TONY Q&A: Upstream Color’s Shane Carruth

The man behind Primer returns with another mind-bender.

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Shane Carruth, director of Upstream Color

Shane Carruth, director of Upstream Color


When the Sundance Film Festival unveiled its 2013 edition’s lineup last November, a collective gasp could be heard from Pomona to Providence: Hold up, Shane Carruth has a new movie?!? The writer, director and star of the 2004 festival’s grand-prize winner, Primer, had been AWOL for years, with rumors of an ambitious, eventually abandoned project titled A Topiary occasionally floating through the ether, followed by long months of radio silence. For many of us, the announcement that the 40-year-old filmmaker had finally made a follow-up, with the cryptic name Upstream Color—its existence was not a dream or a myth, so sayeth Sundance’s catalog!—gave us a specific reason to look forward to trudging through Park City’s slushy streets in January.

By the time Carruth’s second feature premiered, the buzz was hovering near fit-to-burst level. What few anticipated, however, was how thoroughly this poetic, profoundly weird story of two lovers—played by Carruth and actor-filmmaker Amy Seimetz (Sun Don’t Shine)—working through a traumatic experience would blow viewers’ minds. Any attempt to summarize the movie’s story line more than that is an exercise in futility; an experiential, stream-of-consciousness tale of love, loss, hallucinogenic worms, pig farmers who may or may not be God, feminine forest dwellers and holistic experiments in sound engineering, Carruth’s ode to the healing power of amour is nearly impossible to describe in a mere synopsis. Perhaps more importantly, however, is that once you’d seen Upstream Color, it’s impossible to forget it. (Read our review here.)

Months after the film sparked dozens of arguments, several gushing raves and an equal amount of cartoon question marks to appear above folks’ heads, the hyphenate behind this mind-bender sat down in his publicist’s office in downtown Manhattan to chat with TONY. Here are some edited excerpts.

Time Out New York: I remember interviewing you when Primer was released in 2004, and as I was walking out, I asked you if you had another project in the works….
Shane Carruth:
[Laughs] Go on.

Time Out New York: …to which you replied, “I do, we should be ready to go really, really soon.”

Shane Carruth: Right. Yeah, that project would’ve been A Topiary, which I worked on for years and years, and… Well, it did not get made. I was beating my head against the wall trying to make it happen, and it just wasn’t meant to be.

Time Out New York: So how did you eventually circle around to what would become Upstream Color?
Shane Carruth: Well, it wasn’t like one sprang from the ashes of the other. The two were mutually exclusive, really. But I’d had the rough elements for Color for about a year, which was: When your basic narrative, your basic identity, is stripped away from you, how do you rebuild yourself? Both of the characters wake up in a moment, discover they’ve done some things they can’t quite atone for and have to figure out what that means in regards to who they are. The idea of breaking someone to their core, and then in your moment of desperation, you connect with someone who’s also putting himself back together—it would make for such a tragic romance.

That had been what I guess you’d call a thought experiment in my head for a bit, and the more I mulled it over, the more the whole thing just kept getting bigger and more emotional. Once I knew that was the gist of the story, there was no turning back. I was going to do this movie no matter what. You could have put a gun to my head, you could have offered me a blank check and said, “Okay, go ahead and make A Topiary, which you’ve been obsessing over for seven years.” No. This was my new project. I was making Upstream Color regardless and through whatever means that I could muster.

Time Out New York: Did you know from the beginning that you’d tell this story of identity breaking down and being reassembled in such a fragmented, impressionistic way?
Shane Carruth: Parts of that vocabulary were there in the writing stage, yeah. I was composing some of the music that ended up in the film at the same time I was writing the script, so that may have helped spur me to think of telling the story in a more fluid way. Really, it wasn’t until right before we started shooting it and I felt like I had a handle on what the visual language for the film should be that I thought, Okay, this is what it needs to be. Thematically, I think it fits.

Time Out New York: How so?

Shane Carruth: Well, the movie is all about being affected by things at a distance and in a nonverbal manner; it’s about not being able to know where the source of your mania is coming from. So it made sense to be fragmentary and very narrow in scope: A lot of the shots feel like the context is missing, with lots of extreme close-ups of things that leave the rest of the picture out of focus. I wanted something that would reflect a jumbled mental state, and I knew I needed a visual corollary for what these people are going through. Once I hit on how to do that, I found I could strip away other things: I can lose this dialogue scene since this shot tells the whole story, this cut tells you what you need to know.

Time Out New York
: But don’t you potentially risk losing your audience that way?

Shane Carruth: Of course there’s that risk, but I do think viewers are able to pick up on the thread here. I honestly do. It’s a risk, but I’m sort of ready to let go of thinking of movies as books that you can watch. The notion of “If I put the narrative blocks in the right order, this will solve all of my storytelling problems.” No, it won’t, and you end up with little more than books on film. I think if we all want to see what this art form is capable of, we have to embrace new ways of using it. We need to think of new ways to make the various aspects of cinema talk to each other in a creative, unique way.

Time Out New York: It feels like there’s a certain audience out there that seems ready to tackle films that use this kind of poetic, fill-in-the-blanks film grammar now more than ever—something I’d wager you have Terrence Malick to thank for. Did the fact that he’s had success by pushing the boundaries a bit help guide you toward using this impressionistic style of filmmaking?

Shane Carruth: Hmm, I’ve never thought about that. Maybe subconsciously it did; I’d be lying if I said he didn’t influence me, as I’m a fan. But no, I mean…this is how I’d tell this story even if he hadn’t primed audiences. This is just how it had to be told.

Time Out New York: You’ve mentioned that, at its heart, Upstream Color is a fairly simple love story.

Shane Carruth: I think it is, yeah.

Time Out New York: So let me play devil’s advocate for a second.

Shane Carruth: [Laughs] Sure.

Time Out New York: If this is such a simple love story, why include all these otherworldly elements? Why do you need to have a pig farmer and drug worms and someone called the “orchid daughter” in it at all?
Shane Carruth: It boils down to the fact that I like using these science-fiction elements you’ve just mentioned as sort of a shortcut into the premise. I don’t know that I would necessarily describe Upstream Color as a science-fiction movie, but it has some fantastic elements in it, to be sure. There could have been any number of ways to enter into this: Someone gets amnesia; a pharmaceutical company is doing something bad; there’s a cosmic phenomenon happening, or a mass religious thing. But if you pick any one of those, people will think you’re creating a story about those specific elements: This is now a movie about religion, or about Big Pharma, or about an alien invasion. And that’s not what I wanted to do.

My hope was that, by using some of this fantastic stuff in an ambiguous way, it got you to the point you needed to get to without eclipsing the subject, which is that these two people need each other to find out who they are now. I know some people will look at it like a giant puzzle to be solved, but really the idea was to serve their story and not make it a genre piece. I know that anything that’s veiled is potentially open to being misinterpreted. But the confusion is also part of the film. It’s a movie about irrational behavior. So why not put some irrational elements into it?

Time Out New York: When I talked to people at Sundance about the film, they seemed to fall into two camps: fans of Primer who were disappointed you didn’t make another film in that vein; and fans of Primer who, because that movie challenges you on several levels, were totally ready for an experience like this.

Shane Carruth: Wow, that’s great. I’m okay with either of those responses. [Laughs]

Time Out New York: This is totally speculative, but do you think the fact that your first film was challenging—and has a very rabid fan base who’s dissected every frame of it—might ultimately help Color’s reception or hinder it?
Shane Carruth: I’d like to think it could help, though I certainly understand if people who come into this expecting Primer would be disappointed. I don’t really know. What I do know is that a consensus already seems to be forming, and it’s exciting to read people interpret the movie in various ways.

I mean, look, I never set out to make a movie that was everything to everybody; if that were the case, we could all just take a picture of a tree and agree that the tree is beautiful and move on with our lives. I wouldn’t even need to show up. [Laughs] I certainly expect a backlash to start happening at any given moment as well. But what has excited me is that, for all the various interpretations I’ve heard so far, most viewers seem to know exactly what to key in to. Even if they don’t know every little nuance or feel they have the answers by the time the credits roll, they recognize the film for what it is. And that is gratifying to no end. 

Upstream Color opens Friday, April 5 at IFC Center.

Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear

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