In the hopes that some of you got to see “Upstream Color” over the weekend at one of its few, packed screenings, we’re bringing you the concluding part of our interview with director Shane Carruth from the Berlin Film Festival, in which we spoke in a more minute way about the ins and outs of the film’s plot, the motivations of some of its key characters, the thematic importance of the sound design and the metaphysics that underlies its ultimate meaning. Those who haven’t yet had the singular pleasure of seeing it, we can only urge to go back and read parts one and two of the interview, or our review from Sundance, and then bookmark this one for later, as it’s probably too close a reading of the film for anyone who hasn’t yet become entangled in its enigmas.
To be safe we’ll plaster this with a *spoiler* warning up top too, not because it’s a film that we could easily spoil, exactly, more it’s that we wouldn’t want to rob anyone of any of sheer knotty pleasure of unraveling the proceedings for themselves, and afterwards, amongst friends and beers. And when that process then proves inadequate to your needs, here you can find the writer /director /composer /cinematographer /actor /distributor himself weighing in.
Carruth has an interestingly ambivalent (but of course!) take on the notion of the author of a piece outlining its “correct” interpretation, though. As he mentioned in part 2 of our interview, he is not exactly a proponent of the anyone’s-interpretation-is-as-valid-as-anyone-else’s school of thought, while at the same time he acknowledges that sometimes him offering the final word on what x or y means “might not be servicing the conversation or the film” and at worst may seem like “explaining why the joke is funny.”
But all that said, “Upstream Color” doesn’t simply invite debate, it demands it, and Carruth, justifiably proud, in his quiet way of the kind of questions his film raises, actually proved happy to plunge right in.
In “Upstream Color” you combine many generic elements, but if you were forced to define the film as one thing, what would it be?
That’s tough. I would say romance. But I would say the best part of “The Hustler” is romance, because that romantic promise that exists when you have characters that are broken down and don’t have anything to lose, that is so alluring. Once I knew that’s where we were going to get to in the story, that’s when I got really passionate for it. The rest of it really services that, I mean, I hope it’s fun but that’s the way I think of it.
But there’s only a small part of it that’s their relationship, some of the romanticism is Kris and her whole story of being broken down and there being some resolution — it’s sort of a comedy of errors and it becomes more of a heart-of-darkness going upstream to solve the problem… but yes. It’s tough but I would say romance.
So we can read it as a kind of metaphorical parallel with the mysterious, uncontrollable process of falling in love?
Well, [the two characters are] being forced together by offscreen forces — the pigs are coming together — but there’s a real tension because it’s not happening organically. So we’re two people in a city meeting on a train: this is meant to go a certain way. But it’s not going that way for whatever reason and I just felt like there would be a lot of tension in that constant poking from offscreen that’s pushing you toward something.
And an extension of that becomes the shared memory bit where something that starts off as romantic, as in “oh, that was your story… No it’s mine! It’s mine… ” — it’s funny, but then before long it’s maddening, like, “where do I stop and you begin? This is too much, this communion is not right.” Hopefully that’s all stuff that’s universal in relationships anyway so we get to heighten those and play with those in a very short-cut type way.
A lot of the romance, the lyricism and the lines we can draw between otherwise unconnected images and events seemed to be a factor of the soundscape you created?
When it comes to the sound design, it feels like there’s a lot of different reasons to heighten it to where it got. One is that so much of what’s happening is non-verbal that we have to. And, I keep on coming back to the word tactile, there’s a tactility. We have characters that are always in search of something or curious about something but they can’t even speak to what that something is.
What I imagine it to be is they would have an emotional experience or a mania and they couldn’t point to what was causing it and that would drive them to be curious about their surroundings, and so this film has so many shots of hands, coming across walls and sheets and across skin, and it just seems that’s how you meet the material world, that’s how you come to understand it.
And that’s where you get into the very narrow depth of field with cinematography, and certain shot selection and that’s what informs sound, and why the sound would have to be heightened, especially when you’re talking about nature and the natural world. We’ve got characters that we’re suggesting are haunted by, one: an experience in which a guy told them his head was made of the sun, and that water was involved and the practice of minutia and stupid moments of rewriting narratives and putting them in paper chains, all of this stuff that doesn’t end in anything constructive or meaningful.
And then there’s the language of “Walden” [ed. a novel used literally and figuratively in the movie] which is about the natural world and is this figurative language. All of that points to… we need to hear when a leaf rustles, because we’re going to connect that to the paper straws that are being made in a loop. Because there’s no talking about it, what’s haunting them needs to come up in volume and be precise. It’s hard, because it’s a nuanced negotiation and not necessarily something that was decided up front like “Okay, all sound must be perfect now, all sound must be heightened” it’s just intuitive after a while.
It’s certainly evocative…I found myself humming along to a floor cleaning machine’s drone in the train station after the film, this weird perfect note that I don’t think I’d have heard the same way in other circumstances…
Things like that happen to me a lot! I’m constantly hearing music in the air conditioning duct systems. And in the film itself there’s a lot of sampling — of washing machines and copiers and the hum underwater. I talked the aquatics park into letting us shoot at midnight, so there was a time where it was just me, and one of the producers and then Amy [Seimetz, who plays Kris], shooting the underwater scenes and it was just eerily quiet. You can hear the sodium lights underwater and it was this weird thing, it would get bass-y underwater, so I recorded that and it became part of the soundscape. It’s this very muffled thing, and then there’s different things I would do on my computer after, to shorten it or elongate it or change the pitch or whatever. You mentioned that the score you composed changed greatly after the film was shot?
Yes, I tried to puzzle it apart a little and figure out why is that — when I wrote this I had a piece of music and it was working fine, but now that we’ve executed it, it seems out of place? And that’s when I finally met the idea that it’s because I’m representing cinematographically a subjective experience and my music is informing something else. And that’s when it needed to change and to get in line with the rest of the language.
The word “subjective” creeps up a lot in the conversation around the film, yet we’re never truly in the characters’ heads — for one thing we have more knowledge than they do so we can’t absolutely relate to their state of being. I came to “narrowly focused objectivity” instead?
I think that’s valid. What I want to say when I say subjectivity is POV-type stuff, but I would never make that choice, to shoot from someone’s point of view. What I do is, well, there’s a lot of shots of the backs of people’s heads and of them traversing different areas, so I think that’s completely true, we are not in their heads, but we are intimate with their experience and I think that’s what I’m trying to get to.
Very little is spelled out in “Upstream Color,” but for me perhaps the most ambivalent and enigmatic character was The Sampler. How do you define his relationship to the pigs, and then to the people connected?
[The “farm” is] his place to be in touch with the world — he can go and meditate and be in communion with all of the people that are tethered to these beasts. It’s where he goes to get his inspiration, where he goes to get whatever emotional experience he might be shopping for at that moment.
The hope is that that’s a bit of a question, because he ends up being the one that Kris finds culpable for what’s happened, I wanted him to be a character that we wouldn’t know. Basically all we see him do is observe. We see the thief do something malicious; we see the orchid guy doing something which is the opposite of that — pretty peaceful and non-confrontational; and then we’ve got this sampler who is deeply involved with all of the characters but he’s only observing. But then the question is, is he culpable at all if he’s benefitting from this traumatic experience even though he’s not the one who caused it?
And that became very important because we’re talking about offscreen forces. But it’s meant to be more universal than a religious or [other] belief system, it should encompass pharmaceuticals or someone with a belief system about fate or cosmic whatever or even political belief systems or anything that informs you of things that aren’t your fault that you’re being affected by. “They’re out there, and I’m the way I am because of this,” or “I’m doing what I’m doing because of how they’re touching me, affecting me.”
So because of that, The Sampler isn’t meant to be necessarily God, but he represents that thing, whether that’s a good or bad thing or even real, and so to track him down and blame him and punish him — it’s one of the things that I think is subversive about the film. It’s selling a moment that I imagine to be very satisfying in Kris’s mind, because she believes that he’s the culprit and so the audience is probably going along with that because the music and everything is telling you “oh we’re getting the bad guy.” But the text of the story means I would hope somebody would go, “wait, why is he a bad guy? He didn’t do anything, what’s going on there?”
You mention faith, and that was something I felt most strongly from the film, that it showed a strange faith that everything is ultimately explicable, everything is the effect of causes, and those causes could be found out… but the causes are so infinitely complex that it feels like wonder.
Yes! Yes absolutely. Arthur C Clarke says any sufficiently advanced technology will appear as magic — it’s meeting the infinite. I’m constantly surprised by… an orange will roll off a table and I’ll catch it before I knew it was falling. Something happens there. We could write it off and say “subconsciously I knew that was happening” but there’s so many things every day — I’m amazed by how little we know.
Have you heard of these parasites that infect the brains of wasps and make them fly erratically? And ants as well. In the natural world they’re starting to recognize that there are these relationships that are happening where these miniature organisms are infecting the brains of flies and ants and other animals and causing in them behavior that is counterintuitive: making an ant climb to the top of a tree and throw itself off and so all the ants collect in a pile at the bottom and a fungus devours them. And nobody would have expected this to happen because you would have needed to be able to focus on what’s in the brain of an ant to explain the behavior. We’re just learning about that — who knows what else we’re learning about? There are so many question marks when it comes to human behavior and even biological behavior.
I just feel like there are so many things that are coming, there’s going to be some understanding in the next hundred years that will be as much of a sea change in our understanding as relativity or evolution or DNA have been. It just feels like these things will continue to come.
And I’m shocked by that, because I feel like I’ve been raised in a world that says “we’ve figured out everything and now it’s just a matter of collecting the data” and I know that we will come to understand something else about how we are communicating. I feel like there’s more going on between two people than it seems like.
I don’t want to be thought of as somebody who’s spiritually ambiguous, but the reality is there’s unknown things happening. I’m not ready to point at what they are or what the reason is, but I know they exist.
The self-distributed “Upstream Color” is on limited theatrical release now, and will be available through VOD and digital platforms May 7th.