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Interview: Shane Carruth (Upstream Color)

After an eight year period of silence following his time travelling Sundance Grand Jury Prize winning debut Primer, Shane Carruth returns to his position not only at the helm with his latest masterpiece, Upstream Color, but once again as writer, actor, cinematographer, sound designer, editor and even distributor.  Attempting the seemingly impossible, Carruth is self releasing the film in theaters on a limited run, opening today. The do-it-himself brainiac’s constructed another mind bending masterwork, this time delving into transmuted human psyches and the possibility of  bio-harmony through the cellular transmission of worms and pigs and people and all things. Part distorted romance, part sci-fi thriller, the film is one of decidedly high art omniscience, and Carruth knows this. When I sat down with the filmmaker the day after the film’s premiere at Sundance this year, he was candid about his intentions for the film’s reception and visually excited to discuss interpretations of the feature. Below is our lengthy chat in both transcript and audio form.

Jordan M. Smith: I know you haven’t made a movie in several years, how long have you actually been working on this movie?
Shane Carruth: Not nine years. It’s about a year and a half, from writing to now, more or less.

Smith: What was the origin for the story?
Carruth: It was the thematic exploration of building a personal narrative. I was really interested in how personal narratives get built. How you get to a point in your life where your identity says that you think you deserve certain things that are bad, that you have certain beliefs, and they’re not being critically tested anymore, they’re just sort of part of you, and your behavior or your circumstances may have gotten you to your identity and now your identity is servicing your behavior or informing your behavior, and I was just really curious about that and whether that’s a universal or common. I think that it is, and I wanted to play with how that works. So, I knew that I wanted a story where I’m going to break some people apart, I’m going to take that away from them and they’re going to have to rebuild it from scratch from what they find around themselves. So, this idea of these characters that wake up at some point and find that they seem to have done something that doesn’t make a lot of sense and so they try to find a way to explain why they would have done that and then that starts to define them. That’s where I knew where I wanted to start, that’s what I wanted to get into and then I needed this mechanism for making that happen and that’s where this sort of swarm or this cycle begins to happen, these events that happening. They’re both tethered to these pigs or this cycle that’s going on around them and it’s effecting the lead character’s behavior in a way that they can’t get to at all, they can’t know that it’s there or that they’re being effected. That would seem maddening. And then, the more that I’m playing with it I started to realize that that’s pretty much what it feels like. That’s pretty much what life feels like most of the time, is getting into an argument with somebody and afterwards going, ‘Why’d I get so mad? What was that?’ We’re affected by things that we’re not really in touch with on a moment by moment basis what’s happening with us. So, just the exploration of all these things bouncing against each other, the subjectivity of things seemed so rich to mine and really, just emotional for me. That’s where I came from, I just wanted to perfect all that.

Smith: I feel like when I was watching it there was the connection between life cycles, but the physicality of us just being. You’re constantly showing hands and feet and they’re allows touching things or rubbing on things. I’m guessing that was intentional?
Carruth: Yeah, it became part of the language. I’m not the first person to use it obviously, but these are the things we use to get to the world, to stop being in a void and to start inspecting and understanding things. It just seemed to be really appropriate when you’ve got these people that are searching and struggling, but they don’t even really know that they are struggling most of the time. It’s like that’s where we are, we’re at the place where they meet the rest of the world so that’s just where the camera goes most of the time.

Smith: You have a segment where the pig farmer is playing with sound, he’s manipulating sound, he’s recording natural sound and I know that you did the score, do you have a natural fascination for ambient sound or ambient music?
Carruth: Aaah….do I have a natural fascination….? Yeah….well….maybe? I don’t know if I do.

Smith: Do you do it on the side for fun, making ambient sounds or do you just specifically do it for you’re movies?
Carruth: Well, I did get into sampling on this…I don’t really know why. It just sort of happened, but the idea of taking the air conditioning sound or the sound of water draining and slowing it down or speeding it up and layering it, that was definitely something I was doing. I guess it is something I continue to do when I’m composing. I don’t know why I do that though. I know white sound became important in this film, but I don’t know if I have a natural fascination with it. Maybe I do.

Smith: It kind of ties in with the connection because we also take in audio. There are a lot of symbols throughout the film. I’m curious about the pigs, why did you choose pigs?
Carruth: Lots of reasons. I don’t know. I’m worried. This is what I do. There are probably six different reasons that add up to a solution that I like and I’m worried that if I say but one that it won’t really be accurate. The fact that they share a lot of the same diseases with us, that everything seems to be communicable between – not everything, but a lot more than other different animals. That seemed to be important and pigs are sort of cemented in our history and culture, who know, Jesus cast demons into pigs as if they were an appropriate host for a spirit. It’s escaping me, but they’ve been used so often…we’re always talking about ourselves being related to these animals and they’re so anti us. We’re these sort of beautiful creatures and we’re intelligent and we move in a certain way, and they are these clunky little almost worthless things, they’re meat for the most part…I mean, that’s not true. I don’t want to disparage pigs, but you know what I mean. They are not us. They’re like passive little things that just want to eat. And so the idea of taking a spirit or an essence or whatever it is that gets transferred into the pig…it’s like a host, you know? If you were to give it to something more intelligent or faster or like a monkey, that feels different, that feels like its out in the world and running around where as a pig feels like a gold fish in a bowl, just stuck there. Something along those lines.

Smith: The film is also about kind of letting go of the past. You integrated that in with the papers, you see multiple times people throwing papers away and packing all of their belongings up into boxes. What was the development of that theme of letting go or was it a natural thing that development?
Carruth: Ummmm…..I guess I don’t know? I mean, it definitely is being done with something and letting it fly in the wind. But I don’t know where it would have come from other than…I don’t know know where it would have come from…

Smith: As I was watching the movie, you don’t realize at first that these people’s memories are kind of blending. As I was realizing it I kept thinking of the idea of phantom limbs or phantom memories, is that something you thought of as you were writing or is that just my perception of it?
Carruth: It started off mechanical to service the plot basically, or not service the plot but echo the plot. If I’ve got these two characters that are intertwined in some way because their pigs are intertwined in some way and there’s a communal experience happening in the pig coral, then it just seemed interesting that they would be sharing these memories, that they wouldn’t know where one of them ended and the other began. Then when I got more and more into it, I felt like there was a romantic aspect to that and there’s a really creepy aspect to that and there’s an infuriating aspect to that and that seemed really interesting to me because that’s exactly what this needs to be because so much of the film is Jeff and Kris thrust into a situation where they should be behaving one way, but they’re compelled to not. Or maybe the opposite, because the pigs are getting together basically in the coral, Jeff and Kris are compelled to do this, but everything about their dialogue or interaction is really rough and not smooth. It’s not happening.

Smith: It’s really spacey feeling.
Carruth: Yeah, it’s like these people are not connecting and yet they’re being compelled to connect for reasons that no one looking at this could tell you, but it’s because we know they’re connected off screen and these other things. So, because of that it’s like this subversion, this jarring of actions versus what you feel like you should be doing. I think that’s where the shared memories thing comes from because it’s…I don’t know, but there’s something else to it too, and there’s part of it I can’t quite get to. I don’t know what it is. The three minute sequence where they start to argue about it, that’s like my favorite sequence in the whole film and I know that it’s written and it was executed and performed in order to service the plot in pretty much the way that I said there, but there is something going on there that I don’t quite know what it is, but it really effects me. Just that idea of…I don’t know.

Smith: I was really taken back by it, this is very uncomfortable. I can’t even imagine how these people would feel if that were actively happening to someone…
Carruth: Yeah, but it feels analogous to something real that does happen in the real world and I’m gonna solve this thing, but I don’t know what it is right now. It’s so strange.

Smith: I had a question about the micro photography, or was it just micro photography or was it digital or what did you do there?
Carruth: There is no CG in the film. It’s all practical photographs. There is a bunch of stop-motion photography.

Smith: Oh really?
Carruth: Yeah, all sorts of stuff.

Smith: It worked well. It worked really well…
Carruth: Thanks, what’s so funny is that there is a lot more that was cut out that looked really beautiful. Tom Walker, the production designer, set up some stuff in the back room of my house that I was renting and did a bunch of, probably ten other really cool looking things that were meant to represent what was going on in Kris’s blood stream when she’s coming to realize something when she’s swimming and she comes to see the yellow orchid, or there was something in the bloodstream where we would see something that was blue and flowing turn to yellow and flowing, like it was a physicality, like it was actually happening and it looked amazing and it’s the weirdest thing in the world to not include it, but I had to choose not to include it because in a moment where she’s having this emotionally revelatory situation we’re cutting to microscopic stuff and it was just like, ‘It doesn’t work right here, unfortunately,’ as good as it is. It’s crazy, so crazy. The little blue guys that look like cells blowing up, there like little orbies. Those are actually shot the summer before, months before production on my dining room. They’re like little kids toys. They’re like Nerds, the candy Nerds, you know? You put water on them and they blow up into tiny little marbles.

Smith: They look like fish eggs or something.
Carruth: Yeah! They have like a hard dark center so it makes them look like fish, yeah.

Smith: Obviously the film is very unconventional in a lot of ways, and I followed along fine and I think most people that are serious about film are going to be fine, but for a traditional audience this is going to be hard and I feel like you rely on the audience a lot. Where you thinking about that while you were making it? Is that partially why you are self releasing the film?
Carruth: It’s tough. I think about story in terms of whether it has a chance to be relevant in the future, like, a long time from now and if I don’t think there is any chance then it’s not something I can get passionate about, but if it does than I do and what I need to solve now in a very temporary sense, the story has to infect culture at some level. It has to be experienced or read or viewed by a certain number of people or a certain amount of the right people that will respond to it, and it’ll somehow get into culture in some way and then it will have a life of it’s own and if it deserves to continue to exist and grow, then great. If it doesn’t then it doesn’t. So, I don’t see my job right now as how to figure out how to make every last dollar. I see my job as how to stay true to the exploration and do things that I think have a chance, that I think will stand the test of time and be worthy of people’s attention. When you tell a story I think you have to do both. You have what you think as or an author might think of as nutritional and worth exploring, but you have to be compelling and you have to, minute by minute, respect the attention of an audience and give them a reason to play that. That’s what we do, that’s what a narrative is, that’s what it’s always been. I don’t know. This is my aesthetic. This is my balance of the two. I think it’s appropriate. I think there are enough people in the world that will value it to make it worth making and to give it a chance to live longer, if it’s worth it, if it has merit.

Smith: Obviously your hands are all over this film, you’re directing, you’re writing, you’re acting, you’re doing the sound, you’re the cinematographer. What is you’re favorite of all the jobs that you do on the film or is there any one?
Carruth: It would definitely be writing, directing and music. Those, I don’t know which, but I could imagine only writing and directing. I don’t think I could reduce it beyond that, but that’s only because I think that they are the same job. I think they should be the same job. So, that’s my favorite I guess. I don’t know how to think about them in departments anymore. Like, to think about someone editing it differently than it was written and making choices about, then they’re changing the story and then it can’t be singular anymore. Anyways, you just asked my favorite, it’s writing and directing.

Smith: Why Walden? It could have been a zillion other books, but there’s got to be a particular reason why this one?
Carruth: Well, I picked it initially just because I thought of it as something pretty dry, pretty boring. It had passive, peaceful prose about nature. So, really, I picked it because it seemed like it would be the perfect book if you were trying to hypnotize someone or make them open to suggestion. This is what you’d get them to hand write over and over again because it’s like a drone. That’s the way I thought of it initially and then after I had a lot of the script crafted I picked it up and started looking at it for the first time since high school and started to see a bunch of incredible language about light and sound and beasts and nature and all of these things and they were all sort of in the script already, in some form or another. And I guess it occurred to me that I could use this. It was like a mine of material that I could continue to use because these characters, they’ve internalized these words and that’s how they’ll know they’re connected and they’ll be effected by these words without knowing, without knowing anything about it. So it just completely opened it up and I don’t know why or if I lucked out….I don’t know anything. And the thing is, now reading it, I’m like, the book itself seems so lonely and so lost and so much about not being able to connect in a real way with anybody else around you and filling you’re life with other things, these habitual things in the natural world. I don’t know. It just seems way too appropriate and I wish that I was smart enough to have done that on purpose, but I don’t think that I was. I don’t know what happened.

Smith: Intuition.
Carruth: Yeah, hopefully. I don’t know.

Smith: Did you think about it as brainwashing?
Carruth: Ummm…yeah, I mean hypnotizing, putting her in a suggestive state. Yeah, I mean, it’s putting someone in a completely controlled state. That’s how the thief would think of it, like, what we know, there’s many other things going on. This is just the first step in how the worm works. It’s also taking a bit of you when it leaves and there’s a connect there, so…

Smith: One of the major questions I had with the film, you had an aside with this couple, a troubled marriage. At the end I thought of it as one of the pairs that was connected, but you’re never really sure and as you’re watching them the first time, you don’t even really know that there is a connection. You might assume, but…
Carruth: Well, what we see is the pig farmer is walking in his coral, he’s shopping for….he’ll touch one pig and he’ll be able to observe the person that’s attached to that pig. That ones not doing anything great, this ones not interesting, that ones just looking at a shopping window, and then he gets to one who’s wife’s just been taken away in an ambulance. Ok, this is interesting, he goes to that. Then it becomes really, really…then we’re in this subtextual world of him being connected to the husband, but then the husband is I a state where he’s wrought with guilt and worried about his wife passing away, revisiting the day and how the day played out and the argument. We’re seeing the subjective part, that argument played over and over again the way he’s revisiting in his head, so the pig farmer gets to same that as well. It’s just keeps drilling down. The bottom line is to just show that sampling experience of the way he would go in and want to have that. In some way observe somebody having a height of emotion.

Smith: He almost seems like a ghost sometimes. You see him at the farm and then he’s with these people, but they don’t see him. I know at the Q&A you had mentioned that you’re working on a new script, which I’m assuming is The Modern Ocean?
Carruth: Yup.

Smith: When will we see it and what is it about?
Carruth: It’s a tragic romance set at sea with ships that trade commodities and some of them are warring with each other. It’s going to be really good. I can’t wait.

Smith: You also mentioned that A Topiary is doneskis maybe, on the back burner?
Carruth: Yeah, you know. I think my hearts sort of broken on it. I’m not trying to get it made. I don’t know. There’s things that happen with film finance people where they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, we just wanna talk about it, maybe you could come in and talk to us about it.’ It seems like a really trivial thing, but it’s just too much. I’m not going to ever get my hopes up for it again.

Smith: I know you were kind of burned by ThinkFilm with Primer and I know it’s been out of print for a while now, I’ve heard nothing about it and I was curious to know if you have plans to get it back in print or…
Carruth: Primer? Well, it’s not in print for DVD, but it’s everywhere else. It’s iTunes, Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, everywhere you can get it other than physical media. It’s all out there. Oh! And direct downloads from the website as well. But, I do want to make sure that this distribution thing isn’t characterized as if I was burned by ThinkFilm because yeah, maybe I wasn’t completely happy with everything, but I do think I was very fortunate to get a distribution deal and it’s not that I have a problem with anything that they did. It’s only that I now know what that experience is like and I know that everything will end up being a conversation and there is a level of bureaucracy that, it worries me when I think of something as important to me as this film and also when I think about this film being, as like you said, as unconventional as it is. I love the idea of being able to contextualize it myself. Everything that people will have seen before they receive this or view this will have been crafted for them in a certain way and it won’t be solely about trying to get their money. It’ll be about framing the story correctly and making sure the people that are most likely to be receptive to it understand that this is for them.

Smith: When the two trailers came out I was baffled and so intrigued because one is made up like a romance and then the other is like a really dark thriller and I’m watching both of them and I have no idea what this movie is going to be about.
Carruth: Did you see the final trailer?

Smith: Yes...
Carruth: Ok, yeah. I’m curious because the idea was that here’s our first teaser, it’s meant to basically show some of the visuals that are involved, but for the most part it’s confounding, hopefully visceral, but confounding and then the next one has none of those elements and it’s more about the romantic arc and there being some nuance, like some sort of emotional experience going on. So, the trailer was supposed to be a combination of the two while showing that there is a real narrative at play here, that we’re not just going to throw a bunch of random images together. Anyways, I’m just curious if that worked or not.

Smith: I think it worked beautifully, at least for me. And actually, I was standing in line today and someone from Dallas saw the trailer before like Zero Dark Thirty or something.
Carruth: Yeah! It’s playing! It’s playing in theaters! We’re booked in over twenty North American markets right now and yeah. We shipped out the trailer on flash drives and they’re being copied and sent around to all the theaters. I know there playing on at least thirteen screens and maybe more…

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