Shane Carruth and His First $7000 Film
What do you get when you cross $7000 and a former engineer with a degree in mathematics? With Shane Carruth, apparently, what you get is the indie science fiction drama film Primer. Carruth not only wrote, directed, and edited the film, but also provided the score and produced it. Carruth even stars in the main role.
Primer is well-known in the filmmaking industry for its original plot structure and its complicated technical dialogue, which Carruth deliberately chose to retain. The film follows the lives of two engineers – Abe and Aaron – after they accidentally discover a time loop side-effect during research for entrepreneurial tech projects.
How Carruth did it
Carruth made his diminutive budget work in his favor by taking on the major production roles himself; he played producer, director, writer, cinematographer, and editor for Primer. He even created the entire film score. More importantly, he portrayed Aaron, while many of his friends and family played characters in the film.
Principal photography for Primer took place on the outskirts of Dallas, Texas. Carruth painstakingly storyboarded each shot on 35mm stills. Super 16mm filmstock was used conservatively, and the number of takes was so limited that as much as half of the footage shot was used in the final cut of the film. The flat, overexposed look of the film was achieved through the use of fluorescent lighting, high-speed film stock, and filters.
Editing Primer was no walk in the park for Carruth. He took two years to complete post-production for the film. In interviews, he has said that the process was so gruelling that he almost abandoned the film on more than one occasion.
“I gave up at least three times during the two years. It took two years to edit and compose and loop and foley and all that. There’s at least three times 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,” says Carruth of the post-production process.
Carruth’s hard work had paid off, as the film was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. It also had a limited release in the United States and is now famous for its cult following.
The mystery of Primer
To supplement his mathematical knowledge, Carruth actually studied physics to ensure that the technical dialogue of Abe and Aaron sounded authentic. He used the shorthand phrases and jargon used by working scientists, even if the audience would likely not understand them.
In interviews, Carruth has said that he deliberately made the plot slightly unintelligible to more accurately portray the complexity and potential chaos that can be created by time travel. This concept is evident in the design of the time machine in Primer, too; the time machine is a plain gray box that emits a distinctive electronic hum. Carruth made this work with his shoestring budget by overlaying the sounds of a car engine and a mechanical grinder.
“This machine and Abe and Aaron’s experience are inherently complicated so it needed to be that way in order for the audience to be where Abe and Aaron are, which was always my hope,” says Carruth.