🎬 #8 The Birth of a Filmmaker
Good morning or good whenever you're reading this. This week’s theme is simple. Genesis. How do the filmmakers who go on to great influence and acclaim start out? What does their first film reveal about the types of stories they're interested in? How does it relate to the rest of their filmography? Two prime examples from two of the most interesting and influential filmmakers working today are this week’s two choices.
Happy choosing, happy viewing,
FILM ONE: FOLLOWING
1998 Dir Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan is one of the most successful filmmakers working today. Successful in box office terms - definitely, but the more impressive demonstration of success to me is how he is able to tell his own stories his own way. In that sense, he and his team are fiercely independent. And Following, his first film, is a demonstration of that in the literal sense. Made for around $6000 and shot on 16mm film, filmed over the course of a year, only on weekends, using either the first or second take - this is the mission of a filmmaker keen to do things his way. There is no sense of him waiting for someone to give him permission to make something. They made it happen the way they knew how, pushing the resources they had access to, to the limit. Nolan talks about how he wrote and designed the film around what was available to them, a blueprint for how to make an independent film for low cost. The resulting film is a noir tale about a writer who follows people for inspiration. Soon though this tantalising compulsion turns into an addiction and he finds himself too deep down a rabbit hole he can’t retreat from.
It’s an impressively constructed, well acted and tight, first film, even without considering the limitations. It’s a kind of noir maquette or prototype for some of the themes Nolan would realise on a grander scale for the rest of his career. Danny Boyle said it’s hard to get back to the brutal honesty of your first film because you don’t know all the tricks yet, you’re doing things more from an instinctual place. I like to think of this like handwriting. You don’t purposefully set out to write a certain way - it just happens that when you put pen to paper - that’s your handwriting and it’s unique to you. That to me is what a filmmaker is to film. Their interests, how they create a feel or tone, how they design a story or how they frame a shot is of course thought through logically. But there is a signature that goes beyond that - this is the instinctual filmmaking ‘handwriting’ that makes a film a Nolan film or a Spielberg film or a Dreyer film. And Nolan’s signature is already writ large across Following.
TL;DR why should I spend 1 hr 9 minutes of my precious life watching this? Nolan masterfully constructs a small story with big ideas that has us follow a character as he becomes obsessed with strangers, stalking to the beats of a great David Julyan score as we witness the seedlings of Nolan’s red wood mind for the first time.
*Sadly unavailable on traditional streamers*
Fact: The burglary of Nolan’s own apartment inspired the story. Bonus: An apartment door has the Batman logo from Tim Burton’s film pined on it. Of course Nolan would famously go on to direct The Dark Knight Trilogy.
FILM TWO: PI
1998 Dir Darren Aronofsky
It’s no over reaction to say that Aronofsky exploded onto the indie scene with his first effort. Winner of the directing award at Sundance and released at the same time as Nolan’s Following [which didn’t get into Sundance]. The film would be bought for $1,000,000 [on a family and friend raised $60k] and distributed relatively widely. Nolan’s Following would also go on to be picked up by a distributer and be seen in theatres too. Pi is an innovative, techno thriller. A story of an obsessed genius who believes he can find a number that explains everything. It’s an encapsulation of all things Aronofsky would demonstrate an interest in, in storytelling terms, for the duration of his filmography up to the time of writing. Obsession, addiction, faith and self-destruction. It has flashes of his signature stylistic flairs. The ‘hip-hop’ cutting he’d use to great effect in Requiem for a Dream has its roots here. The intense use of score and expressionistic use of camera position - mounting the camera on the actor’s body - is also first seen here.
Watched now it still feels fresh. It’s a harrowing journey into the warped mind of a genius, a tale of a man pushed to the edge, by himself and the forces around him. No matter how far he goes, he’s compelled to go further. Even though I described it as a techno thriller, it borders on horror. It was clearly the manifestation of a man, a filmmaker, obsessed with bringing it to the screen. Using what he had, in any way possible to solve the problem of how to get a film made. As the lead character Max works away in his tiny apartment surrounded by machinery, you can’t help but imagine Aronofksy in a similar scenario calculating the script and working out the production of his first feature film.
TL;DR why should I spend 1 hr 24 minutes of my precious life watching this? Aronofsky shines the light on a dark descent into madness, driven by compelling performances, as he moulds the filmmaking partnerships and elements that make him the Aronofsky we all recognise today.
*Available for a small rental fee on Amazon Prime, Youtube, Google Play, Apple TV and BFI Player*
Fact: Clint Mansell, the composer and Matthew Libatique, the DOP, would go on to work with Aronofsky on most of his films.