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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

"Here I am with all these pages of an investigative procedural that I've been writing about these two guys where we're finding out little bits of information that add up to something bigger," he said. "To see 'All the President's Men,' this is exactly what's going on."

Answering an ad on a local film production bulletin board, Carruth volunteered to operate the bat microphone on a Dallas-based independent movie production. The experience would heavily inform his shooting style.

"I got to see the director and cinematographer work," he said. "But the biggest thing I took away from that experience is we would show up and have a crew of 40 people trying to set things up, and we would wait for hours ... each set-up is taking two hours and none of it is pre-planned. That had a huge effect on me in terms of where the cameras were going to be and how the characters were going to move."

From there, he decided to storyboard each camera movement on Tungsten 35mm slide film (to mimic the film stock on which he planned to shoot "Primer") and learned what kind of F-stops to use on his camera through reading articles from American Cinematographer.

When it came time to cast the leads, Carruth auditioned over 100 people for the roles of Abe and Aaron. David Sullivan, a local with an 8x10 glossy head shot but no professional acting experience, was awarded the Abe part. The director decided to play Aaron himself. "I couldn't find the right person," he said.

The two rehearsed for four weeks in the children's section of a Dallas library, a time in which "Primer's" low-key, conversational dialogue came together. "I just wanted it to be as naturalistic as I could get it," said Carruth. "The only trick I ever learned was that if we repeated something 30 or 40 times, we'd get so bored with the material that it would start to sound like it was ours."

Over the course of the film's one-month shoot in 2001, the filmmaker says his main mistake was not budgeting enough money for production and taking on producing duties himself. The actors did double duty both in front of and behind the camera and most shots were completed in one take. For his part, Carruth scouted and secured his locations such as the U-Haul storage locker where much of "Primer's" time-travel action takes place, delivered his 16mm film stock to the lab for processing and rented his own cameras.

"I was so relieved when the shoot was over," he said. "It was such a joy not to feel like I was letting my crew down all day, every day. It was way too guerrilla."

But the filmmaker's main hurdles were still ahead.

Carruth had gleaned bits of advice from haunting local video production companies and pestering the assistants with technical questions. He arrived at the conclusion that the cheapest way to shoot would be to transfer his 16mm footage to mini-digital video film and then edit on his home computer. "I used Adobe Premiere, which isn't made for film," he said, still audibly exasperated at the mistake. "It ... doesn't handle sound properly. I spent the first two months syncing audio to video. It was a hundred little things that I didn't predict and had to muddle through."

In all, postproduction on "Primer" took nearly two years to complete -- an eternity in front of a computer screen by any professional standard. Beside technical inefficiency, Carruth's choice to shoot only one take of any given shot resulted in a dearth of material.

"For the most part, it saves a lot of time and money," he said. "But when there was some kind of continuity error or I lost a shot because of a tech problem, it becomes a puzzle trying to get it back in there.

"I quit the movie three or four times. I'd say ... 'I don't even know what the story is anymore.' "

Instead, he returned to the project again and again, teaching himself sound design he says he "ripped off" from Steven Soderbergh's arty revenge caper "The Limey." And Carruth used a computer music program called Fruity Loops to create his own piano samples and sequence what he calls some "rough and quick" music for the film's ethereal, minimalist score. ("I took piano lessons when I was a kid, but I whined, so my mom let me quit," is all the musical education Carruth will cop to.) He finished cutting the film in November 2003 and submitted it to the Sundance Film Festival with a $50 check. And "Primer" was accepted.

Carruth spent the next month overseeing the film's blowup from 16mm to 35mm so it could be projected properly at the festival. During that time, he hired the film publicity firm mPRm, which began hyping "Primer" to the William Morris Agency. They took on Carruth as a client. At the movie's first public viewing, he says he was more worried about the film transfer than his career prospects. To his surprise, "Primer" first won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize for science and technology in film. Grand jury members were unanimous in selecting "Primer" for the grand prize.

Gaining experience

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