In October of 2004, on the second scariest day of the year (Election Day was only two days away) the Culture Dogs spoke with filmmaker Shane Carruth about his science-laden indie masterpiece Primer. (And about the best way to pronounce the film's title.) So what better way to celebrate Halloween than with a little serving of cinematic brain candy?


Kevin: Hello, Sam.

Sam: Hi, Kevin. Welcome back.

Kevin: Welcome back again. We're lucky enough to have on the phone with us another director whose work is premiering in the area right here. And this is one that's gotten a little buzz on it coming from Sundance and from… Well, basically it won the grand jury prize at Sundance (and) it's a movie called Primer [rhymes with 'timer' – ed], as we now know.

(Sam Laughs)

Kevin: Because we asked.

Sam: We came back six hours from the future to tell ourselves to say ‘Primer'.

Kevin: That's right. But anyway, here's Shane Carruth on the phone right now – the director and star and… you did a lot on this film didn't you?

Shane: Yeah, I mean it was a very small film. Very small production. But yeah, so I ended up doing several of the jobs I guess.

Sam: So this thing actually cost $7,000 dollars?

Shane: Yeah, it actually did. I mean, that got it to Sundance. That got it accepted in the competition. At that point I had to have something to project for people, and so I had to blow up the original Super 16 footage (which is what we shot on), to blow that up to 35mm so we could have something to show in the theaters. And that actually cost about thirty thousand dollars. That's kind of a fixed cost, there's not a lot of ways to get around that.

Sam: I remember that was the big thing after (Robert) Rodriguez did El Mariachi. That people were complaining that “He didn't make the prints himself and he didn't make that…” but still, to shoot a film for seven thousand dollars…on film!

Kevin: Even with the thirty thousand dollar cost, if you tacked that on to the whole thing. Thirty seven thousand dollars, that would still be a good deal cheaper.

Sam: ‘Cause I've gotta say, this film looks like it was shot in the millions. It looks really (good).

Shane: Really? Well thanks for saying that. It's so weird, because I hear that it doesn't look like the budget, but to be honest I've looked at it for so long that all I see are the problems, so…

Sam: Gotcha. Especially just the look of the lighting and everything. Was anything done afterwards in computer color timing, or was that all shot – was that all just clever lighting?

Shane: It's mainly lighting. There was some color timing, but nothing crazier than what you would normally do in that blowup process. What I had done is I transferred the footage from Super 16 to MiniDV so that I could edit it, and in that process I just color timed it on my home computer. And so when we went through the blowup process these were kind of the templates I used to show the colorist what I was looking for.

Sam: Wow, so what made you decide to eschew digital and go for film, (a choice) that's not so popular when it comes to making low budget films nowadays?

Shane: Oh, to shoot film?

Sam: Yeah.

Shane: It was… you know at this point, we're talking about four years ago when I was making the decision of what to shoot on. And you know, there was still that whole democracy of MiniDV – “We're all gonna be filmmakers ‘cause it's so cheap.” But I wasn't seeing it. I wasn't seeing the quality of the resolution of the color depth in anything that I could afford. I mean, maybe George Lucas could get a camera…

Kevin: Or Robert Rodriguez for that matter too at his level, (where) you've got it all in your garage.

Shane: Right. The thing is, the story - it gets so fantastical. There's this odd little machine in it and the only way I thought I could execute it was to set everything else in this very naturalistic or mundane place. Or as real as I could get it. And so I needed to start somewhere people were used to seeing. And at the time I don't think DV features were as commonplace as maybe they are now, so I just wanted to start on film so I could have the latitude to overexpose and be a little more extreme with color timing later on to kind of mimic what the story's doing.

Kevin: You taught yourself filmmaking, though, to make this film.

Shane: Yes.

Kevin: How do you go about teaching yourself filmmaking? You had a degree in mathematics, correct? And you were working in engineering at the time?

Shane: Yeah, I was a software engineer, and I was a pretty bad one…


Shane: I was always writing in my spare time, and I eventually landed on the screenplay format. And then I was starting to think about how to possibly execute one of these things. I guess the way it started, I didn't know what I was doing at all. I mean, I was reading everything I could about cinematography and filmmaking and stuff. And there was actually a point when I was still working and I started auditing a film course and so I would… I don't know if my former company would be too happy about this, but I would leave for like an hour to go to this class and then come back. So on my lunch break (or whatever it was) I was going to attend this film course, and that only lasted for a couple weeks because it started very practical. We were taking a camera apart and learning how to load film and stuff, and then it turned into a weird kind of theory course on the professor's favorite films.

Kevin: That was Kevin Smith's complaint back in the old days. He didn't want to go through the whole thing of film school because eventually it just turned into learning about other people's tastes as opposed to approaching it with your own aesthetic. But you eventually talked about (in terms of informing your aesthetic on Primer) that films like All The President's Men and The Conversation really informed it?

Shane: Yeah. There's a limited amount to what I can do with no elaborate lighting setups or anything. But I'd done a couple tests and just kind of experimented with color temperature and what I was gonna get from fluorescents or practicals or daylight or whatever else. And when I saw these films… the ones you're talking about – The Conversation, All the President's Men. I've since found out that they were very elaborate lighting setups, but to my eye they looked very much like the real world. And so I felt validated in shooting in such a way that it doesn't have to be incredibly glossy or noir or whatever. That there's a way to shoot part of what I want to do, just kind of with practicals and trying to be creative with available light.