nedjelja, 19. svibnja 2013.

Shane Carruth - Upstream Color (2012)

Film za obožavanje.

Twisty story telling director Shane Carruth, director of Primer, has released the score to his latest film Upstream Color to tantalize your ears with promises of nothingness and everythingness. We don't know — it's all so abstract and crazy. Classic Carruth. According to Slashfilm, Carruth's latest work hinges greatly on its score (also composed by the director). So strap in and take a listen. And if you find any clues, please be a dear and tell us.

Here is a movie you haven't seen before. If you think you have, it's probably because you swallowed a white worm that turned you into a pod-person subject to total mind control and now you're having flashbacks. Or flash-forwards. Or peripheral flashes. Or maybe you've simply seen Shane Carruth's previous film, the time-shuffling "Primer."
"Upstream Color" might be described as an oblique romantic science-fiction mystery thriller. It's only Carruth's second feature, appearing nine years after his first, but one of the most striking things about it is that it's recognizably the work of the same sensibility that imagined and composed "Primer." Carruth's elliptical debut, which won the top prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004, is a also a one-of-a-kind movie, and like this one an almost mathematical deconstruction of storytelling.
"Upstream Color" closely examines the very idea of sensibility — and identity, memory, perception — as if under a microscope. If that sounds a little obscure, well, the movie is designed as an enigmatic experience, to be absorbed, felt, puzzled over, free-associated about and reconsidered while you're watching it and then for a good while afterwards. (Once you know what the title refers to, you still won't necessarily know what it means.)
The story resists synopsis, and even the bits that can be summarized probably shouldn't be, because "Upstream Color" can't be reduced to a linear narrative. It's not about what does or does not happen to whom and when. It is what it is, as it is, in any given moment.
So. The first thing we see is a plastic trash bag with some paper chains spilling out. A man in a green t-shirt grabs it and deposits it in a dumpster. A boy on a bike watches him. A man (the same one?) uproots some plants in a greenhouse and harvests the squiggling maggot-y worms in the potting soil. He puts a couple of them into medicinal capsules. Mirrors figure conspicuously.
Later (in terms of screen time, at least) something happens to Kris (Amy Seimetz). The man, identified in the credits only as Thief (Thiago Martins), puts her under a spell. She sees, tastes, feels and does whatever he tells her to, but she can't look at him because he says his head is made of the same substance as the sun. Her mind records entire conversations, and the complete text of Henry David Thoreau's "Walden." Another man, whom the credits call The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), collects, records and plays sounds and performs synchronous surgery on Kris and a pig, apparently transferring a parasite from one to the other, establishing an indefinable psychic link between them.
Kris encounters Jeff (Carruth) on a train. They connect. Their thoughts get mixed up, which is to say that they're both convinced that some of their memories have been appropriated by the other. Their conversations transpire in several different places at once, or perhaps at different times in the same place. Or different times at once — a mind-boggling concept that the "Primer" also played with. Some orchids growing on tree roots by the edge of a stream change color. More pigs occur. Some association is evinced between them, Kris and other somnambulists. Kris is confused and afraid.
Got that now?
"Upstream Color" is one of those movies that you either give yourself over to or resolutely resist. If not understanding something annoys you, you will struggle against it or simply disengage. You could say (or I would) that it's an exploration of the textures of consciousness, the light, colors, sounds, images and ineffable resonances that, as George Harrison phrased it, flow "within you and without you." The visuals and audio design are multi-layered and tactile, the emphasis on sensations underscored in the first section of the movie which mostly focuses on hands and a few feet. Not many faces. Heads, when they appear at all, are often seen from behind, as if we're watching these people project the movie they're living in front of them.
In the final paragraphs of his last review (of Terence Malick's "To the Wonder"), Roger Ebert raised some questions that will stay with me: "Why must a film explain everything? Why must every motivation be spelled out? Aren't many films fundamentally the same film, with only the specifics changed? Aren't many of them telling the same story?" His point, of course, was that Malick's movie was not just the same old story, yet it has some universal human themes swimming around in it.
Same goes for "Upstream Color." If you look at it as a romance, for example, you might see it (as writer-director-cinematographer-editor-composer-star Carruth has said in interviews) as being about the new identity (not a baby, but a previously nonexistent entity) that is born when two people meld into "a couple." If you look at it as science-fiction, you may concentrate on the role of the worms and the pigs and the sound designer/pig farmer.  And if you're a movie fan, you'll no doubt pick up vibrations from Malick, Bresson (starting with those hands and feet), Tarkovsky, Godard, Buñuel, "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Blow Out" …
Can it be "figured out"? Would that really explain anything if it could? I don't know. But right now if feels kind of like a worm that's been implanted under my skin and is still squirming around in my head. - 

I wasn’t surprised to see a divided reaction to Shane Carruth’s second film at Sundance. Upstream Color is the type of film that demands a lot of its viewer, and at the end you could feel immensely rewarded or resentful of the experience. What surprised me was how many people didn’t know what they were getting into. At a press and industry screening. I know some ticket holders just buy whatever is available but if you’re in the industry, you have to know. Love it or hate it, but “surprise” is a baffling response to me.
I wasn’t even a fan of Primer, but over the last nine years I’ve matured and opened my mind, so at least I was ready for a challenging film festival experience. If Primer simulated the fragmented time experienced by time travelers, Upstream Color is even less linear. It’s a bit Malick-y in its impressionistic portrayal of scenes and loose plot chronology, but I hate to use a derivative comparison. It’s more Shane Carruth-y, but unless you’ve seen Primer, that won’t help you.
The inciting incident of Upstream Color is bizarre enough for several art films. There is an experiment involving maggots placed under someone’s skin that changes their perceptions. Kris (Amy Seimetz) is a film editor who’s nabbed for this experiment, with a lot of surreal instructions for drinking water and solving puzzles. Her kidnapper comes up with a suggestion to keep her from looking at his face, which is poetic in how little it makes rational sense.
By the time Kris is released, she’s lost her job and all her money so the film becomes more about Kris putting her life back together. She works at a sign shop and reluctantly starts dating a very persistent suitor (Carruth). Their first date is striking for her bold and honest display, which is so direct it’s the sort of scene that can only exist in a movie, but when it happens among all this other craziness, it’s the normal and relatable part. Even the real world courtship scenes are not presented as traditional narratives, but rather senses and fragments of impressions. At least those parts were simple enough to glean a character relationship from them, but it’s still an abstract riff on “boy meets girl.”
The glimpses of Kris’s struggle show us the toll this bizarre kidnapping took on her, both internally and physically. That’s a poignant story of recovery, but it’s only part of Upstream Color. Kris is who we latch onto throughout the abstract collection of scenes, and Seimetz gives a strong performance. Her subtle facial ticks while undergoing the experiment illustrate how altered she is, and your heart just opens up for her as she continues to endure afterwards.
Kris isn’t the sole focus of Upstream Color though, and diversions from her character are equally rewarding. At one point we cut to Jill and Ben having a wonderfully sensitive argument. We’ve just met them and we don’t know what problem they’re having or why they’re suddenly part of this story, but thematically it makes sense given what Kris is going through, and what they say is beautiful. There’s also baby pigs in the movie and baby pigs are adorable.
Carruth doesn’t make it easy to nail down his film in a blurb, or even in several hundred words, but he helps you make connections between different sections of the plot by visually matching scenes. There are lots of shots of legs running, doors closing and even more specific parallel actions. Maybe that’s a key to the order of scenes, or maybe it just looks cool, but I’m fine with that either way.
I’ll admit, I do not understand Upstream Color, but I don’t need to. Every scene worked as a standalone and I can sense the thematic connections and linear chronology should I choose to work at it. And I will choose to work at it. For my first viewing I simply felt: I love what it’s saying, I love how it’s saying it and I hope that’ll be enough for people to join me on this journey so we can compare the experience. 

Upstream Color is the first masterpiece of the year

Shane Carruth created an uncompromising mind-bender with his first movie, Primer. But with his second film, Upstream Color, he's done something harder and weirder. Upstream Color uses striking images and sounds to unmoor you from reality, even as it tells a powerful, emotional journey. No spoilers below...
The meme you're going to hear a lot about Upstream Color is that it's confusing, or that it's impenetrable. But that's not true at all. Upstream Color is actually way less confusing, on a first watch, than Primer. There were a few bits here and there where you might not be sure, at first, what's going on, but Carruth leads you forward with a sureness and lightness of touch that shows a lot of growth as a film-maker.
Bits of Upstream Color are upsetting, bits of it require some concentration on the part of the viewer, but if you trust that Carruth is actually telling a story and not just fucking around, you'll be rewarded. Carruth takes the old "show don't tell" maxim to its ultimate extreme — nothing is explained, but absolutely everything is demonstrated, to the point where the mechanism of the story is actually quite clear-cut.
It's hard to summarize Upstream Color without giving away too much — if you want to know a lot, read our exclusive interview with Carruth, where he explains pretty much the whole shebang. But suffice to say that it's a character-based story about a couple, played by Amy Seimetz and Carruth himself, who have been damaged psychologically as a result of an experience that neither of them understands.
But Upstream Color is way less of a puzzle than Primer was — it's much more about burrowing inside your head with the weird lovely pictures, and making you identify with two characters who are fatally dysfunctional. Also, where Primer was a film about technology, with lots of sequences of the main characters geeking out about their invention, Upstream Color is about biology, and the ways in which it shapes us beyond our understanding.
And like I said, it's a pretty character-based story, in which the central axis is the damaged romance between Kris (Seimetz) and Jeff (Carruth), who are so dysfunctional together, it's cringe-making. A lot of the credit for Upstream's watchability belongs to Seimetz, who takes what could have been a tiresome Girl Interrupted riff and turns it into something both vulnerable and brave.
You'll probably want to watch Upstream more than once — but not so much to figure out what the heck is going on, more just to let some of the stark, weird imagery sink in. Of course, there are parts of the movie that might be too uncomfortable or depressing to sit through a second or third time — especially the opening half hour, in which we see how Seimetz becomes such a terrible mess.
If you're viewing Upstream Color as science fiction, you'll see it as being in sort of the tradition of Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Adaptation. It also put us in mind of some of Octavia Butler's novels about people being transformed into something not entirely human. It's very much a story about weird biology, and the notion of an external influence that creates connections between people and other creatures that are counter to our usual view of the natural order.
To some extent, the characters in this film are victims or pawns, but Carruth explores the ways in which we claim agency when we have none — rather than admit that you've been victimized, you choose to claim responsibility for things that weren't actually your fault. Carruth manages to explore some big, sweeping ideas while keeping his story small and personal — and yet, it leads to a fairly big conclusion, in which the characters do seem to confront the root of their situation. ("Seem" being probably the operative word.)
We all say we want movies that don't talk down to the audience, and Carruth already proved he can do that with Primer. With Upstream Color, he goes one better: he creates a story that's as much visceral as cerebral, that challenges you on the level of not just intellect, but instinct as well. This is the first real masterpiece of the year, and it's a film that anybody who cares about good storytelling should see. 

Upstream Color

When Shane Carruth's Primer emerged at Sundance nearly a decade ago, it seemed perversely inscrutable, a left-brain puzzle film made by and for the mathematically inclined. An intimidating degree of obfuscation, of course, was very much part of the point, our confusion before both the mechanics and implications of time travel designed to reflect the characters' own, but the film's conceptual rigor nevertheless invited the scrutiny of close reading. The notion that a film ought to or even can be "solved" in some meaningful sense, an enduring misconception of the function of criticism and typically a massive waste of one's intellectual resources, reached a zenith of fashionability in the early 2000s, as nominally labyrinthine dramas like Donnie Darko and Memento briefly captured the popular imagination by substituting sophomoric clue-scrounging for the process of actual thought. Primer, with its combination of willful obscurity and formal austerity, appeared conveniently on-trend, and many gravitated to the film precisely because it seemed to welcome this sort of obsessive dissection. Whatever its grander aspirations, Primer came to be defined almost exclusively by its chic impenetrability, a quality as much a boon to its burgeoning cult status as liability to its reputation with serious critics, many of whom perceived in the film's conspicuous intricacy a demand for intellectual validation, as though its chief purpose were to confirm its author's capacity to frustrate and confuse.
It's taken nine years for Carruth to follow up on the promise of his byzantine debut, during which time he might have penned a nesting-doll epic so structurally elaborate that it couldn't be parsed without recourse to diagrammatic analysis—a practice in which Carruth's admirers would no doubt happily indulge. But Upstream Color, which premiered at Sundance to a combination of bafflement and acclaim, is no obtuse Turing machine fashioned from spare parts in the garage. The film instead upends expectations by resolutely abandoning Carruth's most recognizable characteristics as director. Where Primer was cold, ascetic, and scientifically rigorous, Upstream Color is lush, rhythmic, and deeply sensual, striking on a purely aesthetic level, the whole enterprise less interested in a framework of narrative complication than in the formal pleasures that narrative inspires. And the formal pleasures are endless: From its exquisite, sun-streaked digital photography to its gleaming ambient score, both remarkably products of Carruth himself, this is a film of exceptional beauty. If Primer seemed the work of a kind of calculating intelligence, Upstream Color suggests the more impressive quality of perception, which it directs in earnest toward conceptions of identity, commitment, and love. Though complexly devised, it moves with such elegance and effortlessness that the act of interpretation, even when seemingly needed, becomes secondary to luxuriating in the design.
Not that it seems that way at first. Carruth's oblique approach to narrative practice all but bypasses basic exposition, requiring its audience to remain attentive to suggestion and, more importantly, comfortable with occasionally feeling confused. Upstream Color implies more than it explicates, and though what's implied is usually clear, drawing these constant connections requires a degree of commitment rarely asked by American cinema. But what distinguishes this constant hum of synapse-firing from the methods of outright puzzle films is that it represents just one layer, and not even the most important layer, of a very dense work, one whose interests are decidedly loftier. Because for all its supposed narrative opacity, marked as it is by ellipsis and ambiguity, Upstream Color always feels emotionally coherent, which was presumably the intended effect. Regardless of whether one fully comprehends the story's particulars, the experience of watching the film remains intensely transportive, resonating long after the credits roll and the lights come up. It has an intention most puzzle films lack by design: Whatever its apparent complexity, Upstream Color just wants to move you.
To that end, the film is most plainly a romantic drama, though the romance it develops occupies only one of its three distinctive suites (in terms of traditional structure, it would be inaccurate to describe them as "acts"). The first of these proceeds as a sort of indirect heist picture, in which a young woman named Kris (an astounding Amy Seimetz) is robbed while under the influence of an apparently hypnosis-inducing drug. The drug itself, contained in tiny grubs which grow beneath certain flowers, is central to the film not only as its high-concept sci-fi technology (one whose capacity to control others through auto-suggestion is mined for its intriguing cautionary-tale appeal), but also for the manner in which it connects the characters on an initially chemical and eventually almost spiritual level, its presence a lightly sketched metaphor for the invisible stuff that binds us all. These early scenes, which find Kris commanded to follow a series of meticulous and entirely arbitrary instructions for busywork before being lead to mortgage her home and empty her accounts, show Carruth operating at his most enjoyably clever, the writing a fine balance of genre-riffing and manic invention. Once it becomes clear exactly how this villain intends to enact his robbery, one can only marvel at the novelty of the approach.
But it's once the second suite begins and the film shifts tonal gears that Upstream Color loosens its grip on the brain and lunges no less successfully toward the heart. Kris, having lost her job as a result of an extended—and, to her, quite inexplicable—absence, meets Jeff (Carruth), another victim of the same drug-induced scam, and the two are silently drawn to one another, connected through the lingering effect of their experience. The grubs that caused their hypnosis, extracted by a man credited as the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), were surgically transferred into the bodies of pigs, the essence of each passed on and shared between them all. Some residue of Kris and Jeff now resides in two pigs on a farm; as they fall in love, so too do the pigs, and when one feels pain it's felt in turn by the other. Their love story becomes a reflection of animal nature, part of one continuing cycle. It's not hard to see that Upstream Color, despite operating well within the realm of imaginative science fiction, is working principally in metaphor, and in the process is attempting to rejuvenate some of the romantic drama's most tired clichés. We all know that feeling, when we meet a new lover, of being drawn to them in a way that is seemingly beyond our control—and so in Upstream Color that feeling literally is beyond its characters' control, a function of spiritual compulsion.
As the film builds toward its third and most exhilarating suite, a nearly wordless passage of images and music in which a family seeks a resolution, Upstream Color drifts further and further into veiled allegory, relying less on conventional narrative devices than its capacity to suggest and evoke. An early climax involving, of all things, a sack of newborn piglets is astonishing for how lucidly it articulates a very real pain through metaphor, capturing the devastation of loss and the protectiveness of parenthood better than a more straightforward expression could have. This is a film about many things (our compulsion to narrativize personal tragedy and explain away abstraction, the inexplicability of desire, the transformative effective of a relationship, the gradual blurring of self-identity when one becomes too close to another), but one thing it's clearly not about are thieves that hypnotize people by drugging them, other than in the most basic and uninteresting sense. That's precisely why the details, obscure though they often seem, are ultimately irrelevant. What matters is aesthetic, sensual, and deeply felt. What matters is what's real.

Interview: Shane Carruth Reveals The Mysteries Of 'Upstream Color'

by Jessica Kiang

In the hopes that some of you got to see "Upstream Color" over the weekend at one of its few, packed screenings, we're bringing you the concluding part of our interview with director Shane Carruth from the Berlin Film Festival, in which we spoke in a more minute way about the ins and outs of the film's plot, the motivations of some of its key characters, the thematic importance of the sound design and the metaphysics that underlies its ultimate meaning. Those who haven't yet had the singular pleasure of seeing it, we can only urge to go back and read parts one and two of the interview, or our review from Sundance, and then bookmark this one for later, as it's probably too close a reading of the film for anyone who hasn't yet become entangled in its enigmas. 

To be safe we'll plaster this with a *spoiler* warning up top too, not because it's a film that we could easily spoil, exactly, more it's that we wouldn't want to rob anyone of any of sheer knotty pleasure of unraveling the proceedings for themselves, and afterwards, amongst friends and beers. And when that process then proves inadequate to your needs, here you can find the writer /director /composer /cinematographer /actor /distributor himself weighing in. 

"I would say 'Upstream Color' is a romance. But I would say the best part of 'The Hustler' is romance, because of that romantic promise that exists when you have characters that don’t have anything to lose."
Carruth has an interestingly ambivalent (but of course!) take on the notion of the author of a piece outlining its "correct" interpretation, though. As he mentioned in part 2 of our interview, he is not exactly a proponent of the anyone's-interpretation-is-as-valid-as-anyone-else's school of thought, while at the same time he acknowledges that sometimes him offering the final word on what x or y means "might not be servicing the conversation or the film" and at worst may seem like "explaining why the joke is funny." 

But all that said, "Upstream Color" doesn't simply invite debate, it demands it, and Carruth, justifiably proud, in his quiet way of the kind of questions his film raises, actually proved happy to plunge right in. 

In "Upstream Color" you combine many generic elements, but if you were forced to define the film as one thing, what would it be? 
That's tough. I would say romance. But I would say the best part of "The Hustler" is romance, because that romantic promise that exists when you have characters that are broken down and don’t have anything to lose, that is so alluring. Once I knew that's where we were going to get to in the story, that’s when I got really passionate for it. The rest of it really services that, I mean, I hope it's fun but that's the way I think of it. 

But there's only a small part of it that's their relationship, some of the romanticism is Kris and her whole story of being broken down and there being some resolution -- it's sort of a comedy of errors and it becomes more of a heart-of-darkness going upstream to solve the problem… but yes. It's tough but I would say romance. 

So we can read it as a kind of metaphorical parallel with the mysterious, uncontrollable process of falling in love? 
Well, [the two characters are] being forced together by offscreen forces -- the pigs are coming together -- but there's a real tension because it's not happening organically. So we’re two people in a city meeting on a train: this is meant to go a certain way. But it's not going that way for whatever reason and I just felt like there would be a lot of tension in that constant poking from offscreen that's pushing you toward something. 

And an extension of that becomes the shared memory bit where something that starts off as romantic, as in "oh, that was your story… No it's mine! It's mine… " -- it's funny, but then before long it's maddening, like, "where do I stop and you begin? This is too much, this communion is not right." Hopefully that's all stuff that's universal in relationships anyway so we get to heighten those and play with those in a very short-cut type way. 

A lot of the romance, the lyricism and the lines we can draw between otherwise unconnected images and events seemed to be a factor of the soundscape you created? 
When it comes to the sound design, it feels like there's a lot of different reasons to heighten it to where it got. One is that so much of what's happening is non-verbal that we have to. And, I keep on coming back to the word tactile, there’s a tactility. We have characters that are always in search of something or curious about something but they can't even speak to what that something is. 

What I imagine it to be is they would have an emotional experience or a mania and they couldn't point to what was causing it and that would drive them to be curious about their surroundings, and so this film has so many shots of hands, coming across walls and sheets and across skin, and it just seems that's how you meet the material world, that's how you come to understand it. 

And that's where you get into the very narrow depth of field with cinematography, and certain shot selection and that's what informs sound, and why the sound would have to be heightened, especially when you're talking about nature and the natural world. We've got characters that we're suggesting are haunted by, one: an experience in which a guy told them his head was made of the sun, and that water was involved and the practice of minutia and stupid moments of rewriting narratives and putting them in paper chains, all of this stuff that doesn't end in anything constructive or meaningful. 

And then there's the language of "Walden" [ed. a novel used literally and figuratively in the movie] which is about the natural world and is this figurative language. All of that points to… we need to hear when a leaf rustles, because we're going to connect that to the paper straws that are being made in a loop. Because there’s no talking about it, what's haunting them needs to come up in volume and be precise. It's hard, because it's a nuanced negotiation and not necessarily something that was decided up front like “Okay, all sound must be perfect now, all sound must be heightened” it's just intuitive after a while. 

It's certainly evocative...I found myself humming along to a floor cleaning machine's drone in the train station after the film, this weird perfect note that I don't think I'd have heard the same way in other circumstances…
Things like that happen to me a lot! I'm constantly hearing music in the air conditioning duct systems. And in the film itself there's a lot of sampling -- of washing machines and copiers and the hum underwater. I talked the aquatics park into letting us shoot at midnight, so there was a time where it was just me, and one of the producers and then Amy [Seimetz, who plays Kris], shooting the underwater scenes and it was just eerily quiet. You can hear the sodium lights underwater and it was this weird thing, it would get bass-y underwater, so I recorded that and it became part of the soundscape. It’s this very muffled thing, and then there's different things I would do on my computer after, to shorten it or elongate it or change the pitch or whatever.

You mentioned that the score you composed changed greatly after the film was shot? 
Yes, I tried to puzzle it apart a little and figure out why is that -- when I wrote this I had a piece of music and it was working fine, but now that we've executed it, it seems out of place? And that's when I finally met the idea that it's because I’m representing cinematographically a subjective experience and my music is informing something else. And that’s when it needed to change and to get in line with the rest of the language. 

"I don’t want to be thought of as somebody who's spiritually ambiguous, but the reality is there’s unknown things happening."
The word "subjective" creeps up a lot in the conversation around the film, yet we're never truly in the characters' heads -- for one thing we have more knowledge than they do so we can't absolutely relate to their state of being. I came to "narrowly focused objectivity" instead?
I think that's valid. What I want to say when I say subjectivity is POV-type stuff, but I would never make that choice, to shoot from someone's point of view. What I do is, well, there's a lot of shots of the backs of people's heads and of them traversing different areas, so I think that's completely true, we are not in their heads, but we are intimate with their experience and I think that's what I’m trying to get to. 

Very little is spelled out in "Upstream Color," but for me perhaps the most ambivalent and enigmatic character was The Sampler. How do you define his relationship to the pigs, and then to the people connected? 
[The “farm” is] his place to be in touch with the world -- he can go and meditate and be in communion with all of the people that are tethered to these beasts. It's where he goes to get his inspiration, where he goes to get whatever emotional experience he might be shopping for at that moment. 

The hope is that that's a bit of a question, because he ends up being the one that Kris finds culpable for what's happened, I wanted him to be a character that we wouldn't know. Basically all we see him do is observe. We see the thief do something malicious; we see the orchid guy doing something which is the opposite of that -- pretty peaceful and non-confrontational; and then we've got this sampler who is deeply involved with all of the characters but he's only observing. But then the question is, is he culpable at all if he's benefitting from this traumatic experience even though he's not the one who caused it? 

And that became very important because we're talking about offscreen forces. But it's meant to be more universal than a religious or [other] belief system, it should encompass pharmaceuticals or someone with a belief system about fate or cosmic whatever or even political belief systems or anything that informs you of things that aren't your fault that you're being affected by. "They're out there, and I'm the way I am because of this," or "I'm doing what I'm doing because of how they're touching me, affecting me." 

So because of that, The Sampler isn't meant to be necessarily God, but he represents that thing, whether that's a good or bad thing or even real, and so to track him down and blame him and punish him -- it's one of the things that I think is subversive about the film. It's selling a moment that I imagine to be very satisfying in Kris's mind, because she believes that he’s the culprit and so the audience is probably going along with that because the music and everything is telling you "oh we're getting the bad guy." But the text of the story means I would hope somebody would go, "wait, why is he a bad guy? He didn't do anything, what's going on there?"

You mention faith, and that was something I felt most strongly from the film, that it showed a strange faith that everything is ultimately explicable, everything is the effect of causes, and those causes could be found out… but the causes are so infinitely complex that it feels like wonder. 
Yes! Yes absolutely. Arthur C Clarke says any sufficiently advanced technology will appear as magic -- it's meeting the infinite. I'm constantly surprised by… an orange will roll off a table and I'll catch it before I knew it was falling. Something happens there. We could write it off and say "subconsciously I knew that was happening" but there’s so many things every day -- I'm amazed by how little we know. 

Have you heard of these parasites that infect the brains of wasps and make them fly erratically? And ants as well. In the natural world they’re starting to recognize that there are these relationships that are happening where these miniature organisms are infecting the brains of flies and ants and other animals and causing in them behavior that is counterintuitive: making an ant climb to the top of a tree and throw itself off and so all the ants collect in a pile at the bottom and a fungus devours them. And nobody would have expected this to happen because you would have needed to be able to focus on what’s in the brain of an ant to explain the behavior. We're just learning about that -- who knows what else we're learning about? There are so many question marks when it comes to human behavior and even biological behavior. 

I just feel like there are so many things that are coming, there’s going to be some understanding in the next hundred years that will be as much of a sea change in our understanding as relativity or evolution or DNA have been. It just feels like these things will continue to come. And I'm shocked by that, because I feel like I've been raised in a world that says "we’ve figured out everything and now it's just a matter of collecting the data" and I know that we will come to understand something else about how we are communicating. I feel like there's more going on between two people than it seems like. 

I don’t want to be thought of as somebody who's spiritually ambiguous, but the reality is there’s unknown things happening. I’m not ready to point at what they are or what the reason is, but I know they exist.

Interview: Shane Carruth Talks UPSTREAM COLOR

Interviewing Shane Carruth is just as complex as watching his movies, and rightfully so. After his feature film Primer released, he gained all kinds of buzz and had movie geeks (and large studios) foaming at the mouth. Instead of giving in to the Hollywood system, he vanished, and didn't return until nine years later with his sophomore followup, Upstream Color, which had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival back in January.

I interviewed Carruth at Sundance, but held off on posting to coincide with the film's release. Twitch's Festivals Editor Ryland Aldrich also spoke to the man while at Sundance, but they discussed the numbers game (i.e., distribution) - give it a read. It calculates what the self-distribution process is like.

Below is my interview. I tried to get as much out of him as I could after the film's premiere, but he was a little shy and guarded (which was expected because of his nine-year absence). I came to the conclusion that this brilliant enigma perhaps doesn't want to talk about his films - he just wants to make them. His decision to self-distribute Upstream Color really backs up my "Shane Carruth, the Man, the Mystery" hypothesis. Enjoy.

HEADS UP, this interview contains some heavy spoilers. You probably still won't know what the hell is going on even after reading this, but I'm nice and wanted to let you know just in case. Twitch: First thing I want to talk about is the synopsis. The film is very layered and complex, and there's now an official synopsis out. But the film is a whole lot deeper than what the synopsis has. How do you balance giving enough away without revealing too much before it's released in April?
Shane Carruth: Well, I guess that's why if you've seen the clips that are online, like the Sundance clip and the trailer, those are my attempts at contextualizing this in sort of a non-verbal way, or at least in a non-text way. I don't think I'm the only one, but I'm really weirded out by synopses. With a film like this, I don't know if there is a way to really explain to anybody what they're in for in a way that wouldn't be wrong. And that's why the media, the clips that are being released, that's what I'm trying to do. It's like, the first [clip] introduced some of the visuals that we'd be seeing and it basically throws down the gauntlet and says that in some way these are all connected, but it doesn't really explain why or how. It doesn't even try. It's confounding. It's selling the idea of being confounded. And the second [clip] has nothing to do with that. It has none of those tones. It's strictly about this couple that is having some sort of angst-ridden difficulty. There's something falling apart and you would imagine that it could be about anything. And I guess to me what that was, you know, if you're going to be up for this film you have to be up for both these things. It's fine to have these, hopefully, striking visuals but at the same time, here's the path that we're going down - we're going to get to the heart of angst.
So the theatrical trailer is meant to be a combination of the two and it basically is trying to communicate that we're going to try and do both these things. We've got a lot going on, and we're going to get lyrical, but we've got a reason that we're doing that. There's architecture beneath it.'ve asked about the synopsis and that's been my response. That basically: I hate synopses. I mean, there's a story and it's coming together. Luckily, as journalists see it and other people see it, they start to write how the story works and then I read that and I'm like "Well...they said it. So it's not my words. We might as well use those. That's fine."
So do you think it's better to go into seeing UPSTREAM COLOR completely blind? Or have a sense of the story?
I think both are probably valid experiences. I would want to know a little bit more. I would want to see bits of the medium to talk about. But that's about it. I don't want to know every element of the plot. But here's the thing, I think this is just a different film and what I hope is that when people see it they'll recognize that there's a compelling story at play, that it's an emotional experience, and hopefully a satisfying one by the time it ends. And that it somehow communicated the idea that there's a little bit more richness there, that there's a reason to maybe look at it again if that was an enjoyable experience.
So I look at it like putting on an album. Nobody puts on an album plays it once and then tries to have an opinion of it. They put it on and they put it on again and it plays and you internalize it and it becomes a part of your experience. My favorite films... I've gotten to the point that that's what I do. I would rather watch one of my favorite films 80 times in a row and just really delve into it, than watch something that I really had a difficult time getting through once.
I'd like to talk about the characters. Along with the story, the characters are also really layered. When shooting, did you keep the cast according to their characters or were they kind of aware of what was going to happen?
You know what's funny? This has nothing to do with them or me. Like I'm not a control freak. I mean, sorry, I am. But when it comes to this, basically no. Most of the actors that were only on screen for a small amount of time didn't have the full script available. But it wasn't because I was trying to control that. It was mainly because I wrote a script for this thing called A Topiary and it showed up online, and I guess I felt like if I started handing the script to people it was going to show up online and I just didn't want to see that happen so I decided to hold it back.
Smart. That makes sense. So going into those five characters, can you talk about the process or casting a film where those little characters are so peripheral compared to our two main characters?
I mean, it's the same old trying to find the right people for the job.
Going into the making of the movie, how do you make a movie like this that's so cathartic and so layered and there's just so many moving parts to it. How do you do that? Like writing it and piecing it all together?
I guess just bit by bit [laughs]. That might be a massive question. Yeah, I don't know. If you could get more specific, maybe I could do a better job. But that question seems like a...
Just piecing it together whenever you're writing it. Just go back and talk about where this story started, and how it it all falls into place and everything comes full circle while writing it. I can't even fathom making a film like this. There's so many parts. Talk about the writing of it.
It always starts from a relatively simple thematic idea that I feel compelled to get into and explore. So this one was about personal narratives and how they come to be, and how they work and whether you could change anything about them. When people grow into a situation, they have a fully formed identity and that means that they think they deserve certain things good or bad, that they think certain things - philosophically or religiously or politically or whatever - the way that they deal with other people is somehow defined by the way they've dealt with people for the last 30 years, so they're sort of cemented.
And I think sometimes once that happens that identity dictates your behavior instead of your behavior dictating your identity. And I'm not trying to make the point that that's true. What I was trying to do is figure out is it true? Or is there something to explore about this? And I guess I felt like there really was. I just feel like it's really sort of a universal thing and it feels emotional to not know for sure whether your actions are your actions, or whether they're dependent on things happening off screen, or something you just can't touch yet.
So when I knew that that was the core [of the story] that bleeds and bleeds into everything else. So I know I want to break these characters down. I want them to wake up and have to reinvent themselves based on what they find around them. Then I need a mechanism for that, but I want it to be pristine. I want it to swarm around them and they can't know about it. And then that leads to another bit and you're like "Well how do you do this mechanically? What does this look like? What is this cycle that's happening around them?" So you come up with this life cycle.
And then I started to like the idea that even the cycle itself needs to be self-perpetuating, and so because of that none of the points of the triangle - the pig farmer, the thief with the worm, and the woman harvesting orchids - none of them can know that the other ones exist or that they're contributing to a cycle. They've just gotten used to something. The thief has gotten used to the fact that when he goes to the nursery and finds a certain flower that the worms in that soil will give him the trick that he needs to steal a bit of money from someone. The pig farmer knows that when he goes out and plays a certain sound in the ground he can attract people that have been infected, he takes their worm and connects them to the pigs, and then he gets to have his little fish bowl of emotional experiences he gets to go and play with. And then the orchid woman...I'm basically just spelling out the plot. You know, orchestrating that, it's not easy but it's also a bit by bit thing. Until it feels perfect and until it's balanced, I wouldn't let it go. So anyway, I guess that's the long-winded answer that's how it comes to be. Bit by bit.
I like your long-winded answer. One thing I noticed is that both of the films you've made deal with curiosity. What is it about discovery that's so compelling to you?
Hmm...I don't know. I feel like that's like asking what is it about chocolate cake that tastes good. Isn't discovering what compelling is? To come to and understand something? To want for it? To search for it?
It might be. But I feel like it's different for everyone. But that's the theme your films have.
Well I think maybe everything boils down to that. Hopefully. Maybe. I think I've almost come to believe that every story that I like ends up being about the inability for one person to know everything about another person. The inability to get inside someone else and know for sure that the words they're saying are theirs and that you're sharing the same experience. I think that seems to be the recurring theme. So I guess that discovery is...I don't know...just coming to understand that.
One thing that I really loved about the film is the editing by David [Lowery]. Can you talk about that process? Because the way I see it is that UPSTREAM COLOR isn't a movie, it's like an out of body experience -which is a total compliment. But the one thing that really pushed me to feel that way was the editing. Can you talk about that and how you maneuvered it?
Basically constant conversation. [David Lowery] came on and saved my life basically. He took on that job. He came on without ego at all and was willing to just get in line with my aesthetic, and then once I became so confident that he was going to do this then I got in line with aesthetic and got to trust him, so it really was very collaborative. I mean really brilliant. It's weird, I think back on these scenes and I'm losing track of which parts were his and which parts were mine because I think there was such a back and forth that it's all blended now. All jammed up against each other.
I'll just throw out one more question for you. So you just announced your third film. Is there anything you want to say about it?
I don't know. Let's see, do I want to say anything about this? Does that help me? [laughs]
You know you did PRIMER and I'm sure there was no expectation for PRIMER whenever you first made it and now with UPSTREAM COLOR there's really high expectations, and now you're very exposed and you just have all these journalists prodding at you and everyone coming at you. So I really like how guarded your answers are. I think that's smart.
Thanks. Yeah, it's definitely out of my character but it's fun and I think it's necessary if I get to...well not if...I'm going to have to continue down this path. This is where financing is going to come from, this model. [The film] is called The Modern Ocean and it's a tragic romance at sea. Ships that travel and trade commodities. And I think it's very good. Pirates and ships at war with each other. Commercial ships. It's going to be fun.
Awesome! Thanks again for letting me grab an interview with you.

Upstream Color: An Interview With Director Shane Carruth

There are two kinds of people in the world—those who loved Shane Carruth’s 2004 time traveling mind melter Primer, and those who hated it. While it has gained a decent cult following, the sad truth is that most people never saw it at all. But now, nine years later, he’s back and his new film Upstream Color is going to change all that.

At least, it could. The film is certainly good enough. We caught it at SXSW this year, and it certainly rocked our worlds. It’s weird, and beautiful, and haunting in a way that had us still thinking about it days later (and planning to see it again to see what we might have missed.)

Both lovers and haters will agree: Carruth’s films definitely have a style. And there are certainly worse things to be called by Steven Soderbergh than “the illegitimate offspring of David Lynch and James Cameron." We sat down with the writer/director/editor, composer/whathaveyou the night after his film debuted to get his views on his new film, how much a trailer should reveal, and how important memory is to identity.
How would you describe this film to someone who hasn't seen it?

I absolutely don't want to describe it. Which is why I am so grateful to be able to cut the trailers and teasers and posters and all that stuff. I would rather cut a thousand bits of media that explained what’s going on totally than do a synopsis. The synopsis that we were sort of forced to do is: “a man and a woman are drawn together and tangled in the life cycle of an ageless organ.” That is the best that I could do.

So you purposely made sure that it didn't tell too much?

Well I have an aversion to synopses. I feel like you're agreeing to a premise that’s wrong. You're agreeing that somebody can know something about the film.

Like if you told me the plot of The Graduate, that doesn't tell me anything. That tells me less than nothing, about what The Graduate, is about. If you tell me that it’s about a guy who has an affair with an older woman? Nope—I don't care. I don't want to watch that. That's boring

There’s no such person that goes: "You know what I'm really into is movies about kids that have affairs with older women." That doesn't exist. So this idea that we are somehow judging stories based on the synopsis…it's difficult. I mean, I know I'm taking a pretty hard line on this, but that's where the aversion comes from.

How does that work in your daily life though? Like, you need synopses; you can't see everything, you know? In life as well as in film.

No, I know I'm probably being a little nuanced here, but that's why I think I'm really comfortable with what we call trailers. I'm really comfortable with showing, "here’s what the movie looks and feels like, here’s what on its mind. Here’s the speed at which it move and here’s a bit of music.” You know? That makes some sense to me. What doesn't is the dry synopsis.

What was the idea that this sprang from?

I felt like daily I was running into this idea that a conversation I would be having with somebody was boiling down to their talking points versus my talking points. We were just matching them up, and it wasn’t a conversation; it was just mushing together our identities and seeing what the end result was, then we’d go our separate ways.

So that’s where it started, this idea of how much of our behavior is forming our identity, and how much of our identity is just controlling our behavior, and whether there’s much that can be done about that. I wanted to take some characteristics and I wanted to strip them of this and see what would happen if they had to wake up in a moment and rebuild who they thought they were based on the information around them. If that information was wrong, it seems like there would be this unspoken tension involved, this suspicion that things aren’t quite what they’re meant to be.

How does memory come into play with identity in your story?

It’s another ten feet down into the rabbit hole.

I mean, we've got these characters that are experiencing attraction, or mania, or disgust, but they can’t point to why. They are connected in some way out there in the world. The idea that they wouldn’t know where one ended and the other began, that seemed like something that is very universal.

It’s a really good encapsulation of everything about being affected at a distance. Like the shared memory idea: at first it can seem very wonderful probably, and really romantic, like when you’re in a relationship and you get mixed up. You’re trying to tell a story but it’s “no it didn’t happen that way, you—“ Like, it is sort of fun. After a while, I think that in every relationship there’s this weird problem of the delineation, of “where is my separate person? What am I when I’m not shared with you?”…that sort of thing.

Do you feel like this film has anything in common with Primer? Is there one theme that you're seeing that you are expressing or artistically…?

I think, I mean just this year just the general idea that the suspicion that something else in the world is going on, that you can't necessarily know about, that you can be affected by, but not be able to control or investigate or inspect well enough. I think that that is something.

And I'm starting to think that maybe every story I've ever loved is sort of like that. Not, I mean, not my writing but others’. Like the things that I really key into are people that are in a crisis where they can’t be sure that the person across from them is experiencing the same moment they are, and that distrust that comes from that. Because I think what it means is, if that’s true then you’re really alone. You really are completely alone. If you can’t know that people around you are experiencing the exact same thing you are then you might as well be in a void, really. And that’s terrifying. And I think that’s why I end up writing about it.

Whoa. It got dark there for a second.

I know, right?

How did you find Amy Seimetz? She is excellent.

Yeah, she's a filmmaker in her own right, and was living in Florida, and I got her name from somebody. I really didn't know anything about her at all. I think I saw sixty seconds on YouTube watching her act or something. And so I called her up just because I was calling everybody up, just doing my diligence, and she said she was in the middle of editing her film Sun Don't Shine.

And I completely blew that off, I had no idea what she was talking about. Actresses do not edit movies. And the more I heard, she was literally on Final Cut editing. And so she said I could watch it if I wanted; and I said, "Sure, yeah, go ahead and send it along." And I had no expectations. I thought this was going to be some... whatever. It turns out to be this amazing film, and she's an amazing writer/director. And about ten minutes in, I think the entire thought process was probably over, and I had already cast her in my head.

What would you say to somebody who’s like, "I don't get it. What was that? I don't understand?"

I think what would end up... I don't know. I wouldn't, I guess. That's why I'm contextualizing it in the marketing. My hope is that I don't ever accidentally draw somebody in to watch it that isn't ready to watch it.

That solves that problem then. What's next?

The Modern Ocean.

What can you tell me about that?

It's wonderful. It's about a group of people that are involved in the shipping industry. They build routes for trading commodities all over the world. We've got a few characters that are all reaching in different directions, and basically end up tearing the entire thing apart. So it's a tragic romance, basically.

Well, you totally synopsized that one!

Right? [Laughter]

Upstream Color — A Hammer To Nail Review (and Interview)


(Upstream Color premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival in January. It opens theatrically in New York on Friday, April 5, and will roll out to other cities in April and May before becoming available on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD on May 7. Visit the film’s official website to learn more.)
Here’s the plot of Shane Carruth’s new film Upstream Color, for all the good it will do you: A young woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) is kidnapped by a man named in the credits only as the Thief (Thiago Martins). The Thief has been conducting secret experiments in mind control using worms that have the power to destroy consciousness. He forces Kris to ingest the worms, wiping her memory clean and robbing her of everything she owns. Once released from the Thief’s clutches, she finds her way to a mysterious figure called the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), who removes the parasite growing inside her and implants it into a pig he keeps on his farm.
Now cut off completely from her past identity, Kris struggles to build a new life. She meets Jeff (Carruth), a businessman whose own past is riddled with strange lacunae. The flowering of the romance between Kris and Jeff is intercut with scenes of the Sampler at work, tending to his corral of pigs and conducting his own experiments with the parasites. Once Kris starts to piece together what happened to her, she sets out to restore the balance.
That’s the plot, radically simplified, streamlined, and purged of the actual film’s mind-boggling complexity. Of course, “Shane Carruth” and “mind-boggling complexity” have been inextricably linked since he appeared out of nowhere with Primer in 2004. A former engineer and a fearsome autodidact, Carruth taught himself every aspect of filmmaking and wrote, directed, produced, shot, edited, and scored his debut on a shoestring budget. (He also played one of the two leads.) The story of two young inventors who accidentally discover time travel, Primer was hard to fully grasp on first viewing, but it was so smart and stylish that many were happy to go back for repeat visits to unlock its enigmas—it was a puzzle that invited you to solve it. And once the intricacies of its time-looping narrative structure were deciphered, and character motivations became clear, the movie stood revealed as a thematically ambitious and psychologically acute study of egotism, ethics, and the conflict between friendship and ambition in a capitalist world.
Upstream Color is no less of a head-scratcher, but it operates on a more abstract, intuitive level. First and foremost, the film is an extraordinary sensory experience. Its texture is slippery and dreamlike: shimmering, shallow-focus, artfully opaque images; a lyrical, free-associative editing style that skips around in time and space and renders events as half-glimpsed, fleeting impressions; a soundtrack of unearthly electronic hums and throbs. After watching it twice, I’m still baffled by significant portions of the story, but perhaps cracking its narrative code is less important than letting its waves of image and sound wash over you, and opening yourself up to the way certain moments resonate as potent metaphors for familiar emotions and experiences. There’s the aching depiction of trauma and loss suffered by Kris when she loses her home, her job, and her sense of self. And later in the film, as Kris and Jeff grow close, they discover that their memories from childhood have become jumbled together; story-wise, the scene is there to suggest that they’ve both been victims of the same crime, but it also reads as a lovely and haunting evocation of how being part of a couple can blur the boundaries of individual personality. I raised these points with Carruth when I spoke with him at his publicist’s office in downtown Manhattan, a few days before the movie began its New York theatrical run.
Shane Carruth: There’s a lot going on between Kris and Jeff that they don’t know, but we know that they are somehow connected or affected by what’s going on in the pig corral. And so to me, that makes all of their interactions interesting, because when they’re attracted [to] or repelled from each other, there’s no way [for them] to know what to attribute that to. And the shared-memories thing—from a plot perspective, there’s a communal experience happening, there’s a weird, at-a-distance, psychic thing happening. But at the same time, all of their interactions could still play out that way if we didn’t know about these otherworldly or genre elements. In a relationship—not that people have shared memories, but there is this difficulty in that what starts as fun and light, this idea of, Where do I end and where do you begin?—it can become antagonistic when it’s a loss of self or loss of identity because you’re so mixed with somebody else. So it just seems like we’ve got opportunities to have scenes that would take place in any real circumstance, and yet we are attributing them to potentially being affected by what’s going on way, way over there. And if we do that successfully, then it makes the exploration hopefully universal.
The loss of identity is central to Upstream Color. Who are we, when the social trappings of our being, even our memories, are taken away from us? Is there a fundamental self, or are we blank slates given form and meaning by, in Philip Larkin’s phrase, “what happened to happen” to us? To hear Carruth tell it, such questions were what inspired the film:
Carruth: I was becoming more and more interested in personal narrative and how it shapes our actions, or how our actions shape it. As a thought-experiment, I wanted to strip somebody of that and force them to re-grow it, from potentially the wrong information, and they would have to live out this other narrative that didn’t quite fit. I originally thought, well, if you took all this away, you would have this core, and that would be this person, and they would grow up [into] a new thing but they would still have this core. The thing is, the more I played with it, the more I started to feel like if you start taking away all these things, there’s a real chance there isn’t a core, there isn’t anything underneath it, and we really are just the accumulation of our subjective experiences. And that got really horrifying.
And that’s what led to a lot of the story. Just from a plot-mechanics perspective, I needed to make up a way to do this, to break people down and have them build their narrative back up, and that in my mind needed to fit some criteria. I wanted to embed it in nature, in our own environment, and [I wanted it to be] something that’s cyclical, that’s always been around. So that’s where the whole life-cycle thing came from. I didn’t want to use some device—for instance, it could’ve been done with amnesia, or a pharmaceutical drug—but if it was too specific, then it becomes a story about a pharmaceutical drug, or a story about a certain medical condition. So it needed to be more universal than that, because it’s aspiring to talk about all the ways that we can feel like our path is affected by faraway things.
“Something that’s cyclical, that’s always been around,” something “universal”—as these words suggest, there are science-fictional, even quasi-mystical, aspects to the story. Carruth intercuts images of microorganisms multiplying, fluids moving through bloodstreams, lifeforms dying and giving birth to others, that imply the parasite may be part of some larger cycle in nature, one that may even predate the human species. (Parts of the film’s montage evoke the cosmic scale of 2001 and The Tree of Life.) Here, again, the film presents a challenge: most sci-fi movies, Primer included, orient the viewer by establishing a set of rules that govern how their fictional worlds operate. The world of Upstream Color has been imagined in exceptionally precise detail, yet still resists our attempts at understanding, like a lock with a key that won’t quite turn. No doubt in the months to come, as the hive-mind of the Internet sets to work on it, some mysteries will be unpacked, but there are connections—particularly those relating to the exact nature of the parasite and how its powers are harnessed by various players—that may never be fully explained.
That said, if you go with the flow of the film, which I most certainly did, the process of teasing out these connections is more pleasurable than off-putting. My first time watching it, I thought that the Thief and the Sampler, along with a mother-daughter team of orchid harvesters who are helping to spread the parasites around the world, were agents in a vast conspiracy. The second time around, it struck me as more likely that each of them was operating independently, presumably oblivious to the discoveries and machinations of all the others.
Carruth: That was my intention, yeah. You use the word conspiracy —— I didn’t want it to seem like that, ‘cause that says something about somebody managing it, whether good or bad or whatever, and [what I intended was that] each of them is performing their own little tricks in nature without knowing or caring who’s next in line. That to me suggests that it’s cyclical, it’s been around a long time, it carries forward of its own volition, not because anybody wants it to carry forward—and that it’s universal.
Those averse to plot spoilers may want to skip this paragraph and the next. The character of the Sampler is essential to the story, yet his actions are open to multiple readings. He “cures” Kris by removing the worm from her body, and may be trying to control the wider growth of the parasite; in other scenes he drifts through the lives of strangers unseen, like a ghost or an angel; in still others, he composes music out of audio recordings of the natural world (a symbolic stand-in, perhaps, for the filmmaker, who likewise shapes impressions of reality into art?). Toward the end of the movie, Kris learns that the Sampler is somehow tied to the trauma she suffered, and goes to seek revenge—but Carruth points out that, although the film seems to conclude with her finding some sort of harmony with her new state, any feeling of closure may be illusory:
Carruth: [The Sampler] was meant to be a real contrast to both the Thief and the orchid harvesters. The Thief is a bad guy, and the orchid harvesters—they look like they’re at peace with nature, they’re doing only benign things. But the only thing we really see the Sampler do is de-worm Kris, but then also sample or observe—he only observes. So the idea that Kris would find him culpable, to deduce that he’s the guy that she’s got to go and get, was for me a way to resolve my story without pretending like it’s a morality tale—it’s a final version of the whole movie, basically, where she’s just supplanted one narrative for another. And even though she’s having an emotionally resolved arc, the text of it is probably not a happy ending.
Carruth appeared at ease answering questions about plot turns and character motivations, which was a pleasant surprise—in past interviews, he’s expressed disappointment when his movies were referred to as puzzles, and he once stated that the average viewer should be able to grasp about 70 percent of Primer the first time through, which strikes me as too large a number by half. It may be that this exemplary creator of “difficult” films has trouble understanding why people have trouble understanding him. Good thing, for those who value his work, that he’s determined to continue making things hard for us. After spending years failing to raise the money for a big-budget science-fiction epic called A Topiary, he says he’s now done with trying to meet the system halfway: no more compromises, not even within the indie-film sphere, no more waiting for permission, and no one to answer to except himself. He’s self-distributing Upstream Color, and if it makes some money, he’ll put it into his next project, which he hopes to begin shooting later this year:
Carruth: I need to stop being the guy who’s getting rid of weird digital glitches or learning the software at 2 in the morning—I’ve got to let go of some of the mechanics of this. But I’m gonna be even more of a control freak [in every other respect]. I was playing with the idea of not, but I’m over that now. 

Exclusive Interview: Talking ‘Upstream Color’ with director Shane Carruth

We first heard of Shane Carruth in 2004 when he premiered his first film ‘Primer’ to rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival. Now he’s back with his latest project ‘Upstream Color’ about a man and a woman who have had their lives broken down and are now trying to find their identities and piece it all together. We had the opportunity to speak with Shane about his latest project, a past failed project, and his upcoming project and here’s what he had to say.
Latino Review: Your first film premiered at Sundance in 2004, why the long break between both projects?
Shane Carruth: Just lazy (laughs), No I was trying to get something made that I was really passionate about. It was pretty intricate and it was big scale and had to do with 10 kids that had the ability to sort of craft creatures on these rudimentary pieces. I wanted the design to meet the story, it needed to be something new so I spent a lot of time perfecting that. It was also heavily relying on effects and I wanted to understand that better. I also went around trying to raise money for it and I did not have success.
Latino Review: Wasn’t Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher attached to the project?
Shane Carruth: They were actually very nice to lend their names as executive producers. I think the initial glamours, exotic budget would have been twenty million. I think I got it down to fourteen million but shaving it less then that would have been better just animating it.
Latino Review: Right now the project is pretty much dead then?
Shane Carruth: Yeah it’s dead. I’m not pursuing it and I’m not interested in trying to convince anybody, so yeah.
Latino Review: ‘Upstream Color’ is a very different type of film how would you describe it?
Shance Carruth: I wouldn’t.
Latino Review: I also enjoyed your synopsis, it just consisted of about two sentences.
Shane Carruth: Synopsis, I’ve never had one in my life that convinced me it was a good film. My favorite films in the world have a synopsis that wouldn’t inspire me to watch them at all. I’m really comfortable with crafting some media that shows through visuals and music what the tone of the film is, what’s on it’s mind, how challenging it might and might not be. That seems to be something that’s really appropriate and I feel comfortable doing. Saying what it is, is engaging in something that’s not true which is pretending that the synopsis is the story or that it’s anything even about the story. I always think about ‘The Graduate’ it’s one of my favorite movies ever but never in a million years would anyone convince me that I would like to watch a movie about a young guy having an affair with an older woman.
Latino Review: ‘Upstream Color’ was inspired by a conversation you were having with your friends.
Shane Carruth: Yeah that’s where it started. I was wondering if these conversations we where having, they had their talking points and I had mine. If we were talking about some story of the day or some political story, it just seemed more times then not that we weren’t having a conversation. They just have their talking points from whatever news channel they’re watching and I got mine and we’re just butting them up against each other. That’s where it started but that’s not definitely where it ended by a long shot. I really wanted to play from where does this come from where do these ideas get cemented so that lead me to identity and this idea of having a personal narrative and all the things that, that would involve. The way that our belief structures or our political beliefs or our relationships and emotions and all or our experience become to form what we are and whether anything can be done about that or how that works. So I wanted to have some characters and I wanted to strip this from them and force them to build this up again based on a different set of information, maybe the wrong information. That was the kernel that got us in that exploration that wounded up being this story.
Latino Review: This is a film that you have to watch more then once because you can get more out of it every time you view it.
Shane Carruth: I’m interested in a film that is potentially so dense with information and exploration and hopefully that it’s compelling to enjoy it once that, that is not the end of the story. There is more to be gleamed or puzzled over and potentially revisited and that it’s not such a horrible experience to look at it again, that people might want to. When you put on an album, you put it on and at the end of it you sorta of know if that’s going to be for you or not but you don’t know everything yet. So you put it on again so you start to live with it and internalize it. Only then do you come to understand that, wow that was one of my favorite albums or that one didn’t stand the test of time. So in the same way I’m interested if a film or narrative can not get completely there but get closer to that. And I think this is happening, this isn’t a new idea, people do this already with a lot of films, I know I’ve done it. There are films out there where I’d put on a loop and watch 80 times instead of branch out and watch something else just because I get so much out of them every time I see them.
Latino Review: You’re the writer, director, cinematographer, composer, do you enjoy having that creative control?
Shane Carruth: Yeah I do
Latino Review: Would you be opposed to directing a big studio film? You generally tend to have less control on bigger films.
Shane Carruth: People think that tends to happen but that doesn’t happen. That never happens not to anybody. There isn’t anybody in the world where a studio shows up and goes here would you like this. That never happens, I know guys that are very successful at directing and they’re usually asked about a project but they want their view of that project. It’s basically forcing them to have a conversation about it, bottom line is I don’t have an opinion on someone else’s work. If someone wrote something great they should go direct it, I don’t believe that those two jobs should be separate really.
Latino Review: Is there a project that you’re currently working on that you can talk about?
Shane Carruth: I’m almost done with a script now and I can’t wait, it’s amazing, it’s called ‘The Modern Ocean’. It’s a group of people that are perfecting a trading route at sea and it’s sort of an adventure in some ways and I can’t wait to start shooting.
Latino Review: Are you producing and directing and staring in this next project?
Shane Carruth: Definitely producing and directing, writing, doing the music, everything else is up for debate.

Interview: Shane Carruth Returns with Upstream Color

Source: Edward Douglas

To go too into depth in trying to explain the plot for Upstream Color, the new movie from Primer's Shane Carruth, would probably be doing it a disservice, since everyone who sees the movie will probably get something different out of what's happening (or not happening) in some of the more esoteric moments.

At its core, the movie is a love story between two people who meet on a train, played by Carruth and Amy Seimetz, and as their relationship grows, they start to bond and learn more about each other and a traumatic shared experience they underwent. That's the long and short of a film that involves orchids, tapeworms, pigs and even freakier things that will inspire a lot of discussion about what Carruth was trying to say with the film.

Anyone who has seen Carruth's Sundance prize-winning 2004 time travel film Primer can guess that he is an incredibly intelligent and introspective filmmaker and when sat down with him a few weeks, we learned a lot of surprising things about the making of the film without ever outright asking the question on the minds of those seeing the movie, which is, "What is this movie about?" This has already been a good year with a new David Bowie record and now a new movie from you.
Shane Carruth:
(being facetious) Those are comparable to each other, that makes perfect sense.

CS: I recently spoke with Derek Cianfrance and he took 12 years between his first movie at Sundance and his second movie, so nine years isn't that long. Was this something you've been developing for a long time? At what point did you say, "Okay, I'm going to start working on this movie?"
No, I wasted a bunch of time trying to get this other thing made and I couldn't raise the money for it, but I invested a lot of time and energy in getting the story and the design of it perfected. But no, for "Upstream," it was probably about a year of collecting some of the rough story elements. It was more of a thought experiment, the idea of personal identity and personal narrative, and when that stuff gets cemented and whether that dictates behavior or whether behavior dictates that or it's the other way around. That's where it started, and it got bigger and bigger and bigger because I was playing with the idea… "Well, what if I stripped this away from some people and they have to rebuild this? They have to wake up in a moment and atone for what it looks like they must have done and come to some conclusion about what that means about them, what kind of person they must be, and then they try to follow through on that." That was sort of the thought experiment, but the bigger and bigger it got, the more it was not just political beliefs or religious beliefs, but everything that a person can be, the collection of all of their experience and then the way that they viewed the world and the way the world views them, or the way that they imagine that to be and ethics and morality, all of that stuff getting stripped away. The bigger and bigger that got, the more and more emotional it felt to be just stripping somebody of this. That led to the idea of this sort of romantic promise that exists when two people are just broken to their core. So I think that was about the point that I couldn't see anything else but this story and I just had to follow through on it.

CS: Was this "A Topiary"?
The project I wasted time on was "A Topiary."

CS: Got it. I wasn't sure because I'm sure you realize that most people first heard you were working on something from Rian Johnson's tweet about a new project, but you spent time on that and then went onto this instead.

CS: How hard was it to get financing for this one? I remember "Primer" was famously made for just $7,000. This one seems like a much bigger budget, so was it harder to sell this idea and try to explain what you wanted to do with it?
No, I never had to do that, no. This is money from a couple of friends and myself and no formal film financing, no formal pitching. There's just, "We are going to go make this story," and they were just completely supportive. So we don't have those kind of conversations. There aren't notes being passed or anything like that.

CS: That's really the way to make movies, if you can do that—
It's the only way. It's absolutely the only way, I mean, for me, absolutely.

CS: Let's talk about Amy because obviously she's a major part of the movie, and she's a filmmaker herself, I understand.
CS: How did you get her involved?
Carruth: David Lowery and Toby Halbrooks, who I'd met a few weeks before we'd started shooting, they gave me her name as just a potential actress, and really I was looking at a lot of different actresses because obviously the role's very important. I mean, she's the whole thing. She was in Florida editing "Sun Don't Shine," her latest film that she wrote and directed, and I called her up and she said she was editing and I just blew that off completely. I don't know what that means. Actresses do not edit, so what we're talking about is something else, but I felt like we connected in some way and had some sort of a shorthand. Then, she sent me her film and I saw about 10 minutes of it and I think I hadn't even seen her act, maybe a minute or two on some YouTube clip, but I had definitely never seen any film that she's been in other than "Upstream," but the film that she wrote and directed was so strong. I mean, 10 minutes in, I just felt like this is a person that gets narrative. This is going to give us a shorthand and a way to communicate that's going to remove 95 percent of our conversations because she's just going to get it with the thinking. Then I asked her to be involved, and she did, and then I don't know. She's really wonderful. I mean, she looks perfectly appropriate to this role. She's so malleable. She can play every ribbon of the narrative. She can be fractured and fragile and tough and everything that she needs to be. So I just lucked out.

CS: Yeah, she was great. How scripted was the movie? It's a very visual film and it's very visually driven, but it's also relationship and character-driven as well with a very deliberate way of delivering dialogue. How much was it scripted as far as describing the visuals and what you wanted to do as far as that side of it?
Yeah, I mean, it's surprisingly very, very close to the script. There are parts that are meant to feel subjective and ethereal, but there's not a lot of made-up stuff. What did happen is I would say that the first third of it is just rigidly scripted. It's just exactly like the script. The second third of it, I think of that as the (part where) we are watching Kris and Jeff react to something that we know they have been through, but they don't know, and it becomes an extremely subjective and more emotional experience. The cinematic look changes there and it almost becomes like found footage for a moment, and then it's very verité and it's just whatever it needs to be moment by moment. Because of that, I felt like we had reached a point where we had so well-internalized what this story is meant to do that we did have the freedom to go and play just a bit and be lyrical. We have the shared memories sequence, and that I think is probably the bit that seems the most improvised and made up, but in reality, it was scripted. It was just so well-internalized that we could jut out to different places and just try to have something authentic because that's the only thing that mattered in that. It wasn't who says what when, it was during each of these moments, are they authentic and do we have escalating tension? Like, we need to play one scene this way and we need to play another one with more tension. One's playful, one's angry, so in that sense, that would've probably been something that would've been futile to script that way because it would've been too mechanical and the end result would've been the same.

CS: How did you get to a level of comfort between the two of you as actors to get to the point where you could have the script so well internalized? How far in advanced before shooting did you actually meet Amy?
I didn't meet her in person until she landed in Dallas. I picked her up at the airport, took her to my brother's house where my nephews were. I took pictures of her holding my nephews because we needed those prop pictures in the film, especially with her with long hair because she showed up in the apartment with long hair, then a couple of hours later, we were shooting the first scene.

CS: Really, you meet and then you just start shooting?
Absolutely. Yeah, I remember the first thing we shot was her in the grocery store when she finds out her credit card isn't working. She has that brief little thing. That was the first thing we shot. Yeah, we just hit the ground running. I guess that's the thing is that I just feel like there was never a moment that she wasn't… okay, that's not true. I was going to say there was never a moment that she didn't know exactly what we were doing, but I mean, that's not true for anybody, but it was innate, seemingly. It was just not a lot of conversation.

CS: It seems very ambitious compared to "Primer" because there are a lot of locations. You have the supermarket, you have the train, you have the pig farm, as well as a lot more things going on. Was it a fairly long shoot to get all that you needed?
We did not do a good job of scheduling this film. You know, it's weird. Everything I end up doing ends up being made up because I reject the way it's been done, but I don't necessarily have a better solution, so it's like, I hate the idea of keeping people to four in the morning and making them work 15 hour days just because of some rigid 18-day shooting schedule or whatever it is. I thought that's a recipe to not do the best work, so let's take our time and make sure that we're treating people well and that we all have time to sort of think about what we're doing. But then, I think we went too far the other way and it was like, "This is dragging on forever." You know, and I don't know. We were just hacking stuff together.

CS: Everything in the movie seems so precise and specific that you could've spent hours crafting each shot to be exactly right.
Well, no, that more or less is the case, and that's the thing. I would shoot too slow because of that, because it needed to be a certain way. It's like I don't know the answer. I don't know if what we did was wrong or whether that was right and we just needed more resources to be able to have that luxury, because after a while it really starts to be taxing. Yeah, I don't know.

CS: How different was this than making "Primer" then, because that was your first film where you were kind of doing everything for the first time for the most part, and for the second one, you have more experience and more general knowledge?
It's weird. I mean, it both feels the same and it feels much different. I don't know. I feel like everything that I swore I would never do after "Primer," we ended up doing again on this. At the same time I know that this is a much better film. I mean, I know that more than I know anything. I know that it's a good work, and I'm very grateful for the way "Primer" was received, but I see many, many flaws in it, and "Upstream" may have some flaws, but nothing that compares to its strengths. I'm just really proud of it. I think it's a well thought out, well executed work.

CS: No, I agree. "Primer" was really cool and interesting and well written, but this is something above and beyond what that was. There have been many comparisons between this movie and those of Terrence Malick and I wondered if you think that's a fair comparison? I didn't read a lot about the movie after Sundance, but that was the one comparison I saw more than anything else.
They seem to be using his name for almost… I mean, even David Lowery's movie ("Ain't Them Bodies Saints"), they say it's Malick-esque or Malicky or whatever the word is.

CS: So you think they throw Malick's name around like they do Hitchcock?
That's what it seems like.

CS: It's just an easy way to describe something.
Yeah, it's like if something is at all interested in cinematography and lyricism, then great, let's call it "Malick," which I'm not going to be insulted by that. He's one of my favorite directors, obviously. I don't think anybody actually thinks that I'm anything like Malick, but I think it's an easy thing for people to say.

CS: Going back to the visuals, it seems that a lot of stuff in the movie like the underwater sequences and inside body would need to be done with visual effects. Is that the case?
It's all practical, there's no computer generated anything in this at all, not even the end credits.

CS: Really? That's amazing. So how do you go about doing stuff like that? You have cameras that go inside the body so did you have people you knew who could do stuff like that?
I mean, I started shooting some stuff while I was writing, some of the microscopic stuff, the little blue spheres that would balloon up. I started doing a lot of time lapse while I was writing. I mean, I did hours and hours and hours worth of this stuff just to see if I could get it because I had an idea of what I needed it to look like. I would do that and do that and do that until I could get it. Then, we started to just develop the here's what this world looks like. Here's where you go in, here's what it looks like. It's Tom Walker, the production designer, was able to put together all sorts of wonderful things. It wound up being a back room in a house that I was renting in Dallas, and we had everything in there from chicken breasts and red dye and ground beef and we tried lots of things with the worms, bits of rope or nylon tied in knots and pulled through latex before eventually giving up and saying, "Let's just go to the store and buy some night crawlers and do this." Yeah, it was just a ton, a ton, a ton of trial and error. Nobody—Tom, not me not anybody had really any experience with how to do this, except for the bits where we can see the worm crawling under Amy's skin. That was actually someone who's a makeup artist and he had some experience with how to do stuff like that, yeah.

CS: All practical, that's amazing. I remember when Darren Aronofsky was making "The Fountain" and they did all the outer space stuff without using computerized visual effects, and it actually gives the movie a very different look. Did you do a lot of storyboarding as well to figure out what this should look like?
You mean just with practical photography? No, I mean, so much of the… especially the last third of this, we had so much that's being communicated through match cuts that the composition was so important. So on my phone, I would have a still from the scene we shot yesterday, and I know that, "Okay, with my camera today, we've gotta line up our characters in the frame exactly after they were in the other location." So there was a lot of that, I mean, constantly matching lenses, matching distances, just making sure that every match cut worked.

CS: I also wanted to ask about the passage of time from when Kris and Jeff first meet. The passage of time isn't very clear in terms of how much time has passed since she discovered what happened. They don't know how much time has passed in their relationship. Is that something you were very conscious of while editing it together? As you watch the movie, it could be weeks, it could be months, it could even be years.
Yeah, that's one of the many things where it's here's what's important and everything else can just melt away. In the cinematography, it works the same way. Most of the time we are on somebody's face or we're on their hand and the rest of the world is a blur of color and abstract shape, for the most part. That's because so much of the story is about characters that feel affected by something just off screen, just out of reach, not even quite clear what direction to point at, at where the thing might be. It's so much about isolation and subjectivity, so that dictated that. I'm so sorry. I'm losing track here. What was the original bit you were talking about?

CS: The passage of time.
Well, yeah, I mean, there was definitely a purposeful way to change, like the way she dresses at the beginning and with her long hair is distinctly different than the way she is once she's been damaged. Then that's distinctly different than the way she is once we get into the mode that we call the domestic bliss, where they move into the suburbs and that would hopefully be the end of the movie. That should be the end of the movie, but it can't be because still, nothing's resolved for them. I always meant for to… even if we don't say six months later, one year later, that something about it needs to change in order to reflect that.

CS: I loved the music, too.
Oh great.

CS: Was that in your head while you were writing it, a lot of the music that would go with it? Was that a hand in hand kind of thing?
Yeah, by the time I was writing the script I pretty much had a complete score or the way I thought of the score for the film. I ended up throwing out about half of it because I'd made a mistake and I'd written some music that it was trying to guide the audience as to what they're meant to be thinking or feeling, but it was not in unison with the characters' subjective experience. So, once I realized that, once I realized where visual language is doing that, I think, in a good way, but our music isn't, our music's fighting that, and so I threw out half of it and rewrote the bits that I needed.

CS: I stayed to the end of the credits because I really wanted to know who did the music. Did you do the music on "Primer," too?

CS: I'm not sure I remembered or realized that because I was really so blown away by the music in this and the whole time was thinking, "Who did the music? Is it Alexandre Desplat or one of those guys?"
Oh man, that's very flattering.

CS: Yeah, it really worked. Now, even before Sundance, you already decided to self-distribute the movie. At what point did you decide that was the way you wanted to get it out there rather than looking for distribution at Sundance?
Yeah, I was living in Dallas for a long time and I made the decision that I was going to be moving when the film is done. So the film is done and I came here (to New York) and started to think about, "Great. What's the landscape look like for this film?" I was hopeful for Sundance, and everybody has their plan A. They go to a festival and they hope for acquisition, and then we all ride into the sunset, but everybody also thinks of plan B, like "What if that doesn't happen?" That's what I was working on. It was like, "Okay, great. What's plan B?" I've already been through distribution once with a distributor. "What does it look like if I was to hire all of the elements they hired—a theater booker, national and regional PR, key art," all of the logistics of that? I basically spent time here and in LA sort of just having tons and tons and tons of conversations about what that looks like, what it costs and whether it's possible. I mean, I was basically walking into offices and saying, "This is going to happen. Let's talk about how it's going to happen." It was just really naïve, but before long it seemed possible, and that I could basically build at least the same distribution that "Primer" got for a fraction of the cost. The most important thing is that I would get to decide everything about it. I would be able to craft the marketing to what I think is appropriate to the film. I can manage expectations. I can contextualize, which I began to see more and more as a continuation of storytelling. I mean, it's picking the cover of the book and the font and the texture of the paper for a novel. That's the way I wanted to think about it. I don't want a distributor deciding that the most compelling bits of this story are the weird bits, and so let's put those on the poster. We have one that's hopefully a very compelling image, but it speaks to more about what the film's about than trying to get every last dollar. So I don't know. That idea, now thinking back, I can't believe I ever entertained the idea of not doing that, but yeah, that's where it came from. Then it's just been a long eight to nine months of putting it all together.

CS: It's really interesting because I talk to a lot of filmmakers and it's surprising how few of them want to be involved in marketing. They want to put it on someone else, which is interesting because like you say, getting the movie out there to an audience and saying what you want to say, the marketing basically is what does that. You can do as many interviews as you want, but it's usually the trailer or the poster that tends to determine whether anyone sees your movie or not.
That's exactly how I feel. I've gotten really comfortable with that because it just seems like we're filmmakers, we're storytellers, we do 95 percent of the job, and then at the last second we hand it over to a distributor to decide what the film's about and to communicate it to people? I mean, I know nobody wants to take it on. This is a big challenge--nobody wants to be doing this if they could be making another film. But if there's a way to make it a continuation of the story, then I would like to see that happen.

CS: So where do you go from here? I mean, obviously you're going to have a little while getting this movie out there over the next month or so. Do you have another script you want to start shooting?
I do. I'm finishing it right now. It's called "The Modern Ocean." It's amazing. I cannot wait to get on it because right now I'm so fortunate to be doing this distribution, but if I had my way, I would be writing 12 hours a day. I can't wait to get to it. I hope to be shooting by end of summer.

CS: Will you take the same approach in terms of financing?
Yeah, with a few caveats. I mean, it's going to need some money. What we did with "Upstream" is not repeatable, so it's going to be a mix of, hopefully the money that this film makes, every dollar it makes goes into the next one. But we're also going to have to solve something else. I'm going to have to figure out how to raise money without somebody thinking that they're going to give me notes, so that's my next challenge.

CS: You should wait outside "Upstream Color" and watch people exit. If they look rich and they look happy then they can be prospective financiers…
Yeah. (Laughs)

CS: What's your take on VOD? It doesn't replicate the theatrical experience.
Oh, you know what's weird? As an audience member, I don't really have a strong opinion about that. I mean, like "The Master," it was really important to me to go see that in the theater, but that's a very rare occurrence for me. I typically enjoy things on my laptop. I'm in bed, I can be able to pause them. Yeah, anything that you get from seeing a big screen seems to be negated by the experience of having to go to someplace and…

CS: Be with other people.
Yeah, and just be subjected to the Coca-Cola commercials. I mean, it's a funhouse, where sometimes I would like it to be a museum instead. So yeah, I don't know. I don't feel strongly about it. Wherever people want to meet the narrative is fine with me.

Filmmaker Shane Carruth talks 'Upstream Color' and making movies like albums

The director discusses the legacy of 'Primer,' broken hearts, and his new project

shane carruth
As the story goes, Shane Carruth took $7,000 and made one of the trippiest time travel movies of all time — one that eschews flashy special effects for a complicated (yet surprisingly cohesive) nonlinear narrative. Primer was a critical darling, but after its release, Carruth went silent for almost a decade.
Upstream Color is the long-awaited follow-up to his 2004 debut. It premiered this year at Sundance (you can check out our review for more details) and is now seeing a limited theatrical release (think: less than 100 theaters) and will be available for streaming and download May 17th. We sat down with Carruth to talk about Upstream, his upcoming projects, his thoughts on Primer’s legacy, and what happened to the now-abandoned A Topiary.
(Note: the first question contains one minor note about about Upstream Color’s plot structure but it’s otherwise spoiler-free)

Present: Upstream Color

Without delving into spoilers, it’s interesting to me how much of Upstream Color is devoid of dialog. I think Steven Soderbergh noted that silence is something that movies can get away with but TV can’t. For you, what else can movies do — this long form, lean back experience — that short-form videos like TV just can’t?
I don’t know that a movie can do something that a TV show couldn’t do. Might be unwilling to do though.
The thing is, I think that there’s a new form, that I’d like to see. It’s more like an album that you put on than an experience that you have once. You’re meant to internalize in one viewing. I’m sort of interested now… No, not sort of — I’m completely interested. That’s the way I think of Upstream, as an experience that you have once, and hopefully you have a full emotional experience.
"It’s something that you put on and internalize the way you would an album."
It’s satisfying on a level and that there’s a story there, but that it’s not something you have to see twice, it’s something you want to see twice or hopefully more. It’s something that you put on and internalize the way you would an album.
I think I would like to see narrative get there, to the point where, like an album, you put it on, you don’t know everything about it, but you listen to it a few times and suddenly recognize all of this nuance and it becomes one of your favorites. That could be something new, and it’d be good to aspire to that.
Do you think a movie like Upstream Color could work in a traditional theater model? Could it do a standard release and see success nationwide?
Like put it on 1,000 screens or something? It’s tough. A movie like it could. Eventually, I think. I really don’t know.
New digital distribution is coming up in a big way. Do you think that that’s going to replace the traditional model, or is that a symbiotic, complementary service or distribution model?
It’s definitely complementary. I don’t know if theatres are going anywhere. It’s possible that we’ll have a world where the same people that are strict about only listening to music on vinyl, or enjoy that, will be the same sort of people that go to theatres to see movies. I can see that, but I don’t know. There’s more than enough reason to stay home now, and people still seem to be going out.

Past: 'Primer'

I really want to pick your brain about Primer. There may be seven or eight timelines that overlap each other, but they do follow a pattern. I’ve seen dozens of different people try to map out Primer. Did you have something going in where you diagrammed it out?
Yup. I had to.
Have you ever shown that to anybody?
I bet it doesn’t exist anymore. I bet it’s thrown away.
There’s a bunch of stuff, a lot of props and things that five years from now it might be nice to have, but at the time you don’t want to see them, you don’t want to know that they exist. You definitely don’t want to keep them safe. At some point it becomes the film.
I don’t even want to know what’s outside the edit anymore. I don’t want to accumulate that footage, because this is it now. This is the thing. No matter what experience we had making it or how we got to those answers, these are the answers. This is the thing.
What do you think about people who constantly debate and interpret and try to graph that out? Have you seen any of that online?
I did, when it was — it’s not still happening, is it?
I think it’s been a year or two years since anyone did it. I think the last diagram I saw was from 2010 or 2011.
Gotcha. No. I looked at it initially. I don’t know what to do with it, to be honest. I’m so grateful that anybody cares enough to go and do that.
Who does time travel right? What films have you seen that really kind of nailed it? Looper doesn’t count, because you helped with that.
Right. I didn’t really help with that.
What did you help Rian Johnson with? You have a special thanks for that.
I did. Well, he was nice enough to act like I was — he said something, I think on Twitter, where it had been vetted by me, or whatever. I don’t know what he said. He was being very nice. He showed me the script, and I got to read it. We had some really great conversations about it. He’s smarter than I am, so it’s not like he needs my help or whatever. There was a period of time where we were talking about doing effects. But it was mainly just conversations and stuff.
When I first heard about Primer, it was extremely hard to find. Amazon seemed to always be sold out. Netflix had maybe one disc in the entire company. Obviously that’s not the case anymore. You’ve taken more control, there’s video on demand. What prompted you to shift your digital strategy?
"What’s a Netflix life sentence, what’s that worth?"
Honestly, I really started thinking about it when Upstream was shot. What I really wanted was a metric: how do these things work? What’s the revenue from iTunes if you just put a title out there? What’s a Netflix life sentence, what’s that worth? All of these things. I wanted a test case. That was the motivation to get started on that.
How’s it been so far for Primer?
It’s good. It’s actually really amazing, to be honest. I’m so grateful that it seems to be holding it’s own. It’s old. There’s no promotion going on right now, other than now that we’re talking about it. I’m so grateful that people received it well, that Sundance, that program did, that it got distribution. I’m still grateful to this day that that happened.
Where would you have been if not Primer, If that had not taken off?
I think I would have made another film. Maybe this one. I don’t know what would have changed. I don’t know.

Alternate timeline: 'A Topiary'

When we spoke earlier, you mentioned that Upstream was financed more from friends and yourself. Why did you go that route instead of trying to find traditional backers?
Because I wasted years trying to get a project called A Topiary made. I invested a lot of myself in it. I think it’s a really great film.
How many years?
Primer was nine years ago, so this would have been about three years. I spent about two years writing and perfecting an effects workflow for it because it has a lot of effects in it, and I need the aesthetic to be something that I can count on and done a little bit cheaper than farming it out to third party effects houses. I spent a lot of time on that and found lots of enthusiasm with film financiers.
"I invested a lot of myself into it, and it sort of broke my heart."
Is A Topiary still a work in progress?
No. I’m not pursuing that anymore.
I’m so sorry.
Me too.
What happened?
I invested a lot of myself into it, and it sort of broke my heart, to be honest. I can’t really let myself go down that path anymore, or I’ll get angry about it, basically.
So you’re not going to return to that movie 10 years later?
Maybe I’ll be in a different state by that time. The thing is, it’s taken me awhile to figure out that there’s no common ground between me and the way traditional financing works. I don’t think that there ever will be any common ground, so it’s hard for me to do that. I would have to come up with some unique way to do it. Right now, I’m too passionate about what I’m writing and what’s currently in front of me to take my eyes off that.
Did you consider crowdfunding? Kickstarter? Going after the fans?
I considered it, but I didn’t do it. I might next time. At the time, when I was looking at it, I had a false opinion of crowdfunding, that it branded the project too much. That from that point forward it wasn’t a film, it was a Kickstarter film.
I think we’re past that now. I think it’s a completely legitimate thing, although I do think that you have to have a conscience if you’re going to do that. If you’ve got money available to you as equity, you can’t just take people’s money for free. I think that should be an option — it should be like asking for somebody if you can sleep on their couch. It happens, and it’s necessary, but if you’ve got a place that you can afford, then you shouldn’t be doing that.

Future: 'The Modern Ocean'

Can you talk about what’s currently in front of you?
Sure. I’m writing a story called The Modern Ocean. It’s a continuation of the emotional language that was built up for Upstream. It’s a tragic romance at sea in the world of commodities trading. It’s ships at war.
Will you cast yourself again?
I don’t plan to, but I don’t know for sure.

Upstream Color isn’t for everyone, a fact that writer/director/star/composer/producer/co-financer/editor/whatever-other-production-job-is-out-there Shane Carruth is quite aware of and wants people to know. To go about doing so, Carruth is handling the marketing himself, making it more a part of the story, rather than a selling tool.
The Primer director went to great lengths to make Upstream Color, as shown by the extensive amount of credits he has on the movie. That behind-the-scenes ambition shows onscreen, something Rob Hunter and most critics agree with. The movie has a normal three act structure, but what Carruth does with that old formula is to tell the usual connective tissue and key moments through music, cinematography, and silence, instead of blaring exposition.
Carruth spoke to us about his lyrical style, Upstream Color‘s narrative, and why there’s no Chaos Theory speech from Jeff Goldblum in the movie:

What’s it like seeing an audience respond to the film, especially in an immediate way with Q&As and social networking?
I think I am really fortunate the way this has happened. The movie has a different ambition. I think that’s always going to mean that it’s going to be received in a divisive way. It almost has to be. Like, there’s going to be people that are going to key in to what it’s trying to do, and then they’ll judge it based on that. Then there’s other people that might have different expectations, and when the film doesn’t even try to meet those, I feel like they are necessarily going to have not the best reaction. So, I guess my thinking of this is the film comes out to the world in January, and then the time between that and when it comes out theatrically I think is a big conversation where a consensus is being built about what the film is trying to do, not necessarily whether it’s good or bad, but just what its ambitions are.
I think we are now at a point now where there aren’t a lot of people that are showing up that don’t know what they’re in for. So I think it’s being judged appropriately, which I don’t think I could hope for more than that.
Looking at this and Primer, they never feel like they’re willfully difficult. When you are writing the script, do you think about how an audience would respond to this or do you just let it all come out naturally?
No, absolutely. That’s part of the job. Storytelling wouldn’t be storytelling if it didn’t have both halves. I can pretend to be an auteur and I’ve got to do this exploration and this sub-textual thing, and that’s all great. But if that’s all it is that’s not storytelling. It’s also got to be compelling for an audience moment by moment. These are the two things that are the necessary ingredients. So yeah, I’m always thinking that. I would never do something that would willfully, I don’t know, bore or be ponderous or any of that stuff.
I mean there are moments in the film that, in a really crass way, that really slow down. But they slow down in a very purposeful time amidst a bunch of cuts and noise and a lot of activity. I mean if you look at the timeline on the film there’s like 1,800 cuts. But if you look at it, there’s these 90 second sections that are spaced throughout that are just like long, long takes. I think you earn the ability to do that by making sure not to waste a millisecond of time anywhere else.
Shane Carruth's Primer
Shane Carruth’s Primer

In an interview close to Primer‘s release you said you didn’t look at it first as a science fiction movie; it just came from theme. Was it the same approach here?
Yeah. I kept the idea of personal narratives and personal identities and how they work. It started in a very benign way. I just felt like every conversation I was having with people was…like, if it was about some political story of the day, it’s like they were bringing their talking points and I was bringing mine, and we were mashing them up one for one. And it didn’t feel like we were really talking. It was just like, “Oh, you watch that channel and I watch this channel, so now we’re just making our notes.”
That’s not where it ended, but that’s sort of where it started. The idea that we’re just all walking around representing our identities, I don’t know, I just wanted to explore that. I wanted to break that down and I wanted to strip some characters of that and have them rebuild that potentially with the wrong information and then explore what kind of tension would exist when somebody is living out something that they suspect is wrong.
I don’t know. I think as that got bigger and bigger and it stopped being about politics and it started being about everything, not just religion, not just scientific beliefs, but like all identity, everything that you could subjectively know about yourself or the world, it got really emotional, like thinking about that, because that’s a big deal. And I think that’s when it tripped into a romance, because, I don’t know, just having a couple characters that are just that bottom is…there couldn’t be a more romantic premise for me than people that are just destroyed and suspect that there’s some other way that things should be.
Last night my editor said he doesn’t think an audience so much watches your films as they feel them. I think a large part of that comes from not a lot of spoken exposition. Was that a very conscious decision early on?
Yes it is, although the difficulty to every answer to all of these questions is really nuance, so I can go either way. I absolutely do not like exposition. It feels to me like every time I need it, it seems like there must be some other way to get around this. We cannot have this scene where Jeff Goldbloom explains Chaos Theory. We cannot do that.
So I’m always trying to find a way around it. With this story, because so much is nonverbal, and at a distance, and suspicions, and mania, and emotion without being able to point at what they are, that just, in my mind, makes it even more important that I can’t have characters talk about what’s going on.
You asked a simple question, whether it was always that way, and I would say 80% of it was always that way. The script probably had a line or two in it that would technically have been exposition, and those were excised out once the visual language started to really develop.
Can you give me an example of a line or two that you cut?
I can. This is dangerous territory because I don’t believe in deleted scenes. There was a bit of dialogue where the Sampler sort of explains the process that he’s going to put her through, that she’s going to be drinking this mixture that is going to force this worm out of her. I took that out just because everything else was…The things that are happening on screen are happening on screen. Like we’re watching them happen. We don’t need to talk about…Like if we see that she’s taking a drink and we see that it’s part of the process, to me that’s enough. Let’s just get on to the stuff that we want to get to. So I cut that out.

So a fair amount of what to say and what not to say comes from editing as well?
It’s everywhere, because that’s the thing. I’m learning, or I think I’m learning, that…Well, it can be in the writing process, it can be in editing, it can be in production. This is what’s been happening, I think, but I haven’t had to verbalize it until recently. But basically, I think if film is going to be…if it’s going to reach the height of what it can do…and I don’t think we’re done by a longshot. I’m not interested in trying to figure out 3D or virtual reality or any of the other ways to experience narrative. I think we’re fine with the tools that we have. I don’t think it’s nearly reached its height. I think what it has to do is stop pretending that it’s books that we can watch and it’s got to be something else. I don’t know what the words are for that something else, but I sort of know where the edges are.
Anyway, so for that to happen, it’s got to have…For me, it’s got to have a really strong architecture, like the story, the plot, the subtext. It’s all got to be there. Like if you took those elements out and put them in another medium, they would still be there and it would hopefully still be successful. But with film, defining that I hope can be lyrical. I hope we can use all the tools of visual language and music and sound to sort of, I don’t know, swim around with the architecture. If the filmmakers know it well enough, if they’ve internalized it well enough, then we should be able to…you know, in the same way that you could play your musical instrument and you know a piece of music so well, you should be able to play with it in performance and recognize that if there’s a two minute avenue where I can just go with the string section and do something really interesting but, still, it’s thematically true, then I should do that. It can’t be made up just to be made up. It’s got to stay true to the…Anyway, I’m all over the place.
No, I hear you. Even with the lyrical nature of the film, looking at it as a whole, the movie does go from point A to point B, story-wise. Are there narrative conventions that you do follow in your head?
Well, this may be one of those things where I actually don’t have a lot of experience doing what I try to do. I do typically everything in isolation. I don’t read books on how to write screenplays just because I’m stubborn. So it’s all sort of made up. So I don’t know what I would fall back on as a crutch. But I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m sure there’s something there.
So there are no famous narrative devices you like to use?
Oh, yeah. I know that I’m starting to recognize that I like to develop little plot experiment devices in the story. It doesn’t start there, but I’m recognizing that as part of the thing that would hopefully make a story compelling to introduce some mechanism that we have to sort of explain…I mean like in Upstream Color there is this mechanism for this life cycle or Orchid Pig worms, and all of that had to be developed in a way that met some threshold in my mind that made it balanced. You know, the three points in the triangle, they can’t know about each other. There’s all this criteria that developed in my head that they needed to follow.
And so, that’s not necessarily subtextual. I mean what we care most about is our characters and that they are being affected at a distance. But…I don’t know. And so, like in this new story I’m writing, it deals with a lot of stuff. But it’s large sums of money have to be transferred in a way that…I sort of refuse to let it be the thing where somebody is at a computer terminal typing away and we’re meant to care.
And so, because of that and because of 10 other reason, I’m developing a fake form of finance, of bank transfers. It’s just different and it involves a big room and a clearinghouse and people that have to walk around with certain bits of paper and get time stamping. It’s a whole process. And that sounds horrible and boring, but I really think in the film itself it’s going to be really compelling and it won’t be somebody sitting at a computer terminal. So I know that that happens. I know that’s a crutch. I should not have said that…
[Laughs] I don’t mind.
No, no. It’s fine.
I want to end on your thoughts on the future of cinema. You and Edward Burns are really showing the advantage of online and playing to your fanbase, as well as just going out and actually making it yourself. Do you see yourself sticking to that model?
I do now.
Why’s that?
Because once I started going down this road, it became clear to me, and I don’t know why it didn’t before, that if I can make every decision, if I can cut my own trailers, if I can do the poster, if I can handle the way that the story is met by the audience or what they know about it, that’s contextualizing it. It’s a continuation of storytelling. It’s like picking the opening title sequence, if you were to have one. You are still delivering information. And I don’t…It’s too much fun right now. Not fun, but it’s part of the story now. So I wouldn’t hand that over to anybody and expect them to…You know, here’s us. We’re a bunch of filmmakers. We made this thing. We know how to do storytelling really well, but then in the last 5% we’re like, “Oh, we don’t know. You figure out how to sell it.”
That can be the most crucial part though.
Yeah. Well, that’s the thing, is like I’ve got a different goal than a distributor. I’m not here to make every last dollar I can make. I’m here to make sure that the people that would receive a work like this knows that it exists. But I don’t want everybody knowing, because I’m just going to piss people off.
It’s definitely not made for everybody.
Yeah. We’ve all seen this throughout the years.
The Tree of Life is probably the best recent example.
Is it?
I remember hearing about walkouts and theaters putting up signs saying “no refunds” for it.
Yeah. No, you are right. I heard that, too. I’ve heard stories about movies that are really maybe difficult and really dramatic and good, but they are being sold as romantic comedies. All it’s going to do is just…that’s hurting the work, because that just makes it impossible for anyone to see it correctly.
Anyways, yes. So I would never give that up.

Exclusive Interview: Shane Carruth on Upstream Color

Shane Carruth, the writer/director/co-star of Upstream Color, explains his pigs and teases his next film, The Modern Ocean.

Upstream Color Shane Carruth
I got to interview Shane Carruth at Sundance where his second film, Upstream Color, premiered, but was asked to hold the interview until the theatrical release. Upstream Color is now in theaters so we present my conversation with Carruth. Upstream Color is perhaps an abstract narrative about a film editor, Kris (Amy Seimetz) who is kidnapped and placed through an experiment to rob her of her savings and assets. When she’s released, she begins to rebuild her life. Along the way there are nonlinear leaps between other subplots, one heavily involving the harvesting of pigs, so much will be open to interpretation. Here is one conversation investigating some possible interpretations of Upstream Color.
CraveOnline: If I told you I totally understand this movie, would that disappoint you?
Shane Carruth: No, not at all.
Well, unfortunately, I would be lying if I said that.
You mean the story or the exploration or what’s on its mind?
I guess starting with the story. I would probably say I understand the themes more than the story.
Really? Okay, well, that’s not a bad thing.
But I’m having fun with getting at the idea of: do you like to provoke to either understand the film or not?
Huh, no. I just think that’s a product of what this film is trying to be. It’s an exploration and it’s an emotional experience. I’ve actually been starting to repeat this phrase, but it’s not a film that you have to see twice. It’s hopefully a film that you want to see twice, or many times. I think of it a few different ways but one way is it’s like an album that you put on the album and you give it a listen, but that’s not everything there is to know about this. If there was enough that was satisfying about that first listen, you typically will leave the album on and you’ll listen over and over again. That’s how you come to internalize it. Some of my favorite music, that’s how I know it’s my favorite music, and I wouldn’t have if I would’ve only listened to it once. I would’ve written it off or something.
What I’m aspiring to is to not make a film that you watch it and then you sum it all up afterwards and you know everything there is to know about it and you move on with your life, and now you’ve got an opinion of that movie. My belief, as an audience member in my experiences, I love to revisit things that I think are good works and then I always find more in them and they’re richer and richer each time. That’s the aspiration. Because it’s doing that, I don’t think there is any way that you could come out of it at the ending and know everything there is to know. There’s always going to be something more to go back for and revisit I think. Hopefully. Hopefully, if it’s worthwhile.
How about this? Because I knew your work, I knew what I was getting into so I was expecting something that would probably take multiple viewings. Is that the ideal situation to see the film in, or should someone not know that it might be that kind of experience?
I’m not sure. Again, I do think it’s a good experience, or I hope that it’s a good experience once, but if somebody were to take another look that there would be a reason to do that, that there’s more there. The architecture I think is really solid. The plot and how everything moves and that world and those elements, I think it’s really sturdy. So I think the execution of it is allowed to be lyrical and elliptical and emotional and musical. And hopefully because of that, I don’t know, it’s something that you can treat differently than a typical film where everything is being told to you and there’s exposition and things like that.
Do your scripts look traditional, just dialogue and descriptions?
Sort of. I’m having a hard time right now when I’m writing because, believe it or not, I’m getting more and more aggressive with editing and that’s reflected in the writing where we’re bouncing back and forth between multiple scenes and that can get really unwieldy. I’m connecting moments that are emotionally paired together. They’re revelatory emotionally but maybe not chronologically. So because of that it’s difficult because screenplay format is built to do a certain thing and it’s not this.
You asked about the script for Upstream and it resembles the movie. It probably has more dialogue in it mainly because some of that dialogue is there as a placeholder. I might know full well that a character’s never going to say this, but let’s write it down right here so that we can all get on the same page as to what is on the character’s mind in this moment and what we’ll be conveying to the audience, even if we do it nonverbally.
Why did you want to make Kris a film editor?
Oh, it’s probably to be clever but it also is the fact that we are talking about building up personal narratives, breaking them down, writing stories, transcribing stories. So her working in a field where it’s fiction, I guess that’s the reason. I hope that’s not too clever. Who knows?
Is the sound recordist making the sounds we’re actually hearing in the shots intercut with that sequence?
Maybe. Some of them, yes. The bricks falling over, yes. I just pitched that down, I slowed it down. Yes, it is. The file on the wooden crate, that’s real. That’s all the real sounds and those are being manipulated, sped up, slowed down, pitched down. That’s actually really happening. I thought you meant when we see Kris and Jeff droning at work with copiers and printers and things like that.
That is the scene I meant. It’s intercut with a sound recordist and I thought maybe he was creating the sounds of the copier.
Oh, you mean, in the plot is he doing that?
Or in a meta level of it?
Well, it’s definitely meant to match. Those specific actions and those specific sounds are meant to connect with each other but mainly as an aesthetic so that the cut would work well.
Was it hard to get the actors to walk exactly the same way in two different locations so that edit would work?
It was a task, yes. A lot of forethought had to go into that.
How did you plan it out carefully enough to work?
Storyboard. Storyboard, storyboard, storyboard. But also with a phone, I can take a still from one scene and make sure we’re matching it in the next.
Are the worms under her skin CGI?
Nope. No CG in this movie other than her effects work when she’s sitting at the monitor.
Right, the CG that’s supposed to be CG.
So how did you do the worms?
Well, they’re practical. Some latex fake, well, I shouldn’t – - you know what? I’m not doing this. What are you doing? You’re making me give away stuff. It was done practically. 

Why did it take nine years since Primer?
I wasted some time trying to get a project that I was really in love with made and I didn’t get it made. As I came to realize that I couldn’t put any more of myself into it, I was also dealing with the beginning story elements for Upstream Color. I basically left that girlfriend and came to this one and got really passionate and in love with this project.
Is there any hope for the middle one?
It would be relatively expensive. Not too expensive. It’s actually cheap compared to what I feel its value would be, but I don’t know. I can’t put myself at a place, what’s the word? Vulnerability I guess. That seems silly when we’re talking about making a film but that’s what it feels like. I don’t want to really be vulnerable about that again and have my hopes too high, so I don’t think I’ll pursue it.
Ideally, how often would you make a movie?
I want to be shooting this summer and I want to be doing a release 18 months from now, and I want to keep doing that. I think there’s a path here now that’s going to work.
Were you able to support yourself in the time you were developing the film that didn’t come together?
Well, I was because I lived incredibly cheaply, in the suburbs where it’s not so expensive, and that’s more or less it.
How different is Sundance nine years later?
I don’t know about the festival but it’s very different for me. With Primer nobody knew anything about it. It was so under the radar and this time around, I’m very surprised by this, but it does seem like there’s anticipation. We threw down a theatrical date before we even got here so it’s a completely different thing. We’re releasing marketing and have cut these trailers and stuff. Yeah, it’s like a full court press basically. It’s funny, an anecdote for the big difference is when Primer got here the first time, we opened in the Library, one of the smaller venues. This time, our premiere was at Eccles in front of 1300 people. The first time anybody saw this thing, it’s 1300 people. I had so much anxiety about that but that’s the biggest difference.
Does watching linear movies bore you?
[Laughs] No, not at all. Not at all. Not if they’re well told, not at all.
What do you think accounts for your tendency to break up a narrative?
I think I’m getting to a point where I’m enjoying the concept of connecting moments that are emotionally related, that they’re revelatory emotionally but not necessarily chronologically. I think there’s a way to do that where you’re hopefully not confusing the audience, that it’s making some level of sense, that there’s some order to it but I feel like that’s where we need to be going. That’s a new thing and should be played with.
Will that necessarily always be your style?
It is right now. Right now I’m very much into it and I want to push it a bit further. I think the next thing will actually be pretty straightforward comparatively because it won’t have these otherworldly elements and stuff. It’s a straight story but the execution is a continuation of this emotional language.
What can you tell us about your next film?
I’ll tell you everything. Well, no, it’s called The Modern Ocean. It’s a tragedy at sea in the world of commodities trading. We’ve got ships at war with each other out on the high sea and lots of people getting their lives broken down, because apparently I can’t stop doing that.
But not science fiction.
No, not at all.
Will you act in your new film as well?
I don’t know. It’s definitely not a given at all but I don’t know.
What sense did you get of the reaction to Upstream Color?
I think objectively it’s pretty much what we thought. It’s got some ambition and it’s trying something new and so I think that necessarily means it’s going to be divisive. I think we’ve seen a version of that. I think it’s more or less positive, which is satisfying to see. I was saying this earlier, I’m a pretty insecure person, or at least I can be, but I’m not insecure about this film. This is a real thing and it’s a good work and I believe it will be seen as important.
So I think this is the start of the conversation and I don’t think it’s over by a long shot. The more people talk about it and the more they potentially revisit it, I think it’s going to become clear that this is a new thing and that it’s good. So I’m okay. I mean, on a moment by moment basis, I have, like anybody who’s being judged or their work is being judged, there’s some insecurity involved when you see somebody who’s not over the moon with it, but I think this is what it needs to be right now.
Would Kris have been okay if none of this had happened to her?
I think she would’ve had the same life we saw her have at the beginning, yeah.
How did you think of telling her, “I have a condition where my face is made of the same material as the sun?”
That process has been going on for a long time so I thought of him as somebody who’s done this 1000 times. Two things I guess. One is he’s done this so often that he’s perfected the language. He might fear that if she were to wake up in the middle of this process or something go wrong, she might remember his face. So the first thing he’s going to do is make it so that even if she were to remember this, all she would remember is a bright spot as if she were staring into the sun. So he blinds her by suggestion basically.
That’s why he would say that, and then the way that he says it and the certain language that he’s talking, he’s perfected this. He’s in complete control. He does not have to persuade her or make an argument for anything. He simply can tell her things and they are true. They are perfectly true right then, so it creates a language that is very efficient. To me, that’s really eerie because it just means he’s all powerful basically.
How did you settle on pigs as the animal?
It started with the fact that we share so much of the same diseases and physiology. So you could imagine something being transferred from them to us or us to them. And then there’s all these other things that start to add to it. They’re these creatures that don’t do much more than eat and sleep, so you could create a contained situation where they would exist. It wouldn’t be like monkeys or deer that would want to be running around and doing whatever. These are sedentary creatures that a pig farmer, when he’s going through and sampling emotions, he can just walk through and meditate and move from one to the next. It solves the problem and it fits practically and thematically.
Has the conversation on Primer continued for nine years?
Oh, good question. I may have lost the thread on that one, I’m not sure. Honestly, I think everything that there is to come to a consensus on with Primer I think has been done, or at least I’ve seen it out there. I think people are appreciating it for what it is, what it aspired to be. I think Upstream Color will be seen as a massive leap. I don’t believe these are remotely related, these two films.
It may have started up again in the anticipation of Sundance, and I also heard some talk of Primer when Looper came out.
Oh, that’s true. That’s right. Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know how to talk about that really. I’m not sure.
Do you go back and watch Primer?
No, I don’t. I’ve had to recently to create deliverables to get it into the places that it’s at, iTunes, Amazon, Netflix and all these places, so I did have to go back and re-sync the sound and take a look at it. It’s really hard for me to see it because I’ve probably seen it 1000 times. Probably literally 1000. After everything, after editing and sound work and foley and deliverables and everything else, I don’t know if I can see it anymore. I don’t know what it is.
Where are you with viewing Upstream Color at this point?
Somewhere close to the same situation but I think it’s a much better film and I don’t know if this is something I should say, but I’m much more proud of it. It’s a very good thing and I can’t wait for the next one because I think there’s something here to really track down and pursue. I’m really passionate about it.
Do you stay through the festival screenings to see the reaction?
No, I see the first few minutes to make sure that everything’s going well technically and I’ll come to the door and listen to make sure things are still going well, but no, I don’t watch it anymore. I know it by heart. I don’t watch it anymore. 

Primer and Upstream Color writer/director/star Shane Carruth is an exceedingly generous interview subject. You might expect the creator of two very thoughtful pieces of genre film to be aloof or overly cerebral. But in conversation he has a tendency to react with exclamations like “wow” and “that’s so great” followed by thoughtful and digressive answers.
Maybe it’s just that I spoke to Carruth partway through Sundance, after Upstream Color had been shown only a couple of times, and he was still processing audience reactions. The film is not a typical narrative, and while it is also not outrageously obscure or difficult to puzzle out, I can imagine that Carruth might have been concerned about how audiences would respond to the picture. The chance to positively converse with people about something you’ve crafted in a bubble must be a source of great relief, even oh exultation. Every “wow!” seemed to be like a moment where Carruth realized that his experimental narrative worked, rather than one where he was impressed by the question.
Be warned that the conversation that follows is full of spoilers for Upstream Color. I sought, originally, to talk about the film in a way that wouldn’t give things away, but that intention dissipated with Carruth’s very first answer. There’s no way to talk about this film without really getting into the details of it. Fortunately, even when talking about the details of the plot, there’s a lot of room for interpretation with respect to meaning — Upstream Color is a film that will provoke many different readings.
/Film: Could you talk about the film’s title? What’s the origin of the phrase ‘Upstream Color’?
Shane Carruth: Well, so much of the story is about being effective at a distance. The main thrust of it is the breaking down and building up of a personal identity and where that comes from, but when we get into the next… the “closer to text” layer, which would be… you know, we’ve got central characters that are being affected by things they are not aware of, things they can’t speak to or name.
Then we’ve got our three points on the triangle of the sampler, and the thief, and the orchid harvesters. None of them know about each other either, they are just fulfilling their role, and what they are doing is continuing to… travel. The pigs decay, the spore shoots out of the blue material that gets into the orchid in the nursery… the thief harvests that and gets the worm. It’s all just a big swarm and the idea that none of them know that the others are there, that everything seems to be coming from upstream, that was the idea; that even though it’s a circle, from any one person’s perspective it just seems to come down and so I thought that was appropriate and sonically interesting enough.
The word I keep returning to in order to encapsulate the film is “resonance.” There’s the sampler, the relationship between sound and image, and the resonance between the two characters as they meet… Is that a word that you would use?
I think so… yeah. We are constantly talking about things that are intangible and echoing a bit. I mean there’s a duplicate for everything that’s happening in this story. Every time one character experiences something, another will eventually as well. So yeah, I think that’s a decent word. I know… I don’t know. I might need some more context.
For context, I’d start with our first look at Jeff, and early visions of Kris, in that both characters are running. Does that imply a direct link between them even at that early stage?
Yeah. The hope is that after you’ve seen it and know that “Okay, these two are both affected individuals. The idea is that he would have been first, like he is in a form of… He’s in a broken state when we first see him. Then we’ve got the kids that are linked and then so it just felt appropriate to show the next two characters linked as well and whether that’s an inevitability or whether that’s a cosmic now thing, it just seemed like “Let’s suggest that and then when we get to pairing these people up, it’s just one more note that can be played.”
Okay. I was going to ask this later on, but something you just said sparks it: did you ever consider a nonviolent resolution to the conflict between Kris and the Sampler?
Wow. No, I didn’t. He always had to go. He always had to get… There was a version of it where it wasn’t Kris that did it, it was somebody else. The idea is that it has to be a mistake. It has to be, because that sampler… You know, we’ve got the thief, who is just malicious and using this trick to steal money. We’ve got the orchid harvester with these women who are doing nothing but leading a relatively sober, passive, peaceful existence harvesting flowers. They are completely benign and in between them is this Sampler, who is cultivating a garden of emotions to sample. What I thought was really interesting is the question of whether he’s culpable at all for this, for his involvement in this. Because he’s not necessarily doing harm, but he is gaining from it.
He’s profiting from the observation of those in pain and [who] have been affected. So to me that was a really interesting story, and he has to be killed at the end. Because it’s Heart of Darkness, it’s going up river to get the culprit, going up river to get the guy who is trying to take hold and it needs to be a mistake, because I feel like that…
Which part is a mistake?
The mistake that “he’s the guy.” I feel like in Kris’s mind, she’s found the person that’s been responsible for “all of my inability to know what’s happened. It’s that guy and I don’t know what he did, but it was that guy and we are going to get him.”
It has to be at some level a comedy of errors, because unfortunately I can’t do a movie or a film or a story where a character suddenly knows everything and that’s how we resolve it. Because that undoes the subtext of not being able to know what’s affecting you. I mean if you were to know exactly what it is that’s…
Let me back up a second. One of the whole points of having this story where people can’t quite name the thing that’s affecting them — in our story it’s done with these sort of mythical elements — but in reality I think everybody has that, at some level. I think that’s why we have so many diverse belief systems to explain things that are hard to explain, and motivations that don’t quite make sense and all of these things. Anyways, so that’s how we get there… I’ve lost my train of thought.
You were talking about Kris’s “mistake” in taking action against the Sampler.
They have to stay unknowing. They have to stay… It’s not something they could ever put their fingers on, because if they were to find out, then it’s like I or the movie is saying that you will eventually just know everything. Ultimately [Kris and Jeff] would almost have replaced [the Sampler] if that’s the case, if they know everything… They are moving up the ladder in a way by doing that.
You mentioned culpability. The reason I ask about the potential of a nonviolent resolution is that I wonder about a moral culpability on Kris’s part, because she does kill a person who is not responsible for her pain. I’m not looking for moral judgment, but implicitly it seems like there’s a fracture there.
Yeah, well I think that’s the thing. To be honest, that’s almost completely in line with what I’m saying, because it’s like there are no characters in the story that actually know anything about anybody else and that’s central. So for her to know he’s the bad guy, get the bad guy, that’s one story, but it’s almost like it has to be a case where she gets the guy and is wrong about it. So… I’m trying to think how a nonviolent thing would happen. I feel like the violence stems from how low she’s been brought and how severe this is and in her mind this punishment is proper for what’s been done to her and what’s been done to her pigs, her piglets, even though she can’t quite get to that understanding, at least not at that moment.

There the idea of resonance comes back to me again, through their reaction to the coupling of the pigs, the separation and destruction of the litter. I wonder if there has ever been an affected human couple that has come together before.
See, that’s something. Wow, I can’t believe that. That’s so great. That’s one of those things that’s absolutely in there, but I have to admit I didn’t expect that… Anyways, that doesn’t matter. Yes, our story almost only takes place… [pauses]. Okay, I’m going to say it anyways. This story almost only takes place because Kris and Jeff run into each other. They come into proximity to each other. Every other person who is connected to a pig in the corral or whatever is just going about their lives and they seem to be droning on and not doing well… not that they aren’t doing well, it’s just that they are in a trance most of the time seemingly, not knowing “Why I seem to be affected by things.”
So we’ve got these two people and they meet and then to me the question is “Are they responsible for their pigs getting into a mating or family relationship or is it the other way around?” It seems to be a back and forth thing where there’s an attraction, but there’s also a real tension between Kris and Jeff as to “Why can’t we make this thing work? Why do you have an issue with me and then the second you don’t, I have an issue with you?”
It just seems full of tension, so I think once this whole thing is displayed out on the table, this is a special incident, like the cycle ends basically because Kris and Jeff came into contact, had a family. That led to one thing that led to the piglets being drowned, that led to a break with Kris’s psyche, that led to a revelation through these Walden quotes and this exercise in the pool. Yeah, but that’s what’s so amazing, that you would… I thought “Well you would have to step back and step back to get to that moment,” but here we are talking about it week one.
Is there a factor in Kris that makes her special? She seems very tuned, and able to follow things back to the source. She’s in a creative field; is that aspect of her personality something that makes her better tuned to respond?
I didn’t think of it that way. I sort of just wanted a job where she seemed like a cog in the machine. I never really thought of it as a special thing about her. What was special was meant to be this relationship, that this was… Not that if you are in a relationship that you can… it’s not trying to say that, this is the random occurrence that ended the cycle, that you have this couple in this relationship and parents of these piglets and the horror of feeling like your children have been taken away from you when you don’t even have children.
And whatever that is, having that panic without having anything to point to to explain it and leading to her psychic break basically that just puts her in that state in the pool. Wow, I’m doing too much exposition, but yeah this is all the stuff to play with, yeah.
I keep thinking how much influence the sampler has. I say this because his work seems reflected in the score. For example, when Kris and Jeff are getting together the music — the halting, hitching piano line — sounded like somebody is trying to create something. That led to thoughts of the Sampler, and the idea of a diegetic thing going on where the score is actually in the mind of the character.
Well, I didn’t intend that. I think you’re talking about where there’s a simple piano score?
That was actually meant to be… It should play out. It should be like… The notes are romantic enough. We should be able to tinkle along and reflect some feelings, but it’s played stilted. It’s like it can’t quite get… What’s amazing, or not amazing, but…
Anyways, I had a random accident where I had that piece of music, and I had another piece of music that I wrote about a week and a half later, and I accidentally played them both at the same time. I did want to do that sort of thing. I wanted to combine bits of music, but I was going to put them in the same key when I did it. What I realized is I hadn’t put them in the same key yet, but when they meshed together, they were working sort of in concert and so that became a third piece of music that plays once they are in a domestic situation and they have shared memories, but it’s a combination of the music that’s played when they are first meeting and the music that is played when they are both haunted when they are alone at night and she’s in the pool and he is picking M&M’s out of a bowl. So there was a lot of… I think I just went on and on. I don’t know what I’m talking about anymore. (Laughs)
In the “heist” first act, there’s interesting stuff about the capacity of the human brain. Kris precisely recites a recent conversation while being “controlled,” suggesting a certain mind-body split. Do you have particular interest in that subject?
I’m trying to think if it’s just things that I think are clever or if they were meant to have meaning. I mean there were certain things that are… you know, transcribing a book page by page and then creating a longer and longer chain of these transcriptions when we are telling a story about your personal narrative being rewritten, that’s almost so on the nose that it’s embarrassing. But that’s definitely in there.
I think the rest of it, if I was being completely honest, it’s probably just me being clever with what you would do if you had control, like full control of somebody and you would just tell them “You’re not thirsty and you’re not tired” or “You can’t go to sleep and you can’t eat, because these walls are in the way” and just telling them that and that’s the end of it. In her reciting what she had heard from the bank, I guess I just imagined when she gets back in the car and he’s like “Okay, go ahead and recite word for word what it is you heard” and that’s what she is doing.
It’s a display of control.
Is the Thief’s control over her ultimately the other side of the pure relationship she has with Jeff?
Huh, I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s… I could probably spin that, but I think…
It’s something I hadn’t thought about until just now as you were talking.
It’s weird, because it has been a while since I wrote it. So much of that beginning is… I think of it in terms of setting up this rigid plot or this architecture so that we can spend the next third of the movie seeing the repercussions of that relationship in a more subjective way. [The middle act is] having hopefully a more of an emotional experience, and then the third [act] would almost be like this is not heaven, but an elevated experience where we start to lose dialog except for lines from Walden. We lose any kind of exposition and we only get into motivation, will, and pretty much subtext on the screen and almost nothing else. So to go back, I think the beginning third is almost like a straight, as much as this movie is ever going to be, a straight thriller.
It’s a heist movie, in a way.
Yeah, exactly.
Have you studied Gnosticism at all?
A core concept that might apply to the Sampler is the depiction of a false god who is manipulating power wrongly, but not necessarily maliciously.
No, I mean I guess that’s the thing… Well… Somebody asked me if it was about the pharmaceutical industry and I had to admit that “Well, no it’s not. It wasn’t meant to be.” It’s more about how it can feel like we are being affected by things off screen or far away that we can’t quite know about or understand and they said “Well yeah, but with people taking these drugs they don’t quite know if they are affecting them or not” and I was like “I guess that’s true, then.” In a very specific case… I mean I was going for something a bit more universal that tries to encompass all of the things that we use to explain other things, whether it’s more religions or political systems or whatever else. But yeah, I guess anything that we can’t be sure about would fall into that category.
(This is the point where I’m going to cut out a bit of in-between conversation that isn’t relevant to anything, but which led into a general query about the influence of religious belief systems on the story.)
I mean it’s definitely influenced, because I think we all are. I guess you could tell a version of this story that would be like It’s a Wonderful Life where you’ve got the angels that are looking down and talking about him and then they send one. In that way you’ve got human characters that are affected at a distance from some heavenly place. You could do a version of this story that is like that I guess.
To me, the important bit about setting up the myth of it is that it can’t point to anything that’s established, so then it can encompass all of the different ways that we’ve developed and to think about that stuff. So I guess the answer is that the ambition of the film is to be universal and not to speak about any one religion or even religion itself instead of… I feel like we’ve got tons of religions that we don’t even call religions, you know?
Whether you are liberal or conservative, people seem to know the talking points for whatever the issue of the day is. Very rarely does it seem like these are opinions that people are coming up with themselves, it’s like they watched the right cable news channel and now they know what they are supposed to think and they repeat that. And that goes to the sciences and everything. Everybody has got their own high school football team they cheer for basically. That’s what it feels like.
I’m curious about the process of cutting the film and how you worked with David Lowery. I see a real confidence in the way the film is presented, because somebody else might have put it together differently to push things towards the audience.
David saved my life, basically. I had this weird notion that I would be cutting in the midst of doing everything as far as directing and the rest of it. I was making some progress, but every day I was falling further and further behind. I was sleeping like ninety minutes a night and I was just a mess. I was desperate to have somebody come in and David was willing to do it. So I gave him all the materials and he took a look at what I had assembled and matched it tonally like perfectly after having some… and I think this is the important part, having a lot of conversations about “What are we trying to do right now? What is this thing? How does this work?” So we talked and talked and talked.
I’m amazed that the guy can edit a movie as beautiful as Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, but that is so far away from this movie. Then you look at everything else he does too, like Sun Don’t Shine. I was at the Maryland Film Festival and the guy had edited like four movies there. It’s crazy. And he matches whatever they need to be, he’s appropriate to it and then he goes and does Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and has his own singular vision of what he’s doing. It’s amazing.
He’s a genius and I can’t believe how lucky I was to be able to rest on him. So once I got very confident that… I mean he’s just without ego on this thing. He’s perfectly brilliant, but will still abide what’s been set up without ego. Once we had that working camaraderie where I came to trust him, then he’s brining ideas to the table and it really was a very collaborative effort. It was really great, because when we stopped shooting I was able to move into editing mode a lot better and so there was a period of a few weeks where we were in the same house, but doing a back and forth, like he would be on that part, I would be on this part… I’ve never had that before, somebody that you can just have a conversation with. It’s great.
I know that if I do an edit or I’ve got an idea of something… I don’t know if he wants me to talk about this. We’ve had some conversations on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and wherever he would be, he’d send me an edit and I’d have some ideas, but nine times out of ten he knows exactly what he’s doing, but I’d have an idea or so and we would bounce emails back and forth and once I felt like I had permission, I felt like I could take a crack at it myself and take a small segment and send it back to him. The greatest thing about being able to work with David is I know that if I try something and it’s not part of what he wants, he can just say that. “I’m sorry, that’s not part of what I want.” It doesn’t hurt at all, because I know that it’s not like “Oh, he just doesn’t get how great this is.” He’s got a vision and I feel like I can do the same with him, like he can go and spend an hour pursuing an idea and it doesn’t quite work for what we are doing and I have complete comorbidity to go “We’re going to go this way” and it’s like “great. Delete the edit. No big deal.” I hope that doesn’t sound weird, but yeah.
No, that sounds collaborative.
There’s an openness to it.
It sounds like there’s a rapport there, and you’re able to understand each other’s approaches. Did the film change significantly in that process?
Well there was definitely some progress or a transition that happened when we did start shooting, but I don’t know if I want to play that up too much, because I think that’s just standard stuff, like you imagine how a scene works and then you see it work with the music and with a camera language it comes to be and then suddenly you know something more than you did before. You know that “wait, that line of dialog is redundant, we know that from just looking at it.” So in that way, that also effects the edit, but I don’t know… I’m not sure and I’d be hard pressed to point to exactly what changed. Yeah, I don’t know. I feel like if I start talking about it, it would take an hour for any of what I said to make sense.

Interview: Shane Carruth (Upstream Color)

Jordan M. Smith
Interview: Shane Carruth (Upstream Color)
After an eight year period of silence following his time travelling Sundance Grand Jury Prize winning debut Primer, Shane Carruth returns to his position not only at the helm with his latest masterpiece, Upstream Color, but once again as writer, actor, cinematographer, sound designer, editor and even distributor.  Attempting the seemingly impossible, Carruth is self releasing the film in theaters on a limited run, opening today. The do-it-himself brainiac’s constructed another mind bending masterwork, this time delving into transmuted human psyches and the possibility of  bio-harmony through the cellular transmission of worms and pigs and people and all things. Part distorted romance, part sci-fi thriller, the film is one of decidedly high art omniscience, and Carruth knows this. When I sat down with the filmmaker the day after the film’s premiere at Sundance this year, he was candid about his intentions for the film’s reception and visually excited to discuss interpretations of the feature. Below is our lengthy chat in both transcript and audio form.
Jordan M. Smith: I know you haven’t made a movie in several years, how long have you actually been working on this movie?
Shane Carruth: Not nine years. It’s about a year and a half, from writing to now, more or less.
Smith: What was the origin for the story?
Carruth: It was the thematic exploration of building a personal narrative. I was really interested in how personal narratives get built. How you get to a point in your life where your identity says that you think you deserve certain things that are bad, that you have certain beliefs, and they’re not being critically tested anymore, they’re just sort of part of you, and your behavior or your circumstances may have gotten you to your identity and now your identity is servicing your behavior or informing your behavior, and I was just really curious about that and whether that’s a universal or common. I think that it is, and I wanted to play with how that works. So, I knew that I wanted a story where I’m going to break some people apart, I’m going to take that away from them and they’re going to have to rebuild it from scratch from what they find around themselves. So, this idea of these characters that wake up at some point and find that they seem to have done something that doesn’t make a lot of sense and so they try to find a way to explain why they would have done that and then that starts to define them. That’s where I knew where I wanted to start, that’s what I wanted to get into and then I needed this mechanism for making that happen and that’s where this sort of swarm or this cycle begins to happen, these events that happening. They’re both tethered to these pigs or this cycle that’s going on around them and it’s effecting the lead character’s behavior in a way that they can’t get to at all, they can’t know that it’s there or that they’re being effected. That would seem maddening. And then, the more that I’m playing with it I started to realize that that’s pretty much what it feels like. That’s pretty much what life feels like most of the time, is getting into an argument with somebody and afterwards going, ‘Why’d I get so mad? What was that?’ We’re affected by things that we’re not really in touch with on a moment by moment basis what’s happening with us. So, just the exploration of all these things bouncing against each other, the subjectivity of things seemed so rich to mine and really, just emotional for me. That’s where I came from, I just wanted to perfect all that.
Smith: I feel like when I was watching it there was the connection between life cycles, but the physicality of us just being. You’re constantly showing hands and feet and they’re allows touching things or rubbing on things. I’m guessing that was intentional?
Carruth: Yeah, it became part of the language. I’m not the first person to use it obviously, but these are the things we use to get to the world, to stop being in a void and to start inspecting and understanding things. It just seemed to be really appropriate when you’ve got these people that are searching and struggling, but they don’t even really know that they are struggling most of the time. It’s like that’s where we are, we’re at the place where they meet the rest of the world so that’s just where the camera goes most of the time.
Smith: You have a segment where the pig farmer is playing with sound, he’s manipulating sound, he’s recording natural sound and I know that you did the score, do you have a natural fascination for ambient sound or ambient music?
Carruth: Aaah….do I have a natural fascination….? Yeah….well….maybe? I don’t know if I do.
Smith: Do you do it on the side for fun, making ambient sounds or do you just specifically do it for you’re movies?
Carruth: Well, I did get into sampling on this…I don’t really know why. It just sort of happened, but the idea of taking the air conditioning sound or the sound of water draining and slowing it down or speeding it up and layering it, that was definitely something I was doing. I guess it is something I continue to do when I’m composing. I don’t know why I do that though. I know white sound became important in this film, but I don’t know if I have a natural fascination with it. Maybe I do.
Smith: It kind of ties in with the connection because we also take in audio. There are a lot of symbols throughout the film. I’m curious about the pigs, why did you choose pigs?
Carruth: Lots of reasons. I don’t know. I’m worried. This is what I do. There are probably six different reasons that add up to a solution that I like and I’m worried that if I say but one that it won’t really be accurate. The fact that they share a lot of the same diseases with us, that everything seems to be communicable between not everything, but a lot more than other different animals. That seemed to be important and pigs are sort of cemented in our history and culture, who know, Jesus cast demons into pigs as if they were an appropriate host for a spirit. It’s escaping me, but they’ve been used so often…we’re always talking about ourselves being related to these animals and they’re so anti us. We’re these sort of beautiful creatures and we’re intelligent and we move in a certain way, and they are these clunky little almost worthless things, they’re meat for the most part…I mean, that’s not true. I don’t want to disparage pigs, but you know what I mean. They are not us. They’re like passive little things that just want to eat. And so the idea of taking a spirit or an essence or whatever it is that gets transferred into the pig…it’s like a host, you know? If you were to give it to something more intelligent or faster or like a monkey, that feels different, that feels like its out in the world and running around where as a pig feels like a gold fish in a bowl, just stuck there. Something along those lines.
Smith: The film is also about kind of letting go of the past. You integrated that in with the papers, you see multiple times people throwing papers away and packing all of their belongings up into boxes. What was the development of that theme of letting go or was it a natural thing that development?
Carruth: Ummmm…..I guess I don’t know? I mean, it definitely is being done with something and letting it fly in the wind. But I don’t know where it would have come from other than…I don’t know know where it would have come from…
Smith: As I was watching the movie, you don’t realize at first that these people’s memories are kind of blending. As I was realizing it I kept thinking of the idea of phantom limbs or phantom memories, is that something you thought of as you were writing or is that just my perception of it?
Carruth: It started off mechanical to service the plot basically, or not service the plot but echo the plot. If I’ve got these two characters that are intertwined in some way because their pigs are intertwined in some way and there’s a communal experience happening in the pig coral, then it just seemed interesting that they would be sharing these memories, that they wouldn’t know where one of them ended and the other began. Then when I got more and more into it, I felt like there was a romantic aspect to that and there’s a really creepy aspect to that and there’s an infuriating aspect to that and that seemed really interesting to me because that’s exactly what this needs to be because so much of the film is Jeff and Kris thrust into a situation where they should be behaving one way, but they’re compelled to not. Or maybe the opposite, because the pigs are getting together basically in the coral, Jeff and Kris are compelled to do this, but everything about their dialogue or interaction is really rough and not smooth. It’s not happening.
Smith: It’s really spacey feeling.
Carruth: Yeah, it’s like these people are not connecting and yet they’re being compelled to connect for reasons that no one looking at this could tell you, but it’s because we know they’re connected off screen and these other things. So, because of that it’s like this subversion, this jarring of actions versus what you feel like you should be doing. I think that’s where the shared memories thing comes from because it’s…I don’t know, but there’s something else to it too, and there’s part of it I can’t quite get to. I don’t know what it is. The three minute sequence where they start to argue about it, that’s like my favorite sequence in the whole film and I know that it’s written and it was executed and performed in order to service the plot in pretty much the way that I said there, but there is something going on there that I don’t quite know what it is, but it really effects me. Just that idea of…I don’t know.
Smith: I was really taken back by it, this is very uncomfortable. I can’t even imagine how these people would feel if that were actively happening to someone…
Carruth: Yeah, but it feels analogous to something real that does happen in the real world and I’m gonna solve this thing, but I don’t know what it is right now. It’s so strange.
Smith: I had a question about the micro photography, or was it just micro photography or was it digital or what did you do there?
Carruth: There is no CG in the film. It’s all practical photographs. There is a bunch of stop-motion photography.
Smith: Oh really?
Carruth: Yeah, all sorts of stuff.
Smith: It worked well. It worked really well…
Carruth: Thanks, what’s so funny is that there is a lot more that was cut out that looked really beautiful. Tom Walker, the production designer, set up some stuff in the back room of my house that I was renting and did a bunch of, probably ten other really cool looking things that were meant to represent what was going on in Kris’s blood stream when she’s coming to realize something when she’s swimming and she comes to see the yellow orchid, or there was something in the bloodstream where we would see something that was blue and flowing turn to yellow and flowing, like it was a physicality, like it was actually happening and it looked amazing and it’s the weirdest thing in the world to not include it, but I had to choose not to include it because in a moment where she’s having this emotionally revelatory situation we’re cutting to microscopic stuff and it was just like, ‘It doesn’t work right here, unfortunately,’ as good as it is. It’s crazy, so crazy. The little blue guys that look like cells blowing up, there like little orbies. Those are actually shot the summer before, months before production on my dining room. They’re like little kids toys. They’re like Nerds, the candy Nerds, you know? You put water on them and they blow up into tiny little marbles.
Smith: They look like fish eggs or something.
Carruth: Yeah! They have like a hard dark center so it makes them look like fish, yeah.
Smith: Obviously the film is very unconventional in a lot of ways, and I followed along fine and I think most people that are serious about film are going to be fine, but for a traditional audience this is going to be hard and I feel like you rely on the audience a lot. Where you thinking about that while you were making it? Is that partially why you are self releasing the film?
Carruth: It’s tough. I think about story in terms of whether it has a chance to be relevant in the future, like, a long time from now and if I don’t think there is any chance then it’s not something I can get passionate about, but if it does than I do and what I need to solve now in a very temporary sense, the story has to infect culture at some level. It has to be experienced or read or viewed by a certain number of people or a certain amount of the right people that will respond to it, and it’ll somehow get into culture in some way and then it will have a life of it’s own and if it deserves to continue to exist and grow, then great. If it doesn’t then it doesn’t. So, I don’t see my job right now as how to figure out how to make every last dollar. I see my job as how to stay true to the exploration and do things that I think have a chance, that I think will stand the test of time and be worthy of people’s attention. When you tell a story I think you have to do both. You have what you think as or an author might think of as nutritional and worth exploring, but you have to be compelling and you have to, minute by minute, respect the attention of an audience and give them a reason to play that. That’s what we do, that’s what a narrative is, that’s what it’s always been. I don’t know. This is my aesthetic. This is my balance of the two. I think it’s appropriate. I think there are enough people in the world that will value it to make it worth making and to give it a chance to live longer, if it’s worth it, if it has merit.
Smith: Obviously your hands are all over this film, you’re directing, you’re writing, you’re acting, you’re doing the sound, you’re the cinematographer. What is you’re favorite of all the jobs that you do on the film or is there any one?
Carruth: It would definitely be writing, directing and music. Those, I don’t know which, but I could imagine only writing and directing. I don’t think I could reduce it beyond that, but that’s only because I think that they are the same job. I think they should be the same job. So, that’s my favorite I guess. I don’t know how to think about them in departments anymore. Like, to think about someone editing it differently than it was written and making choices about, then they’re changing the story and then it can’t be singular anymore. Anyways, you just asked my favorite, it’s writing and directing.
Smith: Why Walden? It could have been a zillion other books, but there’s got to be a particular reason why this one?
Carruth: Well, I picked it initially just because I thought of it as something pretty dry, pretty boring. It had passive, peaceful prose about nature. So, really, I picked it because it seemed like it would be the perfect book if you were trying to hypnotize someone or make them open to suggestion. This is what you’d get them to hand write over and over again because it’s like a drone. That’s the way I thought of it initially and then after I had a lot of the script crafted I picked it up and started looking at it for the first time since high school and started to see a bunch of incredible language about light and sound and beasts and nature and all of these things and they were all sort of in the script already, in some form or another. And I guess it occurred to me that I could use this. It was like a mine of material that I could continue to use because these characters, they’ve internalized these words and that’s how they’ll know they’re connected and they’ll be effected by these words without knowing, without knowing anything about it. So it just completely opened it up and I don’t know why or if I lucked out….I don’t know anything. And the thing is, now reading it, I’m like, the book itself seems so lonely and so lost and so much about not being able to connect in a real way with anybody else around you and filling you’re life with other things, these habitual things in the natural world. I don’t know. It just seems way too appropriate and I wish that I was smart enough to have done that on purpose, but I don’t think that I was. I don’t know what happened.
Smith: Intuition.
Carruth: Yeah, hopefully. I don’t know.
Smith: Did you think about it as brainwashing?
Carruth: Ummm…yeah, I mean hypnotizing, putting her in a suggestive state. Yeah, I mean, it’s putting someone in a completely controlled state. That’s how the thief would think of it, like, what we know, there’s many other things going on. This is just the first step in how the worm works. It’s also taking a bit of you when it leaves and there’s a connect there, so…
Smith: One of the major questions I had with the film, you had an aside with this couple, a troubled marriage. At the end I thought of it as one of the pairs that was connected, but you’re never really sure and as you’re watching them the first time, you don’t even really know that there is a connection. You might assume, but…
Carruth: Well, what we see is the pig farmer is walking in his coral, he’s shopping for….he’ll touch one pig and he’ll be able to observe the person that’s attached to that pig. That ones not doing anything great, this ones not interesting, that ones just looking at a shopping window, and then he gets to one who’s wife’s just been taken away in an ambulance. Ok, this is interesting, he goes to that. Then it becomes really, really…then we’re in this subtextual world of him being connected to the husband, but then the husband is I a state where he’s wrought with guilt and worried about his wife passing away, revisiting the day and how the day played out and the argument. We’re seeing the subjective part, that argument played over and over again the way he’s revisiting in his head, so the pig farmer gets to same that as well. It’s just keeps drilling down. The bottom line is to just show that sampling experience of the way he would go in and want to have that. In some way observe somebody having a height of emotion.
Smith: He almost seems like a ghost sometimes. You see him at the farm and then he’s with these people, but they don’t see him. I know at the Q&A you had mentioned that you’re working on a new script, which I’m assuming is The Modern Ocean?
Carruth: Yup.
Smith: When will we see it and what is it about?
Carruth: It’s a tragic romance set at sea with ships that trade commodities and some of them are warring with each other. It’s going to be really good. I can’t wait.
Smith: You also mentioned that A Topiary is doneskis maybe, on the back burner?
Carruth: Yeah, you know. I think my hearts sort of broken on it. I’m not trying to get it made. I don’t know. There’s things that happen with film finance people where they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, we just wanna talk about it, maybe you could come in and talk to us about it.’ It seems like a really trivial thing, but it’s just too much. I’m not going to ever get my hopes up for it again.
Smith: I know you were kind of burned by ThinkFilm with Primer and I know it’s been out of print for a while now, I’ve heard nothing about it and I was curious to know if you have plans to get it back in print or…
Carruth: Primer? Well, it’s not in print for DVD, but it’s everywhere else. It’s iTunes, Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, everywhere you can get it other than physical media. It’s all out there. Oh! And direct downloads from the website as well. But, I do want to make sure that this distribution thing isn’t characterized as if I was burned by ThinkFilm because yeah, maybe I wasn’t completely happy with everything, but I do think I was very fortunate to get a distribution deal and it’s not that I have a problem with anything that they did. It’s only that I now know what that experience is like and I know that everything will end up being a conversation and there is a level of bureaucracy that, it worries me when I think of something as important to me as this film and also when I think about this film being, as like you said, as unconventional as it is. I love the idea of being able to contextualize it myself. Everything that people will have seen before they receive this or view this will have been crafted for them in a certain way and it won’t be solely about trying to get their money. It’ll be about framing the story correctly and making sure the people that are most likely to be receptive to it understand that this is for them.
Smith: When the two trailers came out I was baffled and so intrigued because one is made up like a romance and then the other is like a really dark thriller and I’m watching both of them and I have no idea what this movie is going to be about.
Carruth: Did you see the final trailer?
Smith: Yes...
Carruth: Ok, yeah. I’m curious because the idea was that here’s our first teaser, it’s meant to basically show some of the visuals that are involved, but for the most part it’s confounding, hopefully visceral, but confounding and then the next one has none of those elements and it’s more about the romantic arc and there being some nuance, like some sort of emotional experience going on. So, the trailer was supposed to be a combination of the two while showing that there is a real narrative at play here, that we’re not just going to throw a bunch of random images together. Anyways, I’m just curious if that worked or not.
Smith: I think it worked beautifully, at least for me. And actually, I was standing in line today and someone from Dallas saw the trailer before like Zero Dark Thirty or something.
Carruth: Yeah! It’s playing! It’s playing in theaters! We’re booked in over twenty North American markets right now and yeah. We shipped out the trailer on flash drives and they’re being copied and sent around to all the theaters. I know there playing on at least thirteen screens and maybe more…

by Bill Pearis

Upstream Color
In 2004, Shane Carruth wowed Sundance Film Festival audiences with his heady time travel flick Primer, which he made with no prior filmmaking experience and shot (on film!) for a budget of around $7000. Carruth is finally back with its follow-up, Upstream Color, which premiered at this year's Sundance and The AV Club's Sam Adams called "one of the most transcendent experiences of my moviegoing life." Upstream Color will play NYC's New Directors/New Films Festival in March and the film opens theatrically at the IFC Center on April 5. The DVD and Bluray will be out soon after, May 7. You can watch the gorgeous, non-spoilery trailer below.
Like Primer, Carruth did almost everything on Upstream Color himself, including the soundtrack which was released today digitally and on vinyl. Ethereal and somber, Carruth's score definitely comes from the Eno, Vangelis and early John Carpenter school and, while I haven't seen the film yet, it's a lovely listen on its own. You can stream the whole thing below.
Shane was also nice enough to answer a few questions about his Upstream Color score and you can read that below.
BV: You are truly a DIY filmmaker, handling almost all aspects of production, including the score. I imagine for Primer, you did the score yourself for budgetary reasons. Did you consider hiring an outside composer for Upstream Color?
Shane Carruth: The short answer is no, I didn't. Something happened in the writing where I started to understand the emotional weight of what was being explored, the romantic promise that exists when characters are broken to their core. At that point I fell so hard so fast for the story that I couldn't have waited around for a another composer if I wanted to. So I would compose at the same time as writing the screenplay and let each affect the other in real time.
Both the Primer and Upstream Color soundtracks have a similar vibe. Did you approach the score to the new film differently? A different set of goals?
I view them as vastly different works, but maybe that's just me. I'm so grateful for the response that Primer has had, but I'm a bit insecure about its rough edges and that goes for the music too. Upstream is something I could not be more proud of in both its ambition and execution. The music is more accomplished I think and is so much in service of the exploration that it's hard for me to sever in it my head from the visual language. The film has an aesthetic of tactility, mania, and being affected at a distance so the music always relays the subjective experience of the characters, not what the audience is meant to feel which can be two different things.
You were an engineer before Primer. What is your musical background?
Is the score entirely keyboard/sample based or are their live/organic instrumetns involved? (It's hard to tell anymore.) What do you compose/record on?
It's a combination of everything. There are real instrument recordings, synths, and samples that start as soundscapes but have been converted to instruments by pitching (ex. the hum of underwater sodium lights). Everything is done on my laptop and Logic is the software I use the most.
Do you make music when not working on a score? Ever been in a band?
Not really, no.
What are some of your favorite soundtracks? Composers? What are you listening to these days?
Just referencing the most played albums on my phone (no order):
1. The Appointment - John Barry and Michel Legrand
2. Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud - Miles Davis
3. Shame - Harry Escott and Various
4. Vertigo - Bernard Hermann
5. Channel ORANGE - Frank Ocean
You're releasing the Upstream Color score on vinyl. Are you a vinyl enthusiast? How many copies are you pressing?
I've become one very recently. I dismissed the whole idea for years, but I can't deny there is a real quality to vinyl that I've been missing. I haven't delved into whether it's imagined or not, but even the simple ritual of setting a record spinning has become something I go to to relieve anxiety. We've pressed 500 this time. 

Interview: Shane Carruth, 'Upstream Color'

Upstream Color Q&A at Sundance
On Friday, the movie Upstream Color opened in Austin and is currently screening at Violet Crown Cinema and Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter.
While at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, I sat down for a conversation about the film with writer/director Shane Carruth, pictured above with producer Casey Gooden, production designer Tom Walker and editor David Lowery. This psychological science-fiction narrative is Carruth's long-awaited second feature.
Carruth also stars in the film with Amy Seimetz as a couple reluctantly brought together by forces of nature and fate beyond their control. Together they must piece together their lives and come to an understanding of their connection to one another and other people.
Slackerwood: You premiered Upstream Color at Sundance. How was the premiere screening and Q&A?
Shane Carruth: The first time the public saw this film, it was in a large theater so I had a little anxiety. I start to think there must be some sort of skill or technique to this (Q&A) and I need to practice or something. The reality is that once you get into it, as long as I've done my work -- as long as I know the film -- then typically it's not the worst thing in the world to just have to talk about it.
It's been awhile since your first film, Primer -- can you talk about the journey to the screen for Upstream Color?
Carruth: I wasted a bunch of time trying to do this other bigger thing that I couldn't get financed. So this film actually happened pretty fast. I'd been accumulating notes for it for a long time, so when I made the decision that I was going to drop everything and make this, I think that I had the script done in about three months, and then just pointed at a date and said, "we're shooting then." It was actually pretty fast. The time in between was just me coming to understand that there is no common ground between me and traditional film finance.
It only took you three months to write the script?
Carruth: I say that I wrote it in three months, but I guess that does bely the fact that I was accumulating notes for years before I just sat down with it and took all the bits that were important and made them cohesive.
It was a journey too after that, the way the aesthetic meets the story and I let that affect the story and let it be a conversation back and forth. The way that the film works changed just the tiniest bit. The story itself is exactly the same, but the atmospheric bit in the middle and then where it goes in the end, where we are in a world of almost complete subtext - a lot of that had to do with just coming to understand the execution and the aesthetic of it and how everything had to be tactile in some way. It's a process, it's hard to talk about.
What was your inspiration for the theme of Upstream Color?
Carruth: I was really interested in how people come to their own identities, and how they are shaped, and whether there's anything that can be done about that, or once that's done free will may or may not be there anymore. It may be your identity speaking and no free speaking.
I wanted to take some characters and bring them low and break them down, and have them have to build this back up. To wake up at some moment and not understand how it is that they got there and how to explain it with the evidence around them -- and they'll probably get it wrong.
That was step one, and then figure out the mechanism for how that would happen and that the mechanism needed to be hopefully mythological or otherworldly. It needed to satisfy a whole bunch of things that are difficult to to verbalize but it felt like that it needed to feel like a cycle that had been going on forever in perpetuity and in the natural world in some way. One thing led to another.
What do you think about the various interpretations of Upstream Color?
Carruth: Narrative necessarily is going to be something that has to be wrestled with in some way, I think that has to be the point -- or else why? If there's some exploration to be done, you could write a very dry doctoral thesis that would spell everything out, and try to make a logical case for going this way or that. It would be a horrible experience to read that. If you had to write a story that has absolutely nothing in its mind -- but it was action-packed second by second -- that's horrible too, because what's the point of that?
The idea has been forever since the creation of narrative that you take a little of both, and you make it compelling and make it substantial as far as the exploration goes. That's what this is really trying to be. But I think when you do that, it has to be turned over a bit in the mind of the viewer. That has to be part of it, or it's not a rich experience.
It's not meant to be this abstract thing that different people look at and get different things. But it is something that I know will happen initially, because this is the beginning of the conversation. This is a new thing, and it is aspiring to something slightly different than I think what people are used to.
I feel very confident that it will eventually become clear what the aspirations are that the film has. Some people are getting it immediately, some are not. I believe if someone has a less than positive opinion, it's potentially because they want it to be this animal, but it's this one over here. I know that this happens with me, there's pieces of music I listen to and they don't do what I needed them to do, and I dismiss them. Then I'll hear the music again, and realize that they had something else going on. Then I come to understand that I can judge this, but I've got to judge it based on what it's trying to do -- not what I thought it was going to do.
I think that's what this is, this is the beginning of the conversation. I'm confident that it will eventually be clear what the exploration and intent is.

The following question is a potential spoiler.
Your character Jeff specifically had to rebuild his identity, and help Kris with her recovery. Can you speak about that?
Carruth: They are connected to these pigs, and these pigs are connected to these other pigs in this sort of corral, and there's this sort of communion that's happening there. I guess what I thought of it was these pigs are in this corral and they are connected to humans in the city or somewhere else. We've got these unique situation where Kris and Jeff somehow came into proximity to each another.
That's what's happening that's relatively novel here -- that doesn't typically happen and so they come close to each other and there's this attraction because their pigs are attracted but they're not organically into it. They probably wouldn't if their pigs weren't forcing them to act in this way from off-screen, they probably wouldn't enjoy each other's company.
There's a lot of tension because of that, so the shared memories bit -- it's like they are too intertwined. They don't know where one ends, and the other begins. It's both a positive and potentially a manic thing. I wanted to see that and there was something about that, that feels universal.
Like being in an intimate relationship with somebody, it does feel like that sometimes. It does feel like "Can't I have some ownership of something, without it always being something that's shared?" That's too literal, but theres something that is important and universal and I wanted to see that.

Shane Carruth on self-distributing Upstream Color and “life in the pig corral”


No related

Primer, Shane Carruth’s 2004 film, was famously shot for $7,000, and it made up in narrative intricacy what it lacked in production value, inspiring obsessive fans to spend untold viewings untangling the movie’s multiple timelines. Upstream Color, his long-awaited follow-up, has its complexities as well, mingling narrative and metaphor, science and mysticism, but what’s surprising is how viscerally moving it is. The film’s images are entrancing as well as mysterious, hinting at connections that are still being made long after the end credits have rolled. Carruth spent much of the time between movies working on A Topiary, a logistically complex project that now appears to be dead in the water, but Upstream Color came together quickly once Carruth decided to stop taking meetings and start doing things himself. The DIY model applies to the film’s distribution as well, which Carruth announced before the film’s Sundance première—making it, unusually, both one of the festival’s most talked-about movies and its most unavailable. A few days after its first public screening, and with viewers still in post-première haze, Carruth sat down with The A.V. Club in Park City to talk about the influence of music on Upstream’s structure, why marketing and storytelling go hand in hand, and “life in the pig corral.”
The A.V. Club: It’s hard to imagine Upstream Color coming together in a traditional fashion. It’s not the kind of movie where you start with characters and see what they do. It seems more analogous to the way distilled water remains liquid below the freezing point, but if you drop in a tiny dust mote, the whole thing freezes instantly. What was the dust mote in this case?
Shane Carruth: I kept coming up with the same sort of questions of how identity comes to be—how our beliefs and the way we see the world and the way we think the world sees us and what we deserve, how those come to be—and whether that dictates our behavior or our behavior dictates that. I would have a conversation with somebody, and it felt like I wasn’t talking necessarily to a person; I was talking to a list of talking points that they were set up with. The more I thought about that, the more I thought what a really heartbreaking concept that is. So that’s the thing, I thought, “Great, let me get into this and explore this a bit.” That led to the idea that I’m going to take some characters and break them down and bring them low, and I’m going to erase what they thought they knew about themselves and have them build it back up. Then there’s just the how and the why. That led to the rigid plot elements that are swimming around these characters, the cycle of events that would be happening just out of their ability to know about, or even name or speak about. I guess one thing leads to another.
AVC: In interviews about Primer, you described a vaguely similar process where you established the theme, the intellectual environment, and then the characters come into it later. Is that how you approach story?
SC: It seems like it starts with a thematic exploration. Then you start growing the plot, and if you’re diligent, the plot is pointing back to your source. I don’t know. I’m not a smart guy, but I have a refusal to be done with something until it feels like it’s a decent piece of architecture that you can explore and swim through. I guess, in general, that’s what it is.
AVC: Did the story of Upstream Color change along the way?
SC: No. Only the execution changed. I guess that’s why it was so important to me to have a story that could more or less be a myth or a fable and be repurposed in all other formats. That way, you can be lyrical with the execution. It’s like knowing a piece of music, where you know it so well that you can screw up the rhythm for fun or change with the chord structure right in the middle of it.
AVC: Or play rhythms off against each other?
SC: Exactly. That’s what it feels like: If it’s strong enough, if it’s internalized enough, then you look back and there was a method to it.
AVC: The character of The Sampler is both a scientist and a musician, and the film seems to draw from both disciplines. How did you approach putting it together?
SC: It’s tough. The style sort of runs the gamut because we’re very precise and locked down at the beginning where the Thief comes in and puts Kris (Amy Seimetz) through this series of menial tasks. She’s completely being controlled in a really objective way—right there, it’s happening. Everything is stoic and locked down and precise. That’s all rigidly storyboarded. Most of it is storyboarded, but then sometimes we’ve got to get a little bit more experiential. When we’re talking about shared memories, it has to feel lyrical and homemade and intimate, so that means a whole other series of things to shoot. Those were the two ends of the spectrum, and I think we ran everything in between. The same thing with the edit: The rule isn’t only to do it by feel, but at some point if you’re going to go to that style, you have to let the editing match it as well.
AVC: There’s a moment where Kris is at work, and she’s watching stop-motion footage of what looks like a dinosaur made out of cardboard boxes. Is that from A Topiary?
SC: That is a creature from Topiary.
AVC: Was that just handy? How did that make its way into Upstream Color?
SC: That was one of the effects tests I was doing when I was trying to get that film made. I spent a lot of time building an effects workflow that could maintain an aesthetic I felt was important to the film and, at the same time, maybe be efficient financially so the film could get made. So the reality was she had to have a job, we had to show that she was a working girl—is it sexist to say “working girl”? I’m scared to death now—we had to show she had a job, and we had 20 or 30 seconds to show her at that job. I guess I thought that it was interesting to make her an effects person and show that clip. That’s all that comes down to. It’s sad because that’s all it is: clever. It isn’t anything meaningful.
AVC: It’s not a Rosetta Stone moment: “Ah, Kris represents you!”
SC: Oh, wow. No. Wow, I hope that’s not what happens.
AVC: The movie’s first section is deliberately disorienting, which mirrors Kris’ own confusion, but once she and your character meet, the love story puts the audience on more solid footing. 
SC: That is definitely where we’re trying to get to, and the first third is mainly how we get there. The thing is, we have these characters who are going to be haunted by something that they can’t speak to. So we spend some time upfront on specifics, why she’s haunted and what it is that’s haunting her. So that’s, in really crass terms, the mechanical reason why that is there.
AVC: Your understanding changes as you watch. When Jeff, your character, tells Kris about his drug problem, it seems like a real-world analogy to what she’s gone through, but then you start to wonder if it’s a false memory, or if he’s just not telling her the whole truth because he doesn’t think she’d believe it. 
SC: “I am lucky to have that job.” Both Kris and Jeff say that at different moments. I’m just very gratified to hear that part works.
AVC: And then it gets into the area of shared memory, which is more mysterious. Is this both of their lives, or some hybrid of them? Each third of the movie complicates, and to an extent overwrites, what came before.
SC: Well, the first third is setting up this architecture of how things work in this world. How do we get to a point where these characters are established as having these connections off screen? And then they meet and we have this, hopefully, personal, subjective experience as they contend with the fact that they’re being thrown together. Something is doing it, and they don’t necessarily want it. It doesn’t seem like they want it, but it’s happening.  I really enjoy that. And then they get into this domestic situation. That’s life in the pig corral: Where do I end and where do you begin? That’s fusion and both the positives and negatives of that, both the intimacy… I had the right word for it the other day, but I can’t think of it. It’s like you don’t have your own identity, like you’re just half of something.
In this story, it sort of fuels this mania that exists, more for Kris than for Jeff. She’s haunted and certain there’s something to solve if only she can find the right direction to look. That middle third is a shift tonally, but that’s the heart of the story. The last third is a follow-through of everything we’ve seen and a resolution that is almost completely about subtext and nothing else. We’re only following will and motivation. It’s an emotional climax, a comedy of errors in some way; it’s Heart Of Darkness, going upriver and finding the culprit and doing him in. I’m sorry. All I’m doing now is describing the movie. But that last third is meant to be this almost-opera where everything is music and light and white space. It’s nondescript. There’s nothing left to talk about.
AVC: You decided in advance to self-distribute Upstream Color, and that means being involved at every step of the process, from choosing stills to cutting trailers to website design. 
SC: That’s the sole reason to do this. It’s been really satisfying to contextualize and craft and frame the way the audience will see this. I think it’s really great. You can do more than just sell tickets, or raise awareness. It’s like this is the opening-credit sequence of the film. It sets the tone. There’s a way to approach this where you want to make as much money as possible. I get that. But I think if we’re willing to just have some integrity and some earnestness, we get to do something better and something we can be proud of. It’s a continuation of storytelling. When you’re writing a story, you can just write the bits that an author cares about or that I would care about: What’s the exploration? What’s the subtext? You can write it out, and it would be this dry, boring thing that may or may not be true, may or may not be important, but it’s certainly not compelling. And you can tell a story that has none of that stuff and it’s titillating moment by moment, but that’s pretty much worthless because what’s the point? So a narrative has to have both of these things. I’m already in the business of trying to be compelling and making a case for people to look at this thing, so I feel like I would like to try what’s called marketing, but it’s a continuation of storytelling. We’re getting to the film, and here’s… what, the preamble… What’s the word?
AVC: The overture?
SC: There we go. This is the overture. Wow, I’m using that from now on. Every time you see that reprinted, I stole it from you.
AVC: It’s not as if you’re just trying to be obscure. You look at some of the trailers and it’s, “Kissing! Guns! Axes!” I’m glad I didn’t watch them before I saw the film, but if I had, I would want to see that movie.
SC: There is commerciality in storytelling, even in a film or a piece of literature. These things exist. That’s why stories came to be: to hold attention and, while you’re not looking, you’ll get hopefully some nutritional value that the author has been working up. That’s narrative; that’s passing stuff down.
AVC: It’s interesting that the still image of a pitcher of ice water and a paperback book is obscure before you’ve seen the film, and very specifically meaningful once you have. 
SC: That’s sort of the fun of it. Because if you put out three stills, and one of the stills is a water pitcher, it begs the question, “Why am I looking at a water pitcher?” ”Whose is this elbow and these legs that are offscreen, or almost offscreen?” And that’s storytelling as well. It’s like asking a question and if it’s a compelling enough question, maybe the audience will care enough to want to know the answer.
AVC: Part of your self-distribution is you’ve set a firm date for when the film will be available digitally and on DVD, which is not something that exhibitors are traditionally fond of. They don’t want audiences to skip buying the ticket because they’ll only have to wait a few weeks, or to have a film come out on video while it’s still doing well in theaters.
SC: There are theater chains that are like, “Nope. We’re not booking it if you’re going to do that.” And we have to be very open with them. And there are theaters that are okay with it. I can’t refute that it’s being self-distributed, but really, it’s just being distributed. Everything a distributor would do, we are doing. We are required to be a little bit craftier because we don’t have the resources and I’m not as savvy as them, but I think we make up for it in earnestness and staying true to the intent of the film. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a good thing.
AVC: Misrepresenting a film can only get you so far. Warner Bros. sold Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris as a George Clooney romance in space, which lasted until the first audiences saw the film and said, “What the hell is this?” You can sell it for a day by lying about what it is, but there will be blowback.
SC: Yeah. I’ve really paid attention to that in the last year, films that are not romantic comedies being sold as that. It’s like groupthink. It’s bureaucracy… okay, I’m not going to tear them down.
AVC: The entire movie industry?
SC: Whatever. It is what it is. I’m just glad this is a possibility now.
AVC: It’s interesting. There’s a structure in place and all these various windows of availability, but it’s hard to understand why in this day and age there’s several months between when a movie runs out of gas in theaters and when it’s available on DVD. 
SC: It’s weird. There’s a lot of things like that, where it feels like they haven’t been thought about for a long time and that people are continuing to do them a certain way. There’s so many things that are breaking now, day-and-date stuff, movies are coming out on iTunes weeks before they’re available theatrically, and some of them are having success. It’s interesting.
AVC: It does seem like we’re in a prolonged “nobody knows anything” period about how media is going to connect with audiences.
SC: Yes! But I actually am very comforted by this. There’s more than enough on the table to do what you’re passionate about and keep moving forward. Don’t worry about are we moving to keep up and doing bigger and bigger things and get to a $200 million movie. I’m here to tell stories. I don’t know. Hopefully this works the way that is looks like it’s might work, and most of this is a repeatable process. I don’t have to keep moving up and try to make tens of millions of dollars. I’ve just got to sustain the ability to do this. Upstream Color in particular, it’s got to infect culture at some level in order to have a life of its own. Then it’ll be judged, and it’ll either live or it won’t by its own merit and history will decide whether it’s relevant however long into the future. I think that’s more than enough to hope for. You don’t need to build a studio or anything.
AVC: At Sundance, someone always asks what your budget was and what you shot on, but you don’t want to talk about what your camera setup was. Why is that?
SC: It’s because I don’t want the film to be characterized by these things. It’s weird that it becomes a topic of conversation—the camera, of all things. Nobody talks about what kind of audio gear we used. It’s like a spectator sport of some kind. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the landscape of cameras, [especially] the new digital ones. With A Topiary, we were going to shoot on 65 mm, and I was really consumed with that and comparing resolutions and all these things. I just jettisoned all that. Now I only care about the narrative and an aesthetic that services it. As far as the tech of it, that’s like what accountant do I want to use, or who do I bank with. It’s just not part of the story.

Upstream Color: Interview Shane Carruth

Ever since his film Primer awed audiences at Sundance in 2004, Shane Carruth has been a name about the town. The film was made for $7K and proved Carruth not only as a director, writer and actor but also as a filmmaker who could balance complete control over his projects.
After nine years, he’s returned with the equally buzzed-about Upstream Color. Premiering to praise at Sundance and SXSW, the film centers on a couple that has been infected by a mysterious parasite. Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Carruth) struggle to maintain psychological coherence as the repercussions of the infestation corrode their lives. It’s an exploration of man, nature, and when the mind falls victim to the latter.
I could have talked to Shane for hours, days, but I only had a fleeting moment to pick the incredible filmmaker’s brain. We discussed his struggle with creating an entirely new screenwriting format, the film with Fincher that he’d never make now, and his next project “Modern Ocean.”
ATW: You studied mathematics and engineering in school. When did you decide to teach yourself filmmaking? Was it something you always wanted to do?
C: I was studying math, but I was writing a lot. That’s where my passion was. I got out of school, and I didn’t know what to do with that. I did a software job to pay rent, but I tried writing short stories and did half of a novel and then landed at screenwriting. I naively started thinking I would shoot a film and then I just did.
ATW: Where did the seed of the story begin for Upstream Color? Was it the characters, the concepts, or the themes?
C: I was thinking a lot about personal identity and narrative and everything that could define a person, their subjective and political beliefs, their worldview and all that; when and where that gets cemented. What can be done to change it? I wanted to strip that from the characters and have them rebuild it and potentially build it wrong.
ATW: With this film you’re sort of forming a new language of storytelling. Because of this, I’m curious what the script actually looked like. Was it based more in imagery, text or more storyboard since you were also directing?
C: [Laughs] It’s a big mess, but there’s a script there that you could read. I don’t know how much of the story it would have communicated. I started doing my chicken scrap storyboard on the back. There’s also music for specific scenes. It’s one big un-wieldy mess. I’m trying to figure out How do you organize this network of thoughts. The format for screenwriting is so ancient.
ATW: The worm that Jeff and Kris digest is a very unique parasite. How did you go about building the specificity of what this drug is and how it affects its victims?
C: There are a lot of things I’ve read in my life about these hidden biological mechanisms that we still struggle to figure out. The way that bees communicate, even if we sever them, a scout can come back and report where there’s a good bit of pollen for them, just based on the wall of their hive. There are parasites that burrow into the head of insects that are detrimental to the host, these sorts of things informed the idea. But I wasn’t trying to take one and mimic it. There could be a hidden thing in the environment without us knowing, such that’s outside of our control.
ATW: This definitely ties into the use of Thoreau’s “Walden” in the film. For you, what was the intention? Was it to explore man vs. nature?
C: Once the mechanics of this life cycle were embedded in nature and satisfied my criteria, I needed to satisfy one other thing. I thought here’s a book made up of language from the natural world, but it’s also a pretty passive piece. It’s so meditative that it seemed appropriate for the characters. When the [thief] taps on the front cover, my intention was that’s his tool.
ATW: Particularly the ending is extremely fragmented. You’ve described it as “everything deteriorates into the ether.” Was the structure of the film established more in the script or once in the editing room?
C: Definitely not in the editing room. This is something I’m really struggling with because there seems to be two schools of thought and both of them are wrong. One is a film that’s so obedient to the script that it’s rigid, another is everything is improvisational and all fun and games. [For Upstream Color] The music is being written when the script is, the visual language forms closer and closer to production and then that goes back and says the music is wrong. They can’t fight each other, so let’s figure it out. There’s this network conversation taking place. I don’t know how to talk about it other than that. I don’t know what of that script made sense to anybody; so much is connected by match cuts and a language of camera work.
ATW: That leads me to my question about A Topiary. It’s been a hot topic since you came out about the film and it’s potential to be made with Fincher and Soderbergh. Would you make the film now if you had the chance? Even if it meant sacrificing the complete creative control that you have now?
C: I won’t ever do that. I won’t ever make A Topiary.
ATW: I thought that might be your answer! You’ve decided to even self-distribute Upstream. Why and what’s the process been like?
C: The film has a different ambition about it. I want to be clear with the people that we’re telling about it what it is. I don’t want it to be like we’re selling one thing and delivering another. I wanted to craft the trailer and the poster, better than something that was trying to get every last dollar. I wanted to contextualize the film in a way that’s appropriate.
ATW: When you’ve spoken about your relationship with Amy, you describe her as a kindred spirit. How did you find her?
C: I didn’t know who she was or anything, but getting closer and closer to production, I was calling any actress who’s name was given to me. I called her up, and she was editing her own film [Sun Don’t Shine] that she also directed.  I saw it, and more or less that’s what I was keen to. She completely got narrative, and it seemed like we were going to be able to communicate better than typical. She read the script and knew what it needed to be. That was such a gift!
ATW: Tell me about your next project “Modern Ocean?”
C: It’s a continuation of the language inUpstream, but there’s no otherworldly elements taking place. It’s more characters than I’ve cemented so far! It’s set in shipping routes and there are pirates! But it’s got to have a bigger budget!

Shane Carruth Answers All Our Questions About 'Primer,' 'Upstream Color' and 'The Modern Ocean'

Filmmaker Shane Carruth, whose homemade and award-winning debut Primer confused and seduced everyone in 2004, has a new brain-burner hitting screens tomorrow: Upstream Color. If watching Primer felt like trying to solve a Rubik's cube that you swear was missing some pieces, watching Upstream Color feels like using memory regression to solve a similar one. But the missing pieces are there for a reason. With rapid editing and imaginative, often jarring use of sound, Carruth's second film replaces the former's fluorescent-lit minimalism with a kaleidoscope of spinning clues: a man and woman (Carruth himself as Jeff, and an excellent Amy Seimetz as Kris) are drawn together by a tragic event from their past they can't identify, and don't know they share. The young couple unknowingly search for the unknown within the film's hypnotic style, resembling a bewildered Mulder and Scully cast adrift in something like Godard's Pierrot le Fou. Romantic? Yes. Interesting. You bet. Casual viewing? Not really. Upstream Color is a romance picture turned outside in, and finds itself in league with of some of the better brain-trips of recent years. (A more compact Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? An Inland Empire for first dates?) I spoke with Carruth about his new movie. Readers should know that some plot points (concept points?) are discussed in this interview… not that it matters, probably? It kind of doesn't, really!
Upstream Color begins an engagement at IFC Film Center tomorrow, and arrives in Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle and many other cities on April 12th, with more to follow this month. On May 7th, it'll be released on-demand and on DVD and Blu-ray.

MARK ALLEN: The first impulse I had after seeing Upstream Color was to immediately go see it again. Audiences generally seemed to embrace Primer as a "puzzle" to be solved. This new movie also feels like something audiences will be inspired to take apart and put back together again. Are puzzles something that attract you, and is that kind of reaction something you like?
Shane Carruth: That's not something I go out of my way to do, but it's something that, once it becomes clear is going to become an artifact of something bigger, I'm not worried about. My aim as a filmmaker is, by the end credits, to have delivered an emotional arc—and, hopefully, a somewhat cohesive narrative. My aim is not to sum everything up and make everything that is telegraphing meaning to necessarily be known by the end. I don't shy away from denseness. I want there to be a cipher of some kind that gives the audience confidence that the film is purposeful and placed in there for a reason, and hopefully there's some fraction of that coming across by the end. I want to give the audience confidence that if they were to spend time thinking back on or revisiting it, it will bear out and be worth that.
That's mainly how I enjoy films. And to be honest there's not a lot of modern films that do that for me. Certainly things like The Master, for example. I knew I'd seen something by the end of it, but I didn't necessarily know what it was all meant for. So then I revisited it and felt rewarded by investing the time in what I'd been challenged by. So if that's happening with my films, I would call that success. Also if I've made it too obtuse and it's not registering with anybody, then that's an error on my part, I think.
The poster is so odd. I'm curious why you chose that particular image as the first thing many people will see about Upstream Color?
I felt it was a good contextualization of what the movie itself is interested in. There were a lot of ways to take some of the more striking imagery from the movie and sell it, like, "Whoa, you've got to see this movie folks! There's pigs and worms! And wow, hey look: guns!" There were ways to try and sell things and try to get every last dollar. But when I see that image of two fully clothed people in a bathtub, and the distress that's involved, I want to know something about it. Not how crazy the plot is that got them there, but something more. What emotional state did they have to get in for this odd thing to happen?
One thing I noticed after watching the film was I think there were no cell phones or internet being used in any scenes in the film, besides at the beginning with Kris at her job. Am I right?
That's interesting because, oh wait… there's a cell phone that rings where they're in a hotel room together. Hmm. And there's a computer… but it's analog.
I guess I noticed the lack of it. It seems every film these days uses that unthinkingly, almost every sequence has to involve a cell phone or the Internet as a rule, like it's saying, "Okay, this is how everyone lives now, folks, so get used to it and oh also please get excited about the new iPhone."
I have sort of a weird aversion to any tech that's too modern, in films. But typically that's from trying to show something that's not too identifiable, like for the audience not to be able to say, "Oh, that's a certain city," or "that's a certain place or building." That's just my own personal aesthetic, wanting things to feel a little more timeless or universal.
Before I saw the film I heard the soundtrack—which you created yourself—and it reminded me of late-70s electronic stuff like Cluster or Eno. Then when I saw the character the Sampler recording sounds from machines and nature around him and turning it into music, I had a totally different opinion about your possible influences. Is what we're seeing Sampler do in the film basically how you created the music itself?
Actually, there is a lot of that stuff in the soundtrack, at least now. Going back, first I wrote the full score while I was writing the script, which wasn't synth-y at all. There were strings, and it was meant to be performed by a symphony of some kind. But when all the different elements in the film began to come together and react to each other, once it became clear this soundscape was part of the characters' non-verbal communication and was part of the way we were going to convey ideas when we couldn't say them out loud, that's when I changed my mind about the strings on the soundtrack and began to take samples from the sounds I was recording.

The symbolism in Primer seemed covert. In Upstream Color the symbolism seems more blatant, especially in the last third. The characters are in an unbelievable situation, but throughout are often shown switching between seemingly actual life and dream-like scenarios that seem metaphorical.
Upstream Color is more overt in its symbolism than Primer, and I'm okay with that. I feel like things have taken a weird turn in films. The meaning or symbolism… or maybe literary value in film seems to have reached a point where it can either only be so simplistic that it's not interesting, or so obscure that it's difficult to tear apart. I think what I'm interested in, getting back to things that are almost as easy to understand as fables, like say, The Tortoise and the Hare… well maybe not quite that simplistic, but something that, if you were to pull it apart and put it down, it would have that simpleness or universality to it. That way you can explore it more lyrically. You can maybe find some nuance in the edges of how it's defined, instead of finding nuance in making it so massively complex in meaning. I feel like in some films it's almost like things get too complex and we all do that thing where it's, "Oh, it means whatever you want it to mean! It means different things to different people!" And that's something I don't subscribe to.
Despite the path you seem to be following from Primer to Upstream Color, which as you say is far more complex and metaphorical?
Yes I do. But I think the consensus about Upstream Color already—and the film isn't even out yet theatrically—is strikingly close to the intentions I set out to portray. So I think there's only one way to view this film: in a way where all the pieces make sense. I mean, there are lots of people with different theories, but I don't believe those theories bear out once the film has been studied or revisited. I guess we'll see… but I feel pretty confident.
On one hand, maybe Upstream Color just feels more open-ended to me because it's new, the same way Primer was in 2004, and maybe people have had enough time to sort of figure that one out. With Upstream Color I hear people saying those same things all over again, you know like, "I need to watch it again! What does it all mean? Let's make a website with charts!"
In Upstream Color, is all of this surreal stuff really happening to Kris and Jeff?
Well, I would say yes. But it's because the plot itself is about being affected from or observing at a distance. For instance, when we're in that empty office room in the scene at the end, then yes, Jeff is having lunch there. And then I'd say it's up for debate who else was actually in that room or not with him. That would include the Sampler, who suddenly appears in the room, but we've already learned has an ability to observe people from a distance without being seen because he has this sort of goldfish bowl-like pig corral that he sampled other people's emotional experiences to create. So the question is: where is Kris? If Kris is walking into this room, where is she? Hopefully, that's a compelling question and, once we get a resolution, we'll see she's actually in the pig corral herself and has found a way to cross over.
So, from a plot perspective, that's the question at the end of the day: what of this is real?
But from a subtextual perspective, it almost doesn't matter. This is Heart of Darkness, this is going upriver to solve the problem in some way, put an end to the thing or person who's been found responsible. So that's the way I sort of thought of it: we are now beyond plot or questions, we are simply watching it play out.
What's strange is I didn't even notice the last third had no dialogue until I read about it later. How did that happen?
It started with the idea that so much happening for these characters was non-verbal. I've got people that are affected by things at a distance, two people attracted or repulsed from each other based on what two pigs are doing on a corral, out of the city.
These characters can't even speak to that, they can't know it or suspect it, they can only know that there's something between the way that they're motivated and the physical world around them. So for them to be able to talk about it, in a way, was an impossibility. In the last third when we're just following through, I thought, sure there's a line or two that could maybe be useful… but is there any way to not have them? It was relatively easy to do.
Which leads me to: Thoreau's Walden is a big part of Upstream Color. Did you chose it to be an element of the story after the fact, or did it inspire the film on the whole?
I chose it to satisfy a couple of things. One, the story of Upstream Color started with me knowing I'd have characters that in the beginning I would strip of their understanding of who they were, what they thought of the world, anything that could be part of their subjective experience or what they considered themselves, their narrative. Like amnesia. And they would wake up in this moment were they would look around and not be able to explain the things that they'd done, and would have to adopt a new narrative, try to rebuild and follow through on that no matter how foreign it seemed. I was trying to come up with a tool to get them there, and that's when this life cycle part was created in the story; the worm, the pigs, and the orchids, with this presence sort of spiraling around it as part of it. Because, there are lots of ways to create amnesia in people and have them wake up wondering why they've done. It could have been a pharmaceutical drug, or a bump on the head, some alien something… there's lots of ways.
But I wanted to create something that felt like it was embedded in where we live, something you could believe is just outside our experience but still around and relatively commonplace. Something in nature that had its own life cycle that was seemingly sustained without anybody managing it. It seems like there's a conspiracy between all these people and the things they do as the life cycle travels through them, the Thief, the Sampler, and the Orchid Harvesters. But they're just doing the thing they know how to do, they don't know the thing is dependent on their combined actions, moving through the one that came before or the one after. So this balanced the equation of the story for me, and put us in the natural world, and put us sort of in the mind of biological processes. Another piece of the puzzle was that I knew I was going to put Kris through a process where she is meant to do these menial tasks to kill time while the thief waits for the money to clear, writing and re-writing some novel, and making paper chains out of it. So Walden seemed appropriate.

The locations in Upstream Color have a serene feel; suburban sprawl architecture contrasted with wild, flat Texas terrain. Like Primer, you filmed again in the Dallas area for Upstream Color. I assume budget is a factor, but has capturing this type of terrain in your films has become an important element in your work? Do you think you will film in Texas again?
No I don't, actually. In fact we sort of shot Dallas for not-Dallas, in my mind. Not that I was trying to hide the suburbs, because those are a really big part of it. But all I wanted was to start one place, you know everything about Kris' experience is about slices of narratives, she starts one way, then she winds up another way… they escape to the suburbs and that's meant to be the resolution, and it still isn't. So everything in there was meant to be a contrast, a change is setting, change in dress, change in appearance, change in Kris' mental state, basically.
I've heard Primer described as "a metaphysical buddy pic." It was very male-centric. Upstream Color has a strong male/female dynamic. Was this an intentional change? Or just part of the film you wanted to make?
It wasn't a reaction to Primer, I know that. I actually have wondered this, like, wait, why is the lead character a woman, why am I so sure of that? And then I remembered it had to do with the piglets. We're going to put a woman through the experience of the hysteria and mania of having lost children, without ever knowing that she ever had them.
So it required a woman to have that psychic break that Kris ends up having because of this experience. Honestly the reason it's a man and woman is because when this stopped being a thought experiment about stripping away narrative, and started becoming much more universal and bigger, and not just: what could someone think or believe, and then have that stripped away and replaced with something else. But the way you view yourself, or whether you're a good or bad person or whether the world likes you or you like the world, or what anybody deserves. The bigger it got, the idea of stripping that away became more emotional, and I think that to me lead to the idea that that's a really romantic premise. You've got people that find each other in that space. I wanted to see two people that are latching onto each other of the small inkling that that's the salvation in this, so that's why it went there.
I really felt Upstream Color seems rooted in film techniques that were started in part by Godard, and continued along by other films like Requiem for a Dream, Inland Empire and Gaspar Noé's work, and many others. Particularly keeping in mind the last third of Upstream Color seems to be moving forward in the film medium, which many people feel is dying, you seem to be reaching for a new type of storytelling through the technology of images and sound combined together. Would you say that's true?
Completely. That's absolutely the way I think of it. Yes. And, I'm writing something now that's trying to take that idea even further.
Which is your next film, The Modern Ocean?
That's right.
I want to talk about that but first want to talk about what was initially to be you second film. Around 2011, you tried to get a very big-sounding and strange science fiction film off the ground, called A Topiary. There was a lot of online hype when it was announced in 2011, then it was reported you were putting it on hold to do Upstream Color instead. Recently I read you'd stopped working on it altogether.
With A Topiary I invested a lot of time and energy, and did the thing that I tend to do, which is get lost in the details. In the process of getting it off the ground I was trying to solve a few problems. A Topiary was dependent on effects, and I was worried that in the process of farming out to third parties and hoping for a consistent result, I wasn't seeing a lot of success there and I was worried. Especially if we were going to do something for sort of a lower budget compared to what it typically would have been if it were a Hollywood film, I was worried that wasn't going to work out. So, I spent a lot of time solving that or trying to solve that in my mind—that would make it sort of a boutique operation within production, which was something that wasn't commonplace. I spent a lot of time on that: a lot of time doing design, then about a year doing meetings trying to convince people to invest in it, and didn't have any success.
So it's shelved?
In my mind it is. Because of some of the noise that Upstream Color is making now, everybody now thinks the plan is, "Let's take the noise and try to make A Topiary." But is it shelved? Yes/no. Because of all the work I did that didn't work out, in my mind it's a film that sort of already exists, but that I can't really let myself revisit. Especially when I'm so passionate about what I'm writing now.
Okay, so your next film will be The Modern Ocean. What can you tell me about it?
It's shipping routes, commodities trading, pirates and privateers. It's sort of a tragically romantic story, everybody in the film is trying to pursue something and all these wires are getting crossed, hopefully in an interesting way. But speaking about cell phones and stuff, it's weird, I think in my next film The Modern Ocean, it's going to be roughly the same way, we're not going to see the latest iPhone or iPad or whatever. But it involves oceanography and there are lots more tools and more tech in it, and definitely a unifying, rugged aesthetic to all those elements within the film. We'll have to see.

Interview: Shane Carruth of 'Upstream Color,' Part 1

The indie genius on love, identity, mind-worms, and more...

Following the cult sensation "Primer" -- a six-thousand dollar time travel movie that won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize out of nowhere in 2004 -- Shane Carruth is back with "Upstream Color," a new film that marks his return to theaters after years trying to get his screenplay "A Topiary" produced. Even with the backing of Soderbergh and Fincher, though, "A Topiary" proved unmakeable...and Carruth moved on to "Upstream Color." It's like a slightly more abstract 9and, to me, more moving) variation on 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," a love-story told through a pseudo-scientific device -- in this case, bright blue insect larvae that can be used to connect two minds and souls in harmony...or, alternately and less kindly, to utterly control a single mind.

Kris (Amy Seimetz) is a young woman who, after being controlled through the worms by a character known only as The Thief (Thiago Martins), tries to re-build her life after a calamity she can't remember at all much less recall the specifics of; when Jeff (Shane Carruth) is drawn to her for reasons he can't explain, it seems that they share a certain experience -- and are drawn to look for a man known only as The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), who knows far more about their ordeal than they do, but cares abut it far less. With its cinematic ambitions, rich symbolism and deep themes, "Upstream Color" is a love story unlike any other -- and far more moving than most dead, montage-laden 'love stories' Hollywood releases. We spoke with writer/director/star​/co-editor Carruth at the Sundance Film Festival.

MSN Movies: There's so much to talk about, but I just want to start with a real basic conversation starter, which is what kind of science fiction do you dig when you read it, when you look at it? I mean there's a clear influence on your stuff. Your work plays with other genres and approaches as well, but I'm just curious about what your specific flavor is of that specific poison.

Shane Carruth: Of science fiction?


Very rare. Very rare. Yeah, very rarely do I enjoy something that's science fiction or trying to be, because I think of it as a literary tool, as a shortcut to get to something better, as exploration, you know? To explore something that's universal. And more times than not that seems like it's an aesthetic. You know, it's like ...

... Rocket ships with metal fins.

... There we go.

... People with shoulder pads.

Lasers, aliens, things like that, yeah. So, you know "2001" continues to be the high water mark, and I don’t know. I mean I do. There is a lot (of science fiction) that I like though. It just it's every once in awhile. I mean like in ""Battlestar Galactica," running a few years ago, that was some of the best exploration (of SF) that I'd seen in a long time.

And then it went out on a serious downward bell curve.




I'm also wondering, I just saw "Upstream Color" last night so I'm still processing, but I'm wondering if you're a fan of the 1978 version of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" at all.

I don’t know if I've seen the '78 version. Maybe I saw it on cable.

It starts with all this crazy, practical-effects stuff of spores coming from outer space and mingling with Earth plants.

Oh, wow.

So you're saying you've never seen it. Now I feel like an idiot.


Well, I thought there had to be a link ... just because the visuals of it are so strong.


And all the sound design is by Ben Burtt, who did things like take a recorder and record his wife's sonogram to use in the film.

Yeah. Okay, now I'm getting scared half to death that I have seen this, internalized it, and somehow copied it or something. I'll have to look at that immediately.

What makes you come up with the idea of using an ancient genetic quirk to explore the idea of love?

Wow -- well, it didn't start there. It started the other way around, where I needed ... I've got to break these characters down so they can rebuild their identities, because that's what we're trying to get to is an exploration of that and how that works and whether you can change it or all of that stuff. That needs something that is just off-screen around them that is affecting their behavior in a way that they can't know about. So that's the first step. So now I've got to come up with something. What is it? And I've got to connect them to something else. And so I guess the idea (was) that something would grow in her and then you would implant it in another creature ... and that would be the connection between her and the pig. That was the germ of it that there was something in there, there was something in that transference that connected them.

Everyone wants to aspire to oneness with all things if you're a good person, or at least kindness to all things. But to literally have it thrust upon you by some kind of parasite tapeworm sounds vaguely unpleasant.

Well, yeah. That's the thing, is this is an experience that she wouldn’t be able to remember, and it should be haunting her. So in way it should be traumatic, you know?


Like, you can't be, "Oh she was visited by angels," or you know it's a nice experience. It has to be something like that because you wouldn’t spend the rest of your life trying to figure out, "Why do I constantly feel like I've been visited by something benevolent?" Like that wouldn't be haunting. That wouldn’t be something you'd feel obsessed about solving.

There's a great book whose name I forget ("Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind: A Reporter's Notebook on Alien Abduction, UFOs, and the Conference at M.I.T.", by C.D. B. Bryan) that was about the first unofficial alien abductee experience conference held at M.I.T.

Oh, wow.

And it kind of falls apart, but it's a good, solid, trashy read. And a lot of what these people say when they show up is, "I wish I was crazy. I wish I was making this up. I wish I were desperate for attention. Something happens to my physical being and it terrifies me."

Yeah. Yup.

But then you have a phenomenon, and then you have people who makes a steam engine, one person uses it to power a train, one person uses it to shoot a metal spike through your head. You have these different sides of people who understand the process that you're using to explore love. And I'm wondering if those represent cruelty or/and also for lack of a better word just pure intellectual understanding?

You're talking about the...

... The Thief. (Thiago Martins)

Well, that's the thing. Yeah, that's great. You know, The Thief is basically just a guy who's learned a trick to steal money. I mean his heart's in the wrong place. He's just stealing it. He's pretty much a malicious ... he's a thief. Then you have the orchid harvester, the women that are doing something very benign, not a big deal. They're searching for these orchards and harvesting ...

They're enamored of beauty.

Yeah, exactly. It's like there's nothing unpleasant about that. That's a very good thing, seemingly. Then you've got (The Sampler, as played by Andrew Sensenig), and so it's really important that he's somebody. He's collecting these things. He's creating a goldfish bowl in this pig corral so he can go sample these emotional experiences. He can ... he can be intimate and observe. And so the question is, is he culpable in any way? What he's doing, is it a good or bad thing? Can it be judged at all to observe from a distance and without taking?

And also just in the interest of a pure intellectual pursuit -- that's the only reason he cares about these people. He doesn't make sure that he or she wind up in a warm place with a blanky tucked over. It's just a pure pursuit of the knowledge of what happens with the worm-organisms.

Right, right.

This interview is going to drive anybody who reads it without seeing "Upstream Color" completely insane.  

(Laughs) Perfect.

Flixclusive Interview: Shane Carruth (Upstream Color)
story by Hubert Vigilla

Flixclusive Interview: Shane Carruth (Upstream Color) photo

Shane Carruth had a cult hit on his hands with Primer back in 2004. His second film, Upstream Color, is more ambitious, more enigmatic, and much more emotionally charged. It was met with raves as well as confusion at the Sundance Film Festival, SXSW, and New Directors/New Films. The movie comes out this Friday in New York, and opens next Friday in LA, Chicago, Denver, Washington DC, and other major cities across the country. For a full list of cities, theaters, and release dates, click here.
I had a chance to sit down and talk with Carruth last week following the first New Directors/New Films screening of Upstream Color. He was really thoughtful throughout our conversation. What surprised me is that right up front he acknowledged the divisiveness of the movie, but it seems natural given the creature he's made: an existential love story about people whose identities are destroyed and the attempt they make to rebuild their lives together.
I didn't want to ask Carruth to systematically decode symbols and themes since he's probably gotten that a lot and will continue to field those questions in the coming weeks. I was more interested in his broadstrokes about the film so most of the particulars could be left alone. This actually did two things: one, it revealed in some ways that Upstream Color is an outgrowth of Carruth's larger and evolving concerns as a storyteller; and two, it made me realize I had a pretty good understanding of the film's major concerns the first time around.

[Editor's note: Some of the questions and answers have been altered in order to prevent spoilers.]
How did the screening go last night?
I'm feeling pretty fortunate. I mean, look, the film has a different ambition. Whether it's a good version of that ambition or a bad version, that's not for me to decide. But I think when something is a bit different, it's necessarily going to be divisive because there are people who are going to key into what it's trying to do immediately, and they'll judge it based on that merit, and there's going to be people that feel it's not going to quite meet their expectations because they weren't lined up properly. And that probably is not going to go well sometimes.
I always expected that there would be some level of divisiveness, but to be honest, I really think it's been, given that, pretty positive.
I'll say this: I've seen it twice -- at a press screening last night and at SXSW -- and Upstream Color is going to be in my top five films of the year. It blew me the hell away. [Editor's note: I've now seen it three times.]
That's so wonderful. That's so wonderful to hear.
It really was like the first time I saw Eraserhead or the first time I saw The Prisoner--
The old TV show The Prisoner?
You like the show too?
Oh yes!
Hell yeah! It's a great show!
Yeah, that's-- That's-- You know what? I just thought of that. I did this list of influences and I should have put that. Yeah, I love that show.

I guess that kind of keys into one thing in the movie: I noticed issues of control, even asserting self-control. Could you speak to how that played into your creation of the movie?
Well, yeah. I mean... I can tell you where the story started. It's an exploration of identity and personal narrative. I knew that I wanted a story where that was going to be stripped away; I was going to a central character or characters and they were somehow going to have everything that they knew about themselves go away, and they would have to regrow that based on whatever they had around themselves.
So that was the core, and the machinery for how to get them there was this sort of weird life cycle that was created around them. And I needed to satisfy certain criteria to be balanced in a way in my head, and I guess we can get into all that. But the bottom line is she [Editor's note: Kris, played by Amy Seimetz] had to be put through a process of some kind to have it stripped away. That's where the control comes from.
So much of the film is about these central characters being affected at a distance by things they can't speak to or even speak about. I guess that's where anything about control would come from: they will be pushed around, they will have to be pushed around, because there isn't any other way to explore this idea. I mean maybe because we all have a feeling of being pushed around.
The film feels intensely autobiographical, if not in actual lived events then at least emotionally. Did you find that seeping in as you were crafting the film?
I mean, it must be only because it started as this thought experiment -- what if you were to strip away a person's ethical beliefs, or political beliefs -- and it got bigger, and bigger, and bigger to a point of stripping everything that they are; everything, the way that they view themselves and what they deserve, how they view the world and their relationships, and the emotionality of that. Taking all of that away and leaving a person vacant seems so horrific and so emotional.
I couldn't point to any kind of personal experience I've had. I mean, who knows: I could probably make something up or connect some dots, but it'd be armchair psychology or something like that, I'm sure.
But I know that I key into that, and I don't know if I'm alone in that.
Did you go into the movie knowing sort of what the score would sound like? You scored Upstream Color yourself like you did with Primer.
Well, I wrote it while I was writing the script.
But it's weird because it comes out of necessity for me. If I've got something playing out in my head, I need to have some level of confidence that we're going to be able to execute that. I know visually what I'm capable of with cinematography, I know what I'm capable of with writing; if I can create a piece of music that accompanies this and mix all those things together, I can sort of know, "Great, we can get to this moment. So now let's build on that." So it started off as a confidence-building tool to know that we can do this, and then after a while, it becomes a part of the language; and then the writing is reacting to the music, and the cinematography is reacting to both, and it becomes so integrated in my head that I could--
It would have been a failed idea to try to enlist somebody else to write music, because all I would have done is say, "Make it like that. Make it more like that." It just would have been frustrating. So at that level, I'm two steps into the room and now I'm just committed -- now I'm in that room.
I ended up having to change the music at the end as we got closer and closer to the production.. I threw out about half of it because I had made a mistake of... Well... The easiest way is to say it's a mistake. I think the reality is that once the visual language became more and more honed, that spoke to something about the script and that spoke to the music. And the bottom line is that I had music that was trying to frame the audience's experience and not convey the emotional experience of the characters; and when so much of this film is non-verbal, I needed every tool in the arsenal to convey their experience. I needed to throw out anything that was too artificial or orchestrated and only use things that would suggest where she was in that moment.

How did you key into what music was character based and what was, I guess, manipulative to the audience? Was it something intuitive?
Well, I don't know, I think that's what I'm saying. I think I wrote some music in error that was manipulative. I guess I feel like you can do one of two things with music. I wouldn't put this judgment on anybody else, but for me personally and where I am now, I only understand music in one of two ways: one is conveying the experience of a character that's on screen in a subjective way; and two is subverting that. I'm very interested in using music to telegraph something that is actually fighting, 180 degrees, with what's on screen, or the text of what's happening. The film has a resolution where everything is playing one way; everything about the cinematography, the performance, the music, the setting, all of that is saying one thing.
But I think if people spend any more time with this and look at it bluntly, the text of what is happening is not that at all. [Editor's note: At this point he discussed the end of the film. While I'm not including what Carruth said here, I'll go into it in some general detail in an analysis of Upstream Color that will go up Friday night.] That was a long way to get to music, but yeah. [laughs]
[laughs] Can you talk about working with Amy on this? Did she contribute anything to the script, or was the script locked and she was adding to it in her performance?
Yeah, it's really tough because it's something between the two, because the script is the script. I mean, it is the story. What she brought to it... The authenticity she brought meant that you can sort of lay off all the other tools and step back a bit. When she's nailing every scene that she's in, I can step back from the other ways to convey information. I'm trying to balance things out. I don't want to overdo it, I don't want to underdo it. So in that sense, she does change it.
I mean, the thing is I know there's a thousand things that changed because of her being involved, but it's so difficult to come up with an actual anecdote. Someone like her, who's so good at what she does...
Well, two things. She gets narrative so well that it eliminates a lot of [actor-director] conversation that we would have to have. Because she just gets it. From day one. We had conversations, she read the script, and it was just easy -- she got what we were doing and how lyrical it would be.
The other thing is that her performance is so bulletproof as an actress that it gives me a lot of confidence. There's isn't a lot of improvisation in the film, but when we get to that part in the film, there's that three-minute sequence of shared memories.
This is domestic bliss. This should be the end, but it isn't, and we need to take this idea -- shared memories, this inability to know where one person ends and the other begins -- and I want to take it, in a very quickly paced way, I want to take it from something that's light and fun and maybe even a little bit romantic to something that's infuriating and agitating. "Where am I if you're here with me? Where are we separate? Where can I be my own [person]?" I wanted all of that, and she got that.
Once we knew what the conversations would sound like and what they would be about, it was easy to go with her and say, "We're at this location now. We know we want to play through our emotional spectrum, what's most fitting for this moment?" She definitely informs that. By that time we had known each other a bit better, it didn't even seem like anything. It seemed liked, "Yeah, of course this is the way we're going to do it. Let's just go figure it out" She was very integral to that.
That entire sequence, like the rest of the film, is edited in a way that's disorienting but has an emotional tether. When I saw the movie at South By, I was like, "I don't know what's happening, but I feel what's going on here." The second time, "I'm still seeing shapes and clouds, so I still don't know completely, but I'm getting it more and more." Could you talk about the editing and how you got that off-kilter sort of feel?
Well, I mean, it had to be approached before editing, really. The conversations I would have with [editor] David Lowery... I mean, I knew what it needed to be, he knew what it needed to be, Amy knew what it needed to be, Bongani [Mlambo] who was operating the camera knew what it needed to be. David was very ingenious in the way that he made the decisions to put certain scenes up against each other, but that was truly collaborative [and something] that could only result when the filmmakers have so well internalized the story and intent. I think that if anybody was off-page or if we weren't on the same page...
At that point I had reached such a level of confidence with everyone involved that we could start to make decisions that were a little bit more lyrical or improvisational but know full well that these choices are going to feed into the theme in a unified way; we're not just doing this for fun, it's because we know this piece of music so well that we can take a minute or two to go down a different avenue and do different variations on a theme and it will still be informative of the bigger whole.
What question are you getting asked the most about the film?
The number one question I've gotten is "Where did the idea come from for the story?" It's very strange, because it's such a good, earnest question, and I'm glad to be asked it. It's the one I've answered the most and I find myself hating my answers and my words, simply because I've said them so much. But I'm lucky to be answering them.
You do a lot of stuff on your own -- writing, directing, cinematography, score. Same with Primer. What prompted you to take this DIY approach to filmmaking?
I have just religious fervor when it comes to narrative and what it's for and how it's meant to be used. I don't know -- it's like there's two ways to go here. I can talk about why it's not a studio thing, but I think we all sort of know that. [laughs]
Or I could talk about why I'm sort of a control freak who has my hands in everything. And that's sort of like I said about doing the music early on. That times 20 is how it end up working. I get consumed with little ideas and I want to see if they can be executed, and then before long I've stepped so far into that department that it's difficult to hand it off to somebody else. And then when money is an issue, more times than not it seems like, "Well, why don't I just spend another couple days and just solve this myself instead of trying to spend those same days trying to find the right person and frustrate them to death about trying to make them do the thing that I want them to?"
It's not a perfect solution. The script that I'm finishing now that I hope to be shooting very soon, we have to raise some money. We have to replace sleepless nights and stress with money. Seriously.

That's what needs to happen now. I'm committed to being a control freak now: I'm doing music, I am going to do cinematography, I'm writing, I'm directing. Those things I'm not going to give up. But what I do need is to be able to hire a camera department, you know. So that when shots are set up, these things are magically happening: rigs being assembled, lights being set up according to schematics. I just need to learn to delegate better.
Is this next film you're talking about A Topiary or is it another project?
It's called The Modern Ocean. It's set against shipping routes all over the world. It's basically, at its core, a truly tragic romance, but it's in a world full of pirates and privateers, and ships at war at sea.
Awesome! [a beat] That makes me think about something interesting about Upstream Color. There's all this news and scooping on the internet about stuff but you were able to keep things sort of low key on this film. Is that part of being an insular production and non-studio thing?
Yeah, but it was also-- It was purposeful. Here's the thing. I know I'm nobody from nowhere basically, but I was trying to do that project called A Topiary, and in the midst of it, the script got out online. Friends were emailing me reviews that people had done of a script that wasn't even the script. It was like this big, long production document that was like 240 pages, I think. That's not the script, that's the bible for production, and it was being reviewed as if that was the story! I don't care that much, but I had some anxiety from that--
And didn't really want that out there. So when I came to this story, "Okay, we don't have to go to California for this. Everything's going to happen right here, so there's certainly no reason why we have to begin with the anxiety or stress of people online deciding what it is." So if there is a way to keep them quiet, that's what we're going to do.
It's like a wonderful problem to have. It's wonderful that you have to be secretive to keep things off the internet! I mean, most people would kill for that.

It means that people are paying attention, which is the best thing. [laughs]
Exactly, exactly. I feel very fortunate that's even the case, even on that small level.
It's hard to me to want to center in on the movie and just ask you, "What does x-thing mean?" because I'd hate to do that to you.
But since they play a big role in the story, how did you decide on using pigs?
It's one of these things where it's got five different answers. It started with physiology being so similar between pigs and us, and there's already so many diseases that can be transferred between the two. Then there's so many instances of pigs in literature, whether it's Jesus casting demons into a herd of pigs, or whether it's Orwell's Animal Farm, or a bunch of other things. They're sort of these weird little beasts that are stand in for us sometimes, and I think it's maybe because we have an aesthetic beauty to us and the way that we are and the way that we move, while they are disgusting.
Yeah, they are... swine.
Exactly. So for them to be stand-ins for us, there's some real subversion and irony to that that I think people have keyed into in literature, so this carries that forward.
But there's also the practical sense of it. I've got this guy. I want to see him shopping around for an emotional experience in this sort of meditative state. So these beasts that do nothing but sit there and eat all day seemed to fit the bill in a way that if they were snakes or monkeys or insects, maybe it wouldn't be so useful. These are discrete little animals, so they satisfied the bill, I guess.

Inevitably there are going to be many interpretations of Upstream Color and there's never going to be a definitive one. How do you feel about creating a work that is going to be interpreted endlessly?
You know what? I think... I hope... The conversation is on track for a consensus to center around, roughly, one broad interpretation. I think that's already happening and I think the same thing happened with Primer, although they're completely different and they both have completely different things on their mind. The meaning has coalesced, and I think it will on this too.
If I've done my job right, and I think this is born out a little bit in some of the reviews, there's only one way to view this that satisfies all of the potential questions. I think it's happening. I think it's becoming known that this is an exploration of personal narrative, and unfortunately I've said that out loud, so I hope I'm not tainting that conversation.
But I think that's being communicated.
It makes sense too, because while watching Upstream Color the second time, I really keyed into some lines. Kris says "It's not my fault when things go wrong," and then Jeff says back, "It is."
And that implies that the negative is true: that when things go right, it's also Kris that's responsible.It seemed like one of the entry points to understanding what the movie was kind of getting at.
Yeah, I think so. There's a lot of... [stuff like that]. I hope it all...
So, we'll see.

What's been the best part an the toughest part about self-distributing Upstream Color so far?
The best part is that I feel so great about everything that's out there. The trailers, the poster, everything that people can know about it, are earnestly serving the film; they are properly contextualizing it, and it really is an extension of storytelling. I feel really wonderful about that, and I always want to be able to do that. It's such a gift.
I'll just say I love that the press notes for Upstream Color have the cast and crew, a synopsis, and that's that. It is what it is. [Editor's note: Usually press notes come with a director's statement and lots of other material about the filmmaking process, the themes of the film, and so on.]
That's right, that's right. Yeah! And, you know, the poster could have been pigs and worms and stuff. And nope. It's, it's--
More intimate. But that is the core of the movie.
Exactly. Exactly. And so that's the thing: the choice to not necessarily make every last dollar become every last person in a seat. It's to be honest. It's like, "Look, this is what's on the film's mind. If this is something that's compelling for you, maybe the film will be as well. But if not, let's talk in a few years, maybe."
Yeah, so that's the best part. And the worst... It is exhausting. It's a lot of work, and it's a scrappy little campaign, so things are busy a lot. It's just work.

FAQ: Upstream Color

Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Shane Carruth) in Upstream Color.
Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Shane Carruth) in Upstream Color.

© erbp 2012
Spoilers ahead. And explanations.

Q. I just saw Upstream Color. What … just happened?

A. Upstream Color is about two people, Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (director and screenwriter Shane Carruth), whose lives and behaviors are affected by a complex parasite—without them even knowing it. The parasite has a three-stage life cycle in which it passes from humans to pigs to orchids. Carruth eloquently calls this the “worm-pig-orchid life cycle.”
Q. Who are all those other people? The guy with the frizzy hair and the pigs, or the guy who steals all Kris’s money?

A. At each stage of the worm-pig-orchid cycle there’s someone who profits from that stage and, unknowingly, advances the parasite to the next stage. The first person, whom the credits call the Thief (played by Thiago Martins), infects victims with the worm to brainwash them and steal their money. We see him do this to Kris, and we learn that he’s also done this to Jeff.

The second person, whom the credits call the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), takes the worms from the Thief’s victims and puts them into pigs. The transfer of the worm establishes a connection between the victim and the pig, and the Sampler can then use the pigs to “sample” the victims’ experiences—each time he approaches a victim’s pig, he can see what’s going in that victim’s life. The Sampler is then inspired by these experiences to record music, which he sells through his record company, Quinoa Valley Rec. Co.

The third person, or actually the third group of people, are the two orchid farmers—the credits call them the Orchid Mother (Kathy Carruth) and the Orchid Daughter (Meredith Burke). When the Sampler disposes of pigs by bagging them and throwing them into a nearby stream, the parasite leaches out of the pigs and into white orchids, turning them blue. The two orchid farmers then pick these rare blue orchids and sell them through their company, E+P Exotics.

The Thief then buys these rare blue orchids—at the beginning of the film we can see that the flower pots he buys are labeled E+P Exotics—and uses the worms that come out of them, beginning the W-P-O cycle anew.

Q. So how exactly does this affect Kris and Jeff?

A. Well, first it costs them their life savings. When the worm is inside the Thief’s victims, it makes them susceptible to being put in a hypnotic trance. During this trance, the Thief orders his victims to sell their possessions, take out mortgages on their houses, etc. This goes on until the victims eat, which in turn gives the parasite, currently in the stomach, food to feed on and grow, at which point the worm extends all the way to the ends of each of the victim’s limbs.
Q. How does the Sampler find the worm-victims, then?

A. He uses amplifiers to send vibrations into the ground to draw in the Thief’s victims, in a version of a real technique called “worm charming,” and transplants the worms from the victims into pigs. The victims are now no longer under the Thief’s control, but each victim is now linked with the pig in which his worm resides. This means not only that they can be spied on one at a time by the Sampler—they’re now called “The Sampled,” according to the credits—but also that they’re subject to being influenced by whatever happens to their pig. We first see this after Kris’ pig and Jeff’s pig come nose to nose in the corral. This leads Kris and Jeff to pair up, too, though they’re not quite able to explain their attraction to each other at first.

Q. So why do Kris and Jeff start freaking out and beating up interns and stuff?

A. It starts when Kris’ pig gets pregnant. Kris, in turn, becomes convinced that she also is pregnant (even though she isn’t). When the piglets are born, and the Sampler comes to take the piglets away, that’s when things go really wrong. This makes Kris’ pig and Jeff’s pig angry and scared, because someone is taking away their kids, which is why Kris and Jeff, too, come to feel angry and scared. When Jeff’s pig is finally locked away, this makes Jeff feel so angry and so trapped that he beats up a couple interns and runs away.

When Kris’ pig and Jeff’s pig are finally reunited, the pigs feel traumatized and huddle together in fear; Kris and Jeff do the same, gathering their things and huddling in the bathtub.

Q. Why does Kris then start hearing things and diving for stones in a pool? And how does this lead them to the pig corral and the Sampler?

A. The exact mechanics of this aren’t 100 percent clear to me, but Carruth insists that the trauma of losing her piglets sends Kris into a “fugue state,” and the power of this emotion leads to her breakthrough:
Kris is on a path to basically get to a psychic break, because she is dealing with the mania and hysteria of having her children be taken from her, without her ever being able to consciously know that she even has children. So she is experiencing a level of, in my mind maybe the greatest, the most powerful emotion you might be able to feel… is what I might imagine it might feel, for a mother to lose her children. She is experiencing that, without anything to point out to explain why. That was always going to lead to this break that she has, where she winds up almost in a fugue state, swimming at the pool reciting lines from Walden. So that’s roughly why she’s on the trajectory that she’s on.
Amy Seimetz in Upstream Color
Kris in a "fugue state."© erbp 2012
Q. Why does Kris kill the Sampler? It’s not clear that he’s a bad guy.

A. Kris probably thinks the Sampler is the Thief. Remember, Kris has never seen the Thief’s face, and it’s natural that she would assume that whoever has been spying on her and messing with her pig is also the person that put her in this position in the first place. Carruth has said roughly as much himself:
The idea that Kris would find [the Sampler] culpable, and make him pay that price for what’s been done to her, is hopefully an interesting coda. I mean she’s basically supplanting one false narrative with another. But she will never know that, and she can’t know that. And it’s only for the audience to realize, hopefully, after some reflection, that although the ending felt and looked like somebody finding the culprit, and getting their own peacefulness and resolution—in reality there's almost nothing positive about what we’re looking at. The wrong person is “gotten.”
Q. Why Walden?

A. Carruth says that initially he chose Walden simply because he “didn’t at first like [it], and thought it would be perfect for hypnotizing someone.” He’s elaborated elsewhere that its uneventfulness makes it perhaps especially useful to the Thief, because there’s not much in it that could snap someone out of a trance.

He’s also said he wanted a book that was grounded in nature, to match the themes and aesthetic of the film, and as he was making the film certain passages began to pop out. For example, there’s a passage about “a low and seemingly very distant sound … gradually swelling and increasing” (though, in Walden, it turns out only to be the sound of an ice drift). There’s also this striking passage from Walden about the actual parasites inside us, highlighted by Movie City News:
We are conscious of an animal in us, which awakens in proportion as our higher nature slumbers. It is reptile and sensual, and perhaps cannot be wholly expelled; like the worms which, even in life and health, occupy our bodies. Possibly we may withdraw from it, but never change its nature. I fear that it may enjoy a certain health of its own; that we may be well, yet not pure.
Q. Why pigs?

A. Luckily, somebody asked this at a Q&A I attended. For one thing, Carruth chose them because he knew they would stay put. You couldn’t have the Sampler chasing around chickens. Furthermore, he didn’t want anything too exotic; it wouldn’t fit the look of the film. Finally, he chose them because they’re physiologically fairly similar to humans, meaning it’s easier to imagine a parasite passing between us and them.
Kris' pig in Upstream Color
Kris' pig.© erbp 2012
Q. What is that weird symbol that plays before the movie?

A. It’s just Carruth’s production logo. He’s distributing the movie himself.
Q. Why is the movie called Upstream Color?
A. Carruth offered his explanation in an interview with IndieWire:
Well, in the film the main characters are being affected at a distance by things they can’t speak to. And the three points in the triangle, as far as the worm-pig-orchid cycle, each of them are performing acts that are independent of the next one in the line… they would all be dealing with things that seemingly came from “upstream.” And “color” … I think of it as building up a personal narrative, and the shape of that is easy, the color is what’s difficult. I don't know if that means anything, but it seemed appropriate to me at the time.
Q. Wait—did that answer make any sense?
A. I mean, sorta.

Q. But what does it all mean?

A. Carruth wants people to take away a fairly specific interpretation, though he prefers that people come to it on their own. Still, when pressed at all, he’s mentioned in several interviews and Q&As that the film, for him, is about identity, “about whether we control our identity or whether our identity controls us.” He elaborated, to io9:
It’s meant to be universally about all of these things that are not able to be spoken about clearly that we suspect are affecting us—whether that’s people’s religious beliefs or cosmic beliefs or even hidden biological processes. Just all of the things that make you suspect the reasoning for, ‘Why did I do that?’ Or, ‘Why am I doing this tomorrow?’ ‘Why does someone else think this way?’ It’s all of that.
Q. What if I don’t like that interpretation?

A. Good news! There are plenty of alternate interpretations out there. Some connect to it because of experiences with drug addiction, or codependent relationships. Here are two other interpretations from other critics.

Q. C’mon. Does it actually all hold together logically?

A. Probably. It’s worth noting that Carruth is the guy who made Primer, which has a byzantine but apparently entirely coherent internal logic, which only emerges in full when you’ve seen it enough times. That said, Upstream Color is also, like the Coens’ A Serious Man, about mystery. You could, if you choose to, “accept the mystery.”

Q. Will it make a little more sense if I see it again?

A. Definitely.

How Shane Carruth's Upstream Color Explains Your Dysfunctional Relationships

Shane Carruth blew your mind with Primer. And now he aims to do the same to your subconscious, with the dreamlike Upstream Color, which opens Friday in New York. We were lucky enough to speak to him on the phone about the themes and ideas behind his intense, challenging film, and here's what he told us. Spoilers ahead...
It's hard to sum up Upstream Color, but in a nutshell it's the story of Kris (Amy Seimetz), who has a terrible encounter with a man known only as the Thief, who implants her with worms that seem to have some kind of mental control. Kris winds up having a mysterious, intense psychic connection with a pig living on a farm, which she doesn't understand, and she gets into a very dysfunctional relationship with Jeff (played by Carruth himself) who also seems to have a weird connection to the pig farm. I think that's all you need to know to understand this interview. The film is conveyed as much by strange imagery and haunting transitions as by words or explanations, and yet it's surprisingly clear by the end.
The book Walden by Henry Thoreau plays a huge role in this film. Why Walden?
How far back should I go? ... This story started in one place, that had nothing to do with the otherworldly, weird aspects of the film. [Upstream Color] started in a place where I had to find a way to strip some characters of their personal narrative, and the way they view themselves... And what I knew was that I was going to have characters that are going to have a redefined narrative, based on information around them, and then they're also to be going to be affected at a distance by things they can’t necessarily speak to. They're going to be pushed around, in a way that they can’t know about. And there is meant to be attraction and repulsion that's happening with Kris and Jeff. [Their attraction is] dependent on what’s going on in the pig corral, and there being some confusion about what’s leading what there.
Anyways, that was what needed to be solved, and I needed a way to do that. And there's lots of ways to do that, I think. You know, another story might say, "Oh, there's a pharmaceutical drug on the market, that's wiping people’s memories," or maybe its religious, and there are angels screwing with people, or whatever else. What I needed was something that felt like it met a certain criteria in my head, and what that meant to me was, I wanted it embedded in nature. I want it to feel like it's permanent, and that it's been here as long as we have, and that it is just outside our normal experience, but nothing strange or alien, as far as an alien presence or whatever. It [also] needed to be cyclical, and it needed to continue on its own volition — nothing conspiratorial, not somebody managing the process, but something that would just keep going.
There are like these three points on the triangle: There is the worm-pig-orchid life cycle, and each of these have characters that are continuing to perform these little tricks in nature that keep the cycle going, but none of them know that the next one in the line exists. So that, to me, satisfied what I needed, [in order] to have my central characters to be messed with at a distance. So, knowing that we're in the natural world, knowing that I need also a book that I’m going to have Kris write and rewrite over and over and over again, as she's destroying her own narrative, I needed a work of fiction. And so, Walden seemed appropriate, and it fit everything I needed it to be, and it's full of this wonderful language that can be referenced in both imagery and chronically.
So you considered making this not a science fiction film, and making it just about people who are coming apart for other reasons. Like, psychological or social reasons?
Yeah, It's meant to be universally about all of these things that are not able to be spoken about clearly that we suspect are affecting us — whether that’s people's religious beliefs or cosmic beliefs or even hidden biological processes. Just all of the things that make you suspect the reasoning for, “Why did I do that?" Or, "Why am I doing this tomorrow?" "Why does someone else think this way?” It’s all of that.
One thing that I was reminded of was toxoplasmosis. That parasite in cats that makes humans acts irrationally. Was that something you thought about at all while working on this?
No, absolutely. I want to be clear that in talking about it, I’m not suggesting that what's happening in the film, or suggesting that I have a comment on that, but it’s definitely one of the things that … in coming up with the mechanics of the plot, it gave me the freedom to say, "Look there are already weird, weird things happening, that we would not, up until today, have been even be able to talk about or explain."
So if I create an analog of a process, and I say that transference of some kind is taking place, let's just leave it at that. Let’s not get into like the mechanics, or let's not talk about mechanics of it. We already know that weird things happen. So let’s just watch something happen, and let that be it. If a worm goes into Kris and then leaves her and then goes into a pig, and we see that there's a connection and I execute it with music and cinematography and Amy’s performance, in such a way that conveys that transference of some deeply felt kind is taking place, that’s it. We don’t have a scientist come in to to explain what was being transferred, or a priest to come into explain it. It’s simply is that. Because that’s the exploration. It's, what is that connection?
A lot of this movie feels like it is using this weird premise to look at the mechanics of a dysfunctional relationship. The relationship between Kris and Jeff feels familiar to anybody that has had a horrible codependent relationship. Was that something you were trying to explore, or just something that just came out of the premise?
No, definitely I'm actually proud of that — not that I was smart enough to know it from the first step, but definitely it became clear that: "Okay, look, I’ve got these two characters, they are being attracted and repulsed, based on things that are happening with the creatures that they're connected to, out there in the pig trough."
So they meet on the train. There is an attraction, but it’s also not really going that well, because maybe that attraction isn't earned, maybe it’s not actively taking place in the space between them. It’s in some other non-spoken, communal place. And so you’ve got this constant agitation. And I thought, that’s so interesting to me. Because I believe, or my hope in the execution, is that those themes work in both a physical and metaphysical way.
I hope that they do feel familiar, because I know I've had relationships or even friendships or whatever, that start off like that — where it's like, "Everything on paper says that you and I should be getting along fantastic, and for some reason there is some weird agitation going on that we can’t quite get to." And so, to have there be a plot in the film that’s explaining that to us while at the same time the end results is commonplace. That’s, completely in my mind, cementing the idea that it's about all the universal ways that you cannot understand why things are going, or not going, the way they are meant to.
Because people are not rational and they are driven as much as by biology as they are by intellect?
Sure, or who knows what else? Who knows if we'll find — not that this is what’s on the film’s mind necessarily — but who knows if we’ll find in 50 years that most of our genome is made up of parasites that globbed on along the way, and bits of information that we get from weird processes that we never thought of. I mean honestly, who knows what's coming, and who knows what we'll find, or what exists in just other areas entirely, that I couldn’t even speak to right now?
In the film, your character Jeff is more pissed off, and Kris is more of a basket case. It seems kind of gendered. These are gender roles that you fall into. Was that intentional, or was that the way the characters took shape in your mind?
I'm aware of it, and it's intentional, and I can speak to why. I mean, the bottom line is [that] Kris is on a path to basically get to a psychic break, because she is dealing with the mania and hysteria of having her children be taken from her, without her ever being able to consciously know that she even has children. So she is experiencing a level of, in my mind maybe the greatest, the most powerful emotion you might be able to feel… is what I might imagine it might feel, for a mother to lose her children. She is experiencing that, without anything to point out to explain why. That was always going to lead to this break that she has, where she winds up almost in a fugue state, swimming at the pool reciting lines from Walden. So that’s roughly why she’s on the trajectory that she’s on.
Jeff, I always thought, is actually a lot more screwed up than Kris — because Kris, at least, seems to be aware that something’s off, and seems to be curious about investigating it. Whereas Jeff is … he’s found to have stolen money, and decides to adopt that personality. "Yep, I’m that guy." In an almost macho way. Yeah, he’s the guy that took money, and he sort of owns up to it. So yeah, that does definitely come off as gendered, but I guess in my hopefully modern way of thinking , I think because it's gendered, its almost not sexist. It’s almost the opposite. It's like, "Here is this idiot guy embracing his narrative, like a moron."
You mentioned on email that you've never read Octavia Butler, even though this movie reminds us of her work a lot. What are some science fiction authors you’ve been influenced by?
I don't know if I think any of it's relevant to this film, or I would definitely own up to it. To be honest, I haven't read any science fiction in a very long time. I remember being very affected by Eon by Greg Bear, a long time ago, and really sort of taken by that. I guess maybe, the one that stands out to me the most, my favorite, is Childhood's End. Again, I don't know what influence that has actually had on me, although I do really enjoy the fact that it really doesn't follow any kind of traditional narrative structure. It's very haunting to me. I’ve always liked that story. It’s like, even the victims don’t know that they’re victims. It’s a closed loop of a story, to have a race show up and provide everything, and that's the way that they conquer, in a way that nobody would ever recognize or resist. They simply get lulled into [it]. We don't typically get that in film. Something has to blow up. Somebody’s got to shoot somebody. And just to have something show up and be a Chinese finger trap [for] the end of existence, is really sort of haunting.
In this film, a lot of stuff is non-verbal and is conveyed by the vivid sequences of images. Is it hard to edit something where losing an image can change the meaning? Was it harder than most films to edit, do you think?
I don't know. Yeah, maybe... That's the thing... it has a different ambition on its mind. It’s like, everything does have to be rethought about over and over and over again, but... I guess I don't know... Yeah sure, it definitely it requires more attention and in the end, I hope that it works. I'm relatively convinced that it does — I think at this point, enough people have seen it and come to a conclusion that's really close to my intent. So, I think that it’s working.
You were involved with Rian Johnson's Looper. Did that movie, and your conversations with Johnson, leave you thinking you might like to make a movie that is more of a conventional narrative?
I love everything that Rian does, and I'm his number one audience, but for where I am now, I don't know. I am only seeing the thing that's in front of me. I know that I tripped into the way that Upstream works, and really ... I am really consumed with wanting to push that even further — I guess, if it's conventional versus nonconventional, right now I’m really interested with how far we can go with this nonconventional storytelling. Because I think there is a lot more that can be done. I don’t know.
A Topiary was a project that I was trying to get made — it would have been more straightforward, I guess, than Upstream, but it would have been a nice middle step between Primer and Upstream. I don’t know, it’s strange. The next thing is going to have — there's nothing otherworldly in it. It takes place in the real world, with shipping routes and privateers and pirates, so most of it is going to be relatively straightforward. But the way the chronology works, and the way the emotional language works, it’s going to be a more exaggerated version of Upstream. I don't know what people are necessarily going to think of it. I don't know how to answer that. I can only just try to make what I think it needs to be.

Your movie has a Thoreau motif, and it seems like it's about people going back to nature in a way. I mean, in the end, it seems like they've gone to live on a pig farm.
It is — but it's more about what those pigs are now embodying. I mean, there is a break of the cycle, [because] these people that have been affected by this [organism] are now taking back ownership of the thing that they’re connected to. So in the rules of his film, that’s more or less is transcendence at the end in some form of another, to be able to be in the same place as [the pigs that have the worms inside]… I mean, that’s the thing — so much of the film is nonverbal. That for me to say stuff…
Is this a film about humans becoming a different sort of species, and the next stage of our evolution?
I can tell you what rolls in my mind. I cannot ... I don't believe that narrative works when it's trying to teach a lesson, or speak a factual truth. What it's good for is, an exploration of something that's commonplace and universal — maybe that's where the truth comes from. If you can thoroughly explore some nuance and what's universal about something, then that to me is what narrative is for.
We are also used to narratives coming to an end in some way and having some resolution and conclusion, and exploration isn't always going to have that, and maybe it never does. These endings are sometimes artificial. And so the best that I can hope for is an ending that doesn't preach or teach, but maybe subverts in a way that echoes or provides a coda to the exploration. So that was my hope in this.
We’ve got a story where characters are being affected at a distance [by the organism]. They are having a hard time understanding their own personal narrative because it’s been built wrong, and they are trying to follow through on something that is potentially built wrong.
So the idea that they would find this pig sampler, or this pig-farmer/sampler character, to be the culprit for all of their problems — when, in reality, we of the audience see [that], of the three people continuing this life cycle, the thief is definitely malicious, the orchid harvesters are definitely benign. It’s the sampler who is interesting, but not necessarily doing anything wrong. He is an observer. You can make a case for whether or not he's culpable, in being able to benefit from the observation, but he's certainly not imposing anything. He’s not making anything negative happen.
For Kris and Jeff, or Kris in particular, to find him to be the culprit and seek him out and do him in, to me that really subverts the story. That means [that] she's breaking out of her narrative, and creating a new one — but even that one is false in some way.
And to end the way that it does... the way this film ends is, it does convey that there is some positive, peaceful resolution to her story. And everything about the film — the music, the cinematography, Amy’s performance — all of it are conveying that. But the text of what we're looking at is probably not so positive, or at least not going to stay positive.
By that time, we know that she can’t have children. So whatever it is that she is peaceful with there [in the pig farm] is not going to return the affection she might have for it. It is always going to be that broken state of things, regardless of what that moment is like right then. So that’s the best I can do as far as bringing the exploration to a hopefully satisfying end and leaving something to continue thinking about. 

Director’s Cut: Shane Carruth (‘Upstream Color’)

Much like a Shane Carruth film, there are different ways to approach a Shane Carruth interview.
Do you focus on the technical aspects of this remarkable polymath? For 2004′s time-traveling “Primer” he is credited as writer, director, producer, star, composer, production designer, casting director and editor. For “Upstream Color,” his newest emotional tour-de-force about free will, manipulation and the drive to find the source of the unexplainable, he is the writer, director, star, co-producer, composer, cinematographer, co-camera operator, co-editor and sound designer. Oh yeah, he’s the film’s distributor, too.
Or do you focus on Carruth’s stature in the independent film world? After 2004 he seemed like the Sundance equivalent of Harper Lee – a “one and done” filmmaker content to recede into legend.
Perhaps you focus on the nitty gritty of his stories? The quantum mechanics aspect of his films, replete with unanswered questions due to his intentionally elliptical style?
Despite my intentions to break the conversation into these three delineated acts I ended up on an unpredictable path in need of its own Wikipedia flowchart. Carruth’s demeanor is very warm, and open to just the sort of “heavy” conversation you may not have had since your college dorm. Despite a near-pointillist style of filmmaking, he speaks in stammers, half-phrases and questions to himself. (I left a few in where I thought they felt most poetic.) Considering Carruth has made one of the most vibrant and sharp pictures in quite some time (here is my review at ScreenCrush, here is’s review by Will Goss) I’m of the belief that he is a soaring genius who, for the sake of economics, lowered himself to spend time responding to my questions.
With that, then, here is the bulk of a conversation held unceremoniously in the hallway of a cozy Lower Manhattan publicist’s office. You’ll see that I open with a typically professional and unbiased salvo.
Jordan Hoffman: For selfish reasons, I thank you for making this movie. It’s refreshing to discuss a movie and not necessarily know the answer. I’ve been in two bar fights about it already – not fisticuffs, of course.
Shane Carruth: Sure.
JH: Conversations. I have one friend who can’t stand the film. I’m sure you can handle that.
SC: Understood, yeah.
JH: We got in a nice tussle and it’s exciting.
SC: It’s great to hear.
JH: There are some people who get hung up on the “what the hell is this” and need some handholding with the very plot. We saw this at the Sundance Q&A. Your movie is, for lack of a better term, a little weird, but, my gosh, you show the worm go out of the lady and into the pig … what more can you show?!?
SC: Exactly.
JH: Is it frustrating? Were you expecting that?
SC: I was expecting that. Whatever frustration I would have with that is a known quantity, going back to the writing. That’s just part of it. It necessarily has to be divisive because it is trying something new. Whether it is “good” or “bad” at doing what it is trying to do – at fulfilling its intentions – that’s almost not part of this because the intention is new. Or, hopefully new. Whatever. The ambition is not typical, let’s say. Because of that there will be people who come to it immediately, and they’ll judge it that way, or there will be people whose expectations haven’t been lined up properly, if I haven’t prepared them.
From the get go, it won’t give those people what they’re expecting. I’m somewhat amazed – well, not amazed – happy that the response has been as positive.
JH: You expected more people to say “Worm-pigs? I’m not buying it!”
SC: More or less.

JH: Or more people put off by the structure? The third act being almost entirely dialogue-free.
SC: Yeah, the number one thing I was worried about was, in the same way that “Primer” – and this is not a complaint at all, because I’m lucky anyone wants to watch that movie – but in the same way that “Primer” is sometimes reduced to being only a puzzle. It’s a puzzle to solve without anything underneath it, to some. And I was worried that this would become that – that people would only see the mechanical, or the weird genre elements.
JH: There is the fear of the gimmick aspect. Not that gimmick is always a bad thing, but, you know, you go to this guy’s movies to go “huh?”
SC: Yep.
JH: The most subversive thing David Lynch ever did was making “The Straight Story.” Great title, because it’s about a guy named Alvin Straight traveling in a straight line – but it is also a straightforward film from a man you never expected to make one. Do you see yourself ever wanting to “go straight” as it were?
SC: If I did, it wouldn’t be to subvert other things I’ve done. I do my best to never, ever think about a body of work or a career. This film is not a reaction to the last one. It’s the story in front of me now and I need to serve that.
JH: Well, despite the fact that we’ve never met and I don’t know much about you personally, that hasn’t stopped me from trying to psychoanalyze you.
I know you did work on a lengthy screenplay called “A Topiary,” you worked on it for years, did a lot of the design work, and you’ve commented that the movie is done in your head but you are the only one who can see it. “Upstream Color” is, at least in my opinion, all about breaking out of a cycle that is perpetuated by outside forces. So, is this your way of fighting the forces that prevented that film from happening?
SC: Huh. I never thought of that. Well. [long pause. and then quickly] I mean, who knows? It probably was informed by that. Maybe. It didn’t feel like that, I thought it was just a universal thing of. . .the way we build up our own narratives and identity and ways of thinking about everything. Whether religious or cosmic or whatever – that was the narrative that she [Amy Seimetz' character] was meant to be stuck in, then letting her grow a new one and letting her live that out, that was always the core of the idea. But. . .yeah. . . being affected by offscreen forces, the two ideas seem intertwined to me. That’s what I think personal identity is.
JH: Are you familiar with the author and neuroscientist Sam Harris?
SC: No.
JH: He recently wrote a book called “Free Will,” which, if my understanding is correct, argues that man does not have free will, but not because of any theological reasons. He looks at chemical reactions in the brain, the synapses either fire or don’t fire, and the result of all this is a chemical reaction, therefore humans may not be responsible for their actions, it is all chemical, all a result of environment, etc.
SC: Yes. Okay, I was just talking about this. This is, see, this is – not that, not that, not that – wow – what’s interesting about that, with non-linear dynamics and a swath of math you can start from order to chaos. You can get to unpredictably. So if that is true – even if we are the sum of physical neurons, something that can be reduced to math, even that math may not necessarily be predictable. You can make a case that there is a way for the math to work so that nobody but a God or a quantum computer could ever predict.
JH: A ghost in the machine, even in the numbers themselves.
SC: Yes, there we go.
JH: Some look at the first third of the “Upstream Color,” the most tactile part, and you can reduce it to a science fiction or horror story if you want. “The worms go in, they go in the pig, etc.” But it’s not that far out! Do you know about toxo –
SC: Toxoplasmosis, yes. I know about it, but from interviews. Though I definitely read a little about it. There’s a lot of things I realize that I accumulated in my head. I wasn’t trying to use them as plot devices, but I know they informed me – just knowing that there can be a process in the natural world, just outside our experience, that is counterintuitive in some way. Like the parasites who burrow in wasps and ants.
JH: There are many examples. The best one is the cat and mouse one because it conjures “Tom and Jerry” cartoons. The parasite that breeds and wants to return to the intestines of a cat, but is excreted and picked up and inside a mouse, which is able to tell mice not to be afraid of cat urine, the thing mice are most afraid of, so the mouse is now hanging out in the kitchen and is just “hey, what’s up, cat?” and now the cat eats him.
SC: Yes. And to the mouse, he’s, I don’t imagine he’s. . .hmnnn. . .
JH: There’s probably a pleasure center being stroked. He’s probably the happiest mouse in town. He’s fulfilling his goal, right?
SC: Right. Well – heh, I can’t believe we’re talking about this, this is fun stuff – but I would think that that mouse, in the same way we would, he would feel that he is being affected from a distance. I think, anyway. 95% of him is telling him “danger, danger!” yet 5% of him is compelling him to do this thing. He would have to be conflicted. That’s why I go to this outside force.

JH: I have a friend who reads “Upstream Color” as a story about drug addiction. How do you react when people come to you with interpretations that seem viable but you may be thinking “well, hell, I was somewhere else.”
SC: That’s part of it. Viewing work, now, is a communal experience. Any film that exists that is thorough, you can’t give it to an audience of one and have that be effective communication. Communication involves an audience of many that have a conversation, put it through the ringer, filter it and then a sense of it coalesces. So if I am an author, my success is that end result.
JH: But you are the author with a capital A on this one. You are director, writer, cinematographer, star, composer, co-editor, etc. Film is a collaborative process, but on your films a little less so.
SC: Film is a collaborative process, absolutely, but I am a control freak. I need to make sure that all the ways that we can inform are pointed in the same direction.
JH: I read you don’t play any instruments, but music is so important in this film. If I may ask a basic question, how the heck to do you compose the score?
SC: Some of it is hunting and pecking. I have a MIDI keyboard, which I couldn’t, like, play you a song on, but. . .
JH: Could you find Middle C?
SC: I can. I know my chords, I know where I live, I know my neighborhoods. But I couldn’t perform for you.
JH: I hand you sheet music for J.S. Bach and it’s no way.
SC: When I was a kid I took piano lessons for a month or two and she would have me do my scales. When I went home I learned Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.” And I taught it to myself, and I was so proud that it was something I could play. I remember coming into class and I played it for her, and I was expecting praise – but she was unhappy. My technique was wrong. I wasn’t raising my wrists the right way. She said that I shouldn’t go learn a piece of music “wrong” because I would have bad habits. She was right, but it felt like, “hey, I was really liking that.”
JH: You reached the ends but you did it by your own means and The Man came and cracked down on you. It’s like self-distributing your own film, you aren’t allowed to do that.
SC: This is perfect. Patterns everywhere.
JH: Let me ask you a bold question, Shane, and this is the question that everyone asks behind your back but no one has the guts to ask. But I do.
SC: All right.
JH: You make “Primer” in Two-thousand and blah-blah-blah. You work hard on “A Topiary,” I don’t know if you are doing it with some sort of studio deal in place.
SC: Hey, this is the question people ask. “How were you living?”
JH: Well, people are nosy. Were you approached to do studio work? Or commercials? Or music videos? Have you done any of that?
SC: I haven’t done any of that.
JH: Approached to act in any films?
SC: No.
JH: But you act in both your films and you’re a handsome boy. You could probably get acting work.
SC: Oh, well. . .thank . . .well, I don’t even know if that’s true. No. No one’s ever – well, actually, that’s not true. . .
JH: Approached by other indie filmmakers looking to include you for some cred, maybe?
SC: Uh. Sometimes. . .yeah. . .and then there’s. . .look. . .here’s the thing. I don’t live in a world where things get offered to me. But you know, I don’t know anybody who does. And I know famous and well-to-do filmmakers and they don’t just get an email saying “hey, here’s an offer.” You have to put yourself out there to get the offer and that is a conversation that I didn’t really want to have.
JH: I would imagine Chrysler would want you to do an ad if you told them you were game.
SC: Sure. Why not? Well, they’d be worried that it would come back and there wouldn’t be a car in it.
JH: Hey, at the end of the day, you didn’t sell out. Good for you. Whether you stayed fed by living on a commune. . .
SC: More or less, I actually have. I don’t have a family to support. If I did, some other choice would have to’ve been made.
JH: If digital video existed when “Primer” was made, how different would it be? The story, not so much the aesthetics.
SC: The story would not be different. The rough edges would be less rough.
JH: I’m wondering if you would have scenes in there that you didn’t have because of budget or time – scenes like the girlfriend’s father offscreen, would you want to include them?
SC: No, those choices were made. It wasn’t “let’s not shoot that because film is expensive” or “we don’t have enough film.”
JH: Your writing process: you have the themes and then they become manifested in concrete ideas. What sort of self-censorship do you have? When you are playing with the idea and “well, it’s a pig” there’s got to be something of an internal dialogue. What’s that like?
SC: It’s tough. It’s one that continues to hit you. There were a few times when I had the camera and we were doing the pig surgery and I’m thinking “what are they letting me do? This is nuts!” And this is meant to be an emotional story but right now this is the weirdest thing imaginable. The only thing I can ever do is make a film that I can respond to. I could not make a romantic comedy for college girls. I wouldn’t know how that works. This is an aesthetic that I’m comfortable with.
JH: Are you the type of guy who gorges on films? On Blu-rays? Going to festivals?
SC: No. I used to be.
JH: Did that change when you started making films?
SC: No. A couple of years ago. It’s just decreased. I’m far less likely to hunt around. For me personally, it hasn’t been satisfying. I’ll watch every movie P.T. Anderson ever makes religiously, but I’m not in the game of hunting anymore. Of course, I say that and now I’ll probably get back into hunting some more.
JH: Is there something you would want people to see to “prepare,” in a way, for “Upstream Color?”
SC: I have never thought of this. [whispering to himself] What is this? [long pause] What is this? To prepare, or to find a similar ambition…? There’s gotta’ be something.
JH: Perhaps a non-narrative or experimental film?
SC: No, not at all. That’s the thing.
JH: Some B-movie sci-fi? For thought-control worms? I don’t really see you as a B-movie or “Mystery Science Theater” guy.
SC: No. Well, I enjoy those things. [on the question] I can’t get to this. I’m sorry.
JH: Some movies they say “you gotta see it more than once.” I saw “Upstream Color” twice and there was nothing in it plot-wise that I “got” more the second time. A few very minor things I caught.
SC: What was it?
JH: Somehow I spaced out on how they got the CDs of the sound effects. I think I just didn’t see the name on the mailbox.
SC: Oh, okay. Right.
JH: Hey, that one was on me, I just didn’t look, then when I saw it the second time it was right in my face. Do you want people to see it more than once?
SC: Yes. But I want them to want it.
JH: Not a chore.
SC: The experience you had is the experience I’m hoping for. I want the meaning to be veiled in some way, but I want there to be an emotional experience that happens in one viewing that is satisfying, and for the narrative to be satisfying. As far as the meaning, I’m hoping that it is thrifty enough and compelling enough and lyrical and musical enough that it isn’t a horrifying concept to revisit. My hope is that it’s another captive audience to engage with the exploration.
If I watch a story and I’m challenged by it – like “The Master” – if I’m challenged by the way it works I spend more time thinking about it. Why does it work? What’s happening? Why is that phone being delivered in the middle of the theater? There are naked dancers?
JH: Hey, listen man, we’re out of time, but those are the questions I have for you. I “get” this movie, but I can’t quite figure out the rocks in the pool. I have a vague sense, but I don’t know that I’ll ever really know them unless I hold a gun to your head.
SC: I’ll tell you.
JH: Do you want me to turn this recorder off?
SC: Yeah, turn it off and I’ll tell you. First you tell me what you think.
What followed was me giving Shane a halfway-there interpretation, then his definitive, concrete answer. After my, “oh, no shit!” response I commenced to pummel him with other little questions (was the early shot of her in the pool a flashforward? did the Thief and the Sampler and the Gardeners know one another?) until I was pulled out of the room.

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