It’s been nine years since Shane Carruth’s first feature Primer dazzled audiences at Sundance, the multi-talented filmmaker stretching a $7000 budget into one of the most inventive sci-fi films of recent decades. After aborted attempts to get another project entitled A Topiary off the ground, Carruth is back with the wildly ambitious Upstream Color, a love story that once again pushes the envelope for what’s possible in American independent cinema. Will Noah talked to Carruth about loss of identity, musical resonance, the benefits of multitasking, and lots more.
Double Exposure: Both Upstream Color and Primer create really dense worlds of their own, and there’s a sense that what’s happening in the immediate images or narrative onscreen is just a small sliver of what’s going on. How do you approach these kinds of stories? Do you develop the idea–of a time travel machine or of these trance-inducing worms–and then build a narrative out of it? Or do you just start with certain images or narrative ideas?
Shane Carruth: It’s absolutely about the thematic exploration first. For Upstream, it was picking apart personal narrative and identity, and trying to figure out how that works, and what happens if you take it away. How it dictates behavior, or whether behavior dictates it. So I knew that I needed a story where I could strip these characters of their version of themselves and force them to adopt a different version based on the information around themselves, and maybe that information wouldn’t be quite correct. That was what began as a thought experiment, something that I found really compelling. But, you know, that’s not a story; I don’t know what that is. So I just kept dealing with that idea, and the bigger and bigger it got, the more universal it got, where it wasn’t just about somebody’s beliefs or any kind of school of thought, but everything about them, everything that they could potentially be, the way that they view the world, the way the world views them, morality and ethics and cosmic beliefs, and everything that a person can hold from their experience; stripping all of that away seemed tragic, really tragic. That’s when it started to be really compelling for me. There’s some real material to mine here, and there’s a real tunnel to carve out to figure out this question. I needed a way to do that. How do I strip these people? How do I affect them at a distance in a way that they can’t quite speak to? So that’s when the weirder elements of the plot came to be. And they needed to satisfy a certain set of criteria in my head as well: the pig/worm/orchid cycle needed to be embedded in nature, or the environment that we live in; it needed to feel permanent, in that it had been cyclical, had been going on for as long as we’ve been around; and it needed to carry forward of its own volition. It’s not conspiratorial, it’s not being orchestrated, it just simply continues because each of these individuals has found some trick in nature that they are continuing to perform to benefit themselves in some way. That means that it will always carry forward. If the answer to the plot was, “It’s a new pharmaceutical drug that wipes people’s memories,” or, “It’s an alien,” or, “It’s a raygun,” or something that does this to people – maybe not the raygun thing – but if it was specific, it becomes a story about whatever that specific thing is. It becomes about the pharmaceutical industry; it becomes about religion. And I can’t let that happen; I’m only interested in the very universal or general sense of being affected at a distance by thing we can’t quite comprehend. So because of that, it needed to be this other construct.
DE: It’s interesting that the way that is dealt with – with the cross-species plotline that happens – has a kind of scientific way of looking at the world while still maintaining that mysterious aspect. I think that’s really rare in film, mining scientific ideas and scientific imagery for poetic and dramatic effect. Do you think that’s something that’s been under-explored in movies?
SC: I don’t know. I just know what it needed to be for me. It needed to be an analogue. It doesn’t need to be specific; I don’t want the scientist to come out and explain that it was nanobots or some ancient powder entombed from a Mayan temple. That stuff is not important to me. I only care about things that we can see happen in this story. We see a worm go into Kris, and then it gets bigger, and then it gets taken out of her and put in a pig, and we are shown that there is a connection between the two. The way that scene is executed, it is suggesting that there is something important and transcendent happening. That’s the information; that’s it. We know that something has been transferred. If we say what that is, that ends the exploration. But if we just see it happen, then it becomes part of it; what has been transferred is the exploration. It’s part of the whole conversation, part of the whole question. This is a very difficult thing to verbalize, but that’s what I want from film. In a book form, maybe that would have to be explained, exactly what was happening and what was being transferred. I mean, I don’t know, maybe not. But with film you’re simply watching it happen, and it is happening, and all of the nonverbal ways that a film can communicate are telling you things that would be too specific if they were spelled out. They have to be suggested because we are exploring ideas, and if we say the thing out loud too specifically, it is a doctoral thesis, not an exploration.
DE: One of the things that really appealed to me about Upstream Color is that it’s in some ways a very familiar love story, but it also suggests that the really important relationships that define our lives extend way beyond romantic relationships, that we’re part of communities that we’re not even aware of, which include non-human organisms. Do you think there’s a fluidity between our relationships with the people we love and others who we have far less direct contact with?
SC: I guess I can speak to what I wanted from that. I find it really compelling when you’ve got these characters, and they’re just broken down, whether they know it or not. I mean, Kris seems to know it; Jeff seems to be oblivious to the fact that he’s sort of a hollow shell walking around, performing. The romantic promise that exists when these people have been cracked, I find really compelling. Just from a sheer “Is this fun to watch or not?” sort of perspective. The idea that a relationship or a love or some emotion could be yet another one of these things that we are affected by but can’t quite atone for or explain why they work the way that they do just seemed to be added value to the exploration on top of everything else. Everything is non-verbal in this film, so to have this relationship, and have it be disjointed, and maybe have it work, and never really know that it’s because these pigs are having an entire life out in the corral, and that’s somehow affecting us, or we’re affecting them, or there’s some kind of union happening – it just seems really fertile to have a relationship at the center of all that.
DE: You composed the score to this film yourself, and the film itself has a kind of musicality to the images and the editing. I was particularly struck by the way you use repetition of certain pieces of spoken text, like Walden, or that line about the starlings that gets repeated in this circular way, which seemed very musical, almost like the way a minimalist composer like Phillip Glass uses spoken word in his compositions. Do you ever think of nonmusical elements of the film in musical terms, and try to arrange them accordingly?
SC: Yeah, I guess that’s a really good way to put it. So much of what I try to do is pretty surgical. It’s trying to be precise with events happening exactly as they’re meant to, and everything is lining up the way I think it needs to. And then, I have to admit, there are things like that where I am sort of gambling on something. I want Kris and Jeff to feel like they’re connected in some way, but they don’t even know that they’re connected. It’s the idea of them being lost in the sounds of their workplace, and having those sounds blend into each other as we crosscut on location. That seemed to satisfy everything I needed it to be, but I don’t know after a while whether that makes any logical sense or whether I just say that it does and hope that it works. It’s weird; you’re keying in on the things that are the hardest for me to talk about. That starlings scene was so important, and I sat there looking at it trying to figure out, “Why am I doing this? I know this is important!” The best I could ever come up with is that nobody is ever going to talk about the thing that’s really confronting them, because they can’t know about that thing. So instead it’s these trivial little looping conversations. Whether or not this flock of birds is that or this, it just doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what it is that they’re talking about; it’s a gateway into an elliptical experience for them. When they have the shared memories bit, you could say that is a conversation that continued to take place, and it started off light and lyrical, or potentially romantic, and it ended up really aggravating, like “Where do I end and you begin?” That’s the first crack in the film splitting off into complete subtext, which is where it goes in the last third. I just feel very strongly that it works, but I don’t think I could ever verbalize why it works.
DE: When did you compose the score? How did that work for you as both the director and the composer?
SC: I was writing the music while I was writing the script. By the time I was done with the script, I had what I thought was the full score. It turns out that I ended up getting rid of about half of it, because I had written it to represent what I wanted the audience to feeling at any given moment, but it wasn’t necessarily representing what the characters were feeling or going through. I needed it to be that, because so much of the film is non-verbal. Especially in the middle third, we need to be doing everything we can with the film to communicate the subjective experience of Kris and sometimes Jeff, and we need to use every toolkit, from music to cinematography to performance to editing, we need to be conveying everything we can non-verbally. So the music needed to reflect that as well, and not just be something that tells you when to have suspense or when to think that things are good; it’s got to be something else entirely. So I threw out half the score as we approached shooting and I wrote some more during shooting, and then I wrote a little bit more in editing.
DE: I thought it was funny just now that you said to accomplish what you needed to accomplish, “we” needed to do everything from performance to cinematography to music, because with most directors that “we” could not be interpreted as a royal “we,” but with you there’s sort of an exception, since you do contribute directly to all of those things. You’re the credited cinematographer, co-editor, composer, you star in the film, you directed it, you wrote it, and you produced it. Do you see all of those roles as equal contributions to the movie as a whole, or are there certain ones that you take more pleasure in? Do you see yourself as a director primarily, or are all of these roles just hats you wear in the course of production?
SC: The thing that I prize the most is writing and directing. I don’t think of them as separate jobs. The bottom line is I’m not the best person to be doing any of the things that I try to do. I know that full well, and I doubt if I’m fooling anybody. But what I hope is happening, and what I’m pretty much willing to commit to now, is that there is something singular and unified when all of these different elements are being informed by the same mindset, and are informing each other. As a viewer, I like to be challenged by work, but I want to know that there’s an answer. I don’t want to suspect, because this has been rewritten by five different people, and there’s a bunch of different hands in here that have different ideas of what this story is meant to be, “who knows why this happened the way that it did, who knows why that character did that?” So when I’m writing, I want to be singular. Everything happens for a reason that is thematically cohesive. It’s all pointing in the same direction. So even if I’m not the best, maybe there’s some earnestness that comes from making sure that all the different elements are formed the same way.
Upstream Color is out now in limited release. Check out Will Noah’s review of the movie from this year’s New Directors/New Films festival.