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

Shane Carruth's audacious learn-it-on-the-fly method of getting his first feature in the can and then to theaters was a three-year journey that left even him a bit amazed.

November 07, 2004|Chris Lee | 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."

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