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INT: Shane Carruth

10.18.2004

The central lesson of general relativity is that spacetime cannot be a fixed background, but is rather a network of evolving relationships.

Nowadays, you’ll often hear of an independent first-time filmmaker that’s put all his heart and soul into a film, worked with a measly budget and come up with a movie that not only contends with some of Hollywood’s most expensive, start-studded and lauded films, but actually surpasses it. So it takes a special kind of story and person to stand out among today’s indie film community. PRIMER’s Shane Carruth, a former engineer, is that person. He basically taught himself all about the filmmaking process and with a budget that didn’t go a penny over $7000, he wrote, directed, produced, edited, photographed, acted and composed the music for one of the most acclaimed dramatic thrillers of the year. He’s not only drawing comparisons to legendary directors like Stanley Kubrick (in exploring the dark side of human nature), but his movie also happened to pick up the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Not too shabby for a guy who, when bored with his career choice, decided to take on writing to see where it might take him…

This movie focuses on two young engineers, Abe and Aaron, who upon discovering that they’ve stumbled upon a potentially groundbreaking invention, break away from their partners and start working in secrecy to cultivate it further. The movie goes on to explore themes of trust and greed and can best be described as an intelligent dramatic sci-fi character piece that presents an entirely new way we look at time travel. Well, that’s my take on it anyway, truth be told, the dialogue and interaction between the characters is so genuine and well-researched, that I admittedly need a few more viewings of the film for it to completely sink in. Still, I’d rather a movie’s plotline be airtight and authentic rather than me discovering about 18 different plot breakdowns by the halfway mark (i.e. THE VILLAGE). This is actually one of those movies I look forward to re-discovering. It's presently playing in limited release…

I’ve gotten very comfortable interviewing filmmakers over the years, but this one had me a little concerned. If Shane was anything like his character in the movie, well...he would be a little intimidating to say the least. But, when he called me up for this phone interview, I quickly discovered that he was a very easy-going, humble and passionate guy who genuinely loves discussing his movie. It helped when I discovered he was fan of our site. Our conversation went a little something like this…

SHANE CARRUTH

Hi Shane, my name’s Sev, um, from JoBlo.com.

Right, I know, I read your site a lot, so---

Oh, you do, okay…

I feel like I know you guys, sort of…

laughing> That’s great, I was going to tell you it’s not a porn site or anything, it’s a movie site but---

Yeah, I think I started going there earlier this year and then I just kept going back all through Cannes and everything, I loved getting the Cannes reports and stuff…

Thanks a lot. I’ll make sure to tell JoBlo. I saw PRIMER for the first time last night and I might just have to see it a few more times I think, but… we both laugh> One of the most unique things about the film is the dialogue. With your background, you’ve really strived to make it as realistic as possible with all the technical, engineering jargon throughout the film. I was wondering if this was ever a concern for you from the get-go; whether or not you should keep it that way or maybe put it into more layman’s terms in fear that it might go over a lot of people’s heads.

I have a degree in math and I was a software engineer so when it comes to what these guys are doing, that’s not really my experience. I mean, I know hardware guys, I know guys that are in electrical engineering and stuff; and I did a lot of research to make sure that what they’re saying is all real; up until the point where we’re saying it’s effecting time and that’s when it becomes much more of an analogy.

Those scenes are written for two or three purposes. One of them was I knew I needed it to be real; I needed to believe that what they were saying was based in real world stuff. The thing is, it’s written with information in there about the politics of the group, who’s enthusiastic about what, who’s proprietary, what the unofficial groups are within the group, etc. The hope is even if these guys are humming, that information about the story is coming across.

Do you think these are the kinds of things you’d like to get more into specifics about on the DVD or do you really just want to leave it out there and not comment on it?

I would love to be able to do that. How elaborate I’m going to be on the DVD is going to be completely proportionate to whether people show up theatrically or not. Cause I’m already trying to figure out details for the DVD, but I’m so used to having control over everything I do and now I’m finally running up against other people’s budgets. But yeah, I’d love to - even if it’s just in the director’s commentary - to just talk about the tech of it. Because I did do a lot of research and a lot of puzzling apart to make sure that even as we go from what they’re talking about at the beginning, which is actually based in real world physics, and then it slowly moves into an analogy, but even the analogy needed to make sense to me. I hate films that I’m constantly finding flaws in the logic and feeling insulted, sort of, by it.

A couple of things I noticed when I was watching PRIMER yesterday were similarities to one of my favorite movies, David Mamet’s THE SPANISH PRISONER. As far as the dialogue is concerned, you both have your characters speaking in their own particular dialogue, with very unique patterns and styles. And, of course the invention...but that’s just a side issue in TSP. Have you seen the movie?

I have, that’s so weird that you brought that up because I’m a director now, apparently, so I need to have a great film history, and to be honest I really don’t. But THE SPANISH PRISONER is the one Mamet piece that really sticks out.

Another person that saw PRIMER noticed it as well. He said the dialogue was very Mamet-esque.

Yeah, it definitely wasn’t the intention. As I was writing, I think I was doing what everybody does when they write -- I was listening to people. You know, nobody waits for a complete thought, there are interjections and “uhms” and overlaps and stuff, that’s how it is when people are passionate about what they’re talking about. So it was written with all that stuff in there and we rehearsed for over a month to kind of get it as naturalistic as we could and I ended up only being able to do one take of everything because of the budget.

Besides the Grand Jury prize the film received at Sundance, which I’m sure was very flattering, what’s another notice you’ve read or heard about that made a big impression on you?

There was a piece in Esquire that was, I mean admittedly, it was a positive review. It was the first time I was reading about themes, you know? Because this movie is kind of being presented as this intellectual thriller, this sci-fi mindbender and I think the reason I set out to make it, and thematically what it’s about tends to get lost in the whole “can you figure it out” shuffle. So that Esquire piece was a big deal.

Last night, I’m here at the Chicago Film Festival and I did a Q&A and somebody talked about that. In the way that they framed their question, they talked about how it was thematically about trust and how that’s dependant on what’s at risk, and relationships and stuff like that. It was just really kind of cool because usually I’m the one that has to bring it up. So that’s been pretty satisfying, once it gets past that expressionalistic type sci-fi romp, that people are kind of discerning what’s underneath it.

We get a lot of aspiring filmmakers who visit the site; seeing as you basically taught yourself everything, could you go over a couple of the major “do’s” and “don’ts” that you learned while going through this EL MARIACHI-type journey -- with almost no budget and all your blood, sweat and tears…

Sure, but I should definitely preface this by saying every piece of advice I’ve ever gotten regarding filmmaking was crap, so please don’t listen to me...

Okay, fair enough.

I know that if I had to do it over, I know that there are things that I would do again and there are things that I would change.

Storyboarding, I think, was huge. I’m so glad that I was paranoid enough to do that. I storyboarded with 35mm stills. I was able to spend months taking the script apart and figuring out what it should look like shot by shot and actually taking those shots, experimenting with composition and lighting set-ups. So by the time we showed up with the expensive rental camera, and it was expensive, we knew where the camera went, we were just matching shots, there wasn’t a lot of discussion about where to put it. Or if there was, we always had something to fall back on, there was always a plan B. I know that was huge and I hope if I get to make another film, I know I’ll always do that.

Something I should’ve done is to make sure a producer was involved. Somebody who’s only job it is to make sure that the tools are there and that locations are secured, because I spent my five weeks of shooting organizing this thing, but not really directing it. I mean luckily we rehearsed for a month, it was storyboarded, the script was pretty descriptive as far as what we needed so we were really just following directions. There wasn’t a lot of taking a scene apart, but there was too much taking the film to the lab, making sure people are wearing the right uniforms, securing a location that had been lost the night before, stuff like that. So, that would’ve been something…

And then another thing is just, that 7000 bucks, I knew that’s what EL MARIACHI cost and that’s where I set my budget. I said I’m not going to pay a penny more than this because I know it can be done for this amount.

Oh, really? I used that comparison because I knew they both had really small budgets, but I didn’t know they were exactly the same.

Oh, yeah, yeah. I only paid for stock, processing and camera rental and so whenever I was negotiating prices for these things I was not willing to pay a dollar more than the 7000 figure and because of that we had a 2-1 shooting ratio. It was storyboarded so rigidly that we only shot the lines from any given shot that I knew I would need, with very little overlap. So it works really well when it works, it saves a lot of time, a lot of money but when it doesn’t work, if there is some sort of continuity error or if I lost a shot, that becomes a problem that takes days, if not weeks, to fix.

Using short ends, I found was a fine thing to do. I didn’t have any problem with using stock and then finding out later that it had expired or wasn’t any good.

Did you design the poster too, because you’ve done everything else on the film, you had total control –

The concept of the poster was mine but what they did to it, that’s more – it kind of got out of my hands.

You’re satisfied with it though, right?

Uhhm…

You had too much control!! laughing> No, I see, you had your own complete vision of it.

Yeah, I mean to be honest, yeah. It looks a little bit too much like a horror film and it looks a little too ominous and I don’t really think the film –

-

Okay, so it’s a bit misleading, I understand.

Yeah, but it’s not your average half-lit Ben Affleck shot either. It’s pretty good.

How about future projects? Is there anything concrete yet?

There is nothing concrete. I’ve been trying to figure it out all year, what this means, you know, if I get to make another film.  Basically, at the end of the day I’m going back to writing and keep writing the things that I can’t stop writing. You know, I get to have these meetings - it’s very flattering that I get to have them - but they’re all based around properties. If somebody’s optioned a short story or a comic book and they want to hire somebody to develop it, but they want to kind of own the process. At the moment I’m much more interested in building something from the ground up. I want to have full control over the script and only then talk about where the money comes from, basically.

As far as other “time traveling” films, which are the ones that you dig the most, either realistically or otherwise?

See that’s the thing, when it comes to time travel, I’d always seen these stories as fantasies, not so much science fiction. This whole idea of picking up at one point and time and moving to another immediately, it always rang false to me, because if you move back a day, you would find yourself in empty space because of the distance that the earth has moved since then. It seemed like such a powerful thing to have that, it kind of transcends sci-fi and it becomes almost fantasy.

I know that there is an episode of Star Trek, City on the Edge of Forever; I know that involves traveling through time. I always liked that - I liked the ending a lot. It’s when Spock and Kirk find themselves in the early 1930’s I believe, and Joan Collins is running a halfway house and at the end McCoy is trying to save her and Kirk has to stop her in order for Hitler to ever be defeated.

Great, well, thanks a lot Shane, you know, we like pushing smaller, independent films as much as we can here and so it was a real pleasure talking to you about this.

Thank you man, thank you so much.


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Source: JoBlo.com

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