In Shane Carruth’s science-fiction film Primer, one sees and hears,
perhaps for the first time in the cinema, the distinctive behavior and speech
rhythms of the entrepreneurial scientist. Certainly many films before
have taken science seriously, done their homework, put believable science
content on screen. But, until Primer, science in movies has
felt as if it was filtered through the perspective of the layperson.
In Carruth’s film, the driven, narrowly focused, semi-socialized mindset
of the engineer informs not only the characterizations, but also the pace
of the editing, the working out of narrative problems, and the delivery of
expository information. Primer is a film about techies, for
The real surprise is that such an assured and distinctive film would come from a first-time filmmaker with no training, next to no money, and no film industry affiliations. And yet Primer was shot by a miniscule crew of amateur actors and technicians in Dallas for a mere $7000—and this despite Carruth’s decision to shoot in Super 16 format, at a time when nearly all comparable low-budget films opt for the cheaper medium of digital video. (The expense of making a 35mm print for festivals increased Carruth’s budget by about $30,000.) Astonishingly for such an impoverished project, Primer won the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2004, also taking home from Park City the second annual Alfred P. Sloan Prize, a $20,000 cash award for outstanding independent films on science and technology.
Carruth, 31, approached the task of becoming a filmmaker with something of the restless, problem-solving mentality exhibited by his protagonists. A math major, Carruth took up software engineering after college, first working on a flight simulator for Hughes Aircraft, then moving into web development. But the sciences were never a vocation for him, and after three software jobs in four years he began writing in earnest. Working on novels and short stories made him realize that describing the thoughts and feelings of characters wasn’t to his taste, and he switched his focus to screenwriting, eventually settling on the idea that became Primer. “Science-fiction is an amazing tool,” says Carruth “It’s a way to shortcut to the good stuff – to speed up the process of seeing themes play out in a short period of time.”
Inspired by independent films and the classic American cinema of the 70s, Carruth decided to teach himself filmmaking. “I audited a film course at SMU for two weeks,” says Carruth. “The first day was amazing— we took apart an old Bolex 16mm camera, and the next day we loaded it with film, and then we did some exposure exercises. And then suddenly the class became a theory course about, like, John Waters films, and it just went on and on. So I had to duck out.” Believing himself in no financial position to enlist the help of experts, Carruth gave himself a crash course on the technical aspects of cinema, learning enough about photography that he felt empowered to ignore many of the rules that go unquestioned in the film business. (For instance, Carruth lit his film cheaply and effectively with banks of fluorescent lights, a time-honored cinematographic “don’t.”)
Primer starts with an invigorating, realistic depiction of a group of engineers working out of a suburban garage on evenings and weekends, trying to come up with a marketable invention. But the plot stealthily shifts toward the science-fiction subgenre of time travel. “One of the reasons I got passionate about the idea (for Primer) is that I felt that I had a new way to take a fantastical story and place it in a mundane setting, so that by the time the fantastical stuff starts happening, you go along with it,” said Carruth. “Basically, the science in the film comes because I need a device.” Though the film’s depiction of the engineers’ impersonal, head-butting, rapid-fire interaction is so novel as to seem almost documentary, Carruth claims no particular familiarity with electrical engineering, and relied on research for factual details. “Why I needed (the protagonists) to be entrepreneurs is that I wanted them to be blindsided by the ethics of their situation. I didn’t want them to be the kind of guys who, once they get this power, say, ‘Is it morally correct? Should we be doing this?’ I don’t want to hear those conversations. I want those things to be kept quiet, to be happening to them without their knowledge.”
Carruth is drawn to science-oriented material: his current projects include three scripts (a trilogy in his mind, though without continuing characters) that jump through time, requiring him to imagine the details of periods as far as 100 or 150 years into the future. Meanwhile, Primer winds its way through the festival circuit, en route to its theatrical premiere in October under the aegis of distributor ThinkFilm. Still getting used to the idea of being a filmmaker, Carruth attends as many of the screenings as he can. “Afterwards, there’s usually an engineer who comes up to me and says something like, ‘Wow–I feel as if that’s the kind of work that I do. What I don’t understand is why you put that stuff in your film, because no one else is possibly going to get it.’” Judging from the enthusiastic response to Primer, maybe audiences have been waiting for films that don’t pamper them.