Now “retired” filmmaker Steven Soderbergh has Oscars, a Palme d’Or and other accolades to his name. At a whirlwind pace, he directed 26 feature-length films in 24 years (not counting shorts and TV projects) mostly free of any signature filmmaking brand, omnivorously moving from style and genre to style and genre to keep things fresh. And while Soderbergh is well-celebrated for his contributions to cinema, one thing audiences tend to forget is his mentorship and how the “Side Effects” helmer got behind several filmmakers.
He’s acted as producer for many filmmakers who were then on the rise, putting his name on “The Daytrippers” for Greg Mottola, Lodge Kerrigan’s “Keane,” Anthony and Joe Russo’s “Welcome To Collinwood” (and he recommended them to Marvel for “Captain America 2”). And he executive produced projects from friends and peers in order to help give the extra push to get them made with Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” Todd Haynes’ “Far from Heaven” and Gary Ross’ “Seabiscuit” all bearing his imprint. And let’s not forget, after a slightly-unknown filmmaker named Christopher Nolan had trouble finding distribution for “Memento,” Soderbergh was a loud vocal champion for the film (“When a film like Chris Nolan’s ‘Memento’ cannot get picked up, to me independent film is over. It’s dead,” he famously said at the time).
The filmmaker also got behind Shane Carruth after his 2004 time travel puzzler, “Primer,” and along with David Fincher, attempted to executive produce his still-unmade, largely-now aborted would-be follow-up “A Topiary.” The film never came to pass, all studios too risk-averse to take the plunge, but a friendship was formed. Soderbergh and Carruth recently appeared at the IFC Center in New York at a post-screening Q&A of Carruth’s latest mindbender, “Upstream Color.” A bewitching, transcendent and strange picture about free-will, love, nature and the life-cycle of all things, “Upstream Color” deals with some big bold and abstract ideas and then presents them in a dazzling abstract manner (here’s our review from Sundance). It’s head-scratching to some, moving, mysterious and beautiful to others. You’ll probably need to have seen the film to fully understand this Q&A, but regardless, here’s a recap of the post-Q&A conversation between Soderbergh and Carruth.
Steven Soderbergh: What the hell was that that we just saw?
Shane Carruth: [Laughs] Thanks for getting that out of the way. Thanks for being part of this, by the way.
Here’s a real question: are you prone to believe in conspiracies? Do you see patterns in the world as a person?
No, but it’s interesting, I’ve never been asked that and I actually feel the opposite. I would point to things in the film that showed the opposite — the lack of conspiracy. This story didn’t start with its weird elements, the life cycle, the worm/pig/orchid, it started at the center with these characters that I needed to strip of their identity and their narratives so they could be forced to regrow it and that leads to a whole set of other things. But I needed a construct to make that happen, so that’s where these other elements came into play and they are specifically made in a way that there is no conspiracy and there is no management — the thief, the pig farmer/sampler and orchid harvesters are all performing these little tricks in nature that benefit them, but are not, in their minds, they don’t care what came before or after. They’re not aware of that. To me, I was trying to create something that was long-lived and permanent and universal and not conspiratorial. And not good or bad, not malicious or benevolent.
This recent mysterious story about thousands of pigs being thrown into a river in China is conveniently timed.
Well, that’s a marketing effort that was very expensive [laughs]. And not ethical at all.
Pigs in river under very suspicious circumstances. Hmm…
Coincidence, so near the release of this movie. We don’t have big ad buys, we’re not on during the Super Bowl so we do what we can.
Should this have been called “Downstream Color”? Cause water goes…
Oh, my god! You’re right! Because everything in it is so disconnected, especially the central characters being so affected by things off screen and at a distance — in my head it meant something that you couldn’t know where it was coming from. That it would also seem to be coming from some place that is — you would expect some effort to go and find it.
I like cats, but there are no cats in this. What’s up with that?
Laughs, you’re right. Unfortunately, you’re right. I had to pick a target demographic and yeah, pigs. People respond to livestock and not felines.
The editing patterns are so sophisticated. How much did the film change in post?
Well, it did. It changed a few weeks before we started shooting and maybe a week into editing. There was a period there — now that I know that it exists — where you’re coming to understand the visual language and I had what I thought was the final score already built, because I was doing it while I was writing. So all of these elements start to come together, Amy Seimetz is cast and we start to see what she’s going to be doing and how effective that’s going to be, and so the equation changes. All of the different elements change each other, so in that sense, yes, there was a version I thought of it in writing, there was a version as we approached and there was a version was probably malleable within the first week of production and after that we knew that language pretty well and had internalized it, so from that point forward it didn’t change very much.
David Lowery was brought in to edit, he’s a wonderful editor and director of this film “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” that’s coming out in a few months. He’s astounding and I had met him before and I knew he was going to have a big film made literally after a few months after we wrapped. But he was brilliant and we had a true collaboration. He really took on what had been established and reproduced that perfectly and then started bringing together in his own ideas. I would go out and shoot for his edit and he would edit from my shoot and it was really collaborative. And we ripped off “The Limey” a lot so that was good.
I was just ripping off Nicolas Roeg and Alain Renais.
I noticed you did a lot of jobs on this film, but not the catering.
I had to leave something for my mom and sister in law.
Just how much of the cutting to black in the film was a re-centering?
That’s interesting. The parts you’re talking about are the middle third which to me is the most subjective. If the first third of the film is mainly about the mechanics of the world and its more locked down than the rest of the film and it’s about control and putting Kris (Amy) through a process, the next third of it is much more subjective and seeing Kris and Jeff react to the events that we know they’ve been through, but they don’t know so my attempt was — as well as I could without any dialogue, without any POV shots — to convey subjectivity, their experiences. The music, the editing, the cinematography is meant to communicate that. Even using sound and soundscapes to as a way to show connectedness, or light and flares of light to suggest a presence. So those cuts to black they are my attempt at removing any sort of concrete timeline or sequence. I don’t think you can nail down exactly how much time has passed — whether this is a relationship that bloomed in a week or two and they got married they married 6 months later or the next day or what, its all meant to be a bit fragmented to convey that.
How do you judge information that you want to stick because I find that always, I’m always stunned what people latch onto and what they don’t.
I don’t know. That’s tough. I wouldn’t be comfortable with something like a test screening because I wouldn’t know what to do with it. I wouldn’t know what 85 percent of people are getting it, means something or doesn’t. With all the collaborators, Amy, David, our production designer Tom Walker, once we had confidence in what we were doing and it felt like a true collaboration at that point, If I’m getting this and a couple other people are, that’s more or less it. I guess I’m just not that worried about that. It’s like “Primer” which is one of the most obtuse films out there and yet I feel like there was consensus that formed that pretty much nailed everything the film was attempting to do so if a narrative is purposefully going to be veiled in some way, I don’t know how to decide how veiled it should be other than to go by my sensibilities. That’s it I guess.
Are you an outdoorsy type? Are you concrete or dirt?
I have a Denim shirt. No, not really. I don’t spend a lot of time in nature. Probably less than most people that live in urban Texas. The nature in the film arises from – I needed this construct and I needed it to satisfy this criteria. And I think there’s a lot of ways to do that. If you just want to strip someone of their identity, their narrative, I think there’s lots of ways to do that. It could be they get in a car wreck and there’s amnesia or it could be an alien presence or a pharmaceutical one, or all of these different things, but what I needed was something that didn’t feel specific, didn’t feel modern, didn’t feel foreign as if it had entered the arena in some way, because that would be saying something about where it comes from and I don’t want it to come from anywhere. I want it to always be here. I want what’s different about this is Kris’ experience, not how she’s put into this system, but how she gets out. And I guess I was worried if it was anything other than that it would be too pointed and that lead me to – well, if it’s been here forever, that goes to the natural world and if it’s got a life cycle, it’s got a cycle.
Was the pigfarmer/sound composer there from the script stage?
He was. There was a slightly different version of him at the beginning of the writing process he was a originally going to be a reclusive composer and so when he’s moving through his goldfish bowl of emotional experiences, this corral of pigs and shopping for the right experience to be inspired by, it would be to help him in his composing work. But it was meant to be for his symphony and at the end, he would be launching that symphony and coming back into the city and all of our abductees would respond to hearing a bit of advertisement on the radio – that’s what they would key into and that’s what would bring them together. That got thrown out.
So it’s not an accident that “Walden” gets thrown into this circle of ideas. Is that your favorite nature book? It’s free.
[Laughs] It is free; it is in the public domain. It was that and that I had to put Kris through these menial tasks that she’s meant to perform. I needed a work of fiction that she would be re-writing and re-writing page by page and creating these paper chains. Great, what is this book? My only recollection of Walden was reading it in high school and not having a positive experience with it. I thought of it as very dry and boring and you typically knew all you need to know with three pages of it. So I picked it knowing it had to do something with the natural world and knowing that it wouldn’t be anything that would incite someone to wake up from their hypnotic state because there’s not much going on in it and it’s very passive and meditative. And then I have this bizarre plot structure that’s using all of these elements from the natural world and it’s using light and sound in both figurative and real ways and so I go looking through Walden for a bit of prose that I need for the plot to connect a few moments here and there and it’s a very bizarre thing because I don’t know what to do with this. But I began to see a lot of language in there that’s too appropriate. There’s a line in my script with [the thief] saying “my head is made of the same material as the sun,” and I’m seeing phrases [in the book] that say, “a halo of light over my shoulder and the sun is but a morning star.” And there’s all this language of light and sound at a distance and the way sound works underwater and above water and [in my script] I’ve got this woman who is haunted by soundscapes, she is looking for pebbles underwater as part of — maybe I shouldn’t say too much about that –
[Laughs] And it just seemed way too appropriate so I almost got rid of it entirely. What it had looked like somebody had grabbed “Walden” and taken every fifth passage and said, “Ok, now that’s a plot” and I was worried about that. But it just ended up being too perfect so we ended up playing up some of the elements that I thought were more effective. Especially when Kris is in the pool near the end and she’s able to do nothing but recite lines from “Walden” then I would grab lines that were part of her experience. Like she says lines like, “for want of food and also sleep,” but they are appropriate to her experience.
“Upstream Color” is in limited release now. To learn more about when it will come near you, check out the film’s website. For more Shane Carruth and unveiling the mysteries of “Upstream Color” you can read three parts of our interview with the filmmaker here (part 1), here (part 2) and here (part 3).