Shane Carruth on Upstream Color

Ashley Clark

Since its debut at Sundance Film Festival in January, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (the long-awaited follow-up to his brilliant 2004 debut Primer) has attained near-immediate cult status. A nearly unclassifiable and deeply immersive blend of stunning visuals, philosophical musings and keenly-felt romance, it stars Amy Seimetz as Kris, a young woman whose life is irrevocably altered by a complex parasite which likely has its origins in a mysterious pig farm operated by a field recordist entitled ‘The Sampler’. (We said it was nearly unclassifiable!)

Written, produced, edited, scored and even starring its multi-talented director, Upstream Color is a singular work which demands multiple viewings to parse its many mysteries. We chatted to Carruth recently about creative control-freakery, visual beauty, and shifting approaches to storytelling.

GFW: It’s been nine years since your debut Primer and I was just wondering what prompted you to prioritise this project over your other long-standing sci-fi project A Topiary?
Shane Carruth: The easy answer is money. But that’s not the whole answer at all. I was trying to get A Topiary made and wasn’t really having any success. Luckily I started to get consumed with the idea for Upstream. The first kernels of the story were starting to happen, and I became obsessed with it. It reached a point where it wouldn’t really have mattered; somebody could’ve shown up with a cheque for A Topiary the next day and I still wouldn’t have been able to have made it because I was so consumed with Upstream. I just fell in love with the story and needed to get it made and the fact that I also could make it – that I had the means to make it – [laughs] was an added bonus.

On Upstream Color, you did everything yourself. How important is it for you to have that level of control?
It didn’t used to be – or at least I didn’t think it did but now it is. I’m just sort of giving up any idea that I’m not a control freak, because I am. It started out of necessity with Primer – and to some extent on this too – just simply because when it comes to writing the music, or the cinematography, I simply don’t know people that I would go to to do that, and I end up playing around with that stuff anyways out of curiosity. Then when I start to put together something that I think of as the vocabulary for the film, it becomes really difficult to entertain the idea of ‘well, why would I go hire a musician when all I’m probably going to do is bug him until he makes music that sounds like this music that I already wrote?’ So it’s like, each of these departments I take a couple of steps in and then it’s too late. I’m just a control freak and that’s all there is to it.

The film is a very immersive experience, and it’s not incomprehensible by any means, but it is deliberately disorienting to begin with. It must be an exhilarating feeling for you to know that you have an audience that is really going to put the work in to get meaning out of your film.
Absolutely, yeah. Yes. Yes. I was going to add to that, but really, no, that’s exactly what it feels like.

Do you ever worry that you might lose people when you go off in that direction?
It’s so nuanced. I count success with a narrative as relevance that is irrelevant in the future, or that doesn’t have a chance to be relevant in the future. Can it be long-lived and still be meaningful? That’s ultimately what I think of as success. So in order to get there it needs to have some presence in modern times, it needs to have some chance to have a life and be vetted through history and opinions of others and interpretation and stuff. So it has to have some volume today. But I don’t think it has to be, you know, a billion dollars worldwide or whatever the terms for success are usually. It just needs to have a big enough start or a wide enough understanding that it can go off and have it’s own life. So that’s all I’m really worried about.

So it’s that balancing act between keeping something contemporary and making sure it’s got a built-in lifespan...
Yeah, absolutely, and the bottom line is, I suppose, that all I know how to use is my own sensibilities as an audience member to dictate if I think we’re on course or not.

And did the story change along the way as you were making it?
The story didn’t change. Rather how the story was told changed because of other things that got introduced into the mix. I’d written a lot of music before we started shooting, and then I’d done some cinematography tests and I knew a little bit about what we were going to be doing there.

But then Amy Seimetz showed up to play the lead and that was the first time I got a sense of how effective she was going to be in the lead – or how effective anybody was going to be in that lead – and then I came to understand how much information is being conveyed non-verbally, and that means we can maybe pare back on these other tools. The whole equation changed in a weird way. Half of the music that I wrote I had to throw out because I started to understand that it was communicating wrong – it was either too informative or it was too rigid in the way that it informed – and it needed to change. And then that affected the way that the camera work would work. All of these things had to balance themselves out, probably in the first week or so. Once you have all the tools laid out you understand ‘oh wait, I can’t build a house with these tools, I need other tools!’ [laughs] It’s just a little bit like that.

What prompted you to cast Amy Seimetz? Of course she’s a director in her own right isn’t she?
Absolutely. And that’s why I cast her. I didn’t know her, and a friend told me about her. She was nice enough to show me a very early cut of Sun Don’t Shine, the latest movie that she wrote and directed and it was because of that, and because I liked it so much and it was so strong, that I just felt like we’d be lucky to have her if we could get her. I actually haven’t seen her in any other movie other than Upstream. But I count myself so fortunate, and I had no idea that she was going to be as great as she is.

To what extent would you characterise your film as a love story?
Since so much of the story is about her subjective experience, and her narrative basically being rewritten, and her being affected at a distance by things that she can’t really point to, and the emotional mania that comes from that, it’s [chuckles]... I guess I started to think of the love story part of this as just another one of these things – yet another subjective thing where you can’t know something. From her experiences it would have to be failed [love]. Why are they connected? Is it because of any real reason? Or is it because of all the other things that seemingly happen in her life that she can’t point to or explain? I don't know. It’s…secondary, I guess, to the exploration.

Upstream Color is an incredible visual experience – do you think that words are overrated?
Yeah, absolutely. Well, I think of it [the visuals] in terms of being…specific to the story. Primer is non-stop talking. They do nothing but talk about what’s going on. And then Upstream… as the film goes along it becomes more and more synched up with Kris’s subjective experience. So much of that is that she can’t talk about it because she doesn’t know anything. She can’t speak to why she’s experiencing what she’s experiencing. So to me that dictated that the film needed to say less and less and become more and more subjective and emotional. And so to find a way that you could set up a plot that will come to a conclusion in its final third without words was one of the main things that I was trying to get to in the writing.

What’s next for you?
I am finishing a script that I will be shooting next called The Modern Ocean and it’s action and romantic tragedy set at sea among shipping routes with modern pirates and piracy and all sorts.

'Upstream Color' is out now in Canada, and is released in the UK on August 30.

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