Shane Carruth Answers All Our Questions About 'Primer,' 'Upstream Color' and 'The Modern Ocean'

Filmmaker Shane Carruth, whose homemade and award-winning debut Primer confused and seduced everyone in 2004, has a new brain-burner hitting screens tomorrow: Upstream Color. If watching Primer felt like trying to solve a Rubik’s cube that you swear was missing some pieces, watching Upstream Color feels like using memory regression to solve a similar one. But the missing pieces are there for a reason. With rapid editing and imaginative, often jarring use of sound, Carruth’s second film replaces the former’s fluorescent-lit minimalism with a kaleidoscope of spinning clues: a man and woman (Carruth himself as Jeff, and an excellent Amy Seimetz as Kris) are drawn together by a tragic event from their past they can’t identify, and don’t know they share. The young couple unknowingly search for the unknown within the film’s hypnotic style, resembling a bewildered Mulder and Scully cast adrift in something like Godard’s Pierrot le Fou. Romantic? Yes. Interesting. You bet. Casual viewing? Not really. Upstream Color is a romance picture turned outside in, and finds itself in league with of some of the better brain-trips of recent years. (A more compact Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? An Inland Empire for first dates?) I spoke with Carruth about his new movie. Readers should know that some plot points (concept points?) are discussed in this interview… not that it matters, probably? It kind of doesn’t, really!

Upstream Color begins an engagement at IFC Film Center tomorrow, and arrives in Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle and many other cities on April 12th, with more to follow this month. On May 7th, it’ll be released on-demand and on DVD and Blu-ray.

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MARK ALLEN: The first impulse I had after seeing Upstream Color was to immediately go see it again. Audiences generally seemed to embrace Primer as a “puzzle” to be solved. This new movie also feels like something audiences will be inspired to take apart and put back together again. Are puzzles something that attract you, and is that kind of reaction something you like?

Shane Carruth: That’s not something I go out of my way to do, but it’s something that, once it becomes clear is going to become an artifact of something bigger, I’m not worried about. My aim as a filmmaker is, by the end credits, to have delivered an emotional arc—and, hopefully, a somewhat cohesive narrative. My aim is not to sum everything up and make everything that is telegraphing meaning to necessarily be known by the end. I don’t shy away from denseness. I want there to be a cipher of some kind that gives the audience confidence that the film is purposeful and placed in there for a reason, and hopefully there’s some fraction of that coming across by the end. I want to give the audience confidence that if they were to spend time thinking back on or revisiting it, it will bear out and be worth that.

That’s mainly how I enjoy films. And to be honest there’s not a lot of modern films that do that for me. Certainly things like The Master, for example. I knew I’d seen something by the end of it, but I didn’t necessarily know what it was all meant for. So then I revisited it and felt rewarded by investing the time in what I’d been challenged by. So if that’s happening with my films, I would call that success. Also if I’ve made it too obtuse and it’s not registering with anybody, then that’s an error on my part, I think.

The poster is so odd. I’m curious why you chose that particular image as the first thing many people will see about Upstream Color?

I felt it was a good contextualization of what the movie itself is interested in. There were a lot of ways to take some of the more striking imagery from the movie and sell it, like, “Whoa, you’ve got to see this movie folks! There’s pigs and worms! And wow, hey look: guns!” There were ways to try and sell things and try to get every last dollar. But when I see that image of two fully clothed people in a bathtub, and the distress that’s involved, I want to know something about it. Not how crazy the plot is that got them there, but something more. What emotional state did they have to get in for this odd thing to happen?

One thing I noticed after watching the film was I think there were no cell phones or internet being used in any scenes in the film, besides at the beginning with Kris at her job. Am I right?

That’s interesting because, oh wait… there’s a cell phone that rings where they’re in a hotel room together. Hmm. And there’s a computer… but it’s analog.

I guess I noticed the lack of it. It seems every film these days uses that unthinkingly, almost every sequence has to involve a cell phone or the Internet as a rule, like it’s saying, “Okay, this is how everyone lives now, folks, so get used to it and oh also please get excited about the new iPhone.”

I have sort of a weird aversion to any tech that’s too modern, in films. But typically that’s from trying to show something that’s not too identifiable, like for the audience not to be able to say, “Oh, that’s a certain city,” or “that’s a certain place or building.” That’s just my own personal aesthetic, wanting things to feel a little more timeless or universal.

Before I saw the film I heard the soundtrack—which you created yourself—and it reminded me of late-70s electronic stuff like Cluster or Eno. Then when I saw the character the Sampler recording sounds from machines and nature around him and turning it into music, I had a totally different opinion about your possible influences. Is what we’re seeing Sampler do in the film basically how you created the music itself?

Actually, there is a lot of that stuff in the soundtrack, at least now. Going back, first I wrote the full score while I was writing the script, which wasn’t synth-y at all. There were strings, and it was meant to be performed by a symphony of some kind. But when all the different elements in the film began to come together and react to each other, once it became clear this soundscape was part of the characters’ non-verbal communication and was part of the way we were going to convey ideas when we couldn’t say them out loud, that’s when I changed my mind about the strings on the soundtrack and began to take samples from the sounds I was recording.

The symbolism in Primer seemed covert. In Upstream Color the symbolism seems more blatant, especially in the last third. The characters are in an unbelievable situation, but throughout are often shown switching between seemingly actual life and dream-like scenarios that seem metaphorical.

Upstream Color is more overt in its symbolism than Primer, and I’m okay with that. I feel like things have taken a weird turn in films. The meaning or symbolism… or maybe literary value in film seems to have reached a point where it can either only be so simplistic that it’s not interesting, or so obscure that it’s difficult to tear apart. I think what I’m interested in, getting back to things that are almost as easy to understand as fables, like say, The Tortoise and the Hare… well maybe not quite that simplistic, but something that, if you were to pull it apart and put it down, it would have that simpleness or universality to it. That way you can explore it more lyrically. You can maybe find some nuance in the edges of how it’s defined, instead of finding nuance in making it so massively complex in meaning. I feel like in some films it’s almost like things get too complex and we all do that thing where it’s, “Oh, it means whatever you want it to mean! It means different things to different people!” And that’s something I don’t subscribe to.



Despite the path you seem to be following from Primer to Upstream Color, which as you say is far more complex and metaphorical?

Yes I do. But I think the consensus about Upstream Color already—and the film isn’t even out yet theatrically—is strikingly close to the intentions I set out to portray. So I think there’s only one way to view this film: in a way where all the pieces make sense. I mean, there are lots of people with different theories, but I don’t believe those theories bear out once the film has been studied or revisited. I guess we’ll see… but I feel pretty confident.

On one hand, maybe Upstream Color just feels more open-ended to me because it’s new, the same way Primer was in 2004, and maybe people have had enough time to sort of figure that one out. With Upstream Color I hear people saying those same things all over again, you know like, “I need to watch it again! What does it all mean? Let’s make a website with charts!”


In Upstream Color, is all of this surreal stuff really happening to Kris and Jeff?

Well, I would say yes. But it’s because the plot itself is about being affected from or observing at a distance. For instance, when we’re in that empty office room in the scene at the end, then yes, Jeff is having lunch there. And then I’d say it’s up for debate who else was actually in that room or not with him. That would include the Sampler, who suddenly appears in the room, but we’ve already learned has an ability to observe people from a distance without being seen because he has this sort of goldfish bowl-like pig corral that he sampled other people’s emotional experiences to create. So the question is: where is Kris? If Kris is walking into this room, where is she? Hopefully, that’s a compelling question and, once we get a resolution, we’ll see she’s actually in the pig corral herself and has found a way to cross over.

So, from a plot perspective, that’s the question at the end of the day: what of this is real?

But from a subtextual perspective, it almost doesn’t matter. This is Heart of Darkness, this is going upriver to solve the problem in some way, put an end to the thing or person who’s been found responsible. So that’s the way I sort of thought of it: we are now beyond plot or questions, we are simply watching it play out.

What’s strange is I didn’t even notice the last third had no dialogue until I read about it later. How did that happen?

It started with the idea that so much happening for these characters was non-verbal. I’ve got people that are affected by things at a distance, two people attracted or repulsed from each other based on what two pigs are doing on a corral, out of the city.

These characters can’t even speak to that, they can’t know it or suspect it, they can only know that there’s something between the way that they’re motivated and the physical world around them. So for them to be able to talk about it, in a way, was an impossibility. In the last third when we’re just following through, I thought, sure there’s a line or two that could maybe be useful… but is there any way to not have them? It was relatively easy to do.

Which leads me to: Thoreau’s Walden is a big part of Upstream Color. Did you chose it to be an element of the story after the fact, or did it inspire the film on the whole?

I chose it to satisfy a couple of things. One, the story of Upstream Color started with me knowing I’d have characters that in the beginning I would strip of their understanding of who they were, what they thought of the world, anything that could be part of their subjective experience or what they considered themselves, their narrative. Like amnesia. And they would wake up in this moment were they would look around and not be able to explain the things that they’d done, and would have to adopt a new narrative, try to rebuild and follow through on that no matter how foreign it seemed. I was trying to come up with a tool to get them there, and that’s when this life cycle part was created in the story; the worm, the pigs, and the orchids, with this presence sort of spiraling around it as part of it. Because, there are lots of ways to create amnesia in people and have them wake up wondering why they’ve done. It could have been a pharmaceutical drug, or a bump on the head, some alien something… there’s lots of ways.

But I wanted to create something that felt like it was embedded in where we live, something you could believe is just outside our experience but still around and relatively commonplace. Something in nature that had its own life cycle that was seemingly sustained without anybody managing it. It seems like there’s a conspiracy between all these people and the things they do as the life cycle travels through them, the Thief, the Sampler, and the Orchid Harvesters. But they’re just doing the thing they know how to do, they don’t know the thing is dependent on their combined actions, moving through the one that came before or the one after. So this balanced the equation of the story for me, and put us in the natural world, and put us sort of in the mind of biological processes. Another piece of the puzzle was that I knew I was going to put Kris through a process where she is meant to do these menial tasks to kill time while the thief waits for the money to clear, writing and re-writing some novel, and making paper chains out of it. So Walden seemed appropriate.

The locations in Upstream Color have a serene feel; suburban sprawl architecture contrasted with wild, flat Texas terrain. Like Primer, you filmed again in the Dallas area for Upstream Color. I assume budget is a factor, but has capturing this type of terrain in your films has become an important element in your work? Do you think you will film in Texas again?

No I don’t, actually. In fact we sort of shot Dallas for not-Dallas, in my mind. Not that I was trying to hide the suburbs, because those are a really big part of it. But all I wanted was to start one place, you know everything about Kris’ experience is about slices of narratives, she starts one way, then she winds up another way… they escape to the suburbs and that’s meant to be the resolution, and it still isn’t. So everything in there was meant to be a contrast, a change is setting, change in dress, change in appearance, change in Kris’ mental state, basically.

I’ve heard Primer described as “a metaphysical buddy pic.” It was very male-centric. Upstream Color has a strong male/female dynamic. Was this an intentional change? Or just part of the film you wanted to make?

It wasn’t a reaction to Primer, I know that. I actually have wondered this, like, wait, why is the lead character a woman, why am I so sure of that? And then I remembered it had to do with the piglets. We’re going to put a woman through the experience of the hysteria and mania of having lost children, without ever knowing that she ever had them.

So it required a woman to have that psychic break that Kris ends up having because of this experience. Honestly the reason it’s a man and woman is because when this stopped being a thought experiment about stripping away narrative, and started becoming much more universal and bigger, and not just: what could someone think or believe, and then have that stripped away and replaced with something else. But the way you view yourself, or whether you’re a good or bad person or whether the world likes you or you like the world, or what anybody deserves. The bigger it got, the idea of stripping that away became more emotional, and I think that to me lead to the idea that that’s a really romantic premise. You’ve got people that find each other in that space. I wanted to see two people that are latching onto each other of the small inkling that that’s the salvation in this, so that’s why it went there.

I really felt Upstream Color seems rooted in film techniques that were started in part by Godard, and continued along by other films like Requiem for a Dream, Inland Empire and Gaspar Noé’s work, and many others. Particularly keeping in mind the last third of Upstream Color seems to be moving forward in the film medium, which many people feel is dying, you seem to be reaching for a new type of storytelling through the technology of images and sound combined together. Would you say that’s true?

Completely. That’s absolutely the way I think of it. Yes. And, I’m writing something now that’s trying to take that idea even further.

Which is your next film, The Modern Ocean?

That’s right.

I want to talk about that but first want to talk about what was initially to be you second film. Around 2011, you tried to get a very big-sounding and strange science fiction film off the ground, called A Topiary. There was a lot of online hype when it was announced in 2011, then it was reported you were putting it on hold to do Upstream Color instead. Recently I read you’d stopped working on it altogether.

With A Topiary I invested a lot of time and energy, and did the thing that I tend to do, which is get lost in the details. In the process of getting it off the ground I was trying to solve a few problems. A Topiary was dependent on effects, and I was worried that in the process of farming out to third parties and hoping for a consistent result, I wasn’t seeing a lot of success there and I was worried. Especially if we were going to do something for sort of a lower budget compared to what it typically would have been if it were a Hollywood film, I was worried that wasn’t going to work out. So, I spent a lot of time solving that or trying to solve that in my mind—that would make it sort of a boutique operation within production, which was something that wasn’t commonplace. I spent a lot of time on that: a lot of time doing design, then about a year doing meetings trying to convince people to invest in it, and didn’t have any success.

So it’s shelved?

In my mind it is. Because of some of the noise that Upstream Color is making now, everybody now thinks the plan is, “Let’s take the noise and try to make A Topiary.” But is it shelved? Yes/no. Because of all the work I did that didn’t work out, in my mind it’s a film that sort of already exists, but that I can’t really let myself revisit. Especially when I’m so passionate about what I’m writing now.

Okay, so your next film will be The Modern Ocean. What can you tell me about it?

It’s shipping routes, commodities trading, pirates and privateers. It’s sort of a tragically romantic story, everybody in the film is trying to pursue something and all these wires are getting crossed, hopefully in an interesting way. But speaking about cell phones and stuff, it’s weird, I think in my next film The Modern Ocean, it’s going to be roughly the same way, we’re not going to see the latest iPhone or iPad or whatever. But it involves oceanography and there are lots more tools and more tech in it, and definitely a unifying, rugged aesthetic to all those elements within the film. We’ll have to see.

Related: A Conversation With Whit Stillman About The Script of ‘Metropolitan’

Mark Allen is a writer and performer living in New York.