Shane Carruth in New York this week.
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 was worried that everything would descend into minutiae about the plot. Overall, I'm very pleasantly surprised that people seem to be keying into the fact that that's not the way into this 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.