'Primer' Time

Sundance winner Shane Carruth's sci-fi vérité

Shane Carruth (r) in <i>Primer</i>
Shane Carruth (r) in Primer

The premise is simplicity itself: Two friends, software engineers by day, garage inventors by night, accidentally discover a way to travel through time. Chaos theory ensues.

The film is Primer, the debut effort from writer/director/co-star and Dallas native Shane Carruth, who snagged the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2004 with this utterly unique slice of sci-fi cinema vérité: It's as densely layered with resonant ideas about the nature of time, friendship, and the process of invention as it is with the minutiae of the engineering field its characters inhabit.

It may be the smartest sci-fi film you've ever seen (and it almost certainly rewards repeat viewings), but at its core it's a drama about two ordinary Joes in way, way over their heads.

The Chronicle spoke to Carruth during a recent stop in Austin to promote the film and discovered that a little knowledge can go a lot further than you might think.

Austin Chronicle: Correct me if I'm wrong, but you had zero film experience before you embarked on Primer, right?

Shane Carruth: Right. None whatsoever.

AC: You weren't even one of those kids running around with his dad's Super 8 camera and shooting little movies of his friends?

SC: No. I mean, I was really naive. I knew nothing.

AC: That said, the level of realism in Primer, thanks in no small part to the very jargon-heavy dialogue, is phenomenal. It's science fiction, but it almost plays like a documentary.

'Primer' Time

SC: Right. The thing is it's not a traditional sci-fi film. I'd always thought of it as a drama, and then suddenly it has this science-fictional device at the center of it. But, yeah, technically, I have to admit, it's a science fiction film. I think the problem for me is that there's science fiction that I love, that's about ideas –

AC: Such as?

SC: I think 2001 is the best film ever made, science fiction or otherwise. It's just like a great novel with subtext and irony and everything that you need to have a story worth listening to besides just being entertained on a moment-by-moment basis. Ray Bradbury is so great at using science fiction as a literary device to talk about other things. I think the problem is that there's this aesthetic to popular sci-fi, which is alien skin and chrome, and this is not really that.

AC: How long did you spend researching this arcane world of engineering techspeak before you began working on the script?

SC: Well, I had a degree in math, and I was a software engineer, but it was nothing like the world of these guys in the film. I knew what the story was thematically before it had anything to do with science or science fiction, and I know I researched it, but it was kind of a continuing process. Almost the very last thing I did was to kind of finesse what they were saying to make sure that everything these characters are saying is real.

AC: How long did you take to write the script, from initial concept to final draft?

SC: About a year. A lot of that was – and I didn't even know the term at the time – was preproduction. I was only writing for locations I had access to or locations I could go out and secure. I would write scenes that I thought would best be served by a dolly shot – but I hadn't seen a dolly before – so then I'd go to the gear rental facility and check one out and see if I could afford it. And then cinematography was a big deal and I got very paranoid about that. Essentially I read a lot of books and then once I found out it was just photography but with a set shutter speed, that kind of saved my life, because I got an old 35mm still camera and got some tungsten slide film to kind of mimic the motion picture film and fooled around with that. I spent months storyboarding as I was writing, too, and it got to the point where I would write a scene and at the same time storyboard it so that I could know how it was going to play out, shot by shot. In the end it was a big preproduction writing process.

AC: So now the big question is, have you had a chance to screen the film for any engineers, and if so what did they think of it?

SC: The distributor, ThinkFilm, did actually have some screenings for IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers], which is – not really a union – but more like a group for engineers which helps them get health care and stuff. I wasn't able to attend any of the screenings, although I wanted to. I don't know what that would have turned into with the Q&As, though. The feedback I got was mainly positive, although I got one e-mail where somebody said something about how we discussed "pulling volts out of a battery" and the guy corrected me to say that you don't actually "pull volts," it's a current that's supplied. And, you know, I politely thanked him and that was about it.

At Sundance, at the first or second screening, there were two guys from that engineering world that came up to me and said they enjoyed it, but they didn't understand why it was that I had their work in the film, basically, because they understood it, but they couldn't understand why anybody else would, you know? That's been my experience so far.

AC: How important was it to you to master the technical dialogue of the characters within the context of the film? I imagine for the majority of viewers it's almost like listening to a foreign language or even an odd kind of music ...

SC: In the end I knew none of that was really going to come across to the audience, but it was really important to me that the characters be saying real things. Those scenes are so jargon-heavy, sure, but they're written with information within them that's hopefully coming across, like the politics of the group, and who's enthusiastic about what, and who's more proprietary and so on. So the hope is that, even if they're humming, those scenes are going to make some amount of sense. But, yeah, I wanted to make sure the jargon was completely ... truthful. end story

Primer opens Oct. 22. See Film listings for a review.
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Primer, Shane Carruth, Sundance Grand Jury Prize, Sundance 2004, science fiction film, 2001, Ray Bradbury, ThinkFilm

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