Christopher Nolan has finally begun work on Dunkirk, his tenth film. The WWII-set thriller stars acting heavyweights Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh, and is set to hit theatres in July 2017.
Nolan, who never went to film school, began his illustrious career as a seven-year-old by using his father’s Super 8 camera. While at University College in London, Nolan honed his directorial skills by making black-and-white shorts on weekends with friends. Doodlebug (1997), with a score by frequent collaborator David Julyan (Following, Prestige, Memento, Batman Begins) was Nolan’s third short film after Tarantella and Larceny, and starred Jeremy Theobald, who would go on to produce and star in Nolan’s debut Following (1998).
The three-minute Kafkaesque short, produced by future wife Emma Thomas, is shot using black and white 8mm film and features all of his obsessions: the blurred line between reality and fiction, multiple versions of reality, and tiny actions leading to large consequences. The film showcases Nolan’s remarkably self-assured skills early on in his career. The ending typically packs a punch, leaving the film open to multiple interpretations.
There are many things in both Doodblebug and his feature debut, Following (1998) that foreshadow what was to come. Nolan is obsessed with characters who live in the shadows and on the fringes of society. This expressionist quality of his work would later be used in making his Batman trilogy. Nolan also isn’t a director who is commonly associated with the use of a twist ending but every single one of his films, right from his first, features one in way or another. On a side note, the antagonist in his debut shares his name with Inception’s Dom Cobb (Leonardo Di Caprio).
Nolan spoke about his early career on the Criterion Collection edition of Following (1998). One of the reasons for shooting in black and white was, according to Nolan, that it masked the low budget quality of his productions. He said, “We stripped it down to get a black and white expressionist style cheaply and quickly. We do it predominantly with a handheld camera so we aren’t aping big budget filmmaking with a dolly and so forth. Can you create a striped down production machine that could be used to create a feature film? Where you shoot a short film like in a weekend and then edit it and put it together. What we did with Following was we made a short film every weekend.”
Following cost 10,000 pounds to produce and is often cited as one of the cheapest feature films ever made. The film tells the story of an aspiring writer who begins following people in order to get some inspiration for a novel. The novelist becomes embroiled in the lives of the people he follows.
Like many of his later films, Nolan’s debut is told in non-linear fashion. On one level, it feels like prep work for his most acclaimed feature, Memento (2000). His later works, particularly Inception and Interstellar, are filled with sequences in which the action and the plots of the film stop as characters explain things to each other. In Following, Nolan is at his most restrained – whether because of lack of budget or inexperience – but the characters are allowed to have more natural dialogue. The plot is allowed to build slowly.
Bigger budgets have also meant a gentrification in the characters that infiltrate his work or in the politics that is depicted on screen. Gone are the edgy characters that populated his early works. Instead, Inception features the high-stakes world of corporate espionage. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane’s army seems to have been inspired by the protesters of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
On the biggest leap he ever had to make in his career, Nolan told the DGA Quarterly, “I don’t know if other people’s experiences mirror my own, but for me, the difference between shooting Following with a group of friends wearing our own clothes and my mum making sandwiches to spending $4 million of somebody else’s money on Memento and having a crew of a hundred people is, to this day, by far the biggest leap I’ve ever made. It was a bit like learning to swim once you’re out of your depth: It doesn’t make any difference if it’s 2 feet or 100 feet down to the bottom – you’re either going to drown, or not.”