Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
After a gradual two week rollout, PRIMER is finally opening today in Los Angeles (and several other cities nationwide). And if the wait has annoyed you pampered bastages, know that you’re being rewarded with the chance to participate in a Q&A with writer-director Shane Carruth tonight and tomorrow at the Nuart (11272 Santa Monica Blvd.) following the 7:30 and 9:40 screenings. In other words, you’ll have the chance to pepper this year’s most exciting freshman filmmaker with some of those nagging questions that, trust me, will be perplexing you at the movie’s close, and, possibly, save yourself the price of a $10.00 ticket for a second viewing. More likely, however, you’ll still need that second viewing even with some of the logic tidied up; after all, along with being an unrelenting mindfuck, it’s also the best pure science fiction film since BLADE RUNNER.
So, to get you warmed up for this weekend, here’s a brief one-on-one interview I conducted with Carruth last week. We had a very limited amount of time, but, in transcribing, I found this to be a far more substantive chat than I’d initially thought. While I look forward to future chats with the filmmaker, and, of course, keeping tabs on the project he’s currently developing, the below should serve as an effective little… primer before you head out to see the film.
Take it away, Shane…
This is the most surreal interview for me. I was lucky enough to be on radio and stuff, but Ain’t It Cool is what I read everyday. So, yeah, this is bizarre for me.
And this is your second go-round after Ghostboy’s excellent interview with you.
Yeah, I didn’t even know that at the time.
He’s one of the site’s occasional contributors, and he’s got pretty great taste, so that’s a good thing. Now, the first time I watched PRIMER, and I’ve seen it, like, three times now, I’ll say I got maybe fifty percent of the engineering jargon, but I was still turned on by watching people not solve, but investigate a problem I don’t have the tools to crack. But while some find this exciting, don’t you worry that it might limit your audience a little?
It depends. If you’re talking about the techno-jargon at the beginning… yeah, those scenes are researched so that what they’re saying is real, but they’re written with information about the politics of the group: who’s enthusiastic about what; who’s proprietary; who’s the unofficial groups within the group. The hope is that – and I guess I’ve said this before – even if they’re humming, it’s moving the story along; you’re learning more about these guys. It was important to me that they be saying real things, that it all adds up. And to be honest with you, I knew that the standard thing to do was to introduce techie jargon, and have someone come in and say, “Whoa, whoa! Give it to me in English, Doc.” And someone gives a really bad metaphor about what they’re doing. I knew that that wasn’t going to happen. These guys are working in a specialized area. It’s stuff that I wouldn’t understand if I was observing it, but it was important to me that the audience feel like they understand it. It just seemed like it was necessary.
There is something exciting about that. Spielberg has used that before in, for example, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, and he tried to have jargon written into the space shuttle portions of DEEP IMPACT.
I didn’t know that.
But when people see characters who are obviously better educated on a certain subject, being really excited by ideas, then they get excited, and, therefore, even if they don’t quite understand it, want to see where it all goes.
Yeah, there’s just an authenticity to people using the proper vocabulary; people talking about real things instead of trying to dumb it down, or make it “rerouting the primary warp core”, or whatever STAR TREK does. I wanted it to make sense.
When you were writing that stuff, did you ever think in terms of accessibility?
Yeah, I did. I mean, I didn’t write this story for myself. When you’re writing a story, whether you’re painting or writing a script or singing, this is communication between a person and an audience, or whoever is going to be receiving it, and if you’re making it for yourself than there’s really no reason to put it out there. I mean… I don’t know, I feel like there’s information in there. It’s what I would want to see. When I’m watching Woodward and Bernstein in ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, there’s a lot of journalistic lingo there. I know nothing about that world, but I want to watch them work it out. I want to believe that they’re working it out rather than having a dumbed-down version for a homogenous or mainstream audience. I say that as if I’m not worried about the mainstream audience; I do think that people are open to it, I just think… they’re so used to everything being so dumbed-down.
You said you’re not writing for yourself. When you’re doing something for, say, $7,000 – or wherever your budget for PRIMER was headed at the time – then you might have a certain license to get a little more esoteric.
It’s one of those weird things. I think you can maybe only try to make the films that you want to see, but at the same time they can’t be… I don’t know. I guess the hope is: you make the films you want to see, and then you hope that maybe you’re like other people. I’m lucky enough that this is a story I was interested in. I’m a white guy, eighteen-to-forty-nine, and, luckily, there are other people like me that are interested in it. I know it’s got to be incredibly frustrated to have a story that you want to tell, but the audience, or you, are not representative of the mainstream. That’s got to be *so frustrating*. I’ve been lucky enough to meet filmmakers this year, and to see what that must be like. So, I know I lucked out from that standpoint. I don’t know. We’re getting away from what were talking about.
That’s alright. That’s actually interesting. You said you met filmmakers – anyone in particular who’s been helpful?
It’s all been helpful because I get to learn more about what other people’s experiences are like. Nobody famous. Jeremy Coon from NAPOLEON DYNAMITE – I got to meet him. It’s weird, because he’s a first-time producer, but he seems to have such a grasp of the process in a way that I’m still trying to pick up on. I mean, I’m from Dallas; I don’t know any filmmakers there at all, so to be able to meet some and be able to have conversations about f-stops and cinematography and writing and stuff… it’s kind of a whole new world.
Keeps you on your toes, too.
I think I read somewhere when you said that you’d love to stay in Dallas, or, at least, not come to Los Angeles.
Yeah, I mean I told myself I wasn’t going to move until I knew why. My family is in Dallas; that’s where my apartment is. If I get to make another film, I’ll be writing it, and I can write anywhere, so I figured I’ll just keep doing it there.
Well, *you* can film anywhere – I mean, it appears that way. It worked well enough this time; if you’re prepared enough, know exactly what you want, shoot with a two-to-one ratio—
Well, I’ll never do that again. This thing I’m working on now is set at sea off the coast of Africa in Southern Asia, so the hope is that I get to shoot somewhere that represents that environment.
On the water?
I think so. (Beaks laughs.) I mean, not water *water*, because we’re talking about container ships – big bulk container ships. So, yeah, it’s on the water still, but it’s more of a controlled environment. No waves and stuff.
Is this the one that’s kind of a romance?
Can you talk about that one a little?
Sure. It’s about an oceanography prodigy, this eighteen year-old guy who’s got his entire life set up for himself because of the research he’s been doing in high school, and he falls for the daughter of a commodities trader. In this world, trading commodities, it’s on a very small scale. Instead of shipping steel from Southern Africa to Bahrain, it’s shipping a certain *type* of steel. Instead of vanilla from Madagascar, it’s a certain *strain* of vanilla. So, they set up these specialty routes, and once they get to perfect it, they turn those… well, it’s a lot about commerce, but I love it as an analogy to talk about some other things. It’s another one of these things where it started off thematically. I mean, I know the story, and now it’s all subtext, and I can build this whole plot on top of it to kind of seal the deal.
But you started out with the theme?
Yeah, that’s how PRIMER was. It can’t be about, “Oh, isn’t this interesting? Is this going to occupy my time from minute to minute?” It’s got to be about something else; there’s got to be subtext and a theme that the whole story is built on.
Because usually they say get your story first and let the theme take care of itself.
Who says that?
Well, I think there’s a sense that if you set out thinking theme and start getting away from the narrative, then you might have trouble telling a compelling story. I was always told to write chaotically first and *then* start refining.
Let everything hit the page, let it flow out. The problem is that I find my themes very quickly, and I want to start incorporating them, but then I feel like I’m going to start rewriting before I’ve finished the first draft. I get worried about that. Are you able to write all the way through even with the themes in place?
Yeah. Themes dictate what the story is. To be honest, I’m kind of fanatical about it. I’ll come up with a plot and some kind of twist, and, in my mind, it’s very interesting, but it breaks the theme. It’s not correct, so I have to get rid of it. PRIMER took a year to write, and part of it is because of that: I had to stay true to the subtext. I know it’s not easy for me, but it’s more rewarding. It’s more concise, I guess, because it seems like it *is* easy to go the opposite way – to have a story and then start reading stuff into it. THE GREAT GATSBY is one of my favorite books, and I love taking it apart, but I remember a class in college where we had gone *beyond* taking this thing apart as to what it was. Suddenly, the professor was talking about the color symbolism of the oranges, and how they represented the oranges that would be brought to (Gatsby’s) parties every night, and how *they* represented… I don’t know, something that had to do with the color orange. And I was like, “You know, it’s fruit, man. It could’ve been yellow, orange or red – it’s fruit.” So, I feel like if the themes get too complicated, or if you’re talking about too many things, then everything is so open to interpretation than you might as well have not communicated it. People are going to find whatever they want in it. And I feel like that does more harm than good.
We all learn to deconstruct to THE GREAT GATSBY, don’t we?
It’s so perfect! It’s so clichÃ©, but I don’t care. It’s amazing to me. I love it. I read it twice a year.
Really? That’s your book?
Well, I got into contemporary fiction for a couple of years, and I reached the point where I just couldn’t do it; I can’t read another description of a room that goes on for pages. I don’t care anymore. I don’t want to hear what someone’s feeling anymore – let’s get to the meat of it! I thought I was broken because I couldn’t read any more fiction, and then I picked up CATCHER IN THE RYE and realized, “Okay, I’m not broken; I can still respond to material.” And I picked up THE GREAT GATSBY. And I know that’s a very dim view, and I know that there’s good stuff out there, but it’s so hard to find.
Those are pretty exemplary works. For some reason, I had you pegged as the kind of guy who reads “The Dead” once a year, something with ridiculously complex and layered themes.
Well, I need a theme to be simple. Let’s get the plot complicated, stir it up, and maybe camouflage a little bit what’s going on, but it’s got to be concise underneath it.
So, tomorrow a studio exec calls you up and asks you to do GREEN LANTERN. What do you do?
I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I’m thirty-two, and, right now, I need ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. I don’t know what happens, because it seems like a lot of people start there – when they’re telling stories and making films, *that’s* where they start. That’s where I am, and I hope I don’t change because I don’t know what that’ll mean. Some of these superheroes to me… I mean, I grew up reading SPIDER-MAN. I love these things, but I don’t believe them when I see them on film. Unless we’re talking about… I don’t think I can do it. I can’t start with an extraordinary character and then put him in even more extraordinary circumstances and still care about it.
And what about placing an extraordinary new filmmaker in treacherously mundane circumstances? Shane Carruth is undoubtedly smart enough to combat the creativity squelching tendencies of Hollywood, but are the studios daring enough to encourage his dauntingly intellectual brand of storytelling? Now that they all have reasonably well-funded boutiques, I think I’d lose my faith in this business if he couldn’t find a benefactor somewhere in this town.
You can do your part by checking out PRIMER when it hits a theater somewhere hopefully near you. Consult this page to find out when you’ll get a chance to see one of the very best films of the year.
I’m with Beaks on this one. PRIMER is something special, so check it out in limited release today, and keep your eyes open for it as it starts to roll out in the weeks ahead.