I don’t know how to approach this review, so I’m just going to say straight off that The Primary Instinct is a fantastic film. The Primary Instinct was directed by David Chen and stars character actor Stephen Tobolowsky, and it’s a celebration of storytelling. I know of David through his podcast work – The /Filmcast, A Cast of Kings and The Ones Who Knock – but I’ve never listened to The Tobolowsky Files, a joint venture he embarked upon with Stephen (this is entirely my fault, I’m not very good at committing to new podcasts). I know Stephen because I am a fan of television and film, and he’s in just about everything. Stephen Tobolowsky is a fantastic storyteller, and that’s exactly what he does in The Primary Instinct – he tells stories about his life and his family, and it’s utterly captivating. The Primary Instinct is available to purchase through all Video on Demand outlets – your best bet is to go here.
The Primary Instinct was performed in front of a live audience in Seattle. Stephen Tobolowsky had no props other than a chair and a glass of water that were there so he could tell stories to the best of his ability, and he didn’t have any costume changes. When making a film, it could be tempting to try and add bells and whistles, but it’s to the credit of David and Stephen that they knew exactly how they were going to make this. I’m not sure what the final budget for the film was, but it was a Kickstarter project, and I’m sure David and Stephen were both aware and careful about how they spent their backers’ money, and it worked. The simplicity of the production enhanced the story that Stephen was telling, because there was nothing to distract from it – there’s also the fact that Stephen Tobolowsky is a great storyteller.
Stephen opens his performance by recalling a question an eight year old asked him a year previously – why do we tell stories? First of all, that’s a fantastic question, and Stephen was stumped. But stories are important, they’re why I consume popular culture, and when I’m disappointed with a television show or a book, it’s because I feel like the storytelling has let me down in one way or another. And sometimes I know a story just isn’t for me, which is why I don’t watch The Walking Dead. One of the most important things about storytelling is choosing the best way to tell that story – as Mel Campbell pointed out at the Melbourne Writers Festival this year, the podcast Serial is one of the great storytelling successes of 2014, as the world became enthralled in a true crime story told in a podcast. When Stephen tells his story in The Primary Instinct, he’s trying to answer the question of why we tells stories, and another question, which is what makes a story a story?
At the core of The Primary Instinct is also the question of what makes us who we are. Stephen Tobolowsky tells stories about his life and his family, and they can be both heartbreaking and hilarious at the same time. Even though he’s performing to a theatre of people and however many people are going to watch this later as a film, it’s incredibly intimate, because these stories are about family, illness and the occasional coincidence. The storyteller is just as important as the story, and Stephen Tobolowsky is fantastic. I was captivated by this film on a hot Monday afternoon, and I was transported to another place, which is what all good stories should do.