“Spooky action at a distance” was Einstein’s skeptical phrase for quantum entanglement, and as good a summary as any for the mysteries at play in Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color. The official synopsis goes like this: “A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives.” Such is Carruth’s gift that the audience, too, struggles with that assembly. For some, it amounts to an hour-and-a-half of “Huh?” Others will be in hog heaven (actual pigs figure in to the story, too).
Upstream Color is only Carruth’s second film, but for years he’s been working up a cult mystique. His debut, the 2004 indie puzzle Primer, was about two guys who accidentally invent a time machine, then run afoul of causality and morality. Noted for being both very resourceful (it cost $7,000) and very cryptic (just for starters, no one ever says the words “time machine”), it laid a nice foundation for devoted fandom. In the new film, an artfully ragged mosaic of glassy nonlinearity, Amy Siemetz plays the woman, and Carruth plays the man. He also wrote, produced, directed, shot, co-edited, scored, and distributed it. He admits he sometimes has to try not to be a control freak. Here are some other things he admitted, in a conversation last week.
How have you been spending your time lately?
I think I’ve spent the last seven hours doing invoices and secretarial work. That’s me having been naive about the workload. These things have a lot of moving parts.
We’re told the pre-sale ticket orders in New York broke the IFC Center’s record for a single-screen movie opening. What do you think about everybody being so eager to get their eyes on Upstream Color?
It’s so interesting. Something I underestimated is some of the goodwill that’s been building out there in reference to Primer. It’s not the biggest thing in the world, but it’s more than I expected, so that’s been really cool to see. And we’ve been honest about what the work is. There definitely are people ready for a challenging work.
In this case, it seems like you’re going for a transcendent experience with Upstream Color, but it’s important that it be done in an oblique storytelling style. So how does it evolve from scripting to shooting to cutting to releasing?
It definitely started at an earnest place, as an exploration of something I thought was universal. It’s hard to verbalize. How do we come to view ourselves and the way the world views us? We have belief systems and emotional connections. What about that is malleable, and what is cemented? What I hope is to really push the edges of those questions. That’s what I think narrative is best at. An exploration of something that’d be too weighty to put into words.
I wanted to strip some characters of their personal narrative, and to create a state of constant suspicion about what’s affecting them from off-screen. It became a very emotional experience for me to think about. I just had to get it made, and I thought we would simply go do it. No pitching or fundraising. That was really naive, and really thrilling. Luckily, it’s going to be an okay commercial prospect.
One thing’s very clear: This is intensely subjective stuff. How do you get at it? What do you tell your fellow actors?
It’s different for every actor involved with the film. They have different backgrounds, different processes. Some of these parts are pretty nuanced. It’s case by case. Amy’s a filmmaker too, and she has this really great film called Sun Don’t Shine, which is very lyrical, so I could reference that directly. With others, I was a little bit of a control freak about who could see the whole script. We’ve got a host of characters that are very rarely interacting with each other. You could treat it like isolated incidents. And what was great is that these people let me get away with anything. They just let me do it. I’m so grateful.
As a filmmaker, you wear so many hats. One can imagine some studio producers or distributors giving you lots of “notes.” Or even your crew. Do people fight you on things? Do they tell you that you need to step away and get fresh eyes on it?
I get a lot of advice. I get a lot of career advice from people, and I’m like: Look, does it look like I care about my career? Do I look like I’m after a first-look deal? But with specific things, like the editing, I went to David Lowery. I was losing sleep, and it wasn’t coming together fast enough. I said: Please help. It was amazing. It saved my life. He met the film where it lived. It was just a really collaborative process. I can say the same thing about Tom Walker, the production designer. Everybody. Everybody reached a level where we knew the language. All I knew is that it required people being completely invested. It’s not just a job. They have to throw themselves into it. And they cross some threshold of confidence.
On the other hand, one can also imagine younger filmmakers holding you up as a do-it-yourself hero — and a sort of shield against taking feedback. Do you think about the influence you might have?
Not in general. But I’m lucky enough to do Q&As sometimes, and I realize there’s a little of that going on. It’s a little daunting to meet somebody who saw Primer at age 13. Like: Wait, what? What’s happening in the world? But I can say that I’d rather watch a work that’s singular in what it’s communicating. Narrative is necessarily veiled. If I’m going to be challenged, I’m happy to spend the time. If somebody’s willing to do that work, I’m all in. But I’m less willing to do that if it’s been through several different teams, and I can’t know if it really is work-out-able.
Talk about self-distribution. What does that mean for you?
The most important thing that it means is that we can use traditional marketing tools as an extension of storytelling. Because we control that, we are the marketers. So the trailers are lyrical, and challenging: Here’s the way that it moves, here’s what it feels like. We can also frame it and say something about the story. It’s like the cover of a book. Marketing materials can be used not to get every last dollar but to contextualize.
If this is at all a successful commercial venture, it just means there’s one less person at the table, and every dollar that this brings in means the next story is closer and closer to getting made properly. My metric for success is: Does it have a chance to have a life of its own, and live into the future? Does it allow room for a conversation to be had about whether it’s something or nothing?
[Upstream Color is] going to be divisive because it’s different in its ambition and its intent. If the chance is 50/50 that this work was going to live on, those odds are better now because things are leading more positive. And people really are keying in to what it’s trying to do. I know I’m interested in creating a narrative that is really dense — with plot information, and with exploration. But hopefully not too abstruse. Something for which there’s reason to revisit it. But it’s not a completely suffering experience. It’s enjoyable, maybe like an album you put on. You know if you can deal with it, and you live with it for a while. Now that we have ways to put a movie or a series of movies on a loop, I’m realizing things are different. And I internalize them differently.
You mentioned the next one. Want to talk about that?
I do want to talk about it. I want to throw down the gauntlet. It’s called The Modern Ocean. Set at sea, with a group of people who build shipping routes. It essentially becomes a tragic romance, with people pursuing projections, which are at odds. We end up dealing with ships at war, and some adventure. It is ambitious. And I am playing with trying not to be naive and raise money the way you’re supposed to. Trying not to be a control freak. It’s good to say that it’s going to happen and then try and find a way to make it happen. I’m happy to do the labor. I want to fall in love with the work, and complete the work. I couldn’t make another film beside what’s in front of me right now.