Filmmaker Shane Carruth: “I Want My Work to Be Relevant in the Future”
For a while, fans weren’t sure if they’d ever hear from Shane Carruth again. In 2004, the young, unknown director premiered a film at Sundance called Primer—a scrappy, dense, mind-melting treatise on time travel made on a microbudget. Primer went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance that year, and Carruth instantly become the Next Big Thing in the indie-film scene. And then, nothing. Years went by and it seemed like Carruth had left his sole and final mark on the indie-film world.
Now, nine years after Primer premiered at Sundance, Carruth is finally back with a new film, Upstream Color. The film, which has fiercely divided critics, follows the developing romance between a man and a woman who have both been abducted and manipulated with mind-controlling worms. It also has something to do with Walden, a omnipresent God-like sound recorder called The Sampler, and pigs that are somehow connected with the characters. It’s a narrative that’s as tough to crack (but for totally different reasons) as Primer. Recently, I sat down with Carruth to discuss the themes of Upstream Color, his nine-year absence from film world, and the process of DIY filmmaking.
Washington City Paper: Upstream Color deals a lot with the control of one’s free will by outsiders. I read about your industry struggles in trying to make your script for A Topiary into a film, and I’m curious if that experience—the experience of being strong-armed by industry executives—influenced this script?
Shane Carruth: I really appreciate that question. It’s weird because in general, I don’t ever knowingly try to write about something that I think is specific to my experience. I’m only typically trying to write about things that I hope or think are universal. So when you ask a question like that, I start to wonder: “Well wait, maybe that’s why I was so focused on this theme,” and then I don’t really know anymore, maybe that’s why my mind went there.
It’s weird, I didn’t think of [Upstream Color] as having any connection with Primer or the script that was A Topiary, but the more I’m verbalizing my thoughts I’m starting to realize that maybe they are connected. You’re talking about how [Upstream Color] has so much to do with people being affected at a distance and the inability for them to know how they’re being affected. That’s pretty commonplace in not just the three stories or scripts that I've written, but in the other concepts or short stories I've written that exist in note form somewhere. It is a pretty big deal, so I guess I just keep coming back to it.
WCP: I think one of the best qualities of this film is how dynamic and layered the narrative is—especially in the third act. I’ve read a lot of varying interpretations about the narrative and it reminded me of a recent documentary I watched, Room 237, which deals with a few very different (and quite far-fetched) interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Do you find the different readings about Upstream Color to be a humbling or frustrating experience?
SC: For me, there’s almost nothing frustrating about it, at least in the modern sense. Here’s the thing: I want my work to be relevant in the future. I want it to be so universal and so much about a common understanding that it has some relevance in the future. That doesn’t mean that everything I think I do is so important that it’s going to live forever, but if at any point I suspect that what I’m doing is too temporary and doesn’t have any chance at all, I’ve got to stop. When I think about my gauge for success, I’m only thinking about “Is this a good enough work to be relevant?”
You know, I’m a very insecure person, but I’m very secure about this film. This is a good work. I’m very confident about that. So now it’s my job to try and get it into culture at a deep enough affection point—or however you want to say it—that the film has a chance to live, and be talked about, or be studied, or be rejected, or be accepted, or whatever’s going to happen with the life of it. It has now got its start, I believe. Or it will. Whether someone reviews it negatively or positively, I only care inasmuch as it means “Are you affecting the long-term life of this thing?”
Sorry, I’m talking so much about this, but it’s an ambitious film and it has a different—that’s the word I keep coming back to—a different intent than what is typical. And that’s going to necessarily be divisive, regardless of whether it’s executed well or not. It’s trying something different, and that’s going to cause a divide because some people are going to key into what it’s doing immediately, and others aren’t.
I think that carries forward with interpretations as well. Narrative is inherently veiled, no matter what you’re doing. Even if you’re doing a cartoon or something for kids, there’s always some sense of a puzzle because you’re always trying to figure out “Where’s this going to go now? How’s this going to unfold?” So, you’ve got that, and on the other end of the spectrum you’ve got some really elevated works that are really hard to pierce—everything comes along on that spectrum. In that sense, it’s necessary to be misinterpreted in order for it to be compelling enough to be properly interpreted. I’m hopeful that there’s a consensus that is currently coalescing around the intent of the film.
WCP: I think so. I think the film has a sort of timeless quality—not in the nostalgic sense wherein people will look at it in 40 or 50 years and see it as an emblematic piece of filmmaking in 2013, but in a more universal sense like you described. There’s only a few films I can think of that possess that timeless quality.
SC: That’s a good point. I’m thinking about The Conversation—the Francis Ford Coppola movie—and how if it wasn’t such a wonderful singular work, it could be written off, because it does have that wonderful early '70s aesthetic to it. But I don’t ever think of that film as necessarily a '70s movie, because the themes are universal, it’s just a really great story.
WCP: Looking at the credits of your films, you’re billed as director/writer/star/producer/composer/DP/Etc. Do you find taking on all these roles to be an arduous task, or do you tackle them congruously?
SC: It’s a combination of all of it. It starts off as necessity and insecurity. When I’m writing and I have something in my head about a certain moment and how it’s meant to feel or be executed, I can go and play with the music for a bit and get a piece of music that’s appropriate for what I’m trying to shape, and then I know something about what I can do with cinematography, then I start to have some confidence that we will execute this moment and I can start to build on that. And before long I’ve got an accumulation of music that I think of as the score, and it’s all out of the conversation with how one bit of music is affecting another, which is affecting another, and another. Then, the cinematography becomes more and more cemented in my head.
In this film, [the cinematography] is telegraphing so much about tactility and curiosity, so the presence of light in certain scenes is important whenever I need it to be. When that’s happening, it becomes more and more difficult to relay this information to somebody else. Not that it’s impossible, because it’s going to have to be possible this next time around. It really is a collaborative effort; there’s a lot of people who worked on this film, and I become a real logjam when I’m the guy with the laptop that has the music on it that somehow has to get it off in the right form, and then it has a digital glitch but nobody knows the right plugin except for me, so now I have to stop whatever else I was doing and fix that. I become a real issue, so I’ve got to solve that.
WCP: Can you talk about self-distribution model for Upstream Color? Was this something that you had in mind from Day One?
SC: It was in the back of my head—the back of all of our heads, basically—because the world’s changing. There’s just some real physical marketplace situations that have changed as far as so much of an awareness and revenue happening in the digital realm, and now that realm is easier and easier to get to. It doesn’t require you to print 20,000 Blu-Rays if you don’t want to—we are—but you don’t necessarily have to, you just have to tackle theatrical, and even that is an actual prospect or possibility now. For a long time I was just thinking and telling everyone that we can be bought out of this [self-distribution] plan, but they’re going to have to really buy us out of this plan. We’re not going to this thing where we get involved [with a distributor] and some distributor claims that they bought this film and we have to really wonder whether they did and then they have the reigns for marketing and stuff, but we’re still meant to be in a partnership. The idea was basically like a game of chicken: They’re never really going to meet the price it would take to buy this film out from us, but sure, it’s on the table. So, as I started to investigate the mechanics as to how this would work, and weirdly, it became more and more of a real practical thing. It’s just work, and we could actually distribute this at at least the same level as Primer, if not a typical distribution plan.
WCP: What sort of lessons from the successes and failures of Primer did you take with you in making Upstream Color?
SC: Wow, well there’s the simple version and then there’s the complicated version. The bottom line is that I wasn’t a filmmaker for a long time, I was a guy who took meetings. And it’s weird to acknowledge that. Like, wow, I haven’t done anything but take meetings with people that, honestly, I only wanted their money. We had all these conversations [after Primer] but the only question in the room was “Would you like to write a check, please?” That sounds horrible, that’s so negative.
But, with [Upstream Color] it was a stupid amount of work, a lot work for everybody, and I put undue stress on a lot of people. Basically the choice I made early on was that we’re just going to go do this. There isn’t anything that’s going to stop this. I erred on the other side, basically. I just spent so much time wasting my time not doing anything but taking meetings that I leapfrogged over what would have been a proper plan for a movie and just said “Screw it, I don’t care. I don’t care if we don’t have this element or that element, we are shooting this date and we are going to make this movie, and it’s going to be finished, and then we’re going to do this.” When there’s an inflexibility it stresses everybody out, and I sleep less. We need to find some middle ground basically. Films cost a certain amount [to make], and you will pay that with cash or with stress, so we need to err more towards cash on this next one.