Five years after wowing Sundance with “Upstream Color,” Shane Carruth is back — just not as a director. The multi-hyphenate — who wrote, directed, produced, starred in, and composed the music for both 2004’s sci-fi breakout “Primer” and its mind-bending follow-up — apparently decided to take it easy by merely acting in “The Dead Center,” a slow-burning thriller that made landfall at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Written and directed by Bill Senese, it stars Carruth as a doctor whose latest patient claims to have just awoken from the dead — and makes a pretty convincing case when he starts displaying what can only be described as zombie-like tendencies.
“It was really compelling to read, which is not always the case — I have a hard time reading screenplays,” Carruth said of Senese’s script. It clearly stood out to him, as he had never starred in a feature film without also helming it before: Carruth had a cameo in “Swiss Army Man” and a role in one episode of “The Girlfriend Experience” (for which he composes the score), making this his most extensive performance directed by someone else. “I was at a point where I really wanted to do something where I could just focus on one job,” he said.
Doing so proved “totally freeing,” even if old habits die hard. “I definitely had the same urges that probably everybody has on set and you want to try to introduce your ideas, and I bit my tongue a lot, but luckily Billy was really receptive to anything we wanted to talk about,” he said. “I don’t think I stepped on anybody’s toes, but there was that urge to.”
Like a lot of horror movies, “The Dead Center” ends on a note that may or may not imply a sequel could be in the works. Carruth has no idea whether that’s actually the case, and loves that lack of knowledge. “This is my favorite part of being an actor,” he said. “I don’t know anything! I can talk about the meaning of it and I can say, ‘Oh, it’s about the Trump administration pulling out of the Paris Accords and how that’s gonna affect climate change, and it doesn’t mean anything because it’s Billy’s movie.”
Though talkative when it comes to “The Dead Center,” Carruth is less so on the subject of his own projects. Marvel hiring auteurs like Cate Shortland and Chloé Zhao (who will be tackling “Black Widow” and “The Eternals,” respectively) has done little to pique his interest in going down the superhero rabbit hole. “It’s not something I’m interested in doing,” he said.
The status of his next feature remains in question. It was announced three years ago that Carruth was working on “The Modern Ocean,” another ambitious-sounding whatsit featuring a stacked ensemble cast led by Anne Hathaway, Keanu Reeves, Daniel Radcliffe, Jeff Goldblum, Chloë Grace Moretz, and Tom Holland.
A press release accompanying the film’s announcement declared that the movie concerns “the competition for valuable shipping routes, the search for the hidden cache of priceless material and the powerful need for vengeance will converge in a spectacular battle on the rolling decks of behemoth cargo ships,” with the action taking place everywhere from Algerian trading houses to the ocean floor itself. It’s been radio silence since then, and Carruth doesn’t want to change that — at least not yet. “Only word is that it’s not gonna happen anytime soon,” he said of “The Modern Ocean.”
If that project isn’t in the works, then what is? As in his movies, Carruth prefers to leave things open-ended. “I really can’t say much,” he said. “I’m doing a lot of writing; there are multiple projects, but I don’t have anything interesting to say.” His past work proves he actually has a lot of interesting to things to say, but his usual pace — “Primer” was released in 2004, “Upstream Color” in 2013 — suggests we may have to wait a while longer to hear it.