How Shane Carruth Made Primer

MattDirector Stories, Filmmaking1 Comment

Interesting article by Shane Carruth about the making of his first feature, Primer. Says Carruth:

The first thing I did when I set out to make Primer was to make sure I could get it finished as well as feed myself for six months on the small amount of money I had saved as a software engineer. After figuring the price of six months’ worth of Rice Chex, Count Chocula, and nonfat milk, I knew I had about $7,000 to put towards the actual film. After a little more research, I discovered that shooting a feature-length story on Super 16mm could easily be done for that amount. Only, instead of “easily,” it turns out I meant “stupidly and with more than a little regret.”

Of course the way Primer has been received has far exceeded my expectations. I know that I’ve won some kind of cinematic lottery. But the cost of completing the film ended up being much greater than I had planned, and definitely more than the mere money that was spent.

The six months of shooting and editing I had planned for became two years of making up for the fact that I had so stringently stayed within the original budget. To keep costs down we shot only one take of everything. Not only that, but since I had storyboarded the script in advance and “knew” how it would edit together, we only shot the exact lines from the exact angle that I would need with little overlap. Wow, what an amazing genius I am! Look how much money I saved! I truly am an inspira- wait a second…why is that actor’s arm on the table in this shot but hanging loosely at his side in the next?

Right. So, that and a thousand other problems like it could have been solved by just spending a little more on film stock (or a full-time script supervisor, but let’s not get crazy). As little as another $2,000 would have made all the difference. When I was fifteen I worked for minimum wage at a shoe store all summer, shoehorning women’s sweaty feet into espadrilles that were at least two sizes too small. I ended up making around $2,000. For my own sanity I have to believe my earning potential is more than that now. I have to believe two years of my life are worth more than a couple grand.

The problem with two years is that it’s a really long time. Somewhere in that period someone was bound to ask me what I do for a living. Maybe I have some mixed up ethics here, but I firmly believe that if you say you are a filmmaker you should have actually made a film…which I hadn’t yet. All I was really doing was spending sixteen hours a day in front of a computer monitor clicking a mouse or venturing into street traffic with a DAT recorder and microphone to gather background noise. I think at one point I told someone I was an actuary (a profession I once considered) just to avoid the topic. I challenge you to come up with a follow up question to “I’m an actuary.”


I think the greatest cost goes back to the original five weeks of shooting. We ended up with a crew of four, not including myself and the other lead actor. Now, having that small a group is a great asset when it comes to sneaking into places or feeding everyone, but the downside is that everyone is filling several positions at once. At the end of most films there’s a list of five hundred names in the credits, so I figure we were doing almost a hundred jobs apiece even if you discount the “Asst. to Mr. Clooney” roles. That’s fine, though. It’s just work. It’s not going to hurt anybody. The problem is the uneasy feeling that you’re doing everything adequately instead of excelling in any one area. In the end, dearest beloved potential viewer, you will have to decide whether I made the right choice to shoot the film on the budget I had or whether I should have just saved up for another year.

In the months leading up to Sundance, I harassed countless producers, lawyers, and sales reps in search of some advice on how to get the film sold. Invariably the conversation would turn to how much the film cost to make and their response was always, (and I cringe just writing this) “That’s fantastic, you’ll have no problem making your money back.”

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One Comment on “How Shane Carruth Made Primer”

  1. You have got interesting content here. Carruth is a great character. Love reading stuff about him!

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