Filmmaker Shane Carruth’s micro-budget breakthrough “Primer” was a dense, realistic time travel drama of the sort nobody had seen before. Judging by his long-awaited second feature, “Upstream Color,” Carruth is big on crafting new experiences. With far more puzzle pieces than “Primer,” the new movie — which Carruth is self-releasing in theaters starting this Friday following successful showings at Sundance, Berlin, SXSW and New Directors/New Films — invites intense analysis, but beyond its baffling qualities it’s also the most distinctive cinematic experience to hit theaters so far this year.
Co-starring Carruth and Amy Seimetz, “Upstream Color” revolves around the experiences of Seimetz’s character, Kris, as she grows more and more aware that she’s been psychically linked with a pig by way of a parasitic bug. Carruth plays another character who endures a similar ordeal as the duo form a unique bond. Or something like that. Unlike “Primer,” Carruth’s latest excursion is more overtly abstract, although he won’t shy away from explaining certain ingredients of the plot when asked. In a conversation with Indiewire this week, the director discussed his approach to this beguiling narrative, why he has benefited from taking his work into his own hands, and what to expect with his next project.
Now that you’re almost done promoting the movie, do you think you’ll make some money on it?
Hopefully. That would be nice, because it would mean I don’t have to have my hand out for this next film that I wanted to be shooting immediately.
Has your experience with the film at various festivals matched your expectations?
It was really strange. I really didn’t know what to expect, but people have been so kind. Part of that is just the nature, I guess, of independent film and festivals. People aren’t going to go out of their to tell you anything but nice things, so you end up with a distorted perspective of the way things are going.
The movie invites a lot of questions. Since you’ve participated in so many Q&As, do you have a custom approach for talking about the movie?
Yeah. Nobody should be doing a Q&A minutes after the credits roll on a film. I mean, the author shouldn’t. It was always going to be some kind of compromise because I’ve got two choices: Don’t ever do a Q&A and maybe the film suffers and reaches a threshold audience to have a kind of life on its own. Or, two, do the Q&As. So if you do the Q&As, you can’t do them and be obtuse or be a jerk because I guess the way I think of it is that anybody who shows up for a screening where I do a Q&A is more or less a cinephile — at least, I think of them that way. There’s already a common language there. It’s not somebody I tricked to go into the theater. I feel like this is a conversation between people who are already avid about film literature, so maybe this is a moment to be more open about the film.
Were you surprised by what people found confusing about the film?
I think in general the only thing I’ve been surprised by is that the response has leaned more positive than I expected. Because it’s trying to do something in a new way, it has a certain ambition, and it was always going to be divisive. Some people are going to key into what it’s doing immediately and judge it based on its intentions. But for other people, if I haven’t prepared them or our expectations are misaligned, that’s probably not going to go well. So if they want it to do one thing and I want it to do something else, it doesn’t really matter if it’s doing that in a good way or not. It’s just not going to meet them.
Did you expect questions about the literal meaning of the plot — you know, tell us what that bug is?
Yes. I was worried that everything would descend into minutiae about the plot. That’s happened once in a while, but overall, I’m very pleasantly surprised that people seem to be keying into the fact that that’s not the way into this film. It has something else on its mind. I feel like the conversations turn pretty substantial for the most part.
I’ve noticed that a lot of people are watching “Primer” for the first time lately. When the movie was first released, you didn’t have all these charts available online that explain what happens in the movie. How do you feel about those — and would it bother you if similar guides were made for “Upstream Color”?
The time graphs or whatever for “Primer” — this is a really crass, broad way to look at film — but if you look at it as two halves, then one half is the subtext, the exploration, anything that would be considered literary about it. The other is what’s fun to watch about it, what keeps your attention. I would say that in “Primer” the time logic and people who would look at the flow of events, that’s the compelling half. I don’t have big explosions or gunplay or whatever else, but what I’ve got is this tiny little and hopefully compelling puzzle that people will want to solve. Along the way, they are also maybe getting hit with the exploration half of the film. So if that same thing happened with “Upstream,” it’s not something I hope for or I intend or whatever, but it doesn’t seem like a negative. I think at this point I don’t think anybody’s going to misunderstand it. You can call it “pretentious” or say that it’s not successful at what it’s exploring, but I don’t think anybody’s not going to be aware that it’s exploring.
But if someone directly asks you to explain ingredients of the plot, will you do it? Say, if I were to ask you what the bug is…
Yes, I could. But it would sound like this. OK, as an example: The worm goes into Kris, it grows, and then she is de-wormed. The Sampler comes along and de-worms her and puts that worm in a pig. From that point forward, we see that she and the pig are connected. So there isn’t anything meant to be represented other than transference. Something has been transferred. The way the film is executed, hopefully — with Amy’s performance, the cinematography, and the edit all inform you that something transcendent has happened. This is not a simple biological procedure. There is something being transferred that is hard to speak about but deeply felt.
But was there a scientific foundation behind the idea?
Sure. I can point to tons of stuff that I’ve read for the last few years. But all it did was suggest to me that there are still processes in the natural, biological world that we don’t know, but have a counter-intuitive nature to them. There are these parasites that burrow into the heads of wasps and ants and make them fly erratically or climb to the top of trees and throw themselves off in order to benefit from something else, maybe a fungus on the forest floor. And then that fungus maybe benefits from the parasite. There are these weird processes out there. I am not interested in them as anything but a means to an end. I’m not interest in having a botanist or scientist come out and explain them. All I want is the fact that it’s possible, and then I’m going to use that possibility, and we’re going to see this happen. That’s all we’re going to know. By the time you get to the end of the film, from a purely mechanical plot perspective, you know the life cycle. You know that it’s this blue presence that has been circulating through these creatures. But by that time, I hope that it doesn’t matter too much. I mean, it matters in the sense that it’s hopefully fun to pull apart, like any story that’s intricate — and I hope people feel that it’s intricate. You know, that’s the compelling half, not the exploration. So if the film talks too much about that — oh, these are nanobots; oh, this is a runaway alien presence; oh, this is a pharmaceutical that got left in the stream — whatever it would be, it would be too specific, an indictment of whatever that thing is.
So you’re saying the bug is a pharmaceutical alien presence…
(laughs) Exactly. It’s a pharmaceutical alien presence. That’s it.“Walden” plays a key role in the story. Did transcendentalism have a major influence on you?
No. I basically picked that text because the mechanics of the story are embedded in the natural world and Kris was going to be rewriting the same book page by page. That was a known thing in the process so I needed to pick a title or make one up. The idea of using “Walden” as this very passive, peaceful, at-one-with-nature type of text seemed to be really appropriate. I think the exploration of “Walden” is far more interesting than what’s going on in “Upstream Color,” but where the two intersect, I tried to make them intersect.
Did you reread the book while writing your script?
Not a lot. I was looking for bits and pieces of prose just to use whenever I needed them. I wound up being exposed to large portions of it but I didn’t read it all the way through. It’s very strange, the things that are in there that we ended up using.
Susan Sontag wrote that interpretation was the intellect’s revenge on art. That seems to be what you’re hinting at here.
Yeah. It’s interesting because I don’t ever want to ask a better question than I can answer, if that makes sense. I find that frustrating as a viewer. Compelling questions, while not easy, are easier than compelling answers.
You controlled virtually every element of “Upstream Color,” from writing, directing and acting to composing the score and handling the cinematography. Did you have your own shorthand for figuring out the flow of the movie?
If I had my way, everything would be rigidly mapped out from the writing stage. It ends up being a flawed process because I’m imperfect, obviously. I composed a lot of music while I was writing the script and thought I had the full score by the time I was done with writing. I had to throw out half of it because it was the wrong choice. I was not writing for the subjective experience of the characters. I was trying to frame the audience’s experience. But I didn’t know that until I was trying to put together the visual language. There are decisions made in post, but those are not satisfying to make. I don’t like that.
What was it like to start sharing this vision with other people?
As long as they were willing to internalize the story as well as I did, we could get to a real collaboration. I feel really lucky to have had that with David [Lowery, who edited “Upstream Color”], with Amy, and with the production designers, but I don’t feel like that’s a given. Sometimes people can bring a lot of ego to it and can be sure that they know how story works the best. I would be really fearful of fighting the film’s intention. I’m a control freak.
Did you have to fight for anything that ended up in the movie?
Oh, I didn’t have to fight for anything. I was lucky enough to just do whatever and have a bunch of people who bought into it. Nobody tried to change anything.
But did you second-guess yourself much? Are there a lot of deleted scenes?
Yeah. Things changed along the way. This feels like, “Did you ever make bad grades in college?” Well, yup. It’s weird because I’m trying to get in front of this for the next film. The reality is that we all came to understand some things that changed other things. The cinematography — when I felt it was doing a pretty good job of relaying tactility, isolation and a subjective experience without it necessarily containing a POV shot, stuff like that — that informed the music and changed it. So those two things balanced out the script. Then suddenly lines of dialogue could go away and scenes could map differently. That’s something that happened in the run-up to production, partially during production. There were even bits of music that were written in post and decisions that were made in the edit. We didn’t internalize it well enough from the get-go; we had to internalize then.
That’s what I’m trying to do with this next film. It’s going to happen. I don’t have perfect spatial recognition to be able to know the whole movie right now. These are our tools and we’ll have to figure out how they’ll apply to our story once it’s internalized. Before we actually start production, these things all need to be thoroughly discussed. Hopefully, we’ll know the 90 – 95% of ways they affect each other so we can go make decisions on the fly. It’s not just improvising; it’s knowing the piece of music so well that you can play it in a different key for a second if you need to do that.
This all feeds into your process for controlling your work, which in the case of “Upstream Color” is epitomized by your self-release strategy. Was it hard to keep distributors away from the film?
I kept it out of everybody’s view right up until Sundance when we announced we were self-distributing. I did have a lot of conversations, but I wasn’t showing it to anybody, so these were just conversations that were just salesmanship. If somebody were saying that they wanted to distribute the film and they haven’t even seen it, that’s not a real conversation. That’s just salesmanship.
Was this strategy a direct response to your experience with THINKfilm when that company released “Primer”?
I was lucky to get distribution with “Primer.” I don’t have a negative feeling about how that went necessarily. It’s not like, “That was such a nightmare and now I’m going to go this other way.” But what I did get was an experience of what it’s like to have a distributor and where the power lies. No matter what a contract says, whoever writes the checks will make those decisions no matter how much of a conversation you think you’re having with them.
Do you own all the rights to “Primer” now?
Well, the company went bankrupt, so I do, yup. But with “Upstream Color,” I was worried that if it did find a distributor, they would not key into what it was doing. Maybe they would want to sell it using the more genre elements in it. Maybe they would say, “That’s how we get butts in seats.” And that’s not what the film’s about. I’ve got a different definition of success than they do. It’s not all awareness is good awareness; it’s contextualized awareness that’s good.
For your next movie, “The Modern Ocean,” do you hope retain the same level of control?
I do now. It’s probably only going to get worse. That’s the thing. I tried to take apart the problem of distribution and put it back together again to see if it’s possible and now I cannot imagine what a world looks like where somebody else would think like they did on how to make decisions about trailers and what the audience knows before they’re being asked to come and see it. That’s storytelling. It’s an opportunity to relay information about the film instead of rousing up awareness. I believe that should be in the hands of a storyteller.
Do you think people will find “Modern Ocean” more “accessible” than your earlier films?
I think the way the next one is coming together, yeah, people will say it’s more accessible. But there’s a level of how cryptic “Upstream” is that’s completely derived from the plot. It’s cryptic because all exploration is going to be puzzling in some way — or else it wouldn’t be a metaphor. It would be the actual text. But “Upstream” is probably another layer of puzzling because you’ve got characters affected at a distance that they can’t speak about so it makes everything non-verbal. That’s just another layer of abstraction. We’re relaying nothing but their subjective experience. We’ll never have a god’s eye view of all the pieces. I mean, we do have that, but not in a way that’s clearly talked about: These two people are attracted to each other in this moment because there are pigs attracted to each other. We’ll never have somebody come out and say that. That’s not being affected at a distance. That’s knowing you’re being affected. And that’s not what the story is about.