NEAR THE END OF 2000, software engineer Shane Carruth was driving back to Dallas in his champagne 1989 Honda Accord after finishing a project for a small company in San Francisco. He remembers admiring the way the sunlight played on the surrounding hills of Napa Valley. He remembers stopping at a roadside stand to buy a bag of pistachios. But he does not remember which tire blew out, causing his Accord to careen off the road, barrel through a barbed wire fence, and flip several times before coming to a rest. No, the next thing he remembers is waking up in a hospital with a broken left hand, stitches above his right eye, and a bandage covering the gash in the back of his head, thanks to his computer—"a heavy hunk of metal"—that left the backseat with great velocity.
Mended but not fully healed, Carruth, then 28, recuperated at his parents’ house in Richardson. He spent about a month in his old bedroom, the one he lived in when he was a student at J.J. Pearce, basically lying in bed and watching Turner Classic Movies until 2 or 3 in the morning, embarrassed that he was watching such great films for the first time. The French Connection, The Conversation, Norma Rae, All the President’s Men, The Manchurian Candidate, films that were, for lack of a better word, real. No explosions. No special effects. No love stories based on unreal expectations or humor based on bodily fluids.
Carruth, a math major at Stephen F. Austin, decided to make the movie that had been percolating in his head for years. It would be a movie with believable characters behaving in believable ways. Even if it was science fiction (which it kind of is), it would be, you know, "real," just like those classic films from decades ago. Watching Turner Classic Movies wasn’t so much inspiration for Carruth as it was validation.
He remembers thinking, "People were into it in the ’70s. Audiences showed up and were into it then, so maybe there’s a chance people would respond to that now."
So Carruth spent three and a half years of his life and all $7,000 of his savings to make Primer, a 78-minute high-tech thriller with a premise that is difficult to explain without giving the movie away. Let’s just say that it involves inventors, a mystery machine, and public storage. And his convalescence in his boyhood bed has paid off: Primer won the Grand Jury prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the most coveted honor for an independent film in the country. This month, it comes to a theater near you.
FULLY RECOVERED FROM HIS CAR ACCIDENT (except for the marble-size bump on the back of his left hand), Carruth took one more software contract, then decided to concentrate on Primer full-time. He spent a year writing the script. At the same time, he researched the science of cinema: lighting and editing and sound and cinematography. He relished the technical aspects of filmmaking that would distract, if not downright bore, most aspiring moviemakers.
For instance, Carruth learned that motion-picture film is mainly tungsten-based, so he found rolls of tungsten-based 35-millimeter slide film at a specialty shop to storyboard the scenes. Slides, not prints, because when you take regular film to be developed, computers decide color correction and brightness levels for you. From those slides, he could determine the exact exposure levels, the proper lighting, and the desired composition of every scene.
Carruth spent a whopping $30 on lighting, buying fluorescent bulbs at Wal-Mart, even though filmmakers don’t suggest it. Fluorescent lights can pulse at a rate that eyes can’t catch but cameras can. Carruth ran tests, though, and didn’t have any problems.
But technical acumen alone does not a movie make. He needed actors. Casting proved to be much harder than he anticipated. He had posted an ad on a few web sites for the two lead roles. Out of the 100 actors who tried out for the parts, he found only one he liked, David Sullivan. Carruth, who had read lines to auditioning actors so many times that he memorized them, gave the other part to himself.
"I had to limit the number of people that could screw me if they dropped out," he says. "Plus, I figured I’d always be there anyway so it was one less person I had to call each day to show up."
Sullivan was an out-of-work actor—that is, he was out of work and wanted to be an actor. He grew up in Longview, went to Baylor, and landed a job straight out of college at i2 Technologies in the sales training program. Four months later, he was laid off, and then he got adventurous about his next career move.
"I had wanted to give acting one more shot," Sullivan says. "I had done a couple of plays in high school, and I just fell in love with it. I was going to do it in college, but I didn’t really fit in with the whole theater crowd."
In the months leading up to shooting, Sullivan and Carruth spent a lot of time together, talking about the direction of the film, rehearsing, securing locations, building props, and bargaining for camera rentals and lab processing. They’d go through pages of dialogue four or five hours a day at the Richardson Public Library, either in a private study room in the basement or in the kids’ area where noise wasn’t noticeable. "We got to where the script was just a conversation," Sullivan says.
The movie took about about five weeks to shoot in the summer of 2001 with a five-, sometimes six-man crew, sometimes fewer. Nobody got paid. Friends helped out, as did friends of friends. Carruth’s parents catered. "We never went hungry," Sullivan says. "If you eat for free, you’ll likely work for free."
When shooting wrapped, Sullivan got a job as a wholesaler for AT&T Wireless, and Carruth went to work on the movie, doing post-production: editing, sound effects, scoring—all of it on his computer. Three months before he finished the film, his hard drive, overwhelmed by terabytes of data, crashed. He lost two months of work. It wasn’t the first time he considered ditching the entire project:
"I was like, ’I’m sorry I wasted everyone’s time with the shooting. I’m going to go back to software engineering and actually make a living and eat well and sorry it didn’t work out.’ That happened three or four times. Then I’d get a break from it and go back and look at it and say, ’Oh, wait. It’s not nearly as terrible as I thought it was. Maybe there’s something salvageable in this.’"
Two years after he finished shooting, in the fall of 2003, the movie was done. Carruth flew to Los Angeles, stayed at a friend’s apartment all day, and cold-called producers, directors, and agents, anyone who would stay on the phone long enough to hear him talk about Primer. He filled out applications to film festivals, including the one he sent with a $50 check to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, the pinnacle of the indie film festival circuit.
Hundreds of movies get screened at Sundance, but only 32 are considered for jury competition—16 for features and 16 for documentaries. In this instance, the Oscar-night cliché is true: it is an honor just to be nominated, as Primer was. Being in contention at Sundance is validation enough. Winning isn’t even a consideration. Getting audiences to show up at your movie is almost an afterthought.
For Primer, that wasn’t a problem. The audiences grew at each screening, as word spread about the intellectual thriller. People on the street started to recognize "the Primer guys." Critics took notice, too. The movie won the festival’s Alfred P. Sloan Prize, an annual $20,000 cash prize for a picture that showcases science and technology.
Carruth went to the awards banquet on the last night of the festival to receive the Sloan award. Originally, festival organizers had given him only two tickets, so he planned to take his mom. He asked if he could have another ticket for his dad, and he got one. So he asked for another ticket and another. "I thought I had found the nicest ticket-dispenser person at the place. By the time the ceremony began, we had my whole family, the actors, and Reggie Evans, the location sound guy, in there," Carruth says. "Afterward, I found out why."
SULLIVAN’S APARTMENT IN VENICE is two blocks away from the beach. He’s auditioned for about a dozen roles, and he’s waiting tables at Bravo Cucina to bide his time. It’s the longest-running restaurant on Santa Monica’s Promenade. "Movie stars stop in a lot," he says. "It’s kind of cool. But I guess it’s like that with any place in this town."
Carruth plans on staying in Addison and writing in his apartment. He’s got two ideas that he’s working on. One of them is a sci-fi, big-studio picture. The other one is about an oceanographer and the daughter of a commodities trader. He thinks it can be made for a modest budget. About $3 million to $6 million should do it.
Primer opens October 8 in Dallas and New York. The film gets a wider release nationwide two weeks later.