- The Washington Times - Friday, October 22, 2004

What do $7,000, a head-spinning science-fiction plot and a bunch of exterior light bulbs from Wal-Mart buy these days?

For Shane Carruth, a Dallas math whiz, they bought two major awards at the Sundance Film Festival and a shot at major-league moviemaking. His debut feature, “Primer,” opened in the District last weekend.

Mr. Carruth, 31, stars in the movie as a white-collar techie who stumbles onto time-travel technology while he and a friend (played by David Sullivan) experiment on an anti-gravity project in a suburban garage.

The anti-gravity device is central to the movie, but Mr. Carruth’s script began as a story about relationships. “Before it had anything to do with science or science fiction, it was about trust,” he says in a phone interview. “Trust is dependent on what’s at risk.”

Throw in time-travel machinery that makes one’s ears bleed, with its promise of making a killing in the day-trading market, and you’ve got risk aplenty.

Any resemblance between Mr. Carruth and the character he plays in the movie? Not much, other than that they’re both software engineers. “I’ve never tinkered with things like that,” he says.

The son of an Air Force sergeant, Mr. Carruth grew up all over the country and finally settled in Texas at age 9. He graduated from Stephen F. Austin State University with a degree in math, and from there it was … well, it was like a lot of tales of postgraduate dissatisfaction:

Young man has day job; writes short stories in spare time; would like to run small business some day and has no burning interest in cinema.

“I didn’t exactly know what I was doing with my life when I graduated,” he says.

Of course: Young man ends up making movies. But first, Mr. Carruth had to find out he wasn’t much of a novel writer. “I don’t like to write interior monologues. I’d rather find an interesting way to show it,” he says. “I discovered I was writing screenplays without even knowing it.”


Now: How to make a movie with next to no budget and no professional actors?

With the exception of Mr. Sullivan, all of “Primer’s” actors were first-timers, including Mr. Carruth himself. Mr. Carruth shot the movie on Super 16 film in the suburbs of Dallas, where it’s set. The crew, too, was amateur; he had to beg the cinematographer, Anand Upadhyaya, to come out from behind the camera and play a supporting role in the movie.

After two years of shooting and editing, Mr. Carruth was a contestant at Sundance, where he took home the Grand Jury prize in drama, plus the Alfred P. Sloan prize for movies that do justice to science and technology.

Quite a prestigious twofer. About $30,000 later — the cost of blowing up the Super 16 film to 35 mm — and the little-science-fiction-movie-that-could is ready for nationwide distribution.

It’s that advancing-science-and-technology that has “Primer” viewers across the country scratching their heads, sometimes in happy befuddlement and sometimes in anger.

While fantastically unrealistic on one hand — it is about time travel, after all — “Primer” is maddeningly technical on the other. The movie’s dialogue is filled with technical physics jargon, which was Mr. Carruth’s way of keeping it realistic.

He’s unapologetic about its complexity and ambiguity. “That’s my favorite type of film, where I get the bulk of the story, but not all of it,” he says.

Here’s where it all leaves Mr. Carruth and his career: in that fragile, emerging state that could lead to bigger and better things… or, right back into the suburban cubicle.

It all depends on choices, idealism and all that heady stuff.

“To be honest, with just some effort, I could probably get a hired gig to be a director on a well-funded film,” he reasons. “The thing is, I’m just interested in story, in being a writer director.”

Right now, Mr. Carruth is working on a script — a romance — set in East Africa and South Asia about an oceanographer who falls in love with a commodity trader’s daughter.

“I don’t see any difference in being a hired director and being a software engineer,” he continues. “Problem-solving can be very satisfying; it’s just that the way you solve problems is dictated by someone else.”

Put it this way, he’s staying in Texas and sticking to his indie guns: “I won’t be moving to Los Angeles. If you want to write about real characters, it probably helps to know one or two.”

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