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A Tone Poem to Time Travel

July 30th, 2009 · 5 Comments

Primer, 2004, poster Primer, 2004, DVD

Primer (2004)
Written by Shane Carruth
Directed by Shane Carruth
Running time: 77 minutes

By Joe Valdez

So, What’s This About?

In suburban Dallas, Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) divide their time between jobs as software engineers with toiling in Aaron’s garage in a bid to develop a get-rich-quick gizmo. While their partners (Casey Gooden, Anand Upadhyaya) seem content to fool around with the equipment, Aaron and Abe focus on creating a product that will dazzle investors and achieve their entrepreneurial dreams. They see promise in a miniaturized semi-conductor, but instead of merely reducing the weight of a weevil, in a matter of hours, their test object presents a coat of fungus that would typically take months to develop naturally.

Aaron hits upon building a box big enough to allow a person to also reverse the arrow of time, but Abe takes him to a U-Haul self-storage facility and from afar, shows him what appears to be another Abe entering the facility. The engineers discover that they’ve already built two coffin-sized boxes with the power to transport users several hours backwards in time, depending on how long the boxes are powered up and how long the traveler remains inside. Using their invention to double up on the stock market and in sports betting, Aaron becomes obsessed with traveling through time in an effort to control the events unfolding in his past.

Primer, 2004, Shane Carruth, David Sullivan

Who Made It?

Shane Carruth studied mathematics and computer science at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas. He spent a few days in the graduate program for math, but dropped out when he realized he’d mostly be doing research for other people. He recalled, “An entrepreneurial spirit took over, and I felt that whatever I did was going to be on my own terms, so I decided to make some money and apply that toward whatever venture I chose. I started writing software in C and C++ for a flight simulator at Hughes Aircraft and then got into Web work. I did back-end database design and then started consulting.”

Carruth had developed a love for narrative, penning a couple of short stories and getting half way through a novel. Realizing he had little taste for inner monologue and much preferred telling a story visually, Carruth spent three years in Dallas teaching himself screenwriting and filmmaking. Following the example of Robert Rodriguez and his book Rebel Without a Crew, Carruth cast, shot, edited and scored a 77-minute feature for the price of $7,000. The resulting film — Primer — was the sensation of the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, winning both the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic and the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize with its $20,000 purse.

Primer, 2004, Shane Carruth, David Sullivan

How’d He Do It?

“I’ve been asked whether, why I wanted to tell a story about inventors, or garage level inventors and to be honest, I knew what the story was way beyond, or well before, it had anything to do with science or science fiction. I was very interested in trust and how it’s related to what’s at risk, and I knew that I was going to have a story with a group of people — or what winds up being Abe and Aaron — who at the beginning of the film, or the beginning of the story, have this pretty conventional relationship and because of the introduction of this device or this power, changes what’s at risk.” After reading lots of scripts, Carruth “went to town writing”.

“When it came to production, I went to the few production houses here in Dallas. I asked them what they did and how they fit into the general scheme of things. I just asked a lot of questions from end to end about, you know, which cameras do what. Once I found out that cinematography was really photography with a set shutter speed, I got an old 35mm Minolta and bought some tungsten slide film, because I knew that motion-picture film for the most part was tungsten, and I used it to storyboard the entire script. It took a long time, because I didn’t know about photography. I didn’t know anything about depth of field or how to get the look I wanted.”

Primer, 2004, David Sullivan, Shane Carruth, Ashok Upadhyaya

Carruth added, “I had to learn everything through the pre-production process. So I storyboarded and I set up my lighting, which wasn’t elaborate — it was mostly available light. I had read Soderbergh stuff where they talk about him using available light, which is true for the most part. So I thought I could get away with that, but I found there were some situations where I had to buy some florescent bulbs from Wal-Mart and set up a rudimentary bank.” He also opted to shoot in 16mm format instead of going digital. “Because the story gets so fantastical, I didn’t want to be experimental when it came to the medium itself.”

When it came to casting, Carruth met with around 100 local actors, most of which he found either “a little too theatrical” or unprepared. “In the end, only one professional actor ended up in the movie. The rest were either family members, or friends-of-friends. It’s funny because I’ve heard several nice comments specifically about the acting.” After finding David Sullivan to play Abe, Carruth settled on playing Aaron himself. In the summer of 2001, Primer commenced a five-week shooting schedule around Dallas. With nearly 40 locations (and permission to shoot in about 10 of them) Carruth resorted to spaces he had access to, like his brother’s apartment.

Primer, 2004, David Sullivan, Shane Carruth

Recounting his expenses, Carruth stated, “It was a few thousand for the camera rental, a couple of thousand for processing, and then, of course, the cost of film stock. I called around and managed to get a lot of expired stock donated.” $7,000 would not cover the transfer from Super 16 to 35mm; a friend loaned Carruth the cash for that. “I had a few offers from certain bodies to pay for the blow-up, but they demanded that they be credited as executive producers and that their credit show before everyone else’s. I didn’t think that was fair to me and everyone who worked on the film for free before it was a ‘Sundance’ film. Luckily, my friend Scott Douglass saved the day.”

Trying to find a movie in the footage Carruth had shot proved the most daunting task of getting Primer seen. He recalled, “It took two years to edit and compose and loop and Foley and all that.” He admitted, “It really got to me when someone asks what I did for a living and I realized I didn’t have a good answer. And it was just, I don’t know, it was like I’m in my apartment alone all day editing this thing that I’m calling a film but it wasn’t actually a film yet. So yeah, there’s a couple of times where I just gave up and decided I was going to go back and get a job and actually have a good answer to what I did for a living. That was going to be that.”

Primer, 2004, David Sullivan, Shane Carruth

Screened at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, Primer became a sensation in Park City and among critics as well. Dana Stevens, The New York Times: “At a certain point, Mr. Carruth’s fondness for complexity and indirection crosses the line between ambiguity and opacity, but I hasten to add that my bafflement is colored by admiration.” Marjorie Baumgarten, The Austin Chronicle: “It’s hard to always know what Primer is saying or where it’s heading, but it looks fantastic while it unfolds and you won’t be able to forget what you’ve witnessed.” Carina Chocano, The Los Angeles Times: “Frustrating as I ultimately found it, Primer is undeniably geek heaven. For everyone else, it’s a nice antidote to big-budget bogusness.”

won a North American distribution deal from THINKfilm and opened October 2004 in the United States. Never expanding beyond 31 theaters, it scooped up $424,760 domestically. Carruth commented on his debut film’s passionately baffled reception by stating, “My favorite films are the ones that can’t be tidily summed up, yet I walk away with a sense of the core. I wanted to make a film like that. As I was writing, my brother would say, ‘It’s confusing.’ I would ask, ‘Well, what do you think is happening? Just take a guess.’ He always got it right. He’d say, ‘No, no, I get it, I just don’t think anybody else would.’ But that’s exactly what I was going for. I wanted it to be right on that line.”

Primer, 2004, David Sullivan, Shane Carruth

Should I Care?

If you had to prepare a primer on viewing Primer, the consensus Carruth and most of the audience reached was that watching the audacious, mind bending flick twice really seems to help. Really, really helps. Some have compared it to Memento in that respect, but I didn’t find it nearly as accessible. Carruth does a yeoman’s job resisting genre temptations or Hollywood bullshit by grounding the film with geek-speak in all its hyper focused and argumentative glory. Without the sci-fi, this is a striking portrait of garage inventors, right down to their sleeping habits, uniforms and paranoia once they strike on an innovation braced for huge success.

Carruth is a highly intelligent and skilled storyteller who in the middle of his tale, not only walks out on the audience, he shuts off the lights and leaves it up to us to find our way out of the story. The effect is either invigorating or insulting, depending on your personal taste. Regardless of how baffling the finished film, Primer is mandatory viewing for anyone flirting with the DIY aesthetic. The film looks stunningly sharp for the money, has good performances and a decent music track. If a software engineer with less than $10,000 can make a movie this successful in the suburbs of Dallas, anybody can.

Your thoughts?

Primer, 2004

Where’d You Get All of This?
“Shane Carruth”, 7 March 2004

“Mad Math: Bending Time with Primer Director”
By Polly Shulman. The New York Times, 19 October 2004

“Interview with Shane Carruth”
By Rebecca Murray., 22 October 2004

“From Math to Movies” By Steven Wallich & Wayne Slater. IEEE Spectrum, November 2004

Primer: The New Whiz Kid on the Block”
By Amy Taubin. Film Comment. 2004

Primer. DVD audio commentary by Shane Carruth. New Line Home Video, 2005.

Tags: Alternate universe · Ambiguous ending · No opening credits · Paranoia · Shot In Texas

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Moviezzz // Jul 31, 2009 at 7:18 am

    I read about PRIMER at Sundance, and it became the film I most wanted to see.

    When I finally saw it on DVD I was, well, bored silly.

    “Carruth is a highly intelligent and skilled storyteller who in the middle of his tale, not only walks out on the audience, he shuts off the lights and leaves it up to us to find our way out of the story. ”

    That is the best description I’ve read.

    As much as I want to love a movie made for $7,000, I couldn’t with this one.

  • 2 Marilyn // Aug 1, 2009 at 9:52 am

    This film gave me a monumental headache on first viewing. So true about a second viewing. I still am not sure what happens point by point, but the implications of the invention seem much more ominous. I loved the open-ended speculation I was able to make about it.

    I saw it at Ebertfest, and Roger was calling Carruth the next Martin Scorsese. Well, not likely – in fact, I’d be surprised to see another film by this guy – but that shows the level of originality and surprise Ebert found in the film. It’s got both of those in spades. Carruth said he actually had All the President’s Men in mind when conceiving the film.

    Another great post, Joe. I don’t comment often, but I read them all.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Aug 1, 2009 at 11:45 am

    Jim: It’s always a pleasure to read your level, well informed opinions here. I was never bored by Primer — it’s 77 minutes long. The $7,000 wasn’t a hurdle either, but I did feel the movie was blank. I watched it twice and still have no idea who Granger was, who Rachel the ex-girlfriend was or what was going on in Aaron’s attic or why. I have to admit though, it was interesting trying to figure it out on my own.

    Marilyn: My reaction to Primer mirrors the one that you had. It’s amazing the impressions you can gather when you step back and take a look at a film again. Carruth has been called the next Scorsese, the next Cronenberg and the next Kubrick which seems ridiculous to me after one film. Let the guy develop a body of work. I sincerely hope he doesn’t go the route of the Blair Witch guys. Thanks so much for commenting!

  • 4 Daniel // Aug 12, 2009 at 11:24 am

    Nice one here – I thought about profiling this at some point, but truth be told I never fully understood it either. I only saw it the one time and was totally intrigued, but for whatever reason I never got a second viewing in to really seal my opinion.

    But boy, what I wouldn’t give for more fresh and original, thoughtful films like this…

  • 5 Brian Warren // Oct 24, 2009 at 1:31 pm

    “Geek Heaven” is about right. There is help in understanding what really happened in the film as well as a hidden subtext in the picture. The writing on Primer is called ‘The Primer Universe’ and is at
    Its written in pages like a book but recorded in a finished blog posting. Try it.
    I’m a big fan.

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