Exclusive Interview with Christopher Nolan and Emma Thomas from our Guerilla Film Makers Archives

For those of you who haven’t ever seen it, we interviewed Chris Nolan and his wife Emma, in the second edition of The Guerilla Film Makers Handbook, after he had made ‘Following’ and while he was in post-production on ‘Memento’. ‘Batman’ and ‘Inception’ were but a twinkle in his eye back then, so it makes for interesting reading.

Remember, you can buy the all new Guerilla Film Makers Pocketbook direct from us here…

OK here is Emma and Chris’ interview…

Following by Chris Nolan and Emma Thomas

Q – How did you both get into the film business?

Chris – I’ve been making films on super 8mm since I was a kid. It’s been an organic process, doing whatever I could with whatever was available. Emma and I didn’t study film at uni, but there was a great film society where we’d make shorts every year from the proceeds of screening second run films. We had a camera, a roll of 16mm and you’d have to make a three minute film from that. It was much better than film school where you can end up making only a ten minute film after two years.

Emma – We had a budget for five short films a year, so we had a bidding process where people write their scripts and a committee decided who will make them. It was really cool, because there was no discipline, no course tutor, people literally just went out and did it. We made a feature length project in the final year which was about 80 minutes but it didn’t get finished as we just didn’t have the resources.

Chris – Once I’ve made a film I move on to the next, usually at the same time I move into a new flat so I can use it as a location, hence I moved a lot!

Q – How did Following come about?

Chris – We made an 8 minute film about a burglary, shot in B&W on 16mm costing us £200. When I wrote Following, one of the things going on in my head was we can make an 8 minute movie for £200 so that means we can make an 80 minute movie for £2k. As it turns out that was pretty much what we did. With Following we tried a much more compromised way of working, black and white, entirely hand held.

Q – How much money did you raise before you started shooting?

Chris – I didn’t raise anything, I had a job and I was receiving regular pay cheques for the first time in my life. I would spend half on my rent and the other half on film stock and processing. Whatever I had, I’d work out how much footage I could shoot that week. I shot over 14 weekends, shooting 15 minutes of footage a day. That would be enough, theoretically, to get the film made. I knew that if we ran out of money we could just stop for a couple of weeks. I was not going to process anything because that was expensive, I was just going to keep shooting.

Emma – The key to Following was that it was not like any other film, there was not a conventional budgeting stage. We could get the equipment for free, the only thing we paid for was the stock, processing and the odd bit of catering.

Q – How big was the crew?

Emma – There was a core of about 6 to 10 people.  Each weekend the actors would be consistent but the crew would be whoever was around. Everyone had worked together in some  combination so it worked really well. That was the thing about our group of friends, instead of hanging around drinking coffee all Saturday long, we would just get together and make movies.

Chris – You have to know every job as well as the people that you are working with, then you don’t have to fit around everyone’s schedules and can do it yourself. One of the things I don’t do is work with experienced people on low budgets. I’ve listened to people who say you’ve got to get a good sound guy, you have got to get a really good DoP – I don’t agree with that, we would never have got our film made if we had worked with people more experienced than ourselves, for a start they demand a whole new level of equipment which we just couldn’t provide.

Q – What disadvantages were there in the way you shot?

Emma – Finding actors to commit for that period of time, that’s why there are so few characters in the film. One of our actors shaved his hair off mid shoot which was a bit of a nightmare.

Chris – I brought Jerry Theobald in as a producer as he’s the main actor and in every scene. I wanted him to be part of the process. I wasn’t prepared to say to the actors this is a great opportunity, we’re going to make it with this one, but instead I said we’re going to have a lot of fun making this film and make it as good as we can.

Q – How did you cut it?

Chris – It was pretty weird if I think about it. I didn’t even sync up any rushes for about six months. We had shot without actually seeing anything, I would check through it and make copies of dats but that was it. I managed to get editing help from my friends from uni, those who had gone into the film and TV business, doing transfers, syncing up, one ended up cutting the movie. I found a place that was prepared to give me a little time to learn the machines for free, and beyond that I had to start paying for it. I rented the machine over a weekend for £100 and over three weekends I did the rough cut.

Q – So how much did it actually cost?

Chris – We finished the film creatively and had a pretty good sound mix. We got accepted into the San Francisco film festival and that’s when we started looking for money to complete. We’d spent £3,500 to that point. You can creatively finish your film for literally hundreds of pounds, it’s just a question of time and effort.

Emma – The fact that we were in a film festival meant it was a lot easier for us to go to people and ask for cash, so we asked friends to help out.

Q – When you finished it on tape did you have a festival strategy?

Chris – We sent a lot of tapes out and one of the judges at a very prestigious festival liked it. Even though we didn’t get into that festival she recommended it to San Francisco. My experience this far with the festival world has been that I have never got in to a festival that I have applied for, or where we’ve had to pay an entry fee, the film needs to be invited.

Q – Did you get good reviews in San Francisco?

Emma – The reviews got better and better. At the time of the first ones we were happy to get even bad reviews! We went to the festival without having
thought about publicity, we made the press pack only because the festival asked us for one, we didn’t have a particular strategy in mind and I think that we were very lucky that we got the good reviews – actually that we got reviews full stop.

Chris – The only festivals we have ever got into are the ones that had somehow heard of us, then invited us and waived the fee. Festivals have so many submissions a year and there’s this belief that if you get your film made, you’ll get it into festivals, but it really isn’t the case. You need to find some way of getting in there.

Q – So when you got it accepted in San Francisco you suddenly needed a print?

Emma – Yes, the first time we saw our print was the first screening in San Francisco! We were already in America so our lead actor brought it out with him on the plane straight from the lab.

Chris – We had four screenings in four venues and technically each screening was perfect. We then went to Toronto with the same 16mm print and every screening had a problem. That’s when I realised that 16mm is a terrible way to screen in Festivals – they roll in their old 16mm projector and you can get terrible sound problems although the picture is all right. 16mm is a very unreliable format for projection, every time you watch it you’re on tenterhooks because something could go horribly wrong.

Emma – We managed to create a buzz with our reviews, but afterwards it is a little bit of well what are we going to do next? That’s when we discovered that there were festival scouts attending all the festivals who then invite you to the next one.

Q – When did Next Wave Films become involved with top up funds?

Emma –  We met them just after we did San Francisco and sent them a tape. They liked it and helped us position the film for Toronto and format a strategy.

Chris – I had always wanted to do a 35mm print, partly because we had already seen what could happen with 16mm and also because we wanted to do a good sound mix, so Next Wave came in and we finished the film on 35mm doing the sound mix in London very, very cheaply.

Q – So how much did Next Wave end up putting into the film?

Emma – We don’t really know yet as there are all kinds of associated expenses, the blow up alone cost $40k. They also worked out a festival strategy and organised a publicist which was an enormous help as Toronto is such a huge festival and it’s easy to fall between the cracks. Also when we were shooting the film we didn’t take stills which was a big mistake.

Chris – They also helped create an image for the film. We went back and took the exact still that we needed two years after filming! You need at least one image that expresses the film.

Q – Isn’t black and white stock more expensive?

Chris – There’s this myth that it’s more expensive but it’s not. People talk about using short ends but I insist on buying new stock as I can’t accept the risk of the stock being damaged.

Q – Did you change the film in the editing process, from the point of the screenplay?

Chris – Not much, although there’s a few structural changes toward the beginning and the end. There’s a point where the film stops being a linear story about two thirds the way through. It was scripted in a fragmented way and in the editing we made it less so, to give people time to get into the story. Also I knew that we could stop making the film halfway through and I could make a film from what I had because it doesn’t have a conventional story – it could have been a half hour film with certain elements removed.

Emma – Apart from the creative reasons that Chris had for making this story with that kind of narrative, it was actually very helpful to us as we were making this during weekends over a year. So any continuity problems weren’t as obvious.

Q – How was the film received?

Chris – The structural element of the film has divided critics, but every now and again, a reviewer will say it’s a good film but it’s almost ruined by a pointless structure. I can see why they might say that but what they’re not acknowledging is that they wouldn’t be reviewing the film if it didn’t have that kind of structure as it wouldn’t even exist. Your film has to have something that’s different from mainstream to get out there, you have to be adventurous, do whatever it takes to get your film noticed. In our case, it was the structure of the story that seemed to stand out.

Q – They’d probably be more accepting now because of film makers such as Steven Soderbergh hitting the mainstream with films like Out Of Sight and especially The Limey?

Chris – Most reviewers saw the film just before these films came out, and the majority of them liked the structure saying it’s an interesting thing about the film. Certainly the American low budget indies realise this but it seems England doesn’t and there are a lot of films coming out of the UK where there’s still the attitude that you can make a Hollywood movie for $2m but there’s no place for them, nowhere for them to go and no one to buy them. We’ve just spent millions of dollars on our next movie, but in Hollywood terms it’s low budget, so it still has be a clever film to be different otherwise it goes straight to video. Nobody’s going to give you credit for doing a car chase but more cheaply.

Q – You got a theatrical in the UK and US, how did that do?

Chris – It was a limited release. We released in a prestigious theatre in New York and in the NuArt in LA. We got great reviews but didn’t have much money to advertise. Since then we’ve had three prints playing in various cities around the US. There is a kind of myth that the film will sell itself and people buy into that. In England we got amazing coverage but they did one print and stuck it in a theatre that was a hundred seater, and there was no poster.

Q – Have you made any money from Following?

Emma – No. But doing the Next Wave thing was very good. It was far more valuable for the film, the theatrical has benefited everyone although not financially. For instance Lucy who plays the blond, is now going off to do an Eric Rohmer film.

Q – How did Hollywood react to you and the film?

Chris – Everyone here in the US will watch the film if you can get it to the right people. Getting it into festivals helped getting an agent but nobody’s going to offer you your next film, they will send you scripts, but you have to have YOUR next film ready. Before San Francisco I met with a few agents who wanted to look at what I wanted to do next, so I sent them my latest screenplay which I’d spent a year doing and one of them agreed to take me on.

Q – Who came on board with your new film Memento?

Chris – Newmarket are the backers. I can’t tell you the budget but it’s an awful lot more money than Following. All the same kind of problems though. This was a union film and out here I realised that to make a film for a million dollars is very difficult, because you’re in this inbetween world where you can kind of afford certain things but you can’t quite afford to pay people properly and you don’t have any money to do anything. After Following I thought I could make a film for $500k then I started looking at what I could do, and it wasn’t enough! It’s weird, its easier to sell a $50m dollar movie, people won’t go and see a $500k film unless it’s exceptional.
/>The process is exactly the same though, everything we learned making Following is tremendously valuable, and despite having what may seem like an astronomical budget, we didn’t have enough time to shoot the film. We had to do 40 or 50 set ups a day which is totally unheard of, it’s usually ten or twelve, so knowing exactly what I wanted and having planned things the way I did with Following was the only way I could work that fast. I managed to get some rehearsal time with the actors which isn’t usually done with a film that size.

Q – Previously you’ve been very hands on, did you find that the studios didn’t want that?

Chris – I found a great operator who had become a DP so I was happy not to pick up a camera. They like it if you understand the process well enough to know exactly what you need for every set up and you find someone you can trust to do that – if you just pick up the camera, they’ll give you a very hard time. I was given total creative control and Memento is quite a wacky film with a quarter of it shot in B&W, and we’ve got a great cast, Guy Pearce and Carrie Anne Moss.

Emma – It seemed to me that everyone respected the fact that Chris knew what he wanted and was very hands on, but I think the AD’s found it difficult because most directors don’t run their own set and Chris did.

Q – Emma, did you find it easy to come on board as a producer on your first Hollywood film?

Emma – I’m an associate producer on Memento. There are so many experienced producers on it but hopefully the next one…

Q – Any words of advice for new film makers?

Emma – Just do it and don’t get hung up on the whole process of the ins and outs of film making, strip back all of that stuff and just concentrate on the film.

Chris – Don’t say we’ll fix it in post. I was once told that you could filter out anything, but you can’t. We’ve just finished mixing the sound on Memento here at Universal and you can still hear when there is bad sound and you can’t do anything about it. However you have to make a film with whatever resources you have. Treat making that film, however you’re making it, not as a means to an end, but as the best film you’re ever going to make. If you’re making it for money, then you’re never going to do it and it’s never going to be any good. Do something you believe in, something you love, and enjoy it.

You can read Christopher Nolans top 14 quotes HERE.


This interview and over 100 more are in the current Guerilla Film Makers Handbook, which you can get here.

Onwards an upwards!

Chris Jones
Filmmaker, Author and Firewalk Instructor
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