DVD RE-RUN INTERVIEW: Shane Carruth on “Primer”; The Lessons of a First-Timer
by Wendy Mitchell
[EDITORS NOTE: Wendy Mitchell spoke with Shane Carruth about “Primer”; the film will be released on DVD this week (April 19, 2005).]
Shane Carruth‘s “Primer” is one of the most confounding, and ultimately exciting, films of the year. Which is how this self-taught first-time filmmaker captured the grand jury prize at Sundance 2004 with this unexpected debut made on a shooting budget of $7,000. It also won the festival’s Alfred P. Sloan Foundation prize for science-related films.
Carruth previously studied mathematics and worked as a software engineer; the scientific part of his mind is definitely on display in “Primer.” The film follows two young engineers in the suburbs of an unnamed city who spend their free time tinkering with various experiments. When one project turns out to have time-travel powers, they grapple with exciting, and potentially destructive, opportunities. The men explore the machine’s capabilities, but their relationship deteriorates as they face the consequences of their acts. “Primer” is both a story of trust and friendship, and of some fascinating scientific principals — even Carruth admits that the average viewer may only understand about 70 percent of it on the first viewing.
Carruth started writing the script when he was an engineer; he quit his job when he had saved enough money to get started. Then he spent the next three years shooting and editing the film. Carruth not only wrote and directed the project, he also took one of the two lead acting roles, edited the film, and composed the music. indieWIRE’s Wendy Mitchell spoke with Dallas-based Carruth when he visited New York in August; THINKFilm releases the film today in New York, Dallas and Plano, TX.
indieWIRE: Why did you want to be a filmmaker?
Shane Carruth: I am obsessed with story. I had a late awakening in life. In college was the first time that I understood what you could do with a story and what a good novel is — literary value and subtext and irony and everything. The fact that a story was anything but a cute little joke, or interesting bits of information, or a “Facts of Life” episode. I became obsessed with it and I needed to play around with it. So I started writing short stories. I thought I was writing a novel — I had like 60 or 70 pages. And what I realized was that I don’t write inner monologue. I don’t want to talk about what somebody is thinking or feeling. I wanted to try to show it in an interesting way. And so what I realized was that I was really writing a screenplay.
iW: So you didn’t go to film school?
Carruth: No, I audited a film course at SMU [Southern Methodist University in Dallas] for like two weeks, but it turned into a John Waters theory course so I had to step out.
iW: So how did you figure out how to make a film?
Carruth: I got really scared and paranoid and so I just tried to piece it together the best I could. Cinematography was incredibly foreign to me, so I read as much as I could about it. Once I figured out that it was just photography with a set shutter speed, I got some slide film and I just went about storyboarding the script and taking snapshots. I took a ton of time doing it just to make sure I knew exactly what I was doing. By the end of it I knew what the film was going to look like — my exposure and the composition and everything. I wasn’t scared of cinematography anymore, and it really helped when we were shooting. We weren’t trying to figure out where to put the camera or how to tell the story. It was already set. We just matched the frames and set the F-stop and that was it. Every little bit of it I just pieced together like that.
iW: Where did the initial idea for this script come from?
Carruth: I knew that the story was going to be about these two guys who start off as friends and then by the end of it, because of the equation of trust changing, they weren’t going to be able to be around each other. At the same time, I was reading all this non-fiction on the history of calculus and the number zero and the transistor. I found all these commonalities that I felt like I hadn’t seen before in film. And I wanted to see them. So that was my setting. Knowing what that was going to be and how fantastical it is — that dictated the world that they were going to be in it. You have to believe it, it almost has to be mundane so that when you get to that fantastical stuff, you go there too.
iW: How long did it take you to make “Primer”?
Carruth: It took about a year to write it. A lot of that was learning how to write and just general format. And that was the pre-production stage. That’s when I was taking my storyboards and going to production facilities to ask them tons of questions about how stuff worked and securing locations. And then we shot for five weeks. Then two years of editing, composing, and so on.
iW: To the outsider, it seems like you’re a control freak, trying to do all this yourself. Did you want to be in control or was it a money issue?
Carruth: Probably both. The biggest mistake I made was not having a full-time producer. I was securing locations and wardrobe and making sure people get called to show up on time and getting the film to the lab and getting the camera — and all this stuff that I’m happy to do — but if I’m doing every little thing, I’m not concentrating on my story. So it never gets any better than the script. So having other people that can take a job here or there, that’s the most important thing. But I think that that happened maybe because I am a control freak. I think that there were people that willing to help with stuff like that. But when people read a script about a portable time machine, they want to fasten blinking lights and get a fog machine. I can’t explain it to them. Anyway, I am a control freak but it’s important to feel strongly about the material you’re working on.
iW: When you were shooting did you have the mindset to get it right or to shoot now and fix later?
Carruth: It was edited almost in can. It should’ve been. It’s the fact that I’m a moron that it wasn’t. Not only did I only shoot one take, but only from one angle I knew I would use and with the lines I knew I would use. And then we would go to the next angle. And there was only one line overlapping. So for continuity problems — the actor having his arm on the table in one shot but not in the next — I only had enough film to cut it one way. Solving that problem was a nightmare. That’s not fun.
iW: Why did you cast yourself in the film? Had you ever done any acting before?
Carruth: No, I hadn’t. To be honest, I didn’t want to be in the film, that wasn’t my choice. I had a bad casting process. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but I auditioned over 100 guys for the two leads, and I found David Sullivan [who plays Abe] as the other actor but it was a terrible process. I wasn’t offering anybody any money, but the guys who were showing up wouldn’t look at the material beforehand. What I’d have is guys reading off the page… I can’t tell anything from that. It scared me to death — Here’s a guy who’s not even prepared for the tryout and if I cast him and he decides to skip out after two weeks, I’m dead. I figured, I roughly fit the age, I’m always going to be there, it’s one less person I have to call every day, so I thought I’d just do it myself.
iW: Going into your snapshots and storyboarding, there are certain stylized looks, and further backed by the narration, of the film. What kind of films inspired you? Or were you trying to do something new?
Carruth: If I ever found myself doing something that I thought I was just stealing, I would stop. But I felt that “The Limey” gave me permission to tell a story that is based on something resembling reality, but to shoot and cut this in a way that was not conventional. Someone asked about why the voiceover sounded the way it does. And I didn’t think about it until then, but the voiceover probably goes back to Malick‘s “Days of Heaven.” That voiceover always messed with me.
iW: Why did you decide to use so much jargon in the dialogue? It actually works well in helping to set the realistic tone, I think.
Carruth: We spent a lot of time talking about what we were talking about. It was important to me that we weren’t just talking techno-babble, that what we were saying actually does make sense. And it actually all does make sense, as far as what they are trying to build originally — dynomagnetism and using super conductors. But the hope is that even if we were humming you would get something about the politics of this group, who’s enthusiastic about what, and the friendships. The hope was that if even if that jargon doesn’t work, that there was something to be paying attention to.
iW: Was it your intention to have a slightly antagonistic relationship with the audience, that they’re not going to get everything?
Carruth: No, not antagonistic. My intention was to make sure the information was in there. My favorite films are the ones that I walk away from and I know I saw a story. I saw the core part of the plot. But if I ever take another look at it then I can see that there was some more stuff going on in there that I didn’t realize. So that was the intention — to make sure that the information is in there and that at least thematically I’m telling a solid story. So that if you care enough about it, if you liked it, and you want to take another look at it, by all means, the information is in there. That’s my favorite kind of film.
iW: Where did the title come from?
Carruth: First thing, I saw these guys as scientifically accomplished but ethically, morons. They never had any reasons before to have ethical questions. So when they’re hit with this device they’re blindsided by it. The first thing they do is make money with it. They’re not talking about the ethics of altering your former self. So to me, they’re kids, they’re like prep school kids basically. To call it a primer or a lesson was the easy way to go. And then there’s also this power they have in using the device is something almost worse then death. To put someone else in the position where they’re not sure they’re in control of anything. They’re not in the front of the line anymore and they’re living in someone’s past, to be secondary in that world. The thing that is most important is to feel like you’re at the front of the line, to be prime or primer. I definitely never wanted to say that in the film, but that’s where it comes from.
iW: If you had more money what would you have spent it on?
Carruth: I would’ve shot on 35mm. I would have shot more film. It would’ve been nice to write the music and then hand it off to someone accomplished because I spent a lot of my time learning software and building samples because I couldn’t find the right music selection anywhere. To say, “here’s the theme, here’s the scene,” and have that be their job — that would’ve been interesting.
iW: Did you enjoy shooting on super 16? Did you ever consider going digital?
Carruth: I considered it, but it never looked right. Unfortunately, I just don’t think [digital] is there — the resolution and the color depth aren’t there yet. And because of the story and how fantastical it gets, I needed to set the beginning at least in conventional cinematic space. I know there’s a version of “Primer” that I know could work, shot handheld video like a documentary. But for this it was important for it to start conventional very so when it does go nutso and handheld, it matches with the story.
iW: As far as your other projects, do you think you’ll always be a writer/director?
Carruth: I think I’ll always want to write and direct. I’m interested in producing and helping other people tell stories. But I’m still in love with writing and directing.
iW: With the next film are you still going to be in control of a lot of these different aspects or try to just be the director?
Carruth: I need to hopefully try to find some middle ground. Like with the music, for the next film I actually have some music written and I would like to be able to hand it off to somebody who has some experience with composing. And if the money’s there, to have it performed by live musicians. I think it would have to be something like that where I would have my hand in it, but someone else is making it.
iW: What about editing, did you enjoy editing it yourself?
Carruth: Yeah, definitely. I hated the problem solving of it because I was just paying for the mistakes I made while shooting. But editing was very satisfying. You spend hours working on something and then you get to watch it. It’s immediately satisfying where everything else is just kind of waiting and waiting and waiting.
iW: I know you had other offers at Sundance; why did you go with THINKFilm?
Carruth: I’ve gotten to know them now and they’re great, but at the time I didn’t know anybody. It was all based on the fact that in the end there were only two companies really interested and we re-arranged a unique deal. THINKFilm was open to it and the other company wasn’t. As opposed to taking the advance up front it was more about being involved on the back end. They were open to that and it made me feel better about what they had planned.
iW: What are you going to work on next?
Carruth: I was half way through a script when all this started, so when this dies down, I hope to get back to it. It’s a romance between an 18-year-old oceanography prodigy and the daughter of a commodities trader and set on the trade routes of Eastern Africa and Southern Asia.
iW: I read in an interview that you got bad advice from various people along the way. Do you want to elaborate on any of that?
Carruth: I got bad advice yesterday.
iW: Do you ask for it?
Carruth: No. I don’t ever ask for advice. I mean, I ask tons of technical questions. When I was in pre-production I would go in and ask tons of questions. — what’s the best camera? What cameras shoot super 16? What film should I shoot?
But I was told that you can’t shoot motion picture film under florescent lights, that it’s impossible because florescent lights strobe and you’ll get the strobe-ing effect. It scared me to death. But I went and did a test and it was fine. I don’t think there’s frame of a shot indoors that doesn’t have some florescent light on it. I mean, stuff like that, if I would’ve bought what they said, I would’ve ended up spending more money or I wouldn’t have shot the way I intended. More advice was that you can’t shoot on short ends because you won’t be able to expose your film properly. You have to get a business card. You have to get a business card or no one is ever going talk to you.
iW: What’s your good advice to people, other than to get a producer?
Carruth: This could just be a huge fluke. I could’ve just won some sort of lottery. And if I’m fortunate enough to make another film, and people are receptive to that, then maybe I’ll say, you know what, I think I’m okay at this job. Then maybe I’ll start doling out advice. But, for now, I’m just a lottery winner doling out stock tips. It doesn’t make any sense.