Over the course of the last two decades, Shane Carruth has made two movies, and it remains unclear whether he’ll make another one. Last fall, while promoting his performance in “The Dead Center,” the “Primer” and “Upstream Color” director said that he was finished with filmmaking after he finished up one more project. The reclusive sci-fi director may be serious, but in the meantime, he’s finding a way to pass the torch. As executive producer on “The Wanting Mare,” the distinctive fantasy-drama that marks the directorial debut of Nicholas Ashe Batemen, Carruth is lending his name to raise the profile of a filmmaker who — like Carruth himself with his two movies — has crafted an otherworldly vision on his own terms.
The movie unfolds across decades, as several generations of women in a dark, dystopian world grapple with the same dream of a magical age that predates their existence. Meanwhile, they all cope with a harsh existence in the imaginary land of Anmaere, a seaside community filled with wild horses and dangerous smugglers itching to escape to a better world. Bateman’s DIY approach maintains a closeness to the drama while hinting at a much bigger picture as the story continues to take a series of unpredictable turns. The movie will have its virtual premiere this weekend as part of the Chattanooga Film Festival, and is currently searching for distribution. Carruth hopped on the phone from his Los Angeles home to discuss his decision to get involved with the project and explain his decision to move on. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How are you holding up in quarantine?
I’m alone in a house. I’m definitely doing some “Shining”-level craziness. But I don’t want to talk about myself too much.
How did you end up associating with “The Wanting Mare”?
I got to meet “Bellflower” director Evan Glodell years ago. I love him. What is coming from him next is going to be mind-blowing, it’s going to destroy something, this film “Canary.” I got to see that. I felt privileged, like one of the elect few. Nick was part of Coatwolf. He sent me a six-minute trailer of “Wanting Mare.” I thought whatever this is, whatever I can do to help, this is amazing. I went into that mode of the elder statesman. Can I do something? I’d sit there, watching him, talking to him, and realizing the more I talked to him that this was like Tolkien or C.S. Lewis. I talked to him a little more about the other stories that happened in that world. This movie is like looking at one part of a map of Narnia. This is just a shade of the bigger story. These women are having the same dream through generations. They don’t know what they know but they’re pursuing something.
What impressed you about his approach to the project?
My first response is, how is this guy doing this? Let’s not pretend this guy is an expert in CG, or 2D replacement, or green screens. That’s just what he had to do to make it happen. But what he’s doing, some people would pay $10 million for, and he’s doing it with a copy of Blendr on a MacBook. And yet nothing in this film could not have been done in the ‘70s. It’s not about the effects. It’s about the effort. He’s trying something. I do one-offs. He has a world. Once I saw that, I just became more and more dumbfounded. There is something in the handcrafted quality of this that gives you an intimacy with the material. There’s no space to waste, no money to waste.
You don’t usually have a producing credit on projects you haven’t directed.
I don’t want a credit. I told him that. All of this is made-up bullshit. If my name makes someone want to watch the trailer, great, but Nick and his team made this movie. I gave him some thoughts. That was all.
What sort of advice are you giving a filmmaker at this early stage of his career?
I want Nick to have whatever he wants, but I’m not saying that’s a Hollywood deal with Warner Bros., where you’re stuck at a fucking shingle outside their lot. The guy has more ideas than they have. They’ve got money, and they don’t know how to spend it. I know I need to back down from this conversation but I don’t give a shit. No matter what happens in the next 30 years, this guy is a storyteller with a lot of stories to tell. I can’t say that about a lot of things that I might enjoy this year but won’t remember.
You made some headlines last year by declaring that you were quitting filmmaking. Is that still the case?
The short answer is yes. I’ve got one last project in front of me. I shouldn’t say anything about it. I’m still defining the edges. But that is it for me. I’m not going to say I’m doing a project and then hope Paramount gives me a deal or whatever the hell. I’m not doing that anymore. There’s a thousand other things I’m interested in doing in life that I don’t talk about, because they don’t matter to film Twitter. I have interests and I’m going to go there. I’m not going to spend the rest of my life talking to these assholes and trying to get financing for a fucking bridge loan or whatever the hell they’re going to do. All this shit is stupid. None of it is real. I’m not going to be a guy who spends his life bitching about Hollywood being crass. We already knew that. I just happened to learn how it works. I don’t want to be somebody spending the second half of my life picking and choosing things. I’d love to have a ton of cash. If I did, I’d just distribute this thing, we’d get our money, and that’d be the end of it.
What was the turning point for you when you decided you were done with filmmaking?
To answer that, I’d have to talk for two hours. You’d be bored and so would everybody else. I am not in the same business as Hollywood. This is not arts and literature in early Greece. This town is what everybody says it is. We hire models to say words they don’t even understand and then light them well. Only one percent of that is worth watching. The confusion is, we get to go to the same building to watch a fucking “Garfield” cartoon and “Phantom Thread,” as if those two are the same things. When I go to a vending machine, there’s a Snickers bar and a bag of Chex Mix. These are the same things. OK, one is savory and one is sugary. But they’re still food I can put in my mouth. We go to the theater and act like they’re all the same thing, and they’re just not. One is meant to be there so you can make out with your date on a Friday night, and the other is there so you can be edified for the next 30 years. We just pretend they’re the same.
So do you think it’s a mistake to chase bigger projects?
That is based on the assumption that everybody who’s making a small film is trying to get to the point of making a $60 million film. However, I was. After I had some level of success with “Primer,” I thought, I’m the guy, they’re telling me I’m the guy, I get to do whatever, I can make a big film. I can make a $230 million film. That’s what I was thinking. It’s mostly true for anybody who plays the game.
You have taken a very hands-on approach with the release of “Upstream Color.” With “The Wanting Mare,” a low-budget movie with no stars finding its way in these strange times, how do you expect it to get out in the world?
I am truly a little lost. My past model with self-distribution was pretty much following what everyone else was doing — all the IFCs and Magnolias, where you make a big opening weekend but don’t earn any of it back. You make it up on digital because of the big opening weekend. That’s the model. So if there are no theaters, I truly don’t know how it works. I don’t know how you make a lot of people in the digital world say, “Oh my god, we all have to show up at 7 p.m. on a Friday to watch this.” That doesn’t happen. So maybe it has to be something else. Maybe it has to bleed into consciousness. Nick’s movie will have this premiere with the Chattanooga Film Festival online. I hope it works. But years from now, there will be 100 copies of it on YouTube with comments from people saying it meant so much to them. Let’s just make sure the money goes to Nick so he can make the next thing. That’s all I can understand about the marketplace right now.
Each time you’ve made a movie, the film industry is in a different place. Where do you see it heading?
I would sort of love it if all the studios died in the next five years. I’m at home, I do my emails, do my work, play my videogames. I cannot feel compelled to watch anything. Well, I’m watching “Joe Pera Talks With You.” It’s one of the few things I watch. It calms me — it’s meditation and entertainment. I still watch “Rick and Morty” when I can. Every half second you get berated with an awesome joke. With “Joe Pera,” you get to go to the grocery store. It’s so calming. I love the one where they go to Minneapolis.
OK, but what sort of art really impresses you these days?
I was looking at “The Last Supper.” It’s the thing in the Bugs Bunny cartoon that’s supposed to stand in as high art. In my own life, I’ve been making triptychs, three images that all tell the same thing about a narrative, but they have to be distinct. I had that in my head while looking at “The Last Supper,” and realized there are five groups of three in there that all have something to say. So I started looking at the angles. Why would this guy be so obsessed with making sure these angles are perfect?
Every other painting from this era more or less looks like human vision, but this guy…he did hundreds of versions of this. He poured over every disciple, every face they’re making, the direction they’re facing, and he went over that hundreds of times. The Mona Lisa is at the Louvre, but The Last Supper is on the wall of a convent outside Milan. To get those angles, Da Vinci put a nail at the center and attached a paintbrush to a piece of rope, then spiraled it so that he could get perfect angles. It’s a 50-millimeter, one-point-one version of Jesus Christ having his last supper before Judas betrays him. That’s what Da Vinci did. The paint on the wall isn’t even fresco. It’s something else he invented. So cool. I start looking at this, and trying to triangulate the angles, and it made me wonder where the center was. I found different points. They’re all around Christ’s head, as if a crown of thorns. I swear to god, if that guy did that and hid it, and nobody’s found out since — that’s legend, dude.