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The Hard Sell 

Local filmmaker Shane Carruth won Sundance's top honor. So...now what?

Wednesday, Feb 11 2004
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The most amazing thing about all of this is that Carruth, who has a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Stephen F. Austin State University, did not know how to make a movie when he started work on Primer. A J.J. Pearce High School graduate and the son of an Air Force sergeant, Carruth was a software engineer only four years ago, consulting for out-of-town companies for whom he set up intranet databases and e-mail systems. He did not know how to accomplish even the most basic tasks of moviemaking, so he taught himself cinematography, sound mixing, editing, scoring. He used a 35mm camera to storyboard the movie and learned the mathematic principles involved in cinematography--in other words, he basically figured it out as though shooting a film were a math problem for which only he could find the solution.

"Oh, no!" Carruth says, feigning horror at the suggestion. "Here we go! Here's the angle. No, no. Maybe. Maybe. That's the thing. Yeah. It's probably true. A lot of math isn't just the numbers. It's the fact that there is this problem that is seemingly unsolvable in front of you, and yet if you take it apart, it can be solved. Learning that lesson over and over again in college probably had something to do with it. To be honest, now I look back at it, and I don't know why I thought I could do this. I don't know what I was thinking, but for whatever reason, I thought I could do it."

Carruth shot the film over a month in 2001, then spent the next two years in his apartment learning how to edit, overdub and score the film on his home computer. When he finished in August 2003, he went to Los Angeles and cold-called publicists, agents and managers, 100 a day for almost a week. Finally, a publicist named Mark Pogachefsky watched the film and liked it enough to pass it along to an agent at William Morris, Craig Kestel, and to call Geoffrey Gilmore, the director of the Sundance festival. Kestel was "ecstatic" after seeing Primer and showed it to Elwes and his partner, who decided they could sell the movie, which Carruth had, by then, entered into Sundance.

Primer entered the festival as its "runt," Carruth likes to say. It had no stars (no Kevin Bacon, say), no buzz, no distributors all that interested. Only ThinkFilm was, ahem, thinking of buying the movie before it won the Grand Jury Drama Prize; others entered the bidding later. But the movie was one of those snowflakes that turns into an avalanche in the Utah mountains: With every screening, and there were five spread throughout the festival, more and more people showed up, and more and more stayed for the Q&A sessions with Carruth after the screening. At one, Faye Dunaway ran up and told Carruth she was prepping her directorial debut and that she wanted some tips and, God, could she get his phone number?

Audience reaction to the movie was, by all accounts, decidedly mixed. "I trolled around to see what people thought," says Magnolia Pictures President Eamonn Bowles, who was trying to acquire the film. "What I heard, a couple of people didn't like it. And, yeah, a lot of people are gonna come out scratching their heads. But I thought it was bracing, really intelligent."

On January 23, Primer won its first award of the festival: the Alfred P. Sloan Prize, which goes to the film that best shows science and technology and comes with a $20,000 cash award. Carruth figured that was all he'd win and went to the next night's award ceremony expecting nothing. Then Danny Glover got to the jury's award for dramatic film, and when he started talking about the winner's "unique voice," Kestel turned to a colleague and said, "He's talking about Primer." He was.

"I really was convinced that the winners knew they had won beforehand," Carruth says. "Since nobody had come and told me I had won something, I just assumed it's all figured out, and I am going to enjoy the show, and oh, here's Danny Glover, he's famous, that's cool. That's the biggest reason why I was stunned. I hadn't seen any of the other films, but I find it hard to believe it would be easy to look at all 16 and go, 'Oh, yeah, Primer's the best.' Like, I really doubt that happened."

So, if Primer is so inscrutable, so unlikely to find much success outside the film-fest circuit, then why did it win?

Maybe it's because Primer is the kind of film upon which Sundance made its rep--and the kind of film no longer celebrated or rewarded at Sundance, where coveted prizes and multimillion-dollar deals are given to Hollywood product scuffed up just enough to look "indie" to outsiders. And it stumbled into Sundance just as the festival's reputation was taking its biggest beating yet, with the publication of Peter Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, in which the author accuses the fest of selling out to the very system Sundance was meant to transcend or, better still, demolish. Just maybe, Carruth happened to be the right guy with the right film at the right price in the right place at the right time.

He is asked: Why do you think it won?

"Yeaaaah, that's the thing, isn't it?" He sounds as though he's been asked the question a lot. But he hasn't, not by others.

"No, it's my own subconscious that asks that," he says. "I mean, I haven't seen the other films, but I hear great things about at least five or six of them, so I know that they were a good set of films. The only reason I even have this question is because of this book and because of what's happening in independent film. I am sure a lot of people look at this and go, 'Sundance is worried about their image, because they're starting to look like a showcase and not so much a festival for independents, so, hey, they just happened to pick the cheapest film in competition and say that's their winner.'...I didn't set out to be the poster boy for independent film."

About The Author

Robert Wilonsky

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