The Hard Sell 

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

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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."

In the end, all five members of the jury--revered indie-film producer Ted Hope, actors Danny Glover and Maggie Gyllenhaal, writer-director Lisa Cholodenko (Laurel Canyon) and cinematographer Frederick Elmes--loved the movie and thought it deserved the accolade. Period.

"People have accused the jury of voting with our political mandate, which is inaccurate," says Hope, who produced last year's Grand Jury winner, American Splendor, based on the life and work of underground comix icon Harvey Pekar. "The films we awarded were the least expensive, but we addressed the films on their own terms, which didn't take into account whether someone had a comfortable means of production or limited means of production."

Hope says the jury was indeed unanimous in its decision, after some five hours of discussion; other films were well-liked, among them The Woodsmen with Kevin Bacon as a pedophile and the comedy Napoleon Dynamite, but Primer was much-loved. Hope also liked that Carruth wasn't from Los Angeles or New York; his win brought Sundance back to its roots as a fest that celebrated "regional" filmmaking.

"You could feel Shane's enthusiasm for what he was doing coming through in every aspect of that movie," Hope says. "He is the filmmaker in that group--OK, one of maybe two--that I most look forward to seeing his next movie."

And now that the deal is complete, Carruth can get on to the making of that film, which he thinks will cost some $2 million to produce the right way. In between, he will go to Los Angeles, meet with studios, maybe talk to some directors who've won the prize in the past and try to convince himself that winning this prize doesn't mean a damned thing.

"I am finishing a script now that I really wanna make, and the prize comes up," he says, deadpan. "When I am thinking about the writing, I am like, 'Wow, now I'm this award winner; now I gotta punch this up.'" He pauses, then cracks a slight smile. "That's a joke. I can't wait to actually get started with the filmmaking. I look forward to that."

Well, he's told, now you're the golden boy.

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