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  New Math
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 it.

 

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 them thematically.

 

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 interesting.

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 on coverage.

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


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