Exclusive Interview: Shane Carruth on Upstream Color

Shane Carruth, the writer/director/co-star of Upstream Color, explains his pigs and teases his next film, The Modern Ocean.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Why did it take nine years since Primer?

I wasted some time trying to get a project that I was really in love with made and I didn’t get it made. As I came to realize that I couldn’t put any more of myself into it, I was also dealing with the beginning story elements for Upstream Color. I basically left that girlfriend and came to this one and got really passionate and in love with this project.

Is there any hope for the middle one?

It would be relatively expensive. Not too expensive. It’s actually cheap compared to what I feel its value would be, but I don’t know. I can’t put myself at a place, what’s the word? Vulnerability I guess. That seems silly when we’re talking about making a film but that’s what it feels like. I don’t want to really be vulnerable about that again and have my hopes too high, so I don’t think I’ll pursue it.

Ideally, how often would you make a movie?

I want to be shooting this summer and I want to be doing a release 18 months from now, and I want to keep doing that. I think there’s a path here now that’s going to work.

Were you able to support yourself in the time you were developing the film that didn’t come together?

Well, I was because I lived incredibly cheaply, in the suburbs where it’s not so expensive, and that’s more or less it.

How different is Sundance nine years later?

I don’t know about the festival but it’s very different for me. With Primer nobody knew anything about it. It was so under the radar and this time around, I’m very surprised by this, but it does seem like there’s anticipation. We threw down a theatrical date before we even got here so it’s a completely different thing. We’re releasing marketing and have cut these trailers and stuff. Yeah, it’s like a full court press basically. It’s funny, an anecdote for the big difference is when Primer got here the first time, we opened in the Library, one of the smaller venues. This time, our premiere was at Eccles in front of 1300 people. The first time anybody saw this thing, it’s 1300 people. I had so much anxiety about that but that’s the biggest difference.

Does watching linear movies bore you?

[Laughs] No, not at all. Not at all. Not if they’re well told, not at all.

What do you think accounts for your tendency to break up a narrative?

I think I’m getting to a point where I’m enjoying the concept of connecting moments that are emotionally related, that they’re revelatory emotionally but not necessarily chronologically. I think there’s a way to do that where you’re hopefully not confusing the audience, that it’s making some level of sense, that there’s some order to it but I feel like that’s where we need to be going. That’s a new thing and should be played with.

Will that necessarily always be your style?

It is right now. Right now I’m very much into it and I want to push it a bit further. I think the next thing will actually be pretty straightforward comparatively because it won’t have these otherworldly elements and stuff. It’s a straight story but the execution is a continuation of this emotional language.

What can you tell us about your next film?

I’ll tell you everything. Well, no, it’s called The Modern Ocean. It’s a tragedy at sea in the world of commodities trading. We’ve got ships at war with each other out on the high sea and lots of people getting their lives broken down, because apparently I can’t stop doing that.

But not science fiction.

No, not at all.

Will you act in your new film as well?

I don’t know. It’s definitely not a given at all but I don’t know.

What sense did you get of the reaction to Upstream Color?

I think objectively it’s pretty much what we thought. It’s got some ambition and it’s trying something new and so I think that necessarily means it’s going to be divisive. I think we’ve seen a version of that. I think it’s more or less positive, which is satisfying to see. I was saying this earlier, I’m a pretty insecure person, or at least I can be, but I’m not insecure about this film. This is a real thing and it’s a good work and I believe it will be seen as important.

So I think this is the start of the conversation and I don’t think it’s over by a long shot. The more people talk about it and the more they potentially revisit it, I think it’s going to become clear that this is a new thing and that it’s good. So I’m okay. I mean, on a moment by moment basis, I have, like anybody who’s being judged or their work is being judged, there’s some insecurity involved when you see somebody who’s not over the moon with it, but I think this is what it needs to be right now.

Would Kris have been okay if none of this had happened to her?

I think she would’ve had the same life we saw her have at the beginning, yeah.

How did you think of telling her, “I have a condition where my face is made of the same material as the sun?”

That process has been going on for a long time so I thought of him as somebody who’s done this 1000 times. Two things I guess. One is he’s done this so often that he’s perfected the language. He might fear that if she were to wake up in the middle of this process or something go wrong, she might remember his face. So the first thing he’s going to do is make it so that even if she were to remember this, all she would remember is a bright spot as if she were staring into the sun. So he blinds her by suggestion basically.

That’s why he would say that, and then the way that he says it and the certain language that he’s talking, he’s perfected this. He’s in complete control. He does not have to persuade her or make an argument for anything. He simply can tell her things and they are true. They are perfectly true right then, so it creates a language that is very efficient. To me, that’s really eerie because it just means he’s all powerful basically.

How did you settle on pigs as the animal?

It started with the fact that we share so much of the same diseases and physiology. So you could imagine something being transferred from them to us or us to them. And then there’s all these other things that start to add to it. They’re these creatures that don’t do much more than eat and sleep, so you could create a contained situation where they would exist. It wouldn’t be like monkeys or deer that would want to be running around and doing whatever. These are sedentary creatures that a pig farmer, when he’s going through and sampling emotions, he can just walk through and meditate and move from one to the next. It solves the problem and it fits practically and thematically.

Has the conversation on Primer continued for nine years?

Oh, good question. I may have lost the thread on that one, I’m not sure. Honestly, I think everything that there is to come to a consensus on with Primer I think has been done, or at least I’ve seen it out there. I think people are appreciating it for what it is, what it aspired to be. I think Upstream Color will be seen as a massive leap. I don’t believe these are remotely related, these two films.

It may have started up again in the anticipation of Sundance, and I also heard some talk of Primer when Looper came out.

Oh, that’s true. That’s right. Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know how to talk about that really. I’m not sure.

Do you go back and watch Primer?

No, I don’t. I’ve had to recently to create deliverables to get it into the places that it’s at, iTunes, Amazon, Netflix and all these places, so I did have to go back and re-sync the sound and take a look at it. It’s really hard for me to see it because I’ve probably seen it 1000 times. Probably literally 1000. After everything, after editing and sound work and foley and deliverables and everything else, I don’t know if I can see it anymore. I don’t know what it is.

Where are you with viewing Upstream Color at this point?

Somewhere close to the same situation but I think it’s a much better film and I don’t know if this is something I should say, but I’m much more proud of it. It’s a very good thing and I can’t wait for the next one because I think there’s something here to really track down and pursue. I’m really passionate about it.

Do you stay through the festival screenings to see the reaction?

No, I see the first few minutes to make sure that everything’s going well technically and I’ll come to the door and listen to make sure things are still going well, but no, I don’t watch it anymore. I know it by heart. I don’t watch it anymore. 

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Shelf Space Weekly. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.