A Primer on Filmmaking
In a day when blockbuster movies often cost well over $100 million to make, a "low-budget" film might cost, say, less than $5 million. Rare is the film that cost less than a "measly" $1 million. There's the occasional shoestring budget smash hit, like 1999's Blair Witch Project, which was made for $40,000. But now along comes Shane Carruth, an introspective dreamer who has proven you can make a good movie for $7,000. That's not a typo: Carruth made Primer, his film debut, for seven thousand bucks. Carruth, 31, took three years, working 18-hour days, to make the film, wearing just about every hat himself; he conceived it, financed it, wrote the script, directed, edited, scored it and even acted in it, playing one of the lead roles—all (mostly) to save money. The result is a heady-but-quirky sci-fi gem that is fast gaining acclaim, winning the Grand Jury Award at Sundance, and receiving high marks at other festivals and by critics everywhere.
Primer (PG-13) features two young engineers, Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan), who work for a large corporation by day and do experiments in the garage at night. When one of their experiments turns into a time machine, the guys discover they can have anything they want. Taking advantage of the opportunity is their first challenge; dealing with the consequences of their choices is the next. It's a fascinating story, though not a simple one. Esquire exclaimed, "Anybody who claims they fully understand what's going on in Primer after seeing it just once is either a savant or a liar." But Esquire also called it "the headiest, most singular science-fiction movie since Kubrick made 2001." Heady praise indeed.
Meanwhile, New York Times critic A.O. Scott wrote, "I wouldn't say that it entirely makes sense," but added that his "bafflement is colored by admiration. Mr. Carruth has the skill, the guile and the seriousness to turn a creaky philosophical gimmick into a dense and troubling moral puzzle."
Interestingly, this "moral puzzle" comes from the mind of a Christian who, somewhat like the characters in his film, is a bit of a math geek. Carruth ended up quitting his first three jobs as an engineer, ultimately to pursue his first love-telling a story on film. He taught himself everything he could about filmmaking, and then, with that $7,000—and three years—he did it. We talked to Carruth about his movie, a filmmaker's responsibility to communicate clearly, and what it all means. Or doesn't.
How has your film been received at various festivals?
Shane Carruth: It's been good. Although I know no one will come up and tell me that I wasted two hours of their lives. If they're talking to me, they usually have something nice to say.
And that started with Sundance, your very first film festival, where you won the Grand Jury Prize. Not a bad way to start your film career, eh?
Carruth: Yeah, it was pretty amazing. Other films usually just kind of start off on the festival circuit and kind of have to build momentum. But as great as that Sundance prize was, it doesn't really guarantee anything as far as whether people are going to show up at the theaters or not. [For a schedule of screenings, click here.]
Sorry for the ignorant question, but I've only seen it in print. Is it pronounced primer or primmer?
Carruth: That's funny. I called it "Primer" [with a short "i"] for the longest time, and people kept asking me how to spell it. But if I called it "Primer" [long "i"], they didn't ask. So I just started calling it "Primer" [long "i"].