Shane Carruth wrote, directed, scored, produced and starred in the 2004 time-travel mindfuck Primer, and then did it all again for his poetic fantasy Upstream Color--opening today in New York--for which he has also taken on the tasks of marketing and distribution. We spoke to him about Upstream Color, whose two main characters (played by Carruth and up-and-comer Amy Seimetz) are drawn to each other and to other creatures by an "ageless organism" that forces them to reconstruct their careers and identities.
You've said "I would choose to not really say much at all" about the film. So why are you talking about it?
Well, I'm trying to negotiate two things in my head. One is that, which I don't know if there's much that can be said, or that an author should be saying. But then there's the fact that I somehow have to get this film out and get it seen by enough people that it has a chance to live on its own for a bit. So that's what this is. This is a constant negotiation between those two things.
Is it difficult doing interviews about the film?
I mean, not compared to actual manual labor, it's not, but yeah. It's not easy. It's weird. It's just difficult to know what can actually be said. I feel like because we're sort of cut off from getting into the meat of the story or the substance or its intentions, then that means we end up talking about all of the other stuff around it. I write from a point of trying to make something that's universal and hopefully relevant for a long time so when it comes to the temporary-type stuff it's harder and harder to get my bearings as to why that's important. We just did the Blu-Ray and DVD combo pack thing and I was doing the artwork and stuff and people were asking, "Well, what kind of extra materials will be on there?" And I don't want any! I don't want a director's commentary, I don't want behind-the-scenes stuff. I don't want any of that. I've gotten to the point where I feel like that's a distraction from the actual purpose of the narrative to cultivate this idea that the experience has something to do with being behind the scenes and getting into the production and stuff. In that sense it's difficult but at the same time we live in a place where culture is part of the currency it seems like.
How do you imagine people experiencing Upstream Color, then?
Well, I really do like the marketing elements. Trailers and media that you put out and key art and posters. I feel like these are all really good ways to contextualize the narrative, and you're still sort of in that mode of non-verbal communication. I really enjoy that and I think that can be an extension of storytelling. In an ideal world, I would be working on a budget that could manage that, that could get that out and in front of people and then let that be the end of it. We'd make the film, we'd create these bits of media for people to watch. I think of those as like the cover of a book. If you're a novelist you get to pick the cover of your book and the font and the texture of the paper and all that stuff, you get to craft how an audience receives it. That stuff seems fun to me and, again, an extension of the narrative. I'm not a personality, obviously, I'm no big deal at all. Even if I was, that doesn't seem appropriate, to be cultivating that sort of following or whatever.
How did the film change from the script you had and how much of that was in the editing?
There's a few concrete ways that I know that it changed. In the music, I know that I had written a bunch of music at the screenplay-writing stage and that I ended up throwing something like half of it out. It happened gradually. It became more and more clear to me that the music needed to represent the subjective experience of the character that we were following and not trying to force the experience of the audience, or represent the experience of the audience. I do think that that's an idea that became more and more clear in my head that I should have known from the beginning but for some reason it took a while to come around to. That made the music a lot less orchestrated and a lot more atmospheric and ethereal. In my mind, more emotional. The visual language that came together, there's a real tactility to the way we started using the camera. I only had the first hint of that in the script. So as that became more and more clear it became the sort of thing where we could start paring back bits of dialogue that were in the script. I could let some of that go because I felt we were doing a pretty good job with the visual language of explaining that the characters were being affected at a distance that we didn't have to talk about it in dialogue or in other means that were visual.
So was the original script more verbal?
That's what's so hard. There is no easy answer to any of these questions. People want to say, "Where'd you come up with the idea?" We all want this story, like, "Oh, I saw a girl on a carousel and it suddenly dawned on me." That never happens. It's never that easy. It's always an accumulation of a thousand different moments and ideas that all end up morphing into one thing. But yeah, in the same way, I don't know the difference between the script and the final execution. I don't think it's any more or less different than any other story. Film is film and it's never gonna be just the visual version of a book. It needs to be something else of its own.
What was the first thing you wrote down?
I'm sorry, I just don't know. I can tell you my little talking points about this but I should also just tell you that it's all a lie. It's all just a massive lie. I could tell you something that's completely true, I could tell you where the story came from, that it started with personal narrative and my being consumed with them and how they work and whether you could change them once they're cemented and I wanted to break down these characters and strip down their identities and have them build them up from what they found around themselves. I can tell you all that, it's completely true, but I have no idea what the first thing was that I wrote down because it's a process. It's a process. I hope I'm not making this too difficult.
Do you think that idea of building an identity is in any way analogous to your own identity as a filmmaker?
I don't know. Two things about that. One, I know that I have this, I mean everybody does, this idea that you've built up an identity, you have your political, religious, cosmic beliefs, whatever. Everything that you see and everything that you say seems to be framed according to this identity. I know that I'm guilty, if that's even the right word, absolutely. But as far as my identity as a filmmaker, I really don't want one or have one. I don't want a career. I've been telling all of the people that would care that I'm not trying to build a career. I'm trying to be consumed by whatever story's in front of me. It was Upstream Color, I'm currently writing something else right now that I cannot wait to sink into. I don't want a personality and any time I use my name as sort of a brand I'm really just trying to do what I can. If there's any value in it at all to get the project out and raise awareness of it.
Were you always an autodidact?
I don't know. It just sort of started, it always starts from a place of having no power or money really and just trying to solve the problem. With the distribution, this wasn't really the plan until last summer when I have this film I'm really proud of, I need to get it out there in some way so there's the typical, "let's try to hit the major festivals and see if we can get an acquisition." And then everybody always has a plan B, what if that doesn't happen. So I started exploring plan B and that, combined with the experience I had with Primer and having a distributor, which wasn't necessarily a negative experience, but it was something that informed me about the level of control that I would ever have on what an audience would know about the film before they got to see it. I just started taking it apart piece by piece and it just turns out that there's something else that's possible today that wasn't before. I sort of tripped into that from a place of not really having power or money and then suddenly realized that, if I go down this path of distribution I get to make the choices about all of the media and all of the way that it's contextualized. Picking a poster that's not gonna have pigs and worms and guns on it but that's gonna have two broken people fully clothed in a bathtub, that's something that, I can't really give that up now that I know that I can do that. With the music, I didn't set out thinking I wanted to compose music for film but when I know what I want the music to sound like exactly it just makes more sense for me to spend the time it takes to get it done instead of trying to explain it to somebody and then really frustrate them when they don't deliver precisely what's in my stupid head. It's like future creep, basically, it just gets bigger and bigger.
You've said "on Upstream Color there's a language that came to be and I'm not done with it."
The best way I've found to try and verbalize what it is that I'm trying to do, and I don't even know how new it is, I just know that it's new for me. That's not true. I do think it's new. I do think there's a way to really push this far. It comes down to there being a core story and a core set of characters and a core thematic exploration and I think of that as the architecture of the house. The frame of the house. But then the way that you explore it, the way that you bring the audience through it, can be much more lyrical if the architecture is really sound. You can screw with chronology as long as you're being respectful to the viewer. I'm really right now playing a lot with connecting moments that are emotionally relevatory instead of moments that are chronologically dependent on each other. So I know that's part of it. For me it's really really hard to verbalize and that's why I'm happy to have Upstream in existence because I like being able to point at that as the first step toward the new thing. I just want to push that even further. I'm calling it a visual language or an emotional language but I have to admit it's difficult because we're talking about things that...if we could talk about them we wouldn't have to put them in a movie. We could just write them down. I just know that the same brushstrokes that are used for that film, I want to use them on an even bigger canvas and push them even further on this next one.
Is that connected to your ideas about myth?
Yeah. I think so, yeah. The only thing that I really have passion about when it comes to narrative is doing something that is universal, that has a chance of being relevant in the future at some point. I would never do a story that would be about the Obama administration. I could never really do that, because that's too temporary, but what I absolutely would love to explore is how power corrupts. Things that are just much more universal. That's why I end up with these plot elements. I'm typically in cities that are not named. Bits of plot that could be repurposed in all sorts of other forms, hopefully. So anyway that's what I think of as the architecture. It's like the tortoise and the hare version of the story that could just be told in a thousand different ways. It needs to be that solid and then the film itself, the exploration itself, the music, all of that is something that can be led by something else. Just knowing a piece of music so well that it's internalized and you can start playing with the chord structures in a second-by-second way that hopefully is enjoyable or informative.
Other than identity, it seems like Upstream Color's other main theme is this kind of symbiosis, or connectedness, or coupling. How do you think that kind of symbiosis plays out in everyday life?
I don't know. The reason that that stuff was in there was an extension of, "Okay, we've broken these characters down, they're rebuilding their identities and they're doing it wrong." Is something that we see, they don't quite see that.
How are they doing it wrong?
Well, Kris wakes up and thinks that she for some reason gave away all her money, didn't show up to work and a few other things. Basically can't really explain why and comes to the conclusion that she has a, let's say bipolar disorder. It's not spoken about in the film, it's just that she now needs to take meds. And she becomes this person who isolates herself. At first we see her, she's a very Ally McBeal-type career woman and then she becomes this isolated person. Jeff has something like the same experience where he wakes up and realizes that he's been stealing money and attributes that to some sort of a drug problem or something and so they build up these sort of versions of themselves that are different from their previous versions. I guess that's what I mean.
The film is about identity and yet there are a lot of doublings in the film, like the opening scene with the two boys who are making the same movements but also all kinds of other pairings. What's the relationship between that kind of symbiosis and one's own individual identity?
Well, essentially we're going to end up in a story where our lead characters are being affected at a distance. Let's just concentrate on Kris. She eventually gets to a point where, she doesn't have children but because she's connected to this pig and the piglets are being drowned, she is experiencing the psychosis and mania of losing her children. That manifests in her swimming and trying to pick up these pebbles off the floor of the pool. She is experiencing the emotions of somebody whose children are lost but she couldn't objectively point to what was causing that in her. So that's one of the many examples of, everybody's being affected at a distance in this film, so they are somehow linked up with something else. The kids in the beginning, that's our first little taste of what that looks like, that there is some invisible bond between two things. Once they're part of this lifecycle, once we're in the world of believing that this power can exist, then that gets us into how people are being affected at a distance or linked up or whatever. And to me the reason that it's important to identity is because I think that's a large part of people's personal narrative is religious belief systems or even when I was talking about pharmacology, there's a lot that we think we know and there's a lot that we don't. I think these offscreen forces represent the things that we don't but think we do know. Anybody who believes that there's a fate at play or they are part of some plan or some sort of a religious or faith-based belief or anything else, there's always this concept that I am the way I am or things are happening the way they are because of something else that I couldn't point to in this room but it's out there somewhere and it's effecting my life here. That's why those things are in the film.
So is the idea to try to overcome that in some way?
I don't know. I'm not trying to tell that story. I'm not trying to sum it up or claim that I've got some kind of answer to it. The thing that interests me is the exploration. I'm scared half to death to even bring up the stuff that this film goes down. It's very purposeful but if I explain what its purpose is then it completely negates the story. It has something to do with, there's a comedy of errors in the last third of this film. It takes on sort of a heart of darkness type situation where Kris and Jeff come to understand who they think is responsible for this unspoken mania that they're experiencing. And so when Kris goes on and exacts her revenge on the Sampler, that's meant to be a whole other question about whether somebody who we only see as an observer is culpable for what he is observing or involved with in order to observe. There is no moment where characters wake up from their slumber and then come to understand some universal truth, if anything it's the exact opposite. She winds up overcoming one false belief with another. The way she's left at the end is yet another attempt at being pretty subversive in that her subjective experience is pretty positive. And I think the music and cinematography and Amy's performance and everything about that last scene with the piglets is a pretty positive, peaceful resolution to this story but the text of it I think is really horrifying and melancholy that the best she's gonna hope for is, she's not gonna have kids, she's gonna have these piglets that are never really gonna return any kind of real affection for her, so it's like that moment that's subjectively positive against a landscape that realistically could never really be that for long. That's where my head goes when I'm trying to come to the end of an exploration because I don't necessarily believe in endings.