changing the timeframe and showing a scene from a different time, so when you come back to the time of the first scene, your continuity doesn't have to be perfect, people will not notice so much. Also because I was shooting the film myself and I was watching the rushes during the week I pretty much had the film in mind and I could remember how things had been and how to continue them.

Joep: Wasn't it tough on Jeremy wearing long hair and then cutting it again, or were those shoots split up in two periods?

Christopher: It was split up, we shot all the long hair stuff to begin with and then Jerry had to cut his hair for the Edinburgh festival because he was in a play and it was in the summer so we had to finish all that stuff and did all the short hair stuff after that.

Tom: Was that a coincidence that you had to cut your hair anyway, or was it in the script?

Jeremy: No, I think I'm so vain that I don't look very good with long hair. It was always in the script that I would cut my hair, it was just timing. It gave us a deadline so we would finish all the long hair stuff.

Tom: Going back to the structure of the script, did you always plan to make the film in this particular way or did it force itself upon the premise of the script?

Christopher: I think the premise in the way of the character who follows people, lent itself to this structural idea I had for some time. Because when this guy is following people you can see him follow three different people. Then you have to connect them, but of course he is following them at three different times. I had this structural idea in terms of telling the story in an unchronological way using narrative as a controlled release information. But that release of information is not based on time. It is based on the way stories are released in the real world. Which is that you get the complete picture building out of a sort of skeleton version of what you're first given, the newspaper headline version if you will. And then you see the story expand organically so you're learning things about the entire story and that contributes to the complete picture.

Tom: So it's sort of like someone doing research on a certain case and getting these bits and pieces of the puzzle?

Christopher: Exactly. And that seems to me the way we get most of the stories in real life anyway.

Joep: Or even remembering stories.

Christopher: Or even remembering them, exactly. Or if someone is telling a story. People will never say: 'Okay I woke up this morning and then I went to do this and then that.'

Joep: But it seems this the only way to tell the story, because any other way would give away the whole thing.

Christopher: If you watch the film a second time and you know the ending I think the structure becomes much clearer and why it is told this way becomes much clearer. Because the film doesn't rest on the twists. The twist at the end makes sense if you watch it again and it becomes quite a different film the second time you watch it.

Tom: It gives more meaning to all the things you see.

Christopher: Even a different meaning as well. Not just more meaning. But by watching these people and seeing who's doing what to whom and all the rest, because you know what is going to happen. So you watch it more from the point-of-view of the detail and how it forms the main character's voyeurism and how that is played upon by the people around him.

Joep: As viewer you realise at the exact same time as the main character what has happened to him.

Christopher: I think it plays very well a second time. Maybe even people that watch it the first time and don't like it will think it's better the second time, because they will understand a bit better why I told the story the way I have. It is not just a gimmick, it has a reason.

Tom: I could also imagine that the scene where your character (Jeremy) hooks up with the burglar, the first time round you wonder why the hell he's inviting him. You know he's a bit of a wacko, but that still seems kind of strange at first. In the end that becomes clear.

Christopher: Exactly and you sort of think why didn't I realise that the first time. It holds together pretty well the second time in terms of the logic of the plot. People are always trying to poke holes into the plot, so I had to answer most of the questions. I think I've found one hole, but I'm not going to tell you what.

Jeremy: It also helps us at the box office, because now people have to go twice.

Joep: Because everyone was such involved in making this film didn't Jeremy sometimes help you in the creative process of shooting it?

Christopher: I don't know. I'm pretty dictatorial actually, but when you do your own camera work you're pretty much in power.

Joep: How do you work with a person like that, Jeremy?

Jeremy: He is not as dictatorial as he thinks and there are subtle ways to get him to do what you want to do as opposed to what he wants to do.

Christopher: So he thinks.

(everyone laughs)

Christopher: Well to tell you the truth, in working with actors and working with Jerry, I think actors need to concentrate on their acting and play the character. It's not good if an actor is too camera conscious. But it's good to work with a person like Jerry who knows how a film is made, so technically he can be helpful. I think if you get too far in that direction it kind of loses the sense of reality of the character and you start playing too much for the camera, so it's a balance.

Tom: But you must have had some influence being the co-producer.

Jeremy: Yeah, because of the way the film was made in terms of low budget everybody did everything. But when we started first wanting to make the film Chris and I were talking about how to do it. And I had a bunch of friends who were actors and obviously I am one myself. Then there were several people I knew who were running businesses in London who I could count on and get favors from in terms of locations. So that was my sort of production input into it, so I took Chris to all these bars and restaurants and would suggest certain locations. I would ask 'what do you think?' and he would say 'maybe'. I asked many peoples I had worked with before to be interviewed for the parts and we cast out of my friends, so that was my input.

Christopher: And I was really happy about the locations, because I think we've used them all. We shot scenes at all of them, because they are all great great places and they really affect the look of the film. Especially the bars, because they are useful from a narrative point of view with these funny doors, so it's very recognizable. We couldn't have planned it like that.

Tom: So a good co-operation then?

Christopher: Yes. You need that when you have no money and when all you have is each other and the people around you. So the concept of being dictatorial is more in a sense of having the last word on things. If you're trying to make the best film you have to be willing to listen to what people are suggesting and then make a decision. That is what a director is, a decision maker.

Tom: I would imagine that for a film like this, which has such a complex structure a lot of the decision making is in your head, because you know how it is going to play.

Christopher: I found when people were reading the script that they were more confused by reading the script then they were by seeing the film. Because a lot of it is visual and how you see thing and how you emphasise things visually. But I think that is true in most films, that it's always a peculiar balance of collaboration and single-mindedness. Because there has to be a unifying vision, otherwise you would run into all these problems in terms of evenness of tone and all the rest. Just as the actor has to be the actor and has to be the judge of the way the character fits into the story, in terms of emphasis and in terms of saying things. Everyone has to take his responsibilities in making sure that there's a certain consistency in the various elements.

Tom: There's also lots of things that you can't put down in a script.

Christopher: Yeah, the script is just a skeleton, really a framework you put the film onto.

Joep: With this film you have worked with very few people. If you're going to do a new movie it's going to be a very different experience.

Christopher: I don't think I'm ever going to make a film this way again. And I think what is wonderful about this film is not having to answer to anybody in creative terms except myself. But that doesn't mean I did things exactly as I planned. You know there's this great collaboration between all these people involved, but I was free to do this for all the right reasons instead of having people tell me what to do. And I don't think I will ever be able to do that again, to tell you the truth. The next film I raise money for will be someone else's money and so immediately you have a responsibility to somebody else. So in a way I don't think I will ever have it this good again. But I will be able to spend more money for what there is on screen. The next thing will be partly in color and will be 35 millimeter and all that sort of thing. It gives you technical advantages. I don't know, ask me again in a year.

And then Jeremy and Christopher were off to the Tiger Awards ceremony in which their film 'Following' competed with nine other films from all over the world. All made by independent film companies and all debut feature films by first time directors.

And did they win? Find out on the next page!