Psychotropic, romantic and beautiful like a scary dream, Shane Carruth’s long-awaited follow-up to “Primer,” is the self-distributed “Upstream Color.” Though it will undoubtedly divide, it has already, in its way, conquered many who’ve seen it. Our reviewer at Sundance was nothing short of enraptured by the film, and this writer wholeheartedly agrees after seeing it at the Berlin International Film Festival. There are very few films that have the power to stay with you, buzzing and humming below the surface of your consciousness for days after you see them, but the strains of “Upstream Color” still remain.
We had the pleasure of a long talk with Carruth in Berlin, where he covered almost as much territory as his film, from stories behind its making and the inspirations he drew upon, to a closer reading of some of its mysteries (and we’ll bring you those thoughts later). For Part One, however, here’s Carruth on “A Topiary,” which was long slated to be his “Primer” follow-up before falling through (some details of which you can also read here), his involvement in Rian Johnson’s “Looper,” and most tantalizingly, some details on what he hopes will be his next project, “The Modern Ocean.”
The Playlist: As the self-distribution for “Upstream Color” rolls into action, how will you judge its reception, financially? Do you have a specific measure for success?
Shane Carruth: Well, I have a general measure which is that this is the way that I will be able to make films in the future. So I’m writing something now that I hope to be shooting in the summer, so my measure for success is, “Can I raise enough money to leverage the financing for that without having to pitch or convince traditional film finance to get involved?”
The film was financed largely out of your own pocket and that of your producer and few other individuals. Is that a sustainable model?
No it isn’t, that’s the thing. We’re all so incredibly proud of the film but the way it was made is not repeatable. There is no common ground between me and traditional film financing. I know that now. But at the same time, putting the level of stress that I did on people and myself because of keeping the budgets so low, that’s not repeatable either. So we’ve got to find another solution.
Some of that dislike of traditional financing has to be as a result of your last experience — will you ever try to re-mount “A Topiary”?
It’s not anything I’m trying to make happen anymore. No. I mean I sort of broke my heart on that and it sort of just feels like a girlfriend… and it wasn’t the most destructive ending in the world, but it was an ending and maybe it doesn’t need to be revisited. Right now I’m so consumed with the next story that I’m writing, I don’t know if I could even take a moment to not be thinking about making that…
So what can you tell us about this next project?
It’s called “The Modern Ocean.” There’s no genre or otherwordly elements in it, it’s set in the modern day on shipping routes, with people who build routes to trade — you know, vanilla from Madagascar and then pick up crude oil and drop it off in India. They build up this intellectual property of a route that is profitable and they sell it off to a bigger corporation…They’re building up the proof that this route will work, and selling it off, dealing with tidal systems and routes and currents and weather.
So there are these competing companies and these inner personal things happening. It’s pirates, repo men, bolt cutters and sniper rifles, but at the same time it’s the same emotional language as “Upstream Color,” just magnified. I’m very excited by it.
And will the reception of “Upstream Color” directly affect “The Modern Ocean” in terms of timing and budget? I mean, if you make, like a billion dollars off it?
Heh, yeah, well if we make a billion, that’ll definitely factor into it. If we’re successful on some level that will play into it — it won’t be a huge budget but it needs to be healthy.
And I want to shoot in summer. I mean, that’s my plan. I sort of have now a track record of being really naïve and pointing at something and saying “That’s gonna happen!” and trying to force it, but we’ll see how that works.
Of course, you did have some involvement with Rian Johnson’s “Looper” last year. How did that come about?
Rian became a friend in the last few years and he sent me the script when it was finished and we had many conversations about it. He had seen some of the effects tests I had put together for “A Topiary” and he had a very specific idea in “Looper” that had to do with what it would look like in people’s minds when their memories were being written or rewritten or erased.
So when Bruce Willis’s wife would go away he would be struggling with her being enveloped by this… in the script it was a “fog.” And so we were talking about that, I mean it says “fog” but clearly it can’t be fog because I mean, whatever. So we had lots of conversations about what it would be, and I put together this concept that sort of mirrored back to the salt-and-pepper-on-the-table conversation, in that people would be enveloped by this large green gravel that would seemingly fall over them sideways or from different angles and it would envelop an entire room or go around the contours of a person.
We really fell into this idea and it was going to be the solution and it just turned out that the way “Looper” was done, their effects were done overseas and there’s a certain way it needed to go for their financing to work. And the only way I knew how to do it on my end was unfortunately probably too expensive and it just seemed like we are going to spend a lot of time forcing this through and maybe we should just take a beat.
And [Rian] got to a point where he thought maybe it was the wrong path to go down anyway, that maybe it needed to be told through performance and not through a gimmick, which I totally get. I mean, even in “Upstream Color” we’ve got so much more of the microscopic, biological footage than we ended up using, because that same choice was made: we’re not doing a film about microscopic stuff, we’re doing a film about an emotional experience.
But yeah, the end result doesn’t have anything from me in it.
We’ll have much more from our interview with Carruth soon.