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
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
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
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