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.  So...you'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.

Follow Chase Whale on Twitter.

Around the Internet:
  • Stephen

    Insanely good

  • Stephen

    The sound; the light; a film like a great little restaurant you don't want everyone to know about because not everyone will appreciate the brilliance.

  • Electric Head

    Any word on where it would play in Toronto? I can't seem to find a single showtime.

  • It's at the Lightbox.

  • Kurt

    There is a single screening with a Director's Q&A (via SKYPE) afterwards, probably worth singling that one out.

  • rustdog

    Thank you for the interview. It is probably too much to hope that this will be On Demand through my cable provider. I feel bad now for reading A Topiary, but not too bad. What a monster of a script.

  • Thanks for giving it a read!

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