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The Nolanverse: A Christopher Nolan Retrospective – Part 1/3

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The long-awaited sci-fi epic Interstellar is finally here, and hype is at fever pitch – but watching Oscar-winner Matthew McConaughey travel to distant worlds over the vastness of space and time is only one reason Flickreel are excited. We’re also looking forward to Interstellar because it’s a new Christopher Nolan film. The British-American director has near single-handedly given blockbusters a good name again, and despite the high-concept plots and explosive action set pieces, never forgets why we go to the cinema in the first place. Time and time again, Nolan has shown us – the audience – things we’ve never seen before; so before we blast off into outer space, let’s take a look back over what the acclaimed filmmaker has already given us during his time on Earth, in this first video of a three part series.

Welcome to the Nolanverse.

  1. Following (1998)

Even in his debut feature, Nolan was making his distinctive voice heard. Shot with a small cast and crew made up mainly of his friends, Following concerns the exploits of a character known only as The Young Man, played by Jeremy Theobald, who has the peculiar habit of following people around through their day in order to strike up some inspiration for his novel – but he sets strict rules so as to avoid himself becoming too involved in their lives. One day, he begins following a particularly mysterious-looking man, who soon cottons onto the Young Man’s tailing; he introduces himself as Cobb, and our protagonist quickly becomes embroiled in a criminal existence. As everything gets more exciting for the Young Man, he learns that Cobb isn’t breaking into people’s flats for material things, but instead simply enjoys the act itself. And as the plot becomes more and more fractured, and characters’ motives get even murkier than they were in the first place, it’s clear that this is a fully-formed Christopher Nolan picture: an incredibly strong debut despite its limited £6,000 budget. It makes great use of its heavy black-and-white noir style in painting a psychologically complex character piece, where the only thing less reliable than the narrator is what we’re seeing with our own eyes.

Nolan not only wrote, shot and directed the film, he also had a hand in producing and editing it too. At the time, he and his cast and crew were all in full-time employment, so shot Following at the weekends, fifteen minutes of footage at a time, for an entire year. The most expensive factor of production was the 16mm film stock itself, meaning that they had to extensively rehearse each and every scene so that they got it in one or two takes maximum – many of which were shot in the homes of friends and families – as the cost of the film stock was funded personally by Nolan himself; which is quite prophetic, since he and a number of other directors including Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese have now bought up Kodak’s own film stock in order to keep production rolling.

If anything, Following was the testing ground for the thirty year-old Nolan: if he could make something this effective for next to no money, imagine what he could do with a proper film budget.

Something you might not know about Following:

There’s a Batman logo on the door to one of the flats – which happened to be Jeremy Theobald’s.

  1. Memento (2000)

For many, Memento remains their favourite Christopher Nolan picture: a water-tight narrative; a gimmick that actually works as a brilliant psychological conceit; and terrific performances from the cast make this neo-noir work on every level. For the blossoming director, it was a true step-up from Following: his first real budget; his first stars; and the kind of exposure you could only dream of after it took the Sundance film festival by storm. As far as the world was concerned, it was his first step onto the world stage, and as a result, independent movies would never be quite the same again.

In Memento, Guy Pearce plays Leonard Shelby, who we quickly learn suffers from acute short-term memory loss – meaning that if he doesn’t write something down quickly, a moment will forever be lost from his mind. In his quest to find his wife’s killer, one of the ways in which he keeps track of clues, leads and locations, is by tattooing them, rather strikingly, all over his body. There are suspicious characters, such as Joe Pantoliano’s Teddy; and the ones who may be able to help, like Carrie-Anne Moss’ Natalie – but thanks to his extremely rare condition, he can never trust anyone completely, and his hunt takes him further into the dark recesses of his own mind.

But by far the the biggest talking point about Memento has always been the film’s structure. The narrative travels backward in time through the story, beginning with the ending, and ending with the beginning. Although there are countless chances for the movie to become confusing, or even incomprehensible as a result, Memento keeps things moving along swiftly, never giving into gimmickry, and never losing focus of Shelby’s number one motive: to catch the man who killed his wife. And despite its narrative flashiness, the film’s notable for showing us Nolan’s confidence in a single image, such as the long-held opening shot, where a photograph develops backward in time: the image becoming less and less clear until it disappears completely. To say this was a symbol for Shelby’s own head would be an understatement.

Memento also marked the first collaboration between the director and his brother, Jonathan Nolan, whose short story Memento Mori was the inspiration for the film. The two would go on to write most of Christopher’s films together, starting proper with 2006’s The Prestige – but before all that, Christopher Nolan travelled to the cold, unforgiving landscape of Alaska to make Insomnia.

Something you might not know about Memento:

In the limited edition DVD of the film, there is an easter egg function which allows you to play the film with its scenes ordered chronologically.

  1. Insomnia (2002)

With Insomnia, Nolan would continue on much the same wavelength as his previous two features: it would be about another deeply conflicted man who is thrown into dark psychological territory. Although often regarded as his weakest film, it’s still a finely tuned thriller that gives no easy answers to some very difficult questions.

Insomnia was Nolan’s first time working with an A-list actor: Al Pacino plays Will Dormer, a detective sent to a far-flung part of Alaska with his partner Hap, played by Martin Donovan, in order to investigate the murder of a local teenage girl. Although they’re experienced LA cops, the tundra of Alaska proves a difficult place to settle into: the case happens to be at the time of year when the sun doesn’t go down, and when Dormer accidentally kills Hap while on the hunt for the killer, the constant blazing sun is a bleak reminder of just how desolate the moral landscape of this film is, as Dormer tosses and turns in bed, desperately trying to get even a little sleep. And that’s before we even meet Robin Williams as Walter Finch, a local novelist who is heavily linked to the victim: he leads Dormer on a cat-and-mouse chase that goes on to define the detective’s already troubled conscience, and includes a particularly memorable chase scene that culminates in a water-bound lumber plant. In the years to come since William’s death, this will be remembered as one of his most complex and envelope-pushing performances: a chilling exercise in against-type brilliance.

Insomnia remains Nolan’s only remake, as it was based on the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name. In transposing the action to Alaska, an area with similar geography as the original, what could have easily been a glossy American remake of a foreign-language classic was instead given its very own world, filled with characters who are all fractured in different, thrilling ways. If this densely layered, metaphorical thriller, filled with brilliant performances including the best in years for Pacino, is Nolan’s worst film, that’s a pretty big compliment for the rest of his movies. Next, he would be handed the keys to a franchise that would define the bulk of his career…

Something you might not know about Insomnia:

The name of Al Pacino’s character, Will Dormer, comes from the latin word dormire, which means ‘to sleep’.

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