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Batman gets his start in a London Taxi
Last fall the Los Angeles County Museum of Art held a 10-year anniversary screening of Christopher Nolan’s debut movie, “Following.” When a camera scans the door to a flat, the audience burst out laughing. The reason: A Batman poster is prominently displayed on the door, and Nolan went on to direct “Batman Begins” and its sequel, “The Dark Knight.”
“I would love to say it was fate or destiny, but it is a total coincidence,” Nolan, 38, said recently from his Los Angeles office. The flat belonged to a cast member, who just happened to have a thing for the Caped Crusader. Yet looking over Nolan’s charmed career, it’s hard to deny destiny’s hand, or at least a finger poking the way.
“Following” is a perfect example. While the efforts of most first-time filmmakers lay buried in a bottom drawer, “Following” quickly developed an audience. An enthusiastic response at the San Francisco International Film Festival and other festivals led to a distribution deal for the 71-minute movie. It proved a persuasive calling card, gaining Nolan entree into major studios and helping him secure a budget in the low millions for his next film, “Memento.” That seemed like a fortune to Nolan, who had shot “Following” for $6,000 in black and white. The entire cast and crew could fit into a London Black Taxi. “London Taxis are a bit bigger,” Nolan said.
The film took a year to complete because the cast and crew had day jobs and could work – if you call receiving no salary work – only on weekends. He instructed them not to leave England unexpectedly and not to cut their hair. A compelling story weaving in aspects of timeless film noir and crime fiction explain why “Following” seems as fresh today as it did a decade ago.
Plans are under way for an encore theatrical release and a Blu-ray edition later in the year. Bay Area audiences don’t have to wait to see “Following” on a big screen. It’s a highlight of the Mostly British Film Series at the Vogue in San Francisco and the Rafael in San Rafael.
Lessons Nolan learned shooting on the cheap proved invaluable on “Memento” and, subsequently, “Insomnia” and “The Prestige.” He even applied them to the almost $400 million Batman franchise.
Because of limited time to shoot “Following,” he devised a “very efficient process of focusing on the specific shot that is in the frame – that you are shooting right then and there – and how it is involved in the story. That absolute focus of my attention has carried me through everything I’ve done since,” he said.
Jeremy Theobald, an actor friend of Nolan’s, plays an aspiring writer at loose ends who starts following people around London, not with the intention of harming them but merely to observe their lives. (For old times’ sake, Nolan cast Theobald as a Gotham Water Board technician in “Batman Begins.”)
The character is loosely patterned after Nolan, who wasn’t working at the time and was doing some serious hanging out. “I lived in a very crowded part of London. As soon as I went out my front door there would be a crowd of people around me,” said Nolan, who turned this into a memorable shot of Theobald surrounded by strangers. “I got interested in the notion of how you are bumping up against strangers all day but seek a separate place for your own comfort.
As soon as you break that distance – even in a small way, like walking at the same pace as someone else – it’s considered a peculiar thing to do.” Nolan never dared try it. “I was worried about getting into a fight,” he said. Many scenes were shot on rooftops. Nolan found he could move his film outdoors that way without having to deal with a bureaucracy that insisted on permits. He was fortunate in having use of his parents’ spacious residence for a scene in which a burglary takes place.
In between filming, the house really was burglarized. “I had intended to go back and shoot some items, but they had been stolen for real,” Nolan said. “Following” makes liberal use of flashbacks and flash-forwards to keep the viewer alert – a device Nolan would build on in “Memento,” in which he adopted a reverse chronological order “to put the audience into the head of the protagonist, who doesn’t know what he has just done.”
It was a huge help for him to be able to show “Following” to movie executives to allay their fears about “Memento’s” unusual narrative approach. Back in his indie days, Nolan always imagined himself directing Hollywood blockbusters. He never doubted he could make the transition. The hardest adjustment on “Batman Begins” was “the physical scale of the film and having to do large-scale action sequences and large-scale special effects.”
He may pick up the Caped Crusader’s story again, but not before a few detours. Nolan just signed a deal to direct a sci-fi action film he wrote called “Inception” – returning to the single-word titles that have served him well.
After that, he’s considering bringing the 1960s British TV series “The Prisoner” to the big screen. Nolan is a fan of the show, which starred Patrick McGoohan as a British secret agent who is captured. Nolan leaves the door open to anything, even shooting in black and white again. It hardly matters, he said, because he’s color blind.
A responsibility has been pressed on Nolan this awards season that he couldn’t have imagined in his worst nightmares. Heath Ledger, who as the Joker walks away with “The Dark Knight,” died of an accidental overdose in January 2008. Ledger is winning every award for best supporting actor, including, almost certainly, tonight’s Oscar. Nolan has been eloquent in accepting these prizes for Ledger with “an awful mixture of sadness but incredible pride.”
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