The greatest example of innovation on a tiny budget since Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi, Shane Carruth's Sundance-winning science-fiction thriller Primer was photographed in 16mm on a $7,000 budget, but the price barely hints at its resourcefulness and sophistication. A former math major turned engineer, Carruth taught himself how to make movies, and his homemade production rivals Vincent Gallo for above-the-line credits: He's the writer, producer, director, star, composer, editor, and co-cinematographer. After a long and mostly fruitless search for actors in his native Dallas, Carruth cast himself alongside sole professional David Sullivan. The two men play hardware engineers who create an astonishing device while working out of their garage. Though they quickly deduce that their invention, which ruptures the space-time continuum, would be too dangerous to bring to market, they take advantage of it themselves, but the potential consequences are immense. Carruth recently spoke with The Onion A.V. Club about shooting on film, the state of science fiction, and the ethics of invention.
The Onion: What was the genesis of the idea for Primer?
Shane Carruth: It really started thematically. Before I knew it had anything to do with science or science fiction, I was interested in trust, and how it's dependent on what you're liable to lose if that trust is broken. I knew it was going to be a group of people. It wound up being these two guys who, at the beginning of the story, have a conventional relationship, and because of the introduction of this power that changes what's at risk, that's what was going to cause their friendship to unravel. Not because either one of them is a good or bad person, but because there's too much to trust someone else with. I was reading a lot of non-fiction about innovation, and I was really taken with that world, so I got my setting from that.
Once I knew it was set in that world, it was really a matter of the device. These guys are going to make something, and it really has to be this powerful item. When I went through the list of devices and got to the one that affected time, it seemed like a lot of things came together, both in how the machine should work and the way they would use it. But it also really satisfied the theme, this idea of finding yourself in someone else's past and wondering how much control you have over the events around you. That seemed to heighten the risk sufficiently, to where it's more power than I would allow anyone else to have over me.
O: Why was it important for you to get the science, or at least the language, right?
SC: I wanted to believe that they knew what they were talking about. For someone to come in and say, "Can you give it to me in English, doc?" and then somebody delivers some terrible metaphor as to what they're doing… I never wanted that. There's information in there about the politics of the group and who's enthusiastic about what and who's proprietary. The hope is that even if they're just humming, those scenes are still pushing the story forward. I don't know why it's so important to me that they be saying real things. At the end of the day, it's a fictional story. But I guess that because it gets so fantastical, I needed to set it in the most mundane and naturalistic place I could muster. I just wanted everything that I could get to be true to be true.
O: Is it important for viewers to grasp the jargon so much as to understand the implications of the machine?
SC: If I were viewing this film, I would probably be more interested in what's going on thematically than all these technical details. To be honest, I personally have the frame of mind that I would want to figure out this thing. This is a machine that doesn't just pick you up at one point in time and drop you at another. You kind of have to earn it by spending six hours in the machine to go back six hours. What are the implications of that? If I were a viewer, I would want to take it apart, to make sure it adds up, and to understand it a little bit better.
O: Have you gotten any response from the scientific community? People who may understand your language a little more intimately?
SC: Last week in New York, there was a screening at the Museum Of The Moving Image in Queens, and it was partially sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Afterwards, instead of a normal filmmaker Q&A, there was a panel. It was me, the guy who invented the laser scanner for barcode scanning, and a couple of other scientists. And to be honest, it was humbling. They had some very positive things to say about how the film presented the process of innovation, but I don't know if I've talked to anybody about what's happening on a quantum mechanical level, or whether it's plausible, or any of that. It seems like the scientific community is okay with it. I haven't been chewed out yet.
O: It seems like a lot of independent films, even those with million-dollar budgets, are photographed on digital video for budget reasons. Why was it important for you to shoot on film instead?
SC: I guess there were a couple reasons. The music starts off acoustic, and as the story gets a little bit more fantastical, the music turns ethereal and atmospheric. Same thing happens with the editing. It starts off very conventional, and then more jump cuts are introduced. Some more unconventional stuff is done at the end, to kind of mimic the story. So when it came to the medium, I really wanted to start in the most conventional-looking place I could start with, that people are used to seeing. I felt like I needed to start on film. Then that kind of gave me the latitude to overexpose later on in the film, or just try to mimic the story with the medium. The other thing is that my favorite movies have been shot on film. To me, it just seemed like a lot of work to end up with a shaky-cam, Mini-DV version of it.
O: How close did the finished product come to what you had on paper?
SC: Pretty close. The final product is very close to the script. And it's the same information in each scene. But maybe if before, a scene would be a sequence of seven separate shots, now instead of one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, it's one, two, a little bit of seven, three, little bit of five, four. It's this weird, not-so-satisfying problem that existed in editing, because there weren't multiple takes and there really wasn't a script supervisor. So we were really just doing our best to handle continuity errors and stuff.
O: Would future films of yours be worked out so rigorously?
SC: I think so, yeah. There are a lot of things that I would do differently. I would do a better job of inspiring people, get a full-time producer, and get enough money to shoot enough footage so that when I have editing problems, I'll have more options to get out of it. But as far as planning it and knowing what the story's going to look like before I start shooting… I don't know why it is, but it's very important to me. It's important to know from the writing stage how this thing is going to be executed. Part of me wants to be efficient and not waste time while we're shooting, and part of me just thinks that's the way it should be. The story should be pre-planned. As a viewer, if I'm inferring something, I want to know that it was planned for me to infer it. I don't want to think, "Oh, that happened on accident."
O: What's the Dallas filmmaking scene like?
SC: I honestly don't know a single filmmaker in Dallas. I don't know anyone there. I've met people from the Dallas Film Commission since Sundance. I know Austin's a big deal. I hear all kinds of stuff about Austin, with Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater having studios there.
O: What about Dallas itself? It doesn't seem terribly photogenic. Is there something particular about it that could be captured on film?
SC: No, I don't think so. But when I worked as a software engineer, I got to travel, and it does seem like there are three cities in the country. There's New York, there's San Francisco, and then there's almost every other city. Whether it's Dallas or Tampa or Nashville, there are these cities that are, for the most part, suburban sprawl. They've got somewhat of an industrial area, but they're all very much the same. They're cities that don't have a far-reaching history, so the architecture is pretty mundane. What I was hoping by shooting in Dallas was trying to represent any city. It was shot to be generic. I was pulling pictures off of walls. I was blowing out windows so you couldn't see terrain. To me, it was important that I tried to make Dallas an Everycity.
O: Science-fiction movies are usually big-budget action films set in space. Was Primer intended as a corrective to that? Does science fiction in film need to be redefined?
SC: I wasn't trying to change the industry or anything, that's for sure. It does seem like there's the aesthetic of science fiction, with the aliens and chrome and neon and explosions in space, and then there's science fiction that's used as a literary device. That's the kind I'm interested in. The Greeks had their mythology, and they had a great shorthand. They could assign a human trait to a god and suddenly be able to talk about all sorts of things. I feel like we've got science fiction, which is an even better shorthand, because if you do it right, it's not a matter of "What if this happens?" It's "When this happens…" What will be the reaction, how will we cope with it, and what does it mean for who we are? People complain about I, Robot not being about ideas, and then it makes a ton of money. It's weird. I know I'm not doing anything that's going to change that.
O: The ethics of what these guys are doing in the film are dubious, to put it lightly. Did you have any such potentially catastrophic acts of science in mind when you conceived the film?
SC: I did, but I don't think I've ever gotten into this. The way that the device came to be was being informed by a lot of reading I was doing about innovation, everything from the history of the number zero to the history of calculus to the transistor, even the Wright brothers. It seemed like there were all these commonalties in true innovation. But as far as this device, I was interested not only in the fact that it was very powerful, but in the fact that if you alter someone else's life, you can do it in a way that they're not even aware of. The idea of being vulnerable but not even knowing how, that was interesting to me. I have a minor in biology, so I spent some amount of time studying how easy it is to start a process where you release some new strain of bacteria into an ecosphere and how little things add up. I'm really skirting around the issue here, because I'm afraid to say it. There are all kinds of things being affected… reproductive rights, basically. I think that's an interesting topic. And it's something that I was interested in.
O: Reproductive rights?
SC: Yeah, basically. I'm talking about abortion, I guess. I'm not trying to say the film is either pro or against, but the concept of affecting something before it is anything, I thought was very interesting. I'm a man, so it's very difficult for men to even talk about this topic. I'm not obsessed with it, but I've spent a fair amount of time thinking about it, in order to try and come to terms with what I believe. So the film did feel like a way to explore that. I mean, that's not what the film is about, but it was a nice side effect, to be able to think about that as I was writing.
O: It's difficult to tell how much of Primer can, or really should be, comprehended. It seems that once things are set in motion, the possibilities become so vast that it's hard to fully account for them. Whether that frustrates or stimulates a viewer seems to depend on the person.
SC: It gets complicated at the end. This machine is inherently complicated, the way it works, and what it means as far as paradoxes and causality. All the information is in there, but [the two inventors are] in a very confusing place at some points. I wasn't going to have this scene where somebody has an emotional breakdown, then goes on with a lot of exposition about what we've just seen for the last 80 minutes. But it is important that the information is in there, and if someone wants to piece it apart and get past what it's about thematically and get to the nuts and bolts, that information is available. I've made sure of that, and I've had lots of conversations with people who've kind of pieced it apart.