Saturday, February 26, 2005

SHANE CARRUTH on Primer, now out on DVD

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, Primer is Shane Carruth's directorial and acting debut. Set in the non-descript suburbs, the film follows Abe (Carruth) and Aaron (David Sullivan) two young engineers working on projects in their garage, who stumble upon the means with which they can convey themselves through time. Once they realize the possibilities of the latter and it's implications, the two begin on a journey that tests the very fabric of their friendship.

"I had pipe dreams thinking 'maybe people might respond to this," says Shane who wrote, directed and starred in the film. " I was really naive and it was just a lot bigger than I thought it was going to be -- this has far exceeded what I thought was possible with what we were doing, he says of winning at Sundance and the Alfred P. Sloan Prize for advancing science and technology in film.

In the telling of Primer , Carruth took a chance and chose to eschew overtly simplified "red pill, blue pill explanations" to demonstrate how far the rabbit hole goes -- which adds to the Lab-coat and beaker feel of the story's premise and begs the question: will the scientific layman in the audience have a chance of comprehending the engineers' techie-talk that provides the foundation of the Primer storyline? Shane thinks the answer to that is easy as 1, 2, 3.

"It was important to me that what they're saying [on screen] is real and based on the real world. Those scenes are written with information in there about the politics of the group and who's enthusiastic about what; who's proprietary," he says while pointing to the human nuances of the characters he'd drawn for his film. "The hope was that even if they're humming, [then] it's propelling the story -- you're learning something...I didn't want someone to come in and go:'now give it to me in [plain] English' and then someone else delivers some [hackneyed] metaphor for what they're actually doing."

"I needed this device to heighten the risk," he reveals. "When I got to the part about it affecting time, not only did it satisfy the theme but it also seemed like there were a lot of things to do with it that I HADN'T seen before," Carruth remembers. "Something that had always bothered me with time travel stories [in film] was this idea of picking up in one point in time and finding yourself in another and then he shifts gear towards Einsteinian subject matter.

"If you jump back a day, you would find yourself [in an] empty space because of the amount of distance that the earth has moved since yesterday," he says matter-of-factly. "It seemed like any time you were going to address moving in time you've got to address space -- and it doesn't help that space and time are considered part of the same fabrics -- let's talk about everything. So coming up with the analogy of how I thought this [machine] would work in the real world, had this wierd logic to it that was interesting to me."

Placing all of the Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and science fiction what-ifs aside, the theme of Shane Carruth's film posits an ethical through-line that points a finger at what Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature" and as Shane sees it, the impetus shooting the movie involved more than taking a leap of fantasy. "As I get older I think I need to find a way to understand why people do bad things [to each other]," he says. "I knew that I was going to have [to tell] this story," Carruth explains. "I was interested in it because it seemed very universal. Whether you're talking about politics or power structures...This is something to me that is WORTH exploring and talking about -- that's what started it."

There are many twists on the road to truth. In addition to the science-fantasy storyline, the Primer premise was actually grounded on real scientific theories and the screenwriter/ director had to find actors to portray the principle roles and do the leg work to flesh out their roles which yielded a couple of surprises. " I auditioned over 100 guys for the lead roles -- that's how I found David [Sullivan]; the only guy willing to look at the material [and learn science background]. I know what it was," he declares, "I wasn't offering to pay anyone. I realized , at some point that, if I casted of these guys and they left after 3 weeks, for whatever reason, then I can't recover from that. I couldn't reshoot that stuff," he explains. "I'd memorized a good portion of the script and I just decided to step into it. I figured, 'if I'm going to be there everytime we shoot [anyway], then that's one less person that I have to call every day."

After committing to playing one of the lead roles in the film, Shane had to check his ego at the door while portraying the part -- he'd never acted in anything before and film was at premium. Carruth recollects, in hindsight, that there were a few more lessons to be learned on the fly -- as a novice actor who's performances that he, himself, would have to edit later in the cutting room. Everyone likes their own brand, don't they? "He was this annoying guy that I had to edit around," Shane says self deprecatingly of his stab at acting. "Two months into editing I stopped seeing myself -- I don't see myself anymore when I'm watching the film but I know that it was annoying at first," he admits. "It was like, this guy's breaking my scenes. What is he doing?"

It's called show "business" not show "friends." Irrespective of accolades from Sundance, the new director's no babe in the woods; he's well aware of how the bottom line of his first offering will affect what he's working on right now and the creative limitations of working on larger products. "I've been able to have meetings here, in Los Angeles, with people that I KNOW that I wouldn't have been able to meet with before. I love directing and I hope to get to do it again," he concedes without cynicsm. [But] I would hate to be the opposite situation where I suddenly HAVE a budget but I've lost [creative] control -- so I'm trying my best to find a way to meet both of those needs.

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