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Interview: Shane Carruth Talks Trying To Make The Perfect “Album Film” With ‘Upstream Color’

Interview: Shane Carruth Talks Trying To Make The Perfect "Album Film" With 'Upstream Color'

In Part One of our Shane Carruth interview, we brought you news of the “Primer” director’s other projects — the abortive “A Topiary,” his work on Rian Johnson‘s “Looper” and the gestating “The Modern Ocean.” But, of course, the real excitement is for “Upstream Color,” which hits theaters this Friday, and it’s a film that those Playlisters who’ve seen it have been profoundly impressed by. We can’t wait for what will no doubt become a lively discourse because, much as we loved it, the film’s willful impressionism has seen more than a few viewers, perhaps initially attracted by the genre trappings, leave the cinema (early) and frustrated. But as Carruth himself says, “People who are getting it are really getting it,” and we humbly count ourselves among the latter group. During our extensive interview with the filmmaker at the Berlin International Film Festival, we got to talk in depth about his inspirations, his process and his hopes for the film’s reception.

The Playlist: “Upstream Color” doesn’t feel at all compromised, but with a personal financial stake at risk, how did you approach the balance between artistic aims and commercial appeal?
I have to admit, the narrative is two parts — maybe not only two parts — but in my mind it’s two major parts. And one is all the stuff that I want it to be: the exploration, the subtext, all the stuff that makes me feel good about creating something that might have some real nutrition in it. But then there’s the other half which is keeping an audience or reader’s attention moment by moment, and that’s storytelling, that’s ‘1001 Nights.’ We’ve been doing this for a long time, so I definitely have a commercial sensibility whatever that is, but that doesn’t mean everything.

I can only write to myself as the audience and I know what appeals to me. And it’s not the most obscure works in the world. I still enjoy things that are enjoyed by large enough group of people to warrant them existing. So that’s the measuring stick.

And how do you feel about the reaction so far?
I’ve really been happy. Because the film is what it is, and it was going to be divisive — that much I was pretty sure of. I tell myself that’s because it’s trying something new and there are some people that are always going to get that immediately and judge it accordingly and maybe have a good experience, maybe not. But then there are others that are going to have a certain expectation and this film is not going to meet that for them because it’s trying something else. So that necessarily means that when it’s first met by an audience there will be some division.

What I’m really happy about is that it’s seems to be leaning more positive than that and people that are getting it are really getting it. It’s sort of being reflected in the Q&As. You know, there’s a nightmare version of a Q&A where you get “What camera did you shoot it on?” “What was the budget?” “What was it like working with X?” [ironically all these questions were asked at the Berlin Q&A] and I really feel like most of the time these Q&As are pretty substantial and are really getting to what the film has on its mind, and that’s pretty satisfying. So I don’t know if it could be much better.

I think of this as the beginning of the conversation. When I read a review online and somebody is just absolutely getting what the film is trying to do and they did it in one viewing, and I see that a few times, that to me means it is there. So now it’s a matter of whether of a consensus can be built. I am not the most confident person in the world but I could not be more confident in this work — it’s a very good thing. So I feel like it’s an eventuality that people will come to see it on the terms that it wants to be seen, and that’s all I could really hope for.

Speaking of getting the film “in one viewing” is that what you envisaged, or did you design it with an eye to repeat viewings?
My hope is that there will be by the end of one viewing a real emotional experience that’s not un-understandable or obtuse: we know what we just experienced in terms of the emotional arc of the film. I think plot-wise, my feeling is that most of it’s coming across [first time]. The thing is the storytelling is very dense and the way it’s explored is lyrical, and that will tend to be not so on the nose.

But it’s funny, because I’ve read some negative reviews that say, “Oh, this is obscure, it’s obtuse” and then they’ll go and list the plot, point by point and they’re nailing it! They’re getting it completely, so then I’m left to wonder, “Well, what was obscure about it?” And it can only have been, I guess, the meaning of these events, which to be honest, that’s fine — isn’t that what we want? Isn’t that what we’re doing? Narrative is always going to be a bit puzzling because if it wasn’t it would be a thesis that would explain the exploration, and no one would read that because what would be the point?

I think of it as an album that you put on and after you listen to an album once you can definitely know whether that’s your style and whether that’s something you want to spend any time with, but you don’t have your full experience yet — you don’t have that for another maybe eight months and if it’s a good enough thing to live with, then you live with it, you internalize it and you come to know more about it.

I don’t think “Upstream Color” is quite yet the perfect version of that, but that’s what I am compelled by now, I think that’s a form I would like to see perfected: the album film. You put it on and you experience it for a longer amount of your life than just once and then you have an opinion…

Do you have any examples of the type of film you mean?

Well, Soderbergh‘s “Solaris” is something that I’ve seen more times than probably anything else. And I’ve gotten into a weird habit of leaving a few films on a loop in the background. I lived a sort of isolated existence in the suburbs, I mean, I’ve moved away from that now but at the time, I was writing in this sort of empty house and I would have “Vivre sa Vie” and “Lawrence of Arabia” and ‘Zhivago‘ and they would be on this loop all the time. And maybe I’d turn the volume down and turn some music on instead but I would always look back and see “Oh, we’re at that scene now, isn’t that lovely? I hadn’t noticed…” There are definitely movies that work like that for me.

Christopher Nolan, for example, famously prefers not to offer up definitive answers as regards the debates around his films. Where does your opinion fall on the spectrum between there being a multiplicity of valid interpretations and a singular, empirical, “true” vision?
Well, I definitely know that I’m not here to do morality tales. I’m not here to speak a truth, other than to hopefully open an exploration into something that I think is universal and true, but I don’t have an answer and that’s not what I think narrative is for.

But it’s definitely specific and I don’t subscribe to “we throw up language and you interpret it the way you like.” My fear is if we do that, I mean, that could be done with anything. That could be done with a beautiful tree, with a splatter of paint on the road. We can all look at that and see our mother, or a dog we had, it can all mean anything and I don’t think at that point we’re having a conversation, we’re just looking at clouds.

So there has to be something singular and specific, so that we can… here’s the way I feel. When I’m an audience member I need to know that what I’m looking at is specific, is singular because that’s the only reason I would spend time puzzling through it. Because if it’s open to suggestion or interpretation then I don’t necessarily need that material in front of me.

It’s almost cliché to state that film is a collaborative medium. And yet you do almost everything on your films yourself [it should be noted Carruth even handled his interview scheduling directly] writing, direction, acting, scoring, and now even distributing?
Heh, yeah, I’m learning that I’m not going to stop being a control freak. I was trying and I didn’t succeed. So now what I know is I need people that are willing to sort of work like this, where I need to be able to compose music the way that I compose it, on my crappy little laptop system, but then at some point get together with a musician who will help me with the mechanics of orchestrating it.

I need utility, basically. I need someone to collaborate with on that level. I don’t want somebody to take the material and interpret it according to their version of it. I unfortunately need something from them that they may or may not actually want to do, which is servicing what I want that certain department to be. So we’ll see if we can make that happen… I think we can. I’m not so difficult to work with, but I definitely have a certain idea of what things are meant to be, and it’s only going to make people mad if they try to… if we try to change it.

They wouldn’t like you when you’re angry?
That’s pretty much right! But one thing that did happen on ‘Upstream’ — I did have Tom Walker, the production designer. And this is what it ends up being: we have so many conversations that we eventually land on the same page. So at a certain point I just become so confident in what he is doing and that he’s servicing what we’re doing, that it becomes so much easier.

But more times than not, people think “collaboration” means “I’m gonna bring my version of this story to it and we’re gonna mix all our versions together and that’ll be the story” and unfortunately I don’t subscribe to that. But, like David Lowery editing, it was the same way, he just inspired me with so much confidence we just talked so much and got on the same page as well that I was happy for him to inform the film. He made some really wonderful additions to it, and I feel like there really was a true collaboration there.

So I know it’s possible, but there’s probably only a small sliver of it with me, because I am a control freak.

It’s oblique but apropos, tell us where did the title come from?
Well, in the film the main characters are being affected at a distance by things they can’t speak to. And the three points in the triangle, as far as the worm-pig-orchid cycle, each of them are performing acts that are independent of the next one in the line… they would all be dealing with things that seemingly came from “upstream.” And “color”… I think of it as building up a personal narrative, and the shape of that is easy, the color is what’s difficult. I don’t know if that means anything, but it seemed appropriate to me at the time.

Shape and color, then, are perhaps analogous to the film’s characterizing duality between the almost mathematical precision and the dreamlike lyricism of the approach. As that a balance you made conscious effort to achieve or is that simply how you express yourself?
Wow, I don’t know — which comes first: do you try to do it or are you doing it and you recognize you’re doing it?

For this story there is an architecture, the story I believe is very strong and the broad strokes are strong and could be re-purposed in any other form and you would still retain the core of it — the tortoise-and-hare-type version. The execution of the film is when it becomes lyrical, because once we have got that framework, the way we play with it and define its edges is lyrical.But I don’t think you could have one without the other and I wouldn’t want one without the other.

But then that’s what I want out of everything. A bit of music I’m listening to, I want there to be a well thought-out composition, but when it’s executed I don’t want the computerized midi version of that playing, I want a human that it interpreting it on a moment-by-moment basis because they know something about the way I’m hearing it, because they‘re hearing it. We need that human paintbrush to get to somewhere that’s moving.

We’ll run the final part of our interview (in which Carruth talks more in depth about the themes and motifs of “Upstream Color”) next week, when hopefully many of you will have had a chance to see it after it opens Friday, April 5th.

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This is how you do difficult films. Not like the stupid The Master by Anderson which has no point or story. Watch hell never recover from that while Shane takes his place.


Sign me up. I'm always in favor of people who really care about what they're doing, put a lot of thought into it, and work hard to do it right. Looking forward to seeing this.

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