Director's Cut: Shane Carruth ('Upstream Color')


Much like a Shane Carruth film, there are different ways to approach a Shane Carruth interview.

Do you focus on the technical aspects of this remarkable polymath? For 2004's time-traveling “Primer” he is credited as writer, director, producer, star, composer, production designer, casting director and editor. For “Upstream Color,” his newest emotional tour-de-force about free will, manipulation and the drive to find the source of the unexplainable, he is the writer, director, star, co-producer, composer, cinematographer, co-camera operator, co-editor and sound designer. Oh yeah, he's the film's distributor, too.

Or do you focus on Carruth's stature in the independent film world? After 2004 he seemed like the Sundance equivalent of Harper Lee – a “one and done” filmmaker content to recede into legend.

Perhaps you focus on the nitty gritty of his stories? The quantum mechanics aspect of his films, replete with unanswered questions due to his intentionally elliptical style?

Despite my intentions to break the conversation into these three delineated acts I ended up on an unpredictable path in need of its own Wikipedia flowchart. Carruth's demeanor is very warm, and open to just the sort of “heavy” conversation you may not have had since your college dorm. Despite a near-pointillist style of filmmaking, he speaks in stammers, half-phrases and questions to himself. (I left a few in where I thought they felt most poetic.) Considering Carruth has made one of the most vibrant and sharp pictures in quite some time (here is my review at ScreenCrush, here is's review by Will Goss) I'm of the belief that he is a soaring genius who, for the sake of economics, lowered himself to spend time responding to my questions.

With that, then, here is the bulk of a conversation held unceremoniously in the hallway of a cozy Lower Manhattan publicist's office. You'll see that I open with a typically professional and unbiased salvo.

Jordan Hoffman: For selfish reasons, I thank you for making this movie. It's refreshing to discuss a movie and not necessarily know the answer. I've been in two bar fights about it already – not fisticuffs, of course.

Shane Carruth: Sure.

JH: Conversations. I have one friend who can't stand the film. I'm sure you can handle that.

SC: Understood, yeah.

JH: We got in a nice tussle and it's exciting.

SC: It's great to hear.

JH: There are some people who get hung up on the “what the hell is this” and need some handholding with the very plot. We saw this at the Sundance Q&A. Your movie is, for lack of a better term, a little weird, but, my gosh, you show the worm go out of the lady and into the pig ... what more can you show?!?

SC: Exactly.

JH: Is it frustrating? Were you expecting that?

SC: I was expecting that. Whatever frustration I would have with that is a known quantity, going back to the writing. That's just part of it. It necessarily has to be divisive because it is trying something new. Whether it is “good” or “bad” at doing what it is trying to do – at fulfilling its intentions – that's almost not part of this because the intention is new. Or, hopefully new. Whatever. The ambition is not typical, let's say. Because of that there will be people who come to it immediately, and they'll judge it that way, or there will be people whose expectations haven't been lined up properly, if I haven't prepared them.

From the get go, it won't give those people what they're expecting. I'm somewhat amazed – well, not amazed – happy that the response has been as positive.

JH: You expected more people to say “Worm-pigs? I'm not buying it!”

SC: More or less.

JH: Or more people put off by the structure? The third act being almost entirely dialogue-free.

SC: Yeah, the number one thing I was worried about was, in the same way that “Primer” – and this is not a complaint at all, because I'm lucky anyone wants to watch that movie – but in the same way that “Primer” is sometimes reduced to being only a puzzle. It's a puzzle to solve without anything underneath it, to some. And I was worried that this would become that – that people would only see the mechanical, or the weird genre elements.

JH: There is the fear of the gimmick aspect. Not that gimmick is always a bad thing, but, you know, you go to this guy's movies to go “huh?”

SC: Yep.

JH: The most subversive thing David Lynch ever did was making “The Straight Story.” Great title, because it's about a guy named Alvin Straight traveling in a straight line – but it is also a straightforward film from a man you never expected to make one. Do you see yourself ever wanting to “go straight” as it were?

SC: If I did, it wouldn't be to subvert other things I've done. I do my best to never, ever think about a body of work or a career. This film is not a reaction to the last one. It's the story in front of me now and I need to serve that.

JH: Well, despite the fact that we've never met and I don't know much about you personally, that hasn't stopped me from trying to psychoanalyze you.

I know you did work on a lengthy screenplay called “A Topiary,” you worked on it for years, did a lot of the design work, and you've commented that the movie is done in your head but you are the only one who can see it. “Upstream Color” is, at least in my opinion, all about breaking out of a cycle that is perpetuated by outside forces. So, is this your way of fighting the forces that prevented that film from happening?

SC: Huh. I never thought of that. Well. [long pause. and then quickly] I mean, who knows? It probably was informed by that. Maybe. It didn't feel like that, I thought it was just a universal thing of. . .the way we build up our own narratives and identity and ways of thinking about everything. Whether religious or cosmic or whatever – that was the narrative that she [Amy Seimetz' character] was meant to be stuck in, then letting her grow a new one and letting her live that out, that was always the core of the idea. But. . .yeah. . . being affected by offscreen forces, the two ideas seem intertwined to me. That's what I think personal identity is.

JH: Are you familiar with the author and neuroscientist Sam Harris?

SC: No.

JH: He recently wrote a book called “Free Will,” which, if my understanding is correct, argues that man does not have free will, but not because of any theological reasons. He looks at chemical reactions in the brain, the synapses either fire or don't fire, and the result of all this is a chemical reaction, therefore humans may not be responsible for their actions, it is all chemical, all a result of environment, etc.

SC: Yes. Okay, I was just talking about this. This is, see, this is – not that, not that, not that – wow – what's interesting about that, with non-linear dynamics and a swath of math you can start from order to chaos. You can get to unpredictably. So if that is true – even if we are the sum of physical neurons, something that can be reduced to math, even that math may not necessarily be predictable. You can make a case that there is a way for the math to work so that nobody but a God or a quantum computer could ever predict.

JH: A ghost in the machine, even in the numbers themselves.

SC: Yes, there we go.

JH: Some look at the first third of the “Upstream Color,” the most tactile part, and you can reduce it to a science fiction or horror story if you want. “The worms go in, they go in the pig, etc.” But it's not that far out! Do you know about toxo –

SC: Toxoplasmosis, yes. I know about it, but from interviews. Though I definitely read a little about it. There's a lot of things I realize that I accumulated in my head. I wasn't trying to use them as plot devices, but I know they informed me - just knowing that there can be a process in the natural world, just outside our experience, that is counterintuitive in some way. Like the parasites who burrow in wasps and ants.

JH: There are many examples. The best one is the cat and mouse one because it conjures “Tom and Jerry” cartoons. The parasite that breeds and wants to return to the intestines of a cat, but is excreted and picked up and inside a mouse, which is able to tell mice not to be afraid of cat urine, the thing mice are most afraid of, so the mouse is now hanging out in the kitchen and is just “hey, what's up, cat?” and now the cat eats him.

SC: Yes. And to the mouse, he's, I don't imagine he's. . .hmnnn. . .

JH: There's probably a pleasure center being stroked. He's probably the happiest mouse in town. He's fulfilling his goal, right?

SC: Right. Well – heh, I can't believe we're talking about this, this is fun stuff – but I would think that that mouse, in the same way we would, he would feel that he is being affected from a distance. I think, anyway. 95% of him is telling him “danger, danger!” yet 5% of him is compelling him to do this thing. He would have to be conflicted. That's why I go to this outside force.


JH: I have a friend who reads “Upstream Color” as a story about drug addiction. How do you react when people come to you with interpretations that seem viable but you may be thinking “well, hell, I was somewhere else.”

SC: That's part of it. Viewing work, now, is a communal experience. Any film that exists that is thorough, you can't give it to an audience of one and have that be effective communication. Communication involves an audience of many that have a conversation, put it through the ringer, filter it and then a sense of it coalesces. So if I am an author, my success is that end result.

JH: But you are the author with a capital A on this one. You are director, writer, cinematographer, star, composer, co-editor, etc. Film is a collaborative process, but on your films a little less so.

SC: Film is a collaborative process, absolutely, but I am a control freak. I need to make sure that all the ways that we can inform are pointed in the same direction.

JH: I read you don't play any instruments, but music is so important in this film. If I may ask a basic question, how the heck to do you compose the score?

SC: Some of it is hunting and pecking. I have a MIDI keyboard, which I couldn't, like, play you a song on, but. . .

JH: Could you find Middle C?

SC: I can. I know my chords, I know where I live, I know my neighborhoods. But I couldn't perform for you.

JH: I hand you sheet music for J.S. Bach and it's no way.

SC: When I was a kid I took piano lessons for a month or two and she would have me do my scales. When I went home I learned Scott Joplin's “The Entertainer.” And I taught it to myself, and I was so proud that it was something I could play. I remember coming into class and I played it for her, and I was expecting praise – but she was unhappy. My technique was wrong. I wasn't raising my wrists the right way. She said that I shouldn't go learn a piece of music “wrong” because I would have bad habits. She was right, but it felt like, “hey, I was really liking that.”

JH: You reached the ends but you did it by your own means and The Man came and cracked down on you. It's like self-distributing your own film, you aren't allowed to do that.

SC: This is perfect. Patterns everywhere.

JH: Let me ask you a bold question, Shane, and this is the question that everyone asks behind your back but no one has the guts to ask. But I do.

SC: All right.

JH: You make “Primer” in Two-thousand and blah-blah-blah. You work hard on “A Topiary,” I don't know if you are doing it with some sort of studio deal in place.

SC: Hey, this is the question people ask. “How were you living?”

JH: Well, people are nosy. Were you approached to do studio work? Or commercials? Or music videos? Have you done any of that?

SC: I haven't done any of that.

JH: Approached to act in any films?

SC: No.

JH: But you act in both your films and you're a handsome boy. You could probably get acting work.

SC: Oh, well. . .thank . . .well, I don't even know if that's true. No. No one's ever – well, actually, that's not true. . .

JH: Approached by other indie filmmakers looking to include you for some cred, maybe?

SC: Uh. Sometimes. . .yeah. . .and then there's. . .look. . .here's the thing. I don't live in a world where things get offered to me. But you know, I don't know anybody who does. And I know famous and well-to-do filmmakers and they don't just get an email saying “hey, here's an offer.” You have to put yourself out there to get the offer and that is a conversation that I didn't really want to have.

JH: I would imagine Chrysler would want you to do an ad if you told them you were game.

SC: Sure. Why not? Well, they'd be worried that it would come back and there wouldn't be a car in it.

JH: Hey, at the end of the day, you didn't sell out. Good for you. Whether you stayed fed by living on a commune. . .

SC: More or less, I actually have. I don't have a family to support. If I did, some other choice would have to've been made.

JH: If digital video existed when “Primer” was made, how different would it be? The story, not so much the aesthetics.

SC: The story would not be different. The rough edges would be less rough.

JH: I'm wondering if you would have scenes in there that you didn't have because of budget or time – scenes like the girlfriend's father offscreen, would you want to include them?

SC: No, those choices were made. It wasn't “let's not shoot that because film is expensive” or “we don't have enough film.”

JH: Your writing process: you have the themes and then they become manifested in concrete ideas. What sort of self-censorship do you have? When you are playing with the idea and “well, it's a pig” there's got to be something of an internal dialogue. What's that like?

SC: It's tough. It's one that continues to hit you. There were a few times when I had the camera and we were doing the pig surgery and I'm thinking “what are they letting me do? This is nuts!” And this is meant to be an emotional story but right now this is the weirdest thing imaginable. The only thing I can ever do is make a film that I can respond to. I could not make a romantic comedy for college girls. I wouldn't know how that works. This is an aesthetic that I'm comfortable with.

JH: Are you the type of guy who gorges on films? On Blu-rays? Going to festivals?

SC: No. I used to be.

JH: Did that change when you started making films?

SC: No. A couple of years ago. It's just decreased. I'm far less likely to hunt around. For me personally, it hasn't been satisfying. I'll watch every movie P.T. Anderson ever makes religiously, but I'm not in the game of hunting anymore. Of course, I say that and now I'll probably get back into hunting some more.

JH: Is there something you would want people to see to “prepare,” in a way, for “Upstream Color?”

SC: I have never thought of this. [whispering to himself] What is this? [long pause] What is this? To prepare, or to find a similar ambition...? There's gotta' be something.

JH: Perhaps a non-narrative or experimental film?

SC: No, not at all. That's the thing.

JH: Some B-movie sci-fi? For thought-control worms? I don't really see you as a B-movie or “Mystery Science Theater” guy.

SC: No. Well, I enjoy those things. [on the question] I can't get to this. I'm sorry.

JH: Some movies they say “you gotta see it more than once.” I saw “Upstream Color” twice and there was nothing in it plot-wise that I “got” more the second time. A few very minor things I caught.

SC: What was it?

JH: Somehow I spaced out on how they got the CDs of the sound effects. I think I just didn't see the name on the mailbox.

SC: Oh, okay. Right.

JH: Hey, that one was on me, I just didn't look, then when I saw it the second time it was right in my face. Do you want people to see it more than once?

SC: Yes. But I want them to want it.

JH: Not a chore.

SC: The experience you had is the experience I'm hoping for. I want the meaning to be veiled in some way, but I want there to be an emotional experience that happens in one viewing that is satisfying, and for the narrative to be satisfying. As far as the meaning, I'm hoping that it is thrifty enough and compelling enough and lyrical and musical enough that it isn't a horrifying concept to revisit. My hope is that it's another captive audience to engage with the exploration.

If I watch a story and I'm challenged by it – like “The Master” - if I'm challenged by the way it works I spend more time thinking about it. Why does it work? What's happening? Why is that phone being delivered in the middle of the theater? There are naked dancers?

JH: Hey, listen man, we're out of time, but those are the questions I have for you. I “get” this movie, but I can't quite figure out the rocks in the pool. I have a vague sense, but I don't know that I'll ever really know them unless I hold a gun to your head.

SC: I'll tell you.

JH: Do you want me to turn this recorder off?

SC: Yeah, turn it off and I'll tell you. First you tell me what you think.

What followed was me giving Shane a halfway-there interpretation, then his definitive, concrete answer. After my, “oh, no shit!” response I commenced to pummel him with other little questions (was the early shot of her in the pool a flashforward? did the Thief and the Sampler and the Gardeners know one another?) until I was pulled out of the room.

“Upstream Color” starts its theatrical run on April 5th, followed by VOD and Blu-ray, then a life on the shelf of every true cineaste in the world.