Indie auteur Shane Carruth made the film scene with 2004's Primer, a time-travel mindbender that took the grand Jury Prize at Sundance and made Carruth a cult-film celebrity. After a failed years-long attempt to get his next screenplay made (even with the support of Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher), Carruth self-financed his sophomore feature, Upstream Color. We discussed it all on the campus of Stanford University, where he had just screened the film for the Stanford Film Society.
Groucho: Where to begin? Having just seen the film, it’s very fresh in my mind...I think maybe I’d like to have you start by describing your starting point for the project because I think that’s an interesting way into discussing the film...What was on your mind that led you to write the film?
Shane Carruth: Gotcha...I mean, it was about personal narratives and personal identity and just this concept that—whether your behavior and the world creates your identity or whether your identity creates your view of the world, and which comes first. And more importantly, once it becomes cemented, whether anything can be done about that because sometimes I feel like I’ve got—well, I shouldn’t say that. Sometimes it seems like you can’t undo it, no matter what. So anyway, I was really interested in that, and it started off as something trivially being about political beliefs, or whatever, and it got bigger and bigger, and it was about religious beliefs and cosmic beliefs and beliefs about what people deserve from you and towards you. And before long, it just seemed to be everything. It’s everything that we say or do or act seems to stem from learned behavior. So if that was stripped away, if you didn’t know what you were or what you believe or what you deserve or how you got to a point, what does that look like? How would you rebuild it? And if you rebuilt it wrong, what—I don’t know, that started to be the thing that really was breaking my heart when I thought about the story is: if somebody woke up and it looked like they had done some things and they couldn’t explain why, they couldn’t atone for it, they would just...find a way to explain it, and then they would have to accept this explanation, and then that would become them, and that seems heartbreaking to me. I feel like that’s universal in some way. Yeah.
Groucho: It’s interesting talking about identity in those terms. That it’s somewhat, in a way, arbitrary, you know. It’s learned, perhaps, by having gone down one path. And the film explores, like you talked about, what happens if you rebuild your identity wrong. And there’s also the possibility, of course, that you’d be giving yourself a second chance to get it right. So—
Shane Carruth: Yeah.
G: I wonder if you have a natural, sort of, pull to the dark side [laughs] when you break a story like that?
SC: It does seem like, no matter what, if your identity becomes a static thing, that seems like that’s going to be—that’s the difficult and emotional thing, because that means there’s nothing that can change and you, more or less, are a written book. And your experiences [are] not very meaningful from that point forward. And I think—yeah, that’s what it ends up being. I guess I’m slowly getting to that.
G: You described the film as perhaps a “myth” or a “fable.” The word that leapt to mind for me was “allegory,” when I was watching...You mentioned politics afterwards. I was thinking about science versus religion. And it seems like we’re living in a—maybe heading into a post-religious era, and—
G: And that maybe science is sort of filling in that area more. And I think science perhaps is becoming a new sort of spirituality in that sense, too. Like trying to interpret our existence and what we—what’s the famous thing? “It seems like magic until you realize it’s science.”
SC: Oh, Arthur C. Clarke. Yeah. “Any sufficiently advanced technology will appear as magic…”
G: Yeah. So is that something that you come into your films thus far—from a science-fiction standpoint—is that something that you have in mind to play with: the intersection, perhaps, of science and belief?
SC: Yeah, I mean, but I do think we are in a mode where science—science is not—it’s supplanting religion and almost becoming religious. People say, “Oh, that’s science.” And then it’s like, "Oh you don’t get to question that anymore." And none of us are doing peer-reviewed stuff on the things that we believe; we’re just sort of swallowing whatever gets published in Scientific American, or whatever, which is not a horrible thing, but it’s not—we obviously don’t know everything. This belief that we do—and this is what I’ve been waking up to in the last ten or more years, is I feel like I’ve spent most of my life believing the idea that we more or less have figured everything out. Evolution explains something, you know. Astronomy and cosmology explains something else. We're more or less getting there with quantum physics and relativity and marrying a system that’s gonna, you know, eventually—we’ll all know to be universally true, and that’s that. But, so, we’re more or less just adding up the numbers and crossing the "t"s. And I now just don’t believe that’s remotely true. Like I just—I think there’s going to be broad, new things to be found and structures to be understood that explain more about where we are. And I don’t think we have even a fraction of the story, is what it is starting to feel like to me, and I’m almost a little upset that I’ve spent so much of my life, sort of, being told that it’s all figured out. ‘Cause I would have loved to have felt when I was ten the way I do now, and feel like the world is still not figured out and there’s work that can be done. Anyways. That was a tangent.
G: (Laughs.) So, another aspect of this project that’s new for you is marketing and distributing it yourself, and you’ve talked about contextualizing the film for the audience in a way that you can control—to give them the right expectations, I guess, when they sit down to watch the film.
G: What is that context you hope to provide? What do you want them to know before they watch Upstream Color?
SC: Well, one is that it’s an emotional story, ‘cause I think it’d be really easy to—but, you know, when I think about my biggest fear in the world of what would happen if I sold this to a distributor, the biggest fear I have is that they would take the elements that are weird and bizarre, they would take the pigs and worms and the guns and, you know, some of the gore, and they would craft some explanation of this thing that’s just like “Oo, it’s a puzzle movie!” or it’s a—“It’ll blow you to the back of the theater with all its weird ideas!” And that’s my fear, because that’s not what’s on the film’s mind, and that’s not what’s on my mind. That’s something to support what’s at the heart of it, and it’s an emotional story, and it has layers of abstraction, and it is trying something new. There’s two things I wanna do. I want people to be aware of the film from a really, you know, just crass way, because the film’s gotta have a life in order for it to be judged and to live on. So it’s gotta hit a certain—there’s gotta be an awareness to it. But there’s also, like, it’s gotta be—I don’t wanna be selling it to everybody. There’s the group that it’s for [that] needs to know that it’s for them, and the group that it’s not, it would be better for everybody involved if they just knew the truth: that this may not be the thing that they want. And I just—that’s something that I’m confident in because my bottom line isn’t every dollar I can get; it’s something else entirely. It’s the life of the film. It’s whether this thing’s relevant in the future. So knowing that my—what I’m guided by, I know that. I don’t know what, necessarily, another distributor would be guided by. So that’s one of the things.
G: You also created the score for the film, and you’ve professed not to have really a background in music. Is that true?
SC: I mean, it is true. I, you know—no more than anybody else would have. I took piano lessons for maybe no more than a month when I was a kid. And so I just basically learned how these keys work, but I can’t really play them well. I can’t really play anything well. I can compose, but it’s a lot of experimentation. It’s not like some—it’s not theory that I’ve learned…
G: It seems like you’ve become very comfortable with the technology by which you can create a score like this...
SC: Yeah, but it’s—I feel like it was forced. I mean if—like my idea—like next time around—I’ve given up the fact that I absolutely am gonna compose music. Even though I’m not the best person in the world to be doing it, I have this hope now. I’m just going to commit to it. And I have this hope that there is something that arises when your hands are in all the different departments, but, for instance, like next time around—right now, all of this music came from off my laptop. And I’m proud of the score. I think it’s pretty good, but technically, it could be a lot better. If we could take my compositions or my chicken scratch, sort of, rough ideas of the compositions and I could work with somebody who knows how to orchestrate for a bigger group of players, and we could just be technically better. It seems like that needs to be the way to go, or else—you know, there’s just a lot of rough edges when you do stuff yourself. I just don’t think it’s necessary, but I guess we’ll see. I know that I want to write the music.
G: Well certainly, having your hands in so many aspects of production and, well obviously, pre-production, production, and post-production gives the film such an entirely personal stamp. Right?
G: And I think that, in itself, distinguishes you as a filmmaker...Which filmmakers do you identify with in that respect...?
SC: Yeah. Like who? I mean, well, I guess, you know, Kubrick was considered the most singular. So I mean, that’s always there. I think Soderbergh is somebody who’s, I mean, just beyond respect. He’s just—in a way that he doesn’t really have to be, at the level that he’s at. He’s intimately involved with so many of the different levels and departments, so I’m really inspired by that. And I feel like his greatest works aren’t even recognized, yet. His version of Solaris I think is something that will be so long-lived, and nobody quite gets that right now, but I think they will. But I look to him. I don’t know, I mean, I look to a lot of French New Wave, sort of just for sheer—the audacity of what they were trying to do. And the hope that maybe there’s room to try something just as audacious today. And I think there is. Or at least...I know I’m gonna figure out if there is 'cause there’s something to be done with this format. Like, everybody’s given up on it. And they're like, “Oh, we’ve gotta keep moving to 3D. We’ve gotta do this or that.” It’s, you know, “Film’s dead. We gotta do virtual reality experiences,” or whatever. And I just think that’s completely false. I think there’s so much more that we can do with the format, and I still think it’s the height of narrative. And that’s what I want to do. I wanna play with all aspects of it. I wanna—you know, next time around—I’m writing something now, that it’s—so much of it is dependent on synching up—I mean, there’s a lot of different characters, and there’s a lot of different interactions and things that are happening, but synching up moments that are emotionally “relevatory” instead of necessarily about chronology. I think there’s a real way to get to a form of story that we haven’t—I mean, we’ve gotten close, or somebody’s gone down that path, but there’s a way to go further, I think. At least, that’s my hope.
G: How did you locate your co-lead in the film?
SC: Amy [Seimetz]?
SC: I was told her name by somebody I just met—Toby Halbrooks and David Lowery, who I’d met just a few weeks before we started shooting—and I was like, “Well, we’re looking for this actress…” And we started trying people out in Dallas, and they recommended Amy. And I didn’t know anything about her, but I looked online. I think I saw a couple minutes of her acting on YouTube. And I called her up, just because, you know, I was doing my diligence ‘cause you’re meant to—you need to call everybody. And she was in Florida where she lived, and she was editing her film Sun Don’t Shine. Have you seen Sun Don’t Shine?
SC: So she tells me she’s editing this film, and, you know, she’s an actress, so—that to me means nothing. I’m like, oh, okay, it’s like a short or something, and she’s sitting with an editor. And the more I talked to her, the more I learned that, no, it’s a feature, and she’s actually sitting in front of Final Cut Pro, herself, editing it. And I couldn’t quite make that work in my head. And she let me take a look at it, and, I mean, it’s wonderful. And I got ten minutes into this thing, and I think the decision was already made because she got narrative so well. It kind of just seemed like, why would—I mean, this is going to eliminate 95% of the time it would take for us to get on the same page because she just gets it. And then, you know, I was actually—I started to get a little bit worried about why would I be bringing somebody into town that’s maybe a better director than I am. But, you know, that’s how she came aboard.
G: I do wanna address—I know it’s probably a weird topic, but we talked about Primer nine years ago. And there has been a long gap. I think sometimes it’s actually stranger when the gap is shorter, given how hard it is to make a film, but can you talk a little bit about what your hopes were coming out of Primer, what your frustrations were in that interim, and how you ended up coming to this project?
SC: Sure. Absolutely. Yeah, well, the main thing that I started doing between Primer and this one is trying to get this project that I was—that I wrote called “A Topiary” made. And I spent at least two years in it, writing and coming up with a design and some effects that would service the production, 'cause it had to do with ten kids that more or less found the ability, or a machine that would give them the ability, to create creatures according to their own design. And there was an entire—in my mind, like, very sort of beautiful and austere lifecycle to how these creatures worked and how it would be that you could build them out of basic building blocks. And so I spent a lot of time on that because it just seemed like, this is so something worth doing, like, if I could actually just do this, this is like a new thing. It’s not an alien; it’s not a robot. It’s a completely new thing. And I got very passionate about it. And so I spent a lot of time on that, and learned about effects, and got way too deep into that. And then I spent at least a year doing meetings and trying to get it financed. And I had been sort of—I don’t know if I had been convinced or lulled, or whatever. I had convinced myself that I had the ability to raise this amount of money to make a film, but I came to the understanding that I was wrong. And even though nobody was saying no, and they met it with a lot of enthusiasm, nothing was actually transpiring. And it was getting harder and harder to figure out what it was I was doing for a living, 'cause I thought I was a filmmaker, but it turns out I was just taking meetings and not having any real—nothing was moving forward. And luckily, in that time, the elements for Upstream Color were coming together, and that moment I was talking about where I realized what an emotional story it would be, at least for me, that’s the moment that I just fell completely into Upstream Color, and had to tell everybody that was, you know, conceiving of “A Topiary” that, well, that’s not on the table anymore. We can’t do that anymore, 'cause here’s a film that I can just go do. I don’t have to explain it to anybody, you know. I don’t have to ask for permission. I certainly don’t have to use the word “pitch,” which is just the worst word in the world. I mean, so, that’s more or less what…
G: What happens if you condense a big idea into something that’s just…hopeless. (Laughs.)
SC: And you’re talking to people that, you know, they’re not—it’s—I don’t know. They’re—it’s like—
G: You can’t put poetry into a pitch.
SC: Yeah, exactly. But it’s almost like—it’s hard to put anything—I mean it’s like, that world is not led by anything. You know? If it was led by greed, I almost think that I could figure it out. If it was led by merit, I could figure it out. There we go. And that’s the thing. That’s my number one failing, is I’m not a great animal when it comes to figuring out politics and ego, just—it’s too much.
G: I don’t want to talk too much about “A Topiary,” but the script and the script review made its way online, and I wonder if you find that, in some ways, comforting, given that the film may not get made. That people can experience that in some form. Or if you find it frustrating that that’s out there.
SC: It’s exactly both. Like everything. No, that was—that’s a very long version of the script, and that was not meant to be read. That was meant to be a production document. And it’s very verbose because it’s—the story is dealing with a lot of things that don’t have a real world analog, so it takes a lot of description to explain, but there was—the actual version that we were using to talk about was more like 130 pages. It wasn’t, you know, twice as long. So it’s frustrating that people think that I was out there trying to make this, like, six-hour movie, or something.
G: Oh, right.
SC: ‘Cause that’s not the case. And then, I don’t know, I mean, I really do—I’ve really come to just completely hate the screenplay format. Like, it is not representative of a film. And it’s weird: I don’t even think that’s just specific to me. I mean, I remember the screenplay for There Will Be Blood was going around, and I was hearing such negative things about it, and I was like, “What are you people reading? It’s not—it’s wonderful.” But it’s like, you have to know—
G: Read the film. There’s a way—there’s a different language.
SC: You have to know what he’s going to do with it, or have some sense of some confidence in what he’s going to do with it. Like, you can’t—it’s, like, I mean it really is like looking at a blueprint and pretending that, you know, you’ve got some clairvoyance on what the weather’s going to be like the day this thing is erected. Like, it doesn’t make any sense.
G: Moving forward, you have already—well, you mentioned you’re working on a script now, and you have different production dates, I think, set up for your next film, or no?
SC: I have the same thing I had set up for this, which is claiming it’s gonna happen and then forcing it to happen.
SC: And so, I mean, it’s—I’ve gotta raise some more money, but there’s sort of some things in the works that I shouldn’t say too much about, but my hope is to be shooting immediately once this film is out. So hopefully, by the end of summer.
G: It did occur to me to ask you about, since, you know, the landscape is changing—the film landscape—do you think there are alternative methods to funding these—you know, funding your films. Like, you know, people use Kickstarter now, and—
G: There is a cult following that’s built up around Primer, and, you know, hopefully this film’s gonna find its audience, too. Do you ever think you might end up, sort of, crowdsourcing a movie—a budget?
SC: Yeah. I mean I definitely think it’s possible. That’s—I mean that is part of, you know—it’s not the part I want to highlight when it comes to the distribution, but there is an aspect of this. There’s a way, I believe, where you don’t have to make 100 million dollars on a movie in order to get permission to make the next one. But, you know, there’s a certain amount of money that this thing’s gonna make, and it actually becomes more and more important to me that if I can do the same distribution that I would expect from an independent distributor, but I can make it so that they’re not at the table to share proceeds, then that means that’s a bigger threshold—that’s a bigger amount of money that I can throw at the next film. And so, that is part of this. As long as I can be sure that I’m not hobbling Upstream Color in the process, it’s a way to get the next thing made. Easy.
G: Yeah. I guess I’ll wrap up by asking: in—when you’re developing your works from a thematic perspective, do you—I guess it’s sort of the job of critics to tell you what they see in your films, but do you see a guiding motif in the stories you’re attracted to? Is there something you feel like you are kind of drawn back to, types of stories that you’re telling, or types of themes?
SC: Um, I mean, yeah. There’s definitely a pattern. Yeah. I mean, I think there’s—it’s…some days it seems simple and some days it’s not, but I know it’s always going to be universal because I just don’t have—it’s just too much work to be topical specific. And that seems too short lived. And my hope is always to be telling a story that has a chance. Maybe I fail, or maybe it fails, but at least it has a chance to be relevant in the future, for a while. And so that’ll mean it’s always gonna be universal. And, I don’t know, it’s always gonna be an exploration, and it’s hopefully gonna be true—and that necessarily, in my mind, is going to mean that it’s probably going to be a bit tragic, almost no matter what...
G: The best films are the ones that you walk out of saying, “That movie was about everything.” So, yeah. I think you hit the nail on the head there with “universal.” To me, I see a lot of looking for order in the chaos of existence in your films, and that’s kind of—that’s the big one, right?
SC: Yeah, absolutely.
G: Well, good luck to you with the film.
SC: Well, thank you. Thank you so much.
G: I hope to see you again on the next one.
SC: Me, too. Yeah. Yeah, hopefully it’s soon. Hopefully it’s eighteen months from now.