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Shane Carruth Explains Why 'Upstream Color' Isn't So Difficult to Understand and Talks About His Next Project

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire April 3, 2013 at 12:47PM

Filmmaker Shane Carruth's microbudget 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.
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"Upstream Color."
"Upstream Color."
"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?

"Upstream Color."
"Upstream Color."

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.

"Primer"
"Primer"

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.

This article is related to: Shane Carruth, Upstream Color, Amy Seimetz, The Modern Ocean, Interviews







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