Shot for President
of the Idyll
Forget Me Not
-Snow Falling On Cedars
State of the Art
Stealing American Beauty
(En)fin de cinema
-The Last Movie
-Harold and Kumar...
Go Gallo/Sevigny in ‘04...
-The Brown Bunny
Once More in Oh-Four
-The Right Stuff
All Systems Go
-She Hate Me
-Shaun of the Dead
-Anatomy of Hell
-Father and Son
-Harold and Kumar...
-I Heart Huckabees
A Conversation with Shane Carruth
Matthew Plouffe speaks with the unassuming genius behind
the dazzling new sci-fi film, Primer
Reverse Shot: You have a bachelor’s
degree in math. Where did you study and did you have
any particular area of interest within the field?
SC: I went to Stephen F. Austin State University in
Texas and nonlinear dynamics was the thing that stood
out to me, that I was most interested in. I had a weird,
weird college experience. I mean, I woke up in college.
I was going there to study marketing and advertising.
I don’t know what I thought I was going to be doing,
but I was fortunate to take a business calculus course
and I remember almost the moment in class when I started
to understand calculus and what it can do and how it
works. I think I went and changed my major the next
week. And that was also the time when I was starting
to understand more about story and novels and subtext
and the things that go with them. I really think that
up until then I thought stories were just interesting
little things. Like little jokes that you told or like
twilight zone episodes or action movies or whatever.
It’s possible that I didn’t even realize until then
that you could do anything with themes, that there was
something more important underneath it all. And coming
to that realization and doing it at the same time that
I was realizing how powerful math was, I think that
just had a huge influence on me, and they affected each
other and I started writing stories in college…
RS: Short stories and a half a novel…
SC: Yeah, that’s right.
RS: What were those about?
SC: The novel was about a woman that dies an incredibly
random death and how her husband, who’s a furniture
maker, is attributed with receiving some kind of psychic
gift—some kind of gift in general and in this small
town where they live, no one can believe that something
bad can happen without there being something good that
also happens conversely. So they start to buy his furniture
and believe that they’re somehow purchasing something
powerful from him. It’s this entire circle of rumor
and speculation that becomes these people’s belief system.
[laughs] I don’t know what I was thinking.
RS: But you were never a film lover or cinephile
when you were growing up, correct?
SC: I didn’t even know that there was a “French New
Wave” until the year I was writing Primer.
RS: So what attracted you to the medium?
SC: The first thing is, as I was writing my stupid novel
and short stories or whatever, I couldn’t write inner
monologues. I don’t want to say what somebody’s thinking
or feeling. I’m very much interested in how to show
those things indirectly. And so I ended up writing screenplays
without really knowing it. And I had seen the independent
films like everybody else. In the Company of Men
was a huge thing for me. Even The Brothers McMullen,
where I thought, “Okay, so that’s what can be done for
that amount of money.” The more I thought about it the
more I became obsessed and needed to try my hand at
RS: With Primer,
you’ve said that you were interested in exploring
“the dissolution of trust” and “the process of invention.”
What interests you about those ideas?
SC: I knew that thematically I wanted to do a story
about two or more guys who were going to be close at
the beginning and because of the introduction of this
power and changing what’s at risk, they were not going
to be able to be near each other at the end. I didn’t
know if they were going to kill each other or if they
were going to be at war but that…well, you know, you
can say you trust your friends and family but if there’s
a gun constantly at your head…You don’t want that situation.
Changing what’s a risk does change what you’re willing
to do. And at the same time I was reading a lot of nonfiction
about the discovery of things; the transistor in calculus
and the number zero. I was kind of immersed in this
world of innovation. It felt interesting to me and it
felt like something I hadn’t seen really played out
on film in a way that mastered it and in a way that
I believed. So I kind of knew that that was my setting.
RS: Do you consider the film science fiction?
SC: I know that’s its science fiction. I think the problem
is that we use the term science fiction to talk about
the aesthetic—the green alien skin and the lasers and
the metal chrome. That’s science fiction whether or
not it has any conceptual backing at all. I mean the
Greeks had their mythology as sort of short hand to
talk about aspects of the inhuman and life on earth
and whatever else and we have science fiction. And I
think that it’s even better because if you do it right
it’s not a matter of “what if this happened” but “when
this happens.” I think that’s just an amazing tool.
RS: One of the wonderful things about the film is
that it’s interested in the actuality of its science
and possesses a complimentary aesthetic which, contrary
to the aliens and lasers, is based on a very immediate
sense of realism.
SC: To be honest, if I’m given the opportunity to make
films in my life, I don’t know if I’ll ever shoot anything
that isn’t based in realism. It’s almost a conviction.
There are very few films that I like that are campy
or overly dramatic. I need to believe it.
RS: So what’s your take on the sci-fi coming out
of Hollywood these days? Stuff like Paycheck or
Timeline, for instance.
SC: I saw 15 minutes of Timeline before I shut
it off. Cause I’m there, I’m the audience. If
I believe it. And I just don’t. It’s the same thing
as acting. It seems like in the Seventies—and I don’t
know because I was young—it seems like that on the level
of the actors, the question that they asked themselves
when approaching a line or a reading was, “How do I
perform this in a way that is believable, that you buy
that I’m a bus driver?” And nowadays it seems like the
question is, “How do I deliver this in such a way that
they’re gonna feel my anger, and I’m gonna win that
award,” and it’s a completely different thing. These
movies make great trailers, but I don’t buy them. I
spend five minutes with them and I don’t believe that
world. It gets worse and worse and I get more and more
insulted, ‘cause I’m never there. And that’s even outside
of the fact that there’s probably nothing going on with
RS: There’s also
a sense in which those films kind of pander to their
audience, whereas you take a radically different approach
in your refusal to dumb down anything. A great example
is the opening scenes. You thrust your audience into
the world of these characters with virtually no introduction
and leave us to sift through the jargon and piece together
what they’re doing in that garage. Yet it’s so much
more believable than the common commercial approach.
What was your thought process there?
SC: I guess it was just that. I want to believe it.
Those scenes are a bit jargon heavy…
RS: In a great way…
SC: You say that, but I know there’s another person
who would probably say, “what’s the point, why do I
have to listen to all that if I’m not going to know
what they’re talking about?” But what (the characters)
are saying is actually based in real stuff and it’s
important to me that even if they’re humming, you get
something about the politics of this group and who’s
enthusiastic about what. The information is hopefully
all there. I mean, I just saw The Village. There’s
very little speaking in the first five to ten minutes,
but it’s amazing. And I was there watching with a full
audience in suburban Dallas and people can figure it
out. In the opening scenes you’re learning everything
about the setting, you’re learning the rules that everybody’s
heard in the marketing, but you’re seeing it in a way
where there’s no conversation, it’s just playing out
with really great direction.
RS: Are you an M. Night Shyamalan fan?
SC: Yes. They’re great movies, even when there are flaws.
It’s better than most stuff and…I don’t know. It’s always
RS: As Primer progresses and what you call
“the loss of symmetry” takes place in the various lives
of these characters, the form of the film compliments
the content in a particularly effective way…
SC: Yeah, hopefully everything about your experience
matches the experience of the characters. It starts
out very conventional and changes as it gets more fantastic.
Even the music is all acoustic at the beginning but
then it gets ethereal and more atmospheric towards the
end. The way that it’s cut, the way that it’s shot,
hopefully it all matches. That’s where I was coming
from. The information’s all there. It’s not ungettable.
It might require a second or third viewing, but that’s
what I was going for. That’s what I enjoy, where I see
a core piece of the story on one viewing, and if I happen
to take another look at it I realize that there was
more going on.
RS: On the production end, what would you say were
the pro and cons of shooting with such a small crew?
SC: The pros I didn’t really know until now. Because
now that I’m sort of getting a taste of what it means
to shoot a film with a budget, with the film hierarchy
that’s been developed—the director, assistant director
and cinematographer. And the politics that go on. I’m
learning about how great it was to not get studio notes
How great it was to have the control that I had. The
rest are all cons, [laughs] I mean, other than
sneaking into an airport cause you have such a small
crew, the cons are limitless. I paid so much to save
money. There’s no reason that it should take two years
to do post-production on a film that small. I stayed
too stringent to the budget, and every mistake I made
was magnified because with a 2:1 shooting ratio, if
I made a mistake and I didn’t realize until too late
it cost me weeks just fixing it…
RS: You shot 2:1?
SC: Yeah, yeah.
RS: That’s amazing
to me because especially with a lot of these small films—like
In the Company of Men for instance—they’re all long
takes, an economical way out. But Primer uses
so many setups and it never appears that you’ve skimped
SC: But there’s only one line of overlap between any
two angles, because it was storyboarded so we could
say we’re gonna go from this line to this line and that’s
it. We would get a running start and the camera would
get going and I might let the action go on a little
bit longer. But several times—I wanna do this for the
DVD—you can see me saying “cut” under my breath, maybe
five or six times in the film.
RS: You spent a long time cutting the film yourself
before finally seeing it on the big screen at Sundance.
What was that experience like?
SC: It was such a drastic change. To go from seeing
the film on my tiny monitor for two years, to suddenly
sitting with and audience watching the 25th version
of it—it’s such a different experience it’s even almost
hard to talk about. I’d been in my apartment alone for
so long, and to hear people laughing for the first time
at something and going, “Oh yeah, that was written to
be funny,” it was strange. Festival audiences are notoriously
open and receptive to whatever, but it was still good.
RS: And you were approached by ThinkFilm at the festival?
SC: We had conversations there, but it took another
month to reach a deal.
RS: You took a different approach with your deal
than a lot of first time filmmakers do, opting to take
less money up front for more stake in the backend. What
was your thought process and how did you approach that
side of the business?
SC: I just read the document. I read the contract and
created a little excel spreadsheet to see what the different
box-office totals meant to me. And the original deal
was… well, it was great to have that advance money,
but I felt locked out of the process. And I thought,
you know, I’ve been messing around with this thing for
three years. I can wait around another six to nine months
to see how it’s going to play out. If it doesn’t do
well then, you know (shrugs)…but if it does,
I’ll take part in the success.
READ MATTHEW PLOUFFE'S
REVIEW OF PRIMER