EXCLUSIVE: Q&A with Director Shane Carruth (“Upstream Color”)

Anyone who has ever had a conversation with me about time travel films knows that I am a huge fan of Shane Carruth’s Primer. What I really love about the film is just how confusingly realistic it is. Carruth makes it apparent that he’s not going to hold his audience’s hand through the film, and while to some that creates a feeling of frustration and confusion, for me it builds a feeling of spectacle, one that escalates with anxiety and confusion all the same. When it was announced that after nine years Carruth’s new film, Upstream Color, would be premiering at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, I was very eager to see what he would be bringing to the table this time around. Upstream Color follows the story of Kris as her life derails after being drugged by a small-time thief and as she struggles to find out exactly what is happening behind the scenes.

I recently attended a screening of Upstream Color, and after the film concluded Shane Carruth showed up to answer some questions. The interview below features questions from the audience about the meaning of the film and the decisions behind some of the creative choices made throughout the film.


RR: What was the inspiration for you when writing this film?

SC: I was really piecing the idea of personal narratives and identities and how they become cemented whether it’s the behavior that makes them or vise-versa. It was just an experiment at first, like something really small. I noticed that me and my brothers all lean in different ways when it comes to liberal, conservative, etc., so you could tell that when talking about something which TV channel we watched or where we got our information from. We would just keep matching one for one and it didn’t seem like any conversation was going on. From there, it got bigger and bigger, and I wanted to play with the idea of what happens when you strip someone’s idea of where they came from away and how they view the world. It started to feel very emotional to me because you’re just tearing away everything a person is and everything about their subjective experience. That ideology led to this: I wanted to strip characters, follow that logic, and see what would happen and how tension would arise if someone built their identity on wrong information. These people wake up in a moment and they have to atone for what it looks like they have done and they end up trying to fulfill a role that is a bit alien to them. That led to the cycle, the pig-worm-orchid thing as it’s called, as a shortcut into that main story.

Upstream Color poster.jpgRR: First off, this film was very visually stunning. While watching the first time, although I might not have know what was going on all the time, I knew I was feeling the right things. What is your visual process and how do you come up with the ideas for your visuals?

SC: It’s all over the place. The film uses pretty much every cinematic mode I’m aware of. The first third is more lockdown with static shots, hopefully well composed. But since so much is about control, locking Kris down in a routine seemed to be the proper mode to be in. The middle third, when we are doing Kris and Jeff’s reaction to what we know is happening but they don’t necessarily know, that become much more subjective, so I felt like we needed to get into more of a found-footage style at some points, and the cinematography needs to be more lyrical and flowing. The last third, where the whole things comes off the rails, it’s a world of subtext, motivation, and will and so the setting and camerawork get much more suggestive. Every matched shot was though of well in advance and structured. Because it’s so much about personal narrative and subjective experience, changing modes every 5 minutes works. Kris is changing her appearance every five minutes as well. A lot of it was storyboarded, but it was really about feeling confident walking into the space and fulfilling what we set out to do.

RR: The film Kris is working on in the beginning, is that a reference to A Topiary? If so, is that a clue that we will possibly be seeing that?

SC: It is a reference to A Topiary. It was an effects test for that project when I was trying to get it made. Honestly, I don’t know if we will ever see it, there’s a lot more to the story and I don’t know if anyone would really benefit from seeing it.

RR: Given the cult status of Primer and funding issues you have run into in the past, would you ever consider doing a Kickstarter for your next film and allowing your fans to be apart of the film?

SC: Kickstarter is really interesting to me, but I do things like presales on Blu-Ray or downloads later from now. The idea of paying a certain amount of money to have your name in the credits is not appropriate to me. I could probably get the money if I want, I would just have to sacrifice or give in to a studio and I feel like Kickstarter is just another way of asking to give in. There’s something about it that seems odd and I really want to prove worth and sell that worth, and to me that seems like a proper relationship with viewers. But it is something to consider.

RR: As a filmmaker, you take on numberous roles in production (director, producer, etc.). How do you feel about moving away from the collaborative aspect of filmmaking where you are in control of your work? Also how did you train yourself to take on so many roles?

SC: On this project I did have a co-editor and he was fantastic. I’m a little worried when it comes to interviews because publications are starting to publish my interviews, so I’m going to give the same answer I’ve given before but now I feel more insecure about it. The way that I feel about taking on different department is that it started out of necessity and then it grew to a place where it’s hard for me to give it up. I know that I’m not the best composer, or everything, but I feel like there’s something special about having my hands in every department. As an audience member, if I’m being challenged by something and asked to think about it, I want to know if I can do that there will be an answer or something approaching an answer at the end. If I’m watching something and I know that a bunch of different people were making different decisions, I know that the story might not have played out as well as if one person’s vision was attached. I like do deduce that things are happening for a reason when I’m viewing something, so when I’m making something I want to be that much more protective about it. I want to know everything we are doing is unified and pointing in the same direction thematically.

RR: With the beginning sequence of the film, was that supposed to represent your character’s contraction of the parasite? Can you possibly elaborate on it?

SC: Sure. With the kids’ stuff, my intention was for it to be an introduction into this world of things being affected at a distance. We find out later that it’s not the worm necessarily, but it’s the powder causing this. The two kids ingest something and then become connected, and that’s really all that was meant to be communicated in that sequence so that later on we can carry that out more about how people are being affected from a distance. It’s weird because people talk about whether it’s science fiction or not; the worm goes into Kris, it is brought out of her and into the pig, and we see that they are connected in someway. There could have been a way to talk about that, or have a guy explain it. What I’m more interested in is that something is transferred. Through the way it was shot, Amy’s performance, and the score we see that something profound is being transferred, and that’s really all of the information I want to be conveyed because the exploration is about what is being transferred. I can’t pick one of these things or say it’s her memories from childhood, soul, or any of these things because then the movie becomes specific, and it needs to be universal.

RR: It seems like a lot of the development of this film took place during the editing. I was wondering how much of it was actually scripted out and how much was discovered while you were going through the process of editing?

SC: I think what you would see would be getting close to my chicken scratch storyboarding. I normally always like to have a plan and strangle something to death, but this I felt like required some maneuverability. I think it’s okay for a film to have some improvisation as long at the story is conveyed by the filmmakers and as long as every choice is made by a very educated group of people who know what we are trying to do. I think that it’s okay to find something better on the day. For me, it’s kind of like a piece of music a band knows so well that they can take 2 minutes to go down a different avenue while keeping it true to the reason the song exists.

RR: Can you talk about Walden and why you chose it to be in the film?

SC: Although it’s hard for me to admit it, Walden was kinda an accident. I had this story where Kris, under suggestion, is supposed to write and rewrite the same story over and over again and I picked a story that was very dry, boring, and would never wake anyone up when writing these pages. The last time I remember Walden was from high school and I really didn’t like reading it, so I started writing this story and this guy says “his head is made from the same material as the sun.” There is beasts, soil and light, which becomes this ominous presence, and the way that sound works and how it works underwater and all of this stuff. So I chose Walden for the plot point because I thought it would be clever if these characters heard something from Walden in real life it would mess with them in some way. I was looking through the book and I’m seeing really insane things. There was so much language about sound and sound from a distance and color that at that point it seemed so appropriate that it looked like I was taking passages straight from the book. For a while I wasn’t going to use it for a while, but it just seemed so appropriate, especially during the Kris swimming/reciting scene.

RR: There looked to be a subplot with the farmer. Can you talk about it, if it is even right?

SC: Fundamentally, I should not be here talking, and I know that. This is the time people should be talking amongst their friends, and the last thing that should happen when the credits roll is the author showing up. However, the other side of that is none of you would be here if you weren’t really into film. No one shows up to a movie like this casually. I can definitely talk about the farmer a bit and I hope this is something that would become known. He’s an observer. We don’t necessarily see him do anything harmful. The thief we do, he uses a trick he knows maliciously. The orchid harvesters are doing nothing but a benign activity. The pig farmer is a different thing because he is benefitting from what’s happening but not necessarily affecting it. He’s building a goldfish bowl of emotional experiences that he can sample whenever he needs, so he benefits from that. The idea that Kris would deduce he’s the problem and go after him is all about her getting her vengeance, which she thinks she gets. It is correct because it ends the cycle, but I’m interested in whether or not he is culpable and the debate about whether he’s responsible.

RR: How did you decide when to show the subjective reality in Kris’ head vs. what was happening in the real world?

SC: That’s a good question, and I honestly don’t think I have an answer. There’s no logic to it really. I think of it as prose; some of the literature I like starts off pragmatic then goes into “run-on sentence land” and it will be all about imagery. It’s a matter of contrast, maybe. If you were only in the subjective mode that would get too much, but if you aren’t in it at all that’s not right either. It’s comes down to playing with the blacks and whites and deciding when to be louder or softer.

RR: Can you talk about the use of sound and the quest of sound that the pig farmer has?

SC: The sound became a bigger issue once it was so much about non-verbal communication. We know they are going to be affected at a distance but they don’t, so we constantly have to convey information to you guys that no one is saying on screen. If I have Kris at the pool and I can put a light fixture behind her head and open my aperature in such a way where I can get a halo to represent something about there being a presence here, then I have to use that. Sound was another way to do that as well, and it was really appropriate for what the pig farmer was doing. The number one place it started getting bigger was when Kris and Jeff were droning at work listening to the sounds around them. That scene wasn’t about sound when originally written, it was about Kris on lunch break sitting near a statue by Jeff’s work and her hand would move closer to his building as we matched-cut. Everything was supposed to be done visually, but I felt like there was enough being communicated where I felt like we could pull back a bit more and make it a bit more abstract by letting sounds bleed into each other. They are having a shared experience, but it’s portrayed through the sounds of copiers or running water. Once that idea was cemented, it led to something else.

RR: Could you talk a little about the color choices of yellow and blue you mentioned before?

SC: I don’t know if the blue and the yellow were chosen for a reason themselves, I just knew I would have one color that was more under control and we would slowly get to a color where the spell was broken. I don’t know if the reason matters really at all, but it may have been because when I started doing the microscopic shots I was doing them while writing so I could get what I needed, which by the way they are Orbeez which are dots you can get at a toy story or plant nursery that expand in water, and I think I liked the way the blue looked so that was going to be our spore. So then we made sure that we conveyed blue through folders and other items. It got hard because things would show up in scene that were yellow and because we weren’t there yet we’d have to go through a whole multi-hour process getting rid of the yellow in that scene. Yellow was always meant to be the flower she sees at the end, and there were also some more microscopic shots I cut which were really beautiful. There would be blue in her bloodstream and the yellow would flush it out; however, it started to become a movie about her bloodstream so it didn’t seem quite right.

RR: What about the experience of making and trying to fund Primer really influenced you while making this film?

SC: It’s really strange. It’s nuance because I don’t want to say I only made this because I couldn’t make the bigger budgeted thing, because that’s not true at all. But when I did decide this would be the next film I would be shooting, the idea that I wouldn’t have to explain it to anyone and I could just go shoot it was really interesting. That felt really good, and I felt a little rebellious. What I forgot is that thing I swore I would never do after Primer again I would end up doing.

RR: I read in an interview that you were a software developer and I was just curious what kind of software developer you were?

SC: Well, I wasn’t a good one. I got a degree in math and writing short stories, but I didn’t know how to make a living out of writing. So one of the things you can do with that degree is get a software engineer job, so my first job was at Hughes Aircraft using C++ to write code for a Taiwanese flight simulator. Then I worked for a company that did radiation records and that moved to web work, which back in the day was just scripting.

RR: I had heard of you through Reddit because you have a big fan base there, so I was wondering if you would do an AMA to promote Upstream Color.

SC: It sounds like a real nightmare, but yea I definitely would. It’s weird; I’m trying to distribute the film so I have to keep track of things like traffic on the website to see where it’s coming from. One of the biggest things we saw was when someone posted on Reddit that the Primer download was available for sale, and we got a huge spike in traffic. So I’m definitely aware, so yea that should happen.

RR: In terms of self-distribution, you are taking a lot of control in terms of where the film goes. Why self-distribute? And how has that empowered you to get the film to the right people?

SC: Well yea it’s pretty much everything you just said. It started off as plan-B just in case someone we feel confident in doesn’t acquire us. At this level, a lot of the distributors will hire third-parties to book theaters and do the other thing necessary to get a film out there. So I went around and looked to see what it would look like if I were able to hire them myself. So I went to New York in July and started knocking on doors and it sort of looked like it was starting to be possible. With so much of the audience existing digitally and most of that has been solved, the issue was the theatrical release. After a while it didn’t seem much different than what a distributor would do, so it really is just distribution. What I realized was that with that I could really do whatever I like. I can cut trailers the way I want and have trailers that maybe isn’t the most commercial thing in the world but communicates what I think should be and contextualizing the film in this way. Now it’s something I don’t think I could give up, and it’s sort of an extension of the film. Being in 50 theaters, we are doing roughly what we assumed we would be doing through a company, unless they were throwing millions of dollars in advertising towards the film. So I think we are doing okay, and overall that’s one less mouth to feed at the table so that every dollar made here gets to go right into the next film, which feels pretty good.

Have you seen the masterful Upstream Color yet?

Article by Nick Franco


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