The Next Blair Witch
Every film festival season has a no-budget film that rises to prominence. There may be a gimmick at the heart of the film (the found documentary footage of 1999's The Blair Witch Project, the extreme realism of this year's minimalist shark thriller Open Water), or the film may draw on expressionism as a basis for unrolling a complex or conspiratorial story line (1998's mathematics-based sci-fi thriller Pi).
This year, the no-budget Cinderella story is Shane Carruth's Primer. The winner of the Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize for a Dramatic Film, Primer is somewhat genre-related to Pi, but reminiscent of classic conspiracy flicks such as Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation or Alan J. Pakula's The Parallax View -- both released in the Watergate-saturated year of 1974 -- with the rapid-fire techno-jargon of the Paddy Chayefsky-penned Altered States thrown in for good measure.
It's somewhat ironic then that Carruth had not seen the film based on the investigation of the Watergate break-in until after he came up with the concept for Primer. Speaking from his home in Dallas, Carruth has just returned from participating in the Seattle Film Festival, where he feels his film polarized audiences.
"It's weird," he says. "The people that like it are pretty adamant about liking it, and I think the people that don't ... well, they don't talk to me. Nobody wants to come up and say they want the last two hours of their life back."
Not surprising, especially when Sundance Film Festival Co-Director Geoffrey Gilmore describes the film to be "as dense as [it] is dramatically tense, overflowing with nonstop dialogue yet intermittently incomprehensible."
The film revolves around two engineers who participate in an ongoing group side-project on their own time. Carruth himself took on one of the principal roles as Aaron, a mathematical engineer who constructs a device with his partner Abe (David Sullivan). But the project yields unexpected results involving time travel. Suddenly the two have the power to alter the past, and the potential implications lead to an ethical dilemma that gives the story its hook.
"I was reading a lot of nonfiction, like the history of the number zero and the history of calculus," says Carruth of Primer's origin. "Even the transistor and a lot of things that came out of Bell Labs this century. I was completely enamored by these stories, and it seemed as if there were a lot of commonalities that I hadn't even seen played out realistically in film."
Carruth began to visualize a story featuring "guys puzzling stuff apart and figuring it out. Usually the thing that ends up being the most profitable is a side effect of the thing they were going after initially. So I was just really into that world."
He began to blend the concept with themes of trust and what happens when people change. "Power in the equation," he qualifies. "What's at risk with a start-up and what can be lost. Basically, I had to introduce this device that would give them the ability to do that, and so that's where the concept for this machine came from. It's easy to do without any real special effects, and at the same time, it's got the ability to alter someone's life in a way that maybe they're not even sure that it's happening. It kind of puts them in this weird position of feeling out of place, and being affected in a way that makes them paranoid."
While developing the concept, Carruth happened to see a film that had evaded his attention previously. He had never seen All the President's Men, and was amazed and inspired. As he watched the little clues and pieces of the investigation converge into a full-on conspiracy, he was further inspired to flesh out his film.
"It made me think that there is a way to do this. There is a way to show the bits that I'm interested in that hopefully are compelling."
The screenplay took a year to develop. Carruth immersed himself in physics in order to write authentic dialogue, a process he describes as fun.
"I had never taken a physics course," he says. "I read a lot about it. I read through a lot of thesis projects put together by graduate students that I had found online."
While the film veers into techno-babble that can cause one to lose track of the flow of the story, first-time filmmaker Carruth devised a visual language that is mesmerizing enough to compensate. An engineer by trade, Carruth took a methodical approach to realizing his initial concept. Having no experience with motion-picture film stock or lighting, he found that by experimenting with a regular camera he could compose shots for storyboarding and get a good idea of how the lighting would appear on Super 16mm film. He essentially devised his own method of pre-production. Consequently, the film has a flat, cold feel reminiscent of All the President's Men, a look once common in early 70s cinema.
In an era when the lines between independent and pseudo-independent films are increasingly blurred, Carruth is a genuine successful independent filmmaker. Primer's total budget was $7,000, and he did little revision in order to compensate for finances.
"The finished product is very much like the script. There's very little that needed to be changed or written differently. It basically plays exactly like the script. I guess I tend to look at it as making sure I'm interested when I'm writing. If I ever find myself in a scene where I'm basically just doing it to get from point A to point B or C, then I'll basically just scrap it and figure something else out."
Primer was also filmed with festival screenings in mind. Carruth kept the length less than 80 minutes, and went for the Holy Grail when he entered the film at Sundance. Amazingly enough, the effort paid off and independent distributor ThinkFilm bought the rights.
Now Carruth gets to see if he can beat the sophomore slump. He has the advantage of a great learning experience at his disposal.
"Some of it I'll definitely carry forward," Carruth says. "And then the other parts ... basically, what I learned is what not to do the next time around. Hopefully, if I'm lucky enough to do another project, I won't be the guy trying to match footsteps at four in the morning. But now that I've done it all myself, it helps me to understand everyone else's job."