Primer is set in the industrial park/suburban tract-home fringes of an unnamed contemporary city where two young engineers, Abe and Aaron, are members of a small group of men who work by day for a large corporation while conducting extracurricular experiments on their own time in a garage. While tweaking their current project, a device that reduces the apparent mass of any object placed inside it by blocking gravitational pull, they accidentally discover that it has some highly unexpected capabilities--ones that could enable them to do and to have seemingly anything they want. Taking advantage of this unique opportunity is the first challenge they face. Dealing with the consequences is the next.
"An ingenious movie about the perils of ingenuity. Invigorating. Like 'Pi' or 'Memento', 'Primer' is the kind of movie likely to inspire both imitators and cultists. Carruth has invented something fascinating."
-A.O Scott, The New York Times
"Anybody who claims they fully understand what's going on in Primer after seeing it just once is either a savant or a liar. That's hardly a problem, though, since the experience of watching Primer is so intensely pleasurable that you'll want to see it several times, not so much to figure it out (that's a fringe benefit) as to revel in its striking composition and wry sense of humor.”
-Mike D'Angelo, ESQUIRE
"The year's most effective science fiction film. 'Primer' is a reminder that the best sci-fi action requires you to think."
-Jason Silverman, Wired
"Finally, a piece of clockwork science fiction that works. This smart, committed genre exercise well deserves its Sundance Grand Jury Prize."
-New York Magazine
"One of the more inventive, tantalizing and ingeniously directed indies of the past few years."
-John Anderson, Newsday
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
PRIMER is a mesmerizing thriller that introduces a gifted new filmmaker with an exciting new sensibility. Thirty-one-year-old Shane Carruth, a former engineer who spent three years teaching himself filmmaking, conceived, wrote, directed, edited, and scored PRIMER and also plays one of the lead roles. His impressive feature debut – set in the very world Carruth abandoned to make movies -- tells the story of two engineers who stumble upon a remarkable invention which changes their lives in unimaginable ways. Engrossing and provocative in its exploration of the dark side of human nature and science, PRIMER electrified audiences at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, winning the Grand Jury Prize and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Award for films dealing with science and technology.
The story of the making of PRIMER is as unusual as the movie itself. Carruth, who had a degree in mathematics and worked briefly at three engineering companies, was unhappy with his career choice and decided he wanted to become a writer. He tried his hand at short stories and was halfway through a novel when he realized that he was more interested in working with images than with words. At this point, he made up his mind to pursue a career in film, even though he had no background in the subject.
Fortunately, Carruth’s extensive training in math and science had made him proficient in problem-solving. He cleverly applied these skills to the study of filmmaking. “A lot of math isn’t just the numbers,” he explains. It’s the fact that there is this problem that is seemingly unsolvable in front of you, and yet if you take it apart, it can be solved.” Devising his own lesson plan, he taught himself screenwriting, directing, cinematography, sound mixing, editing, and acting. “I read a lot of scripts, just to see what they’re supposed to look like, and I went to town writing,” he recalls. To learn the basics of film production, Carruth visited production houses in his native Dallas, watched carefully, and asked lots of questions. He experimented with cameras and lighting and devised his own form of storyboarding. Most importantly, he worked on his script.
The inspiration for PRIMER came to Carruth at a time when he was reading books about discoveries. He observed that “whether it involved the history of the number zero or the invention of the transistor, two things stood out. First, the discovery that turns out to be the most valuable is usually dismissed as a side-effect. Second, prototypes almost never include neon lights and chrome. I wanted to see a story that was more in line with the way real innovation takes place.”
While developing the concept of two engineers caught up in a realistic and life-changing discovery, Carruth saw ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN for the first time and was both amazed and inspired. As he watched the little clues and pieces of the investigation converge into a larger conspiracy, he knew he could develop his story in this way. “I had a car accident that laid me up for about a month, and I found myself watching a lot of Turner Classic Movies,” he recalls. “For the first time, I watched films like THE CONVERSATION, NORMA RAE, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN -- and I was amazed. ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, in particular, is a procedural -- all the drama is in the revelation, not some actor pushing it over the top. It’s about how these small details are revealed to make up the bigger picture. That validated for me that PRIMER could be a compelling narrative without neon or special effects or smoke screens. I don’t care much for the aesthetic of lasers and aliens and that kind of thing. Science Fiction is one of the best tools that any writer has available because it allows you to freely address universal themes, qualities of being alive on this planet -- and that’s what’s incredibly interesting to me.”
His concept in place, Carruth spent a year developing and writing PRIMER’s screenplay. From the start, he wanted his dialogue to sound absolutely authentic. The only way to accomplish this goal was to immerse himself in the study of physics -- the shared fixation of his characters -- until he became “conversant” in it. “I had never taken a physics course,” recalls Carruth. “but I read a lot about it and consulted graduate student research projects I had found online.” In the movie, conversations among the characters are extremely realistic: they talk to each other using the kind of techno-speak that would come naturally to work-obsessed scientists.
In fact, Carruth faced quite a challenge in finding actors who could manage his low-key, conversational dialogue. “That was a terrible process -- trying to break actors of the habit of filling each line with so much drama.” he recalls. Dallas-based actor David Sullivan was cast in the role of Abe, while Carruth, who had no acting experience, decided to play Aaron himself. “By that point,” he explains, “I had memorized the script anyway. And I figured I could count on myself to be there every time we shot!” Carruth conducted month-long rehearsals, going through each scene hundreds of times before the camera started rolling because there was no room for retakes in his frugal budget.
The fact that he had very little money for his production might have prompted Carruth to follow the lead of cost-conscious independent filmmakers who economize by making digital films. But he had very definite ideas about the way he wanted PRIMER to look and knew he could not accomplish it by shooting digitally. “I knew early on that I didn’t want to go digital,” he explains. “It’s not something that, aesthetically, I think is there yet. It works for a lot of subjects, and perhaps it could have worked for PRIMER. But what I wanted, in terms of how the images looked, was pretty straightforward. Because the story gets so fantastical, I didn’t want to be experimental when it came to the medium itself.” Carruth shot PRIMER on Super 16mm, which was later blown up to 35mm. The finished film has a distinct visual style, a flat, contemporary, cold, and intentionally over-exposed look that pays homage to Carruth’s favorites from the 1970s.
Carruth was determined to make PRIMER sound as realistic as it looked. When creating the hum of the time travel machine, for example, he used a mechanical grinder and a car, among other machines. “I knew whatever it was, it couldn’t be a digital sound made in a computer,” he says. “It had to be something that sounded very analog and realistic and felt like it might explode.”
Amazingly, given the film’s impressive production values, PRIMER cost about $7000, or, as Carruth says, “the price of a used car.” Consequently, the crew was very small and very versatile. Like their multi-talented director, members of the production team had to wear many different hats, operating sophisticated equipment one day and moving furniture the next. The film was shot over a period of five weeks in Dallas, where Carruth depended on the kindness of family homes and friends’ apartments for his locations,
Ironically, Carruth’s maverick yet retro approach to filmmaking -- deriving inspiration from the 1970’s, and avoiding digital effects in what is essentially a science-fiction thriller -- has produced a work that is utterly cutting edge. Described by Film Comment Magazine as “a succession of brainstorms, held together by a nearly sublime overlay of sound effects and music,” PRIMER is a fast-moving brain-teaser that challenges its audience to be smart, alert, and open to new experiences. The plot is, at times, confounding, but in a way that leaves the viewer wanting to know more yet comfortable with not always knowing. The sense that facts, information, and what we refer to as “truth” are, in fact, ephemeral, hard to grasp, and frequently just out of reach, characterize both the form and the content of PRIMER.
The film is about one of those turning points in life after which nothing is the same. Carruth has experimented, and many will say he has succeeded, in making a work of art that is itself just this sort of turning point. Following a viewing of PRIMER -- and it may not be one’s last viewing of the film -- nothing about the experience of watching movies is likely to be the same.
Shane Carruth (Aaron)
Shane Carruth was born in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. As the son of an Air Force sergeant, he grew up all over the US. Shane graduated college with a degree in mathematics, went to work, and promptly quit all of his first three engineering positions. Enamored with stories since childhood, he set out to learn everything he could about filmmaking with the end result being his first feature film PRIMER.
David Sullivan (Abe)
David Sullivan was born in Longview, an east Texas town of 70,000 people. An imaginative and social child early on in life, his curiosity eventually led him to the stage where he performed in one-act plays at Spring Hill High and proved to be a natural in front of live audiences. Upon high school graduation, Sullivan was offered a theater scholarship at Kilgore Junior College but instead, he accepted an academic scholarship to Baylor University to study business. Sullivan still took great measures to further his interest in the dramatic arts. His talent for acting landed him roles in stage productions by the Baylor theater department. Though never a formal student of acting, much of Sullivan's postgraduate years have been dedicated to small budget films working closely with friends on both sides of the camera. PRIMER was Sullivan's first official casting call, and his first leading role in a feature film.
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