Shane Carruth – Interview

Shane Carruth - Upstream Colour

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to speak to Shane Carruth about his new film Upstream Colour. As a big fan of his first feature Primer I was excited to speak to the auteur and a little nervous in case he asked me what I thought of his new film; I’ve written the review and I’m still not entirely sure what I think. Naturally this combination of excitement and nerves meant that I failed to record the interview properly and am forced to rely on my notes instead. Ever the professionals here at Mild Concern

I began our conversation by making myself sound slightly foolish. It being nine years since Primer I asked Carruth if he had intended to leave it so long before making his second feature and was met with some friendly sarcasm, “I was trying to hold out for a full decade but accidentally turned a camera on and started shooting.” Suitably, and frankly charmingly, chastised I moved on to ask about A Topiary which was the failed production that took up much of the last nine years for Carruth. He described how he had wasted a lot of years working on the film and waiting for funding to be finalised but that “financing was always just a few weeks away but never came together”.

An entry on Carruth’s IMDb page, vital research territory for any interviewer, credits him as receiving special thanks on Rian Johnson’s time travel masterpiece Looper. I asked about his involvement in the film and he confessed than he had “very little material involvement.” Aside from working on some cloud like special effects for when Bruce Willis’ character’s past is changing (these weren’t used which is why you can’t remember them) Carruth was mostly on hand to help Johnson as a friend and check the script’s time travel logic. Anyone who has seen Primer will know that time travel logic is something of an area of expertise for Carruth.

Upstream Colour - Shane Carruth

After the failure of A Topiary Carruth considers himself lucky to have had another project to fall back on in the form of Upstream Colour. When I asked if the success of Primer had made the financial negotiations any easier I was met with a wry laugh. After Primer Carruth had failed to finance A Topiary and so when it came to Upstream Colour there was no funding to get; instead the whole production was financed by Carruth and some friends.

Having struggled to describe the plot of Upstream Colour to anyone since seeing the film I asked if Carruth was able to give me a quick synopsis. His answer was simple, “I wouldn’t try to summarise it”. He went on to explain that a synopsis can describe exactly what happens in a plot but it still won’t accurately describe the film. After reading a synopsis you will either watch the film and think it is far better than the description or that it is far worse than you expected. I have to agree with Carruth here as I will never be able to convey the experience of Upstream Colour to you unless you go and watch it for yourself. Please do. I need to talk to you about it.

Wanting to reassure myself I asked Carruth if we should expect to fully understand the film in one sitting. “No.” Shane very interesting described the film he had tried to make as being like “literature” rather than a film; “you should trust that the film has not been put together without any thought and trust the director to take you on a journey”. I felt like he was speaking directly to me (well… he was) as someone who was perhaps trying to over think the film and so struggled to enjoy it. The comparison to literature is an interesting one as Carruth is not a film maker who limits himself to the conventions of cinema and require plenty of re-examination and ready between the lines. If Upstream Colour were a text it would have a hell of a lot of subtext to go with it*.

Upstream Colour - Shane Carruth 2

With Carruth so far having taken on so many roles in his films including but not limited to writing, acting, and directing I wanted to know if there was any role in particular he preferred. Carruth replied that writing and directing were his main passions and that after this latest film that composing music for a film had become part of the process. They are all parts of the whole creative film making process and from our conversation I can safely say that Carruth has no plans to ever be less involved in any of his future films. I mooted the idea of him writing a film and letting someone else direct or him directing someone else script and the response was a simple “no”.

Before the interview I had asked on Twitter if anyone had any questions for Carruth. Only one sensible response came in, more on the less sensible replies shortly:

Mark Tweet

When I raised the idea of Kickstarter, something we have looked at on this blog, Carruth seemed intrigued but cautious. “I’m not really comfortable with the idea of having a fan base,” he explained and said that he didn’t like the idea of people donating money in exchange for getting a sticker with the film’s logo on it. Carruth is keeping his eye on the situation and hopes that there will be a model where “fans” or their equivalent can properly invest in a film rather than simply donate to it.

And then we have Stephen’s question…

Stephen Tweet

Thankfully Carruth took the question in the spirit it was intended and replied with deadpan wit, “I wasn’t always like this. It took years and years of practise.”

Shane Carruth was a very friendly man to chat to and was remarkably funny and unpretentious. I may have struggled with Upstream Colour but it is clear to me that this is a case of someone genuinely trying to make art in the form of a film for the sheer love of it. Carruth puts his money where his mouth is and makes only the films he wants to make. Upstream Colour is on limited release from 30th August 2013 and you should see it so that you can explain it to me.

To close we have our soon to be traditional quick fire round that inevitably requires more thought than the rest of the interview:

The Lee Questionnaire:

What is your favourite carb?
Pizza. (In truth Carruth mentioned a specific Pizzeria that my phone failed to record. Apologies.)
What did you eat this morning?
Coffee, I don’t eat until 1pm
What is the first thing you said this morning?
“Hello” on the phone
If you could be any stationery product what would you be and why?
I just bought a fountain pen which has a really nice weight to it so I would be that
If you were to die tomorrow who would you like to punch in the face before you go?
Whoever invented the plastic packaging that you can’t open with your hands and end up cutting yourself if you try. Not the inventor, it’s not their fault, but whoever insists on continuing to manufacture it

*That sentence makes sense in my head at least

Upstream Colour – Film Review

Upstream Colour

In 2004 Shane Carruth made the indie time travel classic Primer for around $7,000. Carruth took the role of actor, writer, director and probably even burned the DVDs himself to get the film made that he wanted to make. The result was astonishing, and astonishingly complex. Primer pulled no punches and required to viewer to complete give themselves over to the film in order to enjoy it and, with multiple viewings and a few diagrams found online, comprehend the plot. When I watched Primer I was swept up in its authenticity and while it took me a while to understand what was happening I loved it from the start and the more I discovered the deeper that love became. It is clear to me know that I have been dating a film for a good few years now. Awkward.

Carruth’s second film has arrived nine years later in the form of Upstream Colour and comes with a similar proposition. With Carruth taking on every production role he feasibly could he is once again bringing to the screen his singular vision and once more it is a vision that beautifully crafted but almost impenetrable. Normally in a review I would do my best to summarise the plot of the film so the reader at least knows what I am referring to but her I really can’t. The film defies definition to a degree that I have been running away from reviewing it for seven weeks now. IMDb offers up the following short synopsis:

“A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives.”

Upstream Color 1

Now that synopsis is technically accurate but doesn’t really represent the film. What we witness is a young woman called Kris (Amy Seimetz) who is kidnapped, hypnotised, and infected with a parasite. During her captivity she is tricked into emptying her bank accounts and loses her job due to her prolonged absence. The parasite within her grows and after some failed self-surgery Kris sleepwalks to a strange location where a pig farmer and sound collector (I am not making this up) removes the parasite from her body. Kris wakes up in an abandoned van with no recollection of where she has been but with no job and no money. Kris is a shell of her former self. Before long she bumps into Jeff (Shane Carruth) who has seemingly suffered a similar fate and the two find themselves inexplicably drawn to each other and the two try to piece together both their lives and what has happened to them.

There are also lots of pigs which are cute but I think if I tried to explain them now I might lose you completely.

Upstream Color 2

While Primer drew me in without me necessarily understanding what I was watching I felt like Upstream Colour kept me at arm’s length and never let me get close enough to really enjoy the experience. The acting is superb, the directing sublime, and the sound design something worth actually mentioning in a review, but the end result was far too abstract to love. The film as a whole is gorgeous and atmospheric and shows that film and cinema can truly be an art form as much as oil on canvas. The trouble with art is that it requires a subjective personal connection with the viewer for it to be fully appreciated and with Upstream Colour I just couldn’t connect. There are plenty of glowing reviews to be found for the film and I can understand why. Carruth has created something unique and original and should be applauded for that. As with Primer I think that Upstream Colour will take a few more viewings to be truly understood and while it may grow on me in the future for now I see it as a masterful piece of art that simply failed to win me over.

Upstream Colour is an abstract film about connectivity that requires you to fully indulge yourself to reap the benefits. The narrative is slow, wandering, and hard to grasp but the film is never anything short of beautiful and made it with such an admirable singular artistic vision. Upstream Colour takes great pains to create a unique atmosphere but at the end that’s all I experienced; a gaseous substance that drifted away and gave me nothing to grasp onto.

I need to see Upstream Colour again and I need you to see it too so that we can discuss it endlessly and decide if it is the greatest film ever made or a piece of pretentious nonsense. For now I am sitting on the fence:

Upstream Colour is released in the UK tomorrow and you’ll most likely love it and make me feel stupid for not loving it too.