Andrew Sensenig in Upstream Color.
Filmmaker Shane Carruth’s 2004 debut Primer, completed on an inconceivably low budget, is a mindbending sci-fi film about time travel, with a narrative that’s rarely, if ever, linear or easy to follow. Yet, the film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and has garnered a kind of cult following among sci-fi aficionados. Carruth hasn’t made another film for the last nine years—until Upstream Color. Carruth wrote, directed, produced, shot, edited, and starred in the film, whose plot is, like his previous film, a little tricky to summarize. I can reveal that it involves a young woman named Kris (played by Amy Seimetz) who has been abducted and brainwashed by a mysterious parasitic organism. After she escapes from a period of mind control, Kris is left with no idea who she is—only scattered, potentially untrustworthy memories. She runs into Jeff (played by Carruth) who has been similarly treated and is similarly bewildered about who or where or why he is, and the two lost souls begin a romance. There’s also a farmer who keeps a drove of pigs, one of whom Kris has some psychic connection to. The film is comprised mostly of fragmentary, dream-like images that build a hypnotic rhythm, and which mimic the cycles of nature itself—not unlike a Terrence Malick film, although Carruth’s depiction of the natural world is slightly more sinister. Upstream Color explores the universal human desire to construct identity, to create some meaning, to impose a little structure on chaos.
Carruth told me he judges his success as a filmmaker by his potential for a long timeline: he wants the lives of his projects to extend into the future, to make sense across the ages. This is perhaps the sci-fi-fanatic in him coming through; he wants to matter not only in this time and place, but in other times and places. He wants to explore the far reaches of filmmaking and of the universe within his stories.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold I wanted to discuss your background a little—I know you had your academic training in mathematics and engineering. Did this in any way prepare you for filmmaking?
Shane Carruth Unfortunately no, not really. I studied math in school because I really enjoyed math. But I didn’t know what I was doing. I really was enjoying writing and learning about writing and how narrative works and what it can be used for and all that. But I didn’t know how to make money with that either. So after school I just stepped into a job as a software engineer because it was something a guy with a math background could do relatively easily. That was just to be able to pay rent and eat while I figured out where to put my passion. I’d benefited a lot from that narrative for that story for Primer… but at this point, it sort of seems like what I was studying, or what I did back then, is so far in the past and so small compared to what I’ve been trying to do now that it’s just like, what frat did you pledge in college or something.
AJG Fair enough. I’m curious about the challenges of both directing a film and starring in it. Would you ever want to make a film you didn’t star in yourself—or would you feel another actor couldn’t properly convey your ideas and feelings?
SC No, I don’t need to act at all. It’s one of these things that just starts as a necessity, or something that’s going to make things a bit easier because it’s one less person to schedule. I don’t have a ton of experience working with actors, so I get some information if I’m in the scene, if I’m getting my hands dirty. I’m accepting something that I wouldn’t necessarily be getting if I were stepping back. I’m sure there’s some ego involved, but I really liked the story, and I really wanted that experience. So that’s why I stepped in. I don’t know if that will keep happening. Who knows.
AJG I read somewhere that you came up with the idea for your first film, Primer, after waking up in a hospital with a head injury after a car accident. I don’t know whether that’s true or not.
SC It’s one of those things where its been made bigger than it actually was. It’s more or less true. Being laid up after the car wreck was sort of a big deal for me because it was some really focused time where I couldn’t do anything for a month except sit there and think and write and watch movies. So it was informative. I don’t actually remember if I had the idea before or after the accident, but it was somewhere in that same time frame.
AJG So, what gave you the idea for Upstream Color?
SC The bottom line is, I was becoming more and more interested in personal narrative and identity and where that comes from and how it affects our behavior—or whether it’s our behavior that affects our identity. It started as a thought experiment: if you could strip away everything somebody is or what they believe, how they’ve been shaped—and force them to adopt a new version of themselves based on whatever information they found around themselves, that would be a way to explore the edges of that experience, and how universal it is. The more I played with this idea, the more horrific it became. It became more emotional to think about, and that had some romantic promise to it. So that became the center of the story: we’ll have people who have been broken to their core, and left wondering what is off about this, and have them hopefully feel they are being affected at a distance by things they can’t speak to. I needed to create some construct that would make that all happen, that premise. That construct in my mind needed to be something already here, that has been here for a long time, that was embedded in the place that we live—that’s why it was a life cycle, in the natural world, it’s cyclical, it’s not conspiratorial. None of the characters necessarily care or know who is next or last in the line of things. They’re all just doing what comes to them in nature. To me that would suggest it’s more universal. If it were a pharmaceutical drug or something that got these characters broken down, we would be talking about how it’s an indictment of the pharmaceutical industry or whatever. But it needed to be a bit more like a fable.
Amy Seimetz and Shane Carruth in Upstream Color
AJG In your film, it seems as though the loss of the characters’ identities makes them more pure in a way, more in tune with the earth. I thought this could be the connection with Thoreau, who wanted to live life in radically reduced, stripped down conditions. The film uses recurring phrases from Walden. What significance does that book pose for you and for your characters?
SC I picked Walden because the plot is cemented in the natural world and its plot is all about the soil and beasts and plants and water. I knew that I would have this character Kris write and rewrite the same book over and over again, page by page, before forming them into these chains. And I needed a book, and I thought this was very appropriate. Here’s a passive, peaceful book about nature. That’s where it started, and once it became clear that there were a lot of similarities between transcendentalism and playing with the idea of being isolated—and in the film, where everything is disconnected and at a distance, I played up the things that were common about them. More or less she’s had this book internalized, or they all have; I wanted to get it to the place where she has this psychic break, because of her loss, and not being able to speak to that. Once she has this break, I really didn’t want her to be able to say anything anymore, so she can really only repeat lines from Walden. The last third of this film, it just comes off the rails in my mind, it just flips over completely, and we’re in a place of only subtext and only momentum and only follow through. I don’t believe that there actually is any need for dialogue in that last third. So before everything deteriorates, to have the last few bits of language be simply lines from Walden repeated back at each other, it seemed appropriate; it’s not even information anymore, it’s just the same sentence over and over again. It’s “there’s a connection somehow, and I would like to figure it out.” That’s all they’re saying really, to each other.
AJG OK, so the film obviously elicits themes similar to those in Walden—what do you have to say about the connection between human beings and pigs in the story? Why did you choose pigs specifically to represent the animal world?
SC Can I ask what you think about that? Not because I want to be pretentious or whatever, and I’ll happily give you my answer, but I’m sort of curious as to where this question comes from.
AJG For me, I was thinking about how pigs aren’t animals in film that human beings typically bond with. We eat pigs, and they’re considered dirty, and we insult each other with the word ‘pig,’ so they’re somehow a surprising choice for sympathy. I know there are some human qualities that pigs possess—they sound like people when they scream, for example.
SC I picked them for a reason, and really it’s just about being practical. There’s a physiology that’s similar between pigs and us. There’s the fact that I have this pig farmer that I know, and he’s creating this goldfish bowl of emotional experiences that he can sample from and walk around and meditate on and find the appropriate one. Pigs have to be stagnant for a certain time, they have to be a certain size so we can walk among them. And then I fell into the same thing that I think other writers have fallen into, and it’s what you said—there’s some real irony to the fact that we are pretty elegant, beautiful creatures, and pigs are not that at all. They are just lumps of meat on horrible legs. Not that there’s not a beauty in them in some way. But I liked that idea. And I’m not the only one, literature does go there—whether it’s Animal Farm, using pigs as stand-ins for people, or Christ casting out demons and turning them into a bunch of pigs. They end up being a stand-in for us a lot, actually. I think it’s because of that weird irony, that these two animals don’t necessarily go together.
AJG The two characters in the film seem to connect because they are both damaged in the same way, they’ve gone through a similar trauma. Do you find weaknesses and scars to be the things that mostly or simply bring people together?
SC Yeah, I think there’s a ton of romantic promise that exists when people don’t have anything else to lose. If everything is going well, and you meet another person you’re attracted to, that can be fun and light, but if you meet that person when you’ve got nothing and are doing nothing but trying to crawl out of a hole, or potentially looking for salvation, that other person could potentially be that. So it becomes a much more weighty experience.
AJG This film is not necessarily easy to to understand. Primer, too, was difficult to parse and not a lot of people saw it probably for these very reasons. Does it matter to you if you reach wide audiences?
SC I can tell you what does matter to me: I think about things on hopefully a long timeline. What I gauge as success is if I can write a work that is still relevant at some point in the future. The further and further into the future it’s relevant, the more successful it is. That doesn’t mean that I’m so full of myself I think anything I do is going to be relevant in the future. But if at any point I think it’s not, I’ll just stop and I’ll quit. My job now that the film is done is to let it impact culture at a certain level, so that it has a chance to carry forward on its own, and be filtered or reviewed or however you want to call it. It goes through the crucible of time and attention and if it’s worth anything it will stay around, and if it’s not then it will go away. I don’t necessarily think things that are very commercial now are going to be in any way relevant in the future. That’s my gauge for success.
Amy Seimetz and Shane Carruth in Upstream Color.
AJG The music in the movie is very beautiful. What made you want to write the score for the film? Are you a composer in your spare time?
SC It started off as necessity and sort of a confidence-building exercise. If I’m writing a scene I imagine how it’s going to play out, and if I can write the music, and it seems fitting, and I know what we can do with cinematography, I can get a better sense of, “OK, we’re going to get to this moment.” We’re going to execute this. It will be what it needs to be. So the music just gives some confidence that we’re gonna get there. And before long we’ve got something that feels like the full score. Also, bringing somebody else in, to match my own notion of what it should sound like—that probably isn’t going to be a great thing for anybody. So I just embraced that.
AJG Your own company, erbp, is releasing the film. You wrote, directed, co-edited, co-produced, shot, composed music for, star in and are self-distributing this film. I’m wondering why it was so important for you to do it all yourself—in particular, the distribution?
SC Well, there’s probably multiple answers. But the two main ones are this: firstly, it’s actually possible now. It’s not easy, and it’s an enormous amount of work, but the world is a bit different than it has been in the past. This is actually something that can be done! It’s no more complicated than actual film production. Secondly, you’re not wrong about this film and its commercial prospects. It has a different ambition, in the way that it works. It’s attempting something that’s not easy to verbalize or sum up. So it becomes more and more important to me to be able to craft the marketing, to be able to manage expectations and communicate with an audience, I want to be clear about what this is. It’s a challenging work. I think there are more than enough people who will be interested in that. It’s not that all awareness is good awareness—but proper awareness is good awareness. I want to let people know exactly what this thing is, and then let them decide whether this is something they would like to show up for or engage in. And I like the idea of delivering information through contextualization. Designing a poster and crafting trailers that are a bit informative, that frame the work. I think that should be the role of a storyteller, especially with a work like this.
Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color opens in New York on Friday, April 5 at IFC Center.