With his debut film “Primer,” which he wrote, directed, edited, scored and starred in, newcomer Shane Carruth proved that for literally no more than a few thousand dollars, a young filmmaker can make an intensely interesting film and win the highest honors at the Sundance Film Festival to boot. The Hatchet recently spoke with Carruth about this honor and the process of making a motion picture on a shoestring budget.
Hatchet: After winning the Grand Jury Prize, a lot of films have been limited to just being prizewinners. Have you suffered any of that?
Shane Carruth: No, to be honest. It’s something for them to talk about, which is good, but it seems to be like one sentence out of three or four paragraphs. I know that in the ad in the New York Times, it’s not even listed as a Grand Jury Prize winner. There’s other reviews from journalists, but they’re not using that in the ads.
H: As far as Sundance goes, was it as overwhelming and media-saturated as it appeared to be from an outside perspective?
SC: Yeah, I think so. I think my experience and the film’s experience have been a little bit different because there wasn’t any, and I hesitate to use this word, buzz for the film at all over the course of the week. I know there was a whirlwind for some of the other films that I was able to observe but it wasn’t so awful when it came to “Primer.”
H: I really liked the movie. When I saw one scene, I immediately thought of a question to ask you. When you were ‘creating the machine’ you seemed to be scavenging a lot, pulling parts from the refrigerator or a carburetor. Was that scavenging analogous to the way you made the movie considering your budget?
SC: As we were making it and shooting over the summer in Dallas in the heat of that garage, it’s painfully ironic that we’re doing a low-budget film about low-budget inventors. But it was never written for that purpose to be analogous to the process. With all the reading I was doing about innovation it seemed like some of the best ideas come from the weirdest places that people aren’t set up to be exploring.
H: I don’t know if it was intentional, but [the low budget] kind of necessitated a realism which is usually not found in a movie about time travel. It sets that apart from other movies. Was that your intent?
SC: I knew what the story was before it had anything to do with science or science fiction, but once I knew it was going to have this fantastical device at the center of it, my goal was to set it in the most mundane and realistic world I could muster.
H: Where did the idea for this film come from?
SC: I knew what it was thematically. I knew I was interested in trust and how it’s dependent on what’s at risk, so I knew I was gonna have a story with these two guys who at the film’s beginning have a pretty conventional relationship and because of the introduction of this device or this power, it changes what’s at risk, and that’s the thing that unravels their friendship. I knew it was going to be about that process. I was reading a lot of stories about innovation and the way it actually happens and I got my setting from that. I was really taken with that world, and that dictated that we were talking about a device. Once I got to the checklist of “what could this device be?” and the part where it affects time, it felt that it satisfied the theme as far as heightening the risk but also that there was a lot of stuff to do with it that seemed really interesting, almost a common-sense way of using this machine. Everything else as far as causality and paradoxes would be very unnerving, like finding yourself in someone else’s past and having power over the events around you.
H: Were you reading a lot of ethics philosophy when writing this film?
SC: Absolutely, that’s what I was interested in. This idea of having control over someone else in a way that maybe they’re not even aware of that predates even their existence, what is the obligation? Where do you have an obligation?
H: A lot of directors have had very particular ways of preparing to shoot. I’m wondering, since this is your first film, were there any specific things you did for preproduction to prepare you for this?
SC: As I was writing scenes, I was securing the locations to make sure I could move on to the next scene. I would be writing a scene that would incorporate a dolly (shot) so I would go to the rental facility and see how much they cost, which ones I could afford and make sure I understand how they work. As far as cinematography, I did a lot of experimenting with slide film to kind of emulate what the motion picture film was going to do. I toyed with compositions, exposures, color temperatures and lighting setups. By the time we were shooting, I thought that it had been completely planned out. I didn’t realize until we got into it that I could’ve spent another year getting things perfect. “All the President’s Men” was an example to follow. I know when I was trying to tell the actors what we were going for in the film as far as action and how it needed to be naturalistic and how the drama needed to come from the story and not from any performance, I would point to “All the President’s Men” as an example.
-Jason Mogavero contributed to this report.</i.