Primer written, directed and produced by Shane Carruth, with Carruth and David Sullivan. A THINKFilm release. 80 minutes. Opens Friday (December 3). For review, venues and times, see Movie listings. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Shane Carruth, sometime soft ware engineer and calculus enthusiast, leans forward in the armchair in his suite at the Metropolitan Hotel, talking about science and fiction.
He hesitates, he backtracks, he draws examples from ancient Rome and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. He's unassuming, self-possessed and smart-smart. With his short, dark hair and neat rugby shirt, he looks like the quiet prep-school kid who's secretly building a working robot in his garage.
Only instead of a robot, he's made a movie.
Carruth wrote, directed, edited, scored and starred in Primer, the hard- science fiction film that's been generating lots of noisy analog buzz ever since it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.
It's a realistic portrayal of the process of scientific discovery. Two engineers playing around with superconductors in a makeshift lab accidentally discover a time machine.
Carruth only lets you see what the protagonists see. When they're confused, you're confused; and given that the film is about time travel and mutual duplicity, they're confused a lot of the time. The demands the film makes are exhilarating, and they aren't unfair. The performances are low-key, the dialogue heavy on engineering jargon.
And it passed the engineer's equivalent of the Turing test.
"At Sundance there were a couple of superconductor engineers who came up to me afterwards and said, 'Why's all that stuff in your film? It makes sense, but only to us. Nobody else in the theatre's going to understand what you're even talking about,'" says Carruth, in town for the film's opening at the Toronto International Film Festival.
"And I was like, 'But it made sense, right?' And they said, 'Oh, yeah, yeah. '" He grins. "So that made me feel better."
The script's development was governed as much by the film's $7,000 budget as by Carruth's inexperience. He knew nothing about the technology the characters are experimenting with. He taught himself about superconductors while he was writing the script, and had to teach himself all about filmmaking, too.
"I didn't know enough to even talk to a cinematographer or an editor," he recalls.
The narrative of Primer is so unconventional it makes Memento look like sheer gimmickry, so be warned: Primer requires your full attention, and you might have to go back to it more than once to get the whole story.
"If film is interesting at all, it's as a way to talk about things that are so complicated that there isn't a simple answer," says Carruth. "If there were a simple answer, we probably wouldn't need a film to talk about it. "