Shane Carruth’s “Primer” is one of the most talked about films of the year, so no wonder this self-taught first-time filmmaker captured the grand jury prize at Sundance with this unexpected debut made on a shooting budget of $7,000.
Carruth: It also won the festival’s Alfred P. Sloan Foundation prize for science-related films. The film follows two young engineers in the suburbs of an unnamed city who spend their free time tinkering with various experiments. On the other end of his cell phone, Carruth talked to DH’s Paul Fischer.
Question: 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.
Question: 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.
Question: 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.
Question: Where did the title come from?
Carruth: First thing, I saw these guys as scientifically accomplished 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.
Question: Does mainstream Hollywood interest you?
Carruth: Not really, I don’t think we understand each other, but if they let me do what they want, then who knows? I’m currently writing my next film, which I think is as weird as Primer and I don’t think they’ll like. I live in Dallas and I don’t want to move over here.
Question: Have you cast your next film yet?
Carruth: No, and it’s my least favourite part, because I don’t like actors very much. Maybe that’s why I’m in Primer.