Here's a how-to 'Primer' in film

Special to The Times

Roughly one-third of the way through Shane Carruth's cerebral sci-fi drama "Primer," two amateur scientists invent a mysterious technology that will allow them to elliptically curve the time-space continuum -- in effect, to travel through time. Voice-over narration addresses the difficulties the twentysomething protagonists Abe and Aaron face: "Their enthusiasm became a slow realization that they were out of their depth."

The same might have been said of the movie's writer-director, who nearly quit the project in disgust four times during "Primer's" three-year production. Unlike the characters he created, however, Carruth stifled the self-awareness that he had most likely bitten off more than he could chew. With no formal training in film, the former software engineer wrote, directed and edited "Primer," relying on filmmaking procedures he mostly taught himself.

Further, Carruth, who earned a degree in mathematics from Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas, composed the film's score with no professional knowledge of music, single-handedly raised its $7,000 budget and performed one of the lead roles, despite never having acted before.

"The only thing I can come up with is that I was really naive," said the Dallas native, 31. "And my naivete allowed me to get through."

It's not every day a math major makes a film that ties together quantum physics, renegade clones and time travel with conundrums involving trust and risk in a way that makes the viewer unsure whether what they are watching is more science than fiction.

And fewer still are the calculus freaks who get their movies into the Sundance Film Festival.

So when "Primer" won the Grand Jury Prize there this year, beating out more buzzworthy films including "Napoleon Dynamite" and "Garden State," no one was more stunned than Carruth, who remains so blindsided by his victory that he still possesses only fragmentary memories of his acceptance speech.

But to hear it from Mark Urman, the head of theatrical distribution at ThinkFilm, the company that bought "Primer" after the festival and released it two weeks ago, the filmmaker's broader achievement doesn't end with his festival win and distribution deal.

"It's not just the Sundance story of the little film that hit it big," Urman said. "It's the story of this fabulous autodidact who literally made a film all by himself in his garage -- about guys who make a time machine all by themselves in their garage.

"Shane is an information junkie who really needs to figure everything out," he added. "This film was a learning experience for him."

Just as the talky, jargon-driven "Primer" eschewed the traditional three-act narrative structure, Carruth's journey of bringing the movie to the screen also defied the industry standard. In the years leading to the movie, he tried writing a novel but realized his storytelling agenda leaned more toward externalizing the characters' actions than revealing their interior monologues. Despite a spotty knowledge of film history and no industry contacts to speak of, he turned his hand to writing a screenplay with the intention of directing it.

The script took a year to complete, during which time Carruth experimented shooting and editing footage with his brother's mini-digital camcorder: "I would put it on a tripod and shoot me coming out of the bathroom, me coming down the hall and me going into the kitchen, and then edit the three together -- stupid little things like that."

Auditing a film course for two weeks at Southern Methodist University, Carruth learned how to disassemble a Bolex 16mm camera and load a mag of film. But he ultimately lost interest in the class when the teacher steered it away from production and toward film theory.

Learning the basics

Carruth insists his screenwriting education was limited to scrutinizing a handful of scripts to learn such conventions as how to separate description from character names, how to distinguish voice-over from dialogue, and most importantly, to ascertain what font to use on his word processor.

After reading that writer-director Robert Rodriguez had shot his feature debut, "El Mariachi," for $7,000, Carruth decided that figure would also be the budget for "Primer." "That was roughly the amount I had," he recalled. "But once I had that number in my head and I knew it could be done for that much, I wouldn't let it get above that amount."

After the completion of the third draft, the writer-director was involved in a bad car wreck and wound up convalescing at his parents' home in Dallas. Awake with insomnia most nights, he watched seminal '70s dramas on Turner Classic Movies and found himself particularly inspired by the Dustin Hoffman-Robert Redford Watergate investigation drama, "All the President's Men."

"Here I am with all these pages of an investigative procedural that I've been writing about these two guys where we're finding out little bits of information that add up to something bigger," he said. "To see 'All the President's Men,' this is exactly what's going on."

Answering an ad on a local film production bulletin board, Carruth volunteered to operate the bat microphone on a Dallas-based independent movie production. The experience would heavily inform his shooting style.

"I got to see the director and cinematographer work," he said. "But the biggest thing I took away from that experience is we would show up and have a crew of 40 people trying to set things up, and we would wait for hours ... each set-up is taking two hours and none of it is pre-planned. That had a huge effect on me in terms of where the cameras were going to be and how the characters were going to move."

From there, he decided to storyboard each camera movement on Tungsten 35mm slide film (to mimic the film stock on which he planned to shoot "Primer") and learned what kind of F-stops to use on his camera through reading articles from American Cinematographer.

When it came time to cast the leads, Carruth auditioned over 100 people for the roles of Abe and Aaron. David Sullivan, a local with an 8x10 glossy head shot but no professional acting experience, was awarded the Abe part. The director decided to play Aaron himself. "I couldn't find the right person," he said.

The two rehearsed for four weeks in the children's section of a Dallas library, a time in which "Primer's" low-key, conversational dialogue came together. "I just wanted it to be as naturalistic as I could get it," said Carruth. "The only trick I ever learned was that if we repeated something 30 or 40 times, we'd get so bored with the material that it would start to sound like it was ours."

Over the course of the film's one-month shoot in 2001, the filmmaker says his main mistake was not budgeting enough money for production and taking on producing duties himself. The actors did double duty both in front of and behind the camera and most shots were completed in one take. For his part, Carruth scouted and secured his locations such as the U-Haul storage locker where much of "Primer's" time-travel action takes place, delivered his 16mm film stock to the lab for processing and rented his own cameras.

"I was so relieved when the shoot was over," he said. "It was such a joy not to feel like I was letting my crew down all day, every day. It was way too guerrilla."

But the filmmaker's main hurdles were still ahead.

Carruth had gleaned bits of advice from haunting local video production companies and pestering the assistants with technical questions. He arrived at the conclusion that the cheapest way to shoot would be to transfer his 16mm footage to mini-digital video film and then edit on his home computer. "I used Adobe Premiere, which isn't made for film," he said, still audibly exasperated at the mistake. "It ... doesn't handle sound properly. I spent the first two months syncing audio to video. It was a hundred little things that I didn't predict and had to muddle through."

In all, postproduction on "Primer" took nearly two years to complete -- an eternity in front of a computer screen by any professional standard. Beside technical inefficiency, Carruth's choice to shoot only one take of any given shot resulted in a dearth of material.

"For the most part, it saves a lot of time and money," he said. "But when there was some kind of continuity error or I lost a shot because of a tech problem, it becomes a puzzle trying to get it back in there.

"I quit the movie three or four times. I'd say ... 'I don't even know what the story is anymore.' "

Instead, he returned to the project again and again, teaching himself sound design he says he "ripped off" from Steven Soderbergh's arty revenge caper "The Limey." And Carruth used a computer music program called Fruity Loops to create his own piano samples and sequence what he calls some "rough and quick" music for the film's ethereal, minimalist score. ("I took piano lessons when I was a kid, but I whined, so my mom let me quit," is all the musical education Carruth will cop to.) He finished cutting the film in November 2003 and submitted it to the Sundance Film Festival with a $50 check. And "Primer" was accepted.

Carruth spent the next month overseeing the film's blowup from 16mm to 35mm so it could be projected properly at the festival. During that time, he hired the film publicity firm mPRm, which began hyping "Primer" to the William Morris Agency. They took on Carruth as a client. At the movie's first public viewing, he says he was more worried about the film transfer than his career prospects. To his surprise, "Primer" first won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize for science and technology in film. Grand jury members were unanimous in selecting "Primer" for the grand prize.

Gaining experience

Although Carruth entered into negotiations with both ThinkFilm and Magnolia Pictures, which offered him almost identical deals for upfront money, he ultimately entered into a handshake agreement with ThinkFilm's Urman -- that is, before Carruth got cold feet and decided to protract negotiations with the company to land a greater percentage of back-end participation.

"Negotiations were lengthy, and quite frankly, they needn't have been so lengthy," Urman remembered. "But it was more about Shane learning than a tough negotiation. In the same way he taught himself how to make a film, he taught himself how to make a deal."

"I wasn't trying to strain every last penny out of them," Carruth said. "But the bigger thing is, if I'm lucky enough to ever make another film, I want to know about this process also."

In the final analysis, Carruth said he still can't explain how he persuaded himself he could defy all the odds. "I don't know why I thought I was going to be able to go out and do this," he said flatly. "It all boils down to one part being naive, but also I have a religious fanaticism when it comes to story.

"It makes it so that I'm much less likely to compromise anything," he added, sounding like some kind of dispassionate mathematician. "I'd rather work by myself for months, doing something the way it needs to be done, than to find some compromising way around."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World