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Geek Primer: How Shane Carruth created an award-winning debut film for $7,000 Add to ...

By the time he reached the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Shane Carruth's epic tale had preceded him. In his first try at filmmaking, the Dallas native wrote, directed and starred in a delightfully geeky little science thriller, Primer. Made for a measly $7,000 (U.S.) on Super 16-millimetre film in 2001, it won Sundance's Grand Jury Prize this year.

Carruth is almost apologetic that Primer fits so neatly into its own genre: the little film that could.

"You guys have to be so sick of this story," said the artfully dishevelled 32-year-old during an interview.

No, we're not, actually -- we live for this stuff. But that doesn't stop him from admitting he wishes he'd maxed out maybe one more credit card.

"Everything in the film is the first take. There's a much better film if I had found just a little bit more money," he said. "But part of the interest in the film comes from the fact that it was shot on such a small budget with a bunch of first-time people, I know that that's the case. There's no way I'm going to complain."

And nor are initial audiences. Primer, opening here Friday, is a weird little morality tale that is about as un-Hollywood as it gets. The grainy, dialogue-heavy film centres on two shirt-and-tie best-friend engineers, Abe (David Sullivan) and Aaron (Carruth), who live in an unnamed generic American city. They spend off-hours in a garage, obsessing on a side project that fiddles with mass and gravity. When they invent a machine that can open up pockets of time, at first, the possibilities for profit seem endless.

When everything actually becomes endless -- think body-doubles with a mind of their own -- the science and the friendship begin to implode.

"What they find is that not only are they doing a really great job of severing gravity but with it they're also severing any other kind of communication."

I asked Carruth how far the real-world science goes in this field and he happily geeked out for a few minutes. I couldn't see his pocket protector under his sweater, but I became convinced it was there.

"There are superconducting devices that are usually the size of a house that can exhibit diamagnetism in objects that are not metal or magnetic," he said. "There's videotape of a frog that's levitating in huge cylinders. What our guys are doing is tweaking it. Usually it needs to be cooled to absolute zero and our guys are doing it at room temperature . . . but the analogy is based on real stuff."

The intensity of that "real stuff" is garnering the film comparisons to other brain-melters such as Memento -- the Canadian distributor ThinkFilm is even offering stunned viewers who paid to see the film a chance to see it for a second time free.

Still, through all the chatter about parabolas and proteins ( Primer also won Sundance's Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Award for films dealing with science and technology), Carruth said the film would be nothing without the personal politics behind the lingo.

"Even if they're humming, there's information there."

And Carruth, a trained mathematician and a software engineer by trade, said that Primer wasn't conceived out of an abiding desire to push science.

"I knew thematically what the story was before I knew that it would have anything to do with science."

"I knew we were going to have a story with people with conventional relationships where they were able to trust each other. And because of the introduction of some kind of power to change what's at risk, it was going to change these relationships and make it so they aren't even able to be around each other at the end."

That device came out of reading piles of non-fiction about the history of the number zero, the history of calculus and the history of the transistor.

"I really like the idea that there's a machine that can put you in a place where you're unsure about your place in the scheme of things," he said. What if time really is on a loop and everything has happened already? Which is your real self, the one you're experiencing now, or the one in the past or future? One of the film's best lines comes from Carruth's character Aaron, once he realizes the dangers of toying with time: "What's worse, being paranoid or knowing you should be?"

In the making of Primer, Carruth was perhaps the most paranoid when casting actors. He was not planning on stepping into the role of Aaron, for one thing. But everyone seemed either too unprepared or too actor-y. There was deadpan nerd humour to harness, too. It had to sound natural.

"I didn't know what I was doing. I tried out over 100 guys for the two leads. I have no casting experience, no directing experience. I had no way to tell if an actor had it or not, reading off the page.

"I was able to find David Sullivan. And I had memorized the script anyway. . . ."

And now Carruth, who has serious leading-man good looks in his favour, is reluctantly discovering the cachet of being one.

"I don't have any delusions about being an actor. But what I've learned is how much credit you get as an actor. Certain people react much better to telling them you're an actor in a film as opposed to a writer or director.

"What I care about is who the director is. If they tell me Colin Farrell is in it, I'm done."

Carruth won't be casting any Farrell types any time soon. His next film is a romance, if you can believe it.

"It's between an 18-year-old oceanography prodigy and the daughter of a commodities trader on the trade routes of Eastern Africa and Southern Asia," he said, grinning at the decidedly odd synopsis.

His budget may be bigger this time, but he's certain that he'd rather struggle looking for international locations instead of giving in to Los Angeles's gravitational pull. He has a hunch that would be a transformation riskier than time travel.

And despite the awards piling up for his first effort -- he's also nominated for a best-feature-film award at New York's Gotham Awards tonight -- there will be no Primer 2, à la that other low-budget indie success, The Blair Witch Project.

"I always thought of Primer as this superhero creation story. By the end of it, you've got two guys on the planet who know how to construct these devices and they're pretty much at odds with each other.

"What happens after is not nearly as interesting as how it got to that point."

Not so for Shane Carruth. I'd wager his "after" will nab more than a little interest.

 

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