The Polar Express cost $170-million (U.S.) to make, Alexander even more. Both are limping at the box office. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, a film about two engineers who accidentally discover the secret to time travel, whose budget was so minute it is practically microscopic, opens today in select Canadian cities. It's called Primer, it's as small and sharp as a thumbtack, and it cost $7,000 (U.S.).
That is not a typo. A film that will be competing this month for your movie-going dollars against mega-budget Christmas epics and shiny Oscar contenders was shot in its entirety for -- Seven. Thousand. Dollars. Its writer/director/producer/star, a newcomer from Texas named Shane Carruth, also served as casting director, location scout and production designer, wrote the music, and did the sound, cinematography and film editing. His mother was the caterer. "In the entire five weeks of shooting, the food was the only thing that always worked right," Carruth told me.
How small is $7,000? So small that Carruth used short ends -- pieces of film left over from other productions -- even though it meant that sometimes the film would run out after 40 seconds. So small that some days he'd even run out of those, and would have to stop everything and dash to the store for more -- himself, because he had no production assistants. So small that, when asked what he'd go back and change about making Primer if he had a time machine of his own, he replied that he'd give himself $3,000 more -- a figure so laughably tiny, it's like the daily latte budget on a typical Hollywood thriller.
"Seriously, $3,000 would have made all the difference," Carruth insisted. "I could have shot a few more takes, had a few more editing choices, and maybe edited the film in six months" instead of the two years it took.
But here's the beauty part. By any measure Hollywood employs, Primer is wildly successful. It has received rave reviews, and it won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. On Tuesday, it was nominated for best picture and best screenplay by the Independent Spirit Awards, the indie-world's Oscars. And during its first four weeks at the U.S. box office, it earned $243,165 -- nearly 35 times its cost.
Make no mistake, Primer looks and feels low-budget. But like that great legend about Monty Python and the Holy Grail -- because they couldn't afford a horse, the troupe used a man tapping coconut shells and prancing like a horse, which turned out to be far funnier -- Primer turns its limitations into advantages.
The brainiac characters are not stars in sleek costumes; they're regular guys in shirts and ties. The time machine they build is not some gleaming cube; it looks like a box that a pair of ambitious engineers could actually make in their spare time. We never see it work -- no smoke, no flashing lights -- but we don't have to, because their talk is intriguing enough. "Did you notice that sound is different in the box?" Geek A asks. "Yeah, it's like singing," Geek B replies. In a Hollywood movie, we would have heard the singing, probably a whole opera's worth.
This film proves it can actually be more interesting simply to imagine it for ourselves.
So the aptly-named Primer is an object lesson for Hollywood bloaters: Go too big and you lose big. But it's hard to go wrong staying small.
Primer is not even the only film this year to illustrate that point: The geek-makes-good tale Napoleon Dynamite, which cost about $500,000, has earned more than $43-million. The thriller Saw, made for less than $1-million, has taken in $65-million in its first month. And. of course. the modest documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 shattered all records by earning more than $200-million.
After a year like this, you would think every hotshot studio exec would be tacking "Think Small!" signs to his office wall. And, in fact after Sundance, many of them called Carruth in for meetings. "L.A. was exactly as I'd expected," Carruth said. "Everything meets its cliché there. It isn't all bad, but it is amazing." Every single exec asked him: "How do we get into the Shane Carruth business?" Then they suggested a movie that would cost about five thousand times his.
He's back in Dallas now, living in the same apartment he had before he made Primer. He's editing the DVD on the same (inadequate) home computer on which he edited the film, and writing a second script. "I don't want a huge budget, but I'd like to have a workable one, probably $2-million or $3-million."
Can Carruth keep it small? Maybe. When I asked him whose career he'd like to emulate, he hesitated. "I'm realizing I have an answer to that," he said. "It sounds pretentious, but I'll tell you: I'm starting to understand why Stanley Kubrick moved to the U.K. I'm more and more respectful of what you have to do to retain creative control. I think to make a solid seven films, even if that takes your whole life, would be something to aspire to."
Small number. Big dream.