In 2004, Shane Carruth took adventurous moviegoers on a mindbending trip through time and space with Primer, his absurdly low-budget debut feature about a group of engineers who create a time travel device that, inevitably, causes all manner of trouble. Frequently included on lists of the all-time great time travel movies (as well as lists of cult movies you have to see), Primer made its fans eager to see what Carruth was going to do next. Almost a decade later, the writer/director has returned with his follow-up, Upstream Color, another intricately made sci-fi tinged feature that's had people buzzing since it premiered at Sundance in January. Instead of waiting around for a distributor, Carruth is releasing the movie himself. On Friday, April 5, Upstream Color will open in limited release followed quickly by a VOD and DVD release. Carruth spoke with us about returning from his long absence and why he wants his films to be more than just "a book that you can watch."
TWoP: Primer became an instant cult hit when it was released nine years ago, but you've been absent from movie screens since. Did you feel any trepidation coming back after a prolonged absence?
Shane Carruth: I can honestly say, there was a moment when I was writing Upstream Color where I fell so hard for what it was becoming that I couldn't think of anything else. I was absolutely secure in this story in the way I'm rarely secure about anything else in my life. It was also informed by the fact that I know something now I didn't know before, which is that I will not be making films funded by Hollywood or any other conventional film financing. It's not a possibility for me and it took a while to figure out it wasn't possible for me. But now that I know it isn't, I get to spend all my energy solving problems and making films instead of entertaining the idea of another meeting.
TWoP: Where Primer was intensely dialogue driven, Upstream Color is a more sensory experience, particularly in the way it employs sounds. How did that aesthetic approach evolve?
Carruth: It grew out of the fact that the central part of this story is that we've got characters who are affected by things at a distance, things that are just off-screen. They are experiencing mania and hysteria and emotions without being able to point to the culprit or even know to point to a culprit. Because of that, it was always going to have to be more non-verbal than we're maybe used to seeing and that means we had to play up every other tool we had in the kit, from the music to the cinematography. These characters are constantly in a mode of curiosity without having anywhere to put it. So sound is yet another thing where I can try to show how two people are connected. If it was a connection that could be spoken, it would be spoken; if they could say what it was, then it wouldn't be true. All of the elements needed to inform the movie because the dialogue certainly wasn't going to.
TWoP: Both of your movies draw on science-fiction elements -- time travel in Primer and genetic engineering in Upstream Color. More importantly, they also seem to explore the ways in which science can be used to less-than noble ends. Does that reflect your own feelings toward sci-fi and the scientific method?
Carruth: I'm only interested in science fiction that's used as a literary device, a shortcut into something more exploratory or universal about our experience. That's why I think it was invented and why mythology was invented; it's a tool, not an end to itself. To me the things that are compelling about science is the opportunity to watch the way processes work and whether they work. I never could do any kind of a morality tale or pretend that I know some truth that I need to deliver. What I feel very strongly about is that what I can do -- and what narrative is best at doing -- is exploring some universal concept and defining the edges of what the question is. Sometimes that's the most beneficial thing; let's just talk about what this question is and how the question works instead of pretending that I as an author have some kind of meaningful answer. I realize I don't have such a thing as a good or a bad character. I think that's an impossibility for me because once you do that, there will be an end result and you'll be saying something -- that good triumphs or evil triumphs. So in this story, I needed all of the characters to be doing things that were not necessarily dependent on anybody else. It's not conspiratorial. They don't know what the other parts of the cycle are, they just know that they've found a little trick in nature and continue to perform that trick.
TWoP: How do you go about putting together a film as intricate as Upstream Color?
Carruth: I used to be someone who was adamant about everything needing to be known at script stage. If that meant that I had to have 500 pages of notes for 100 pages of script, then great. I have now adopted another view of this, which is that if we want to figure out what film is capable of -- not just a book that you can watch but something else entirely, the way a sculpture is different from a painting -- we have to reject the building blocks that say there's writing, there's production and there's post-production. Not that those things aren't there and they don't have to happen in that chronology, but something bigger also has to happen. I believe that filmmakers have to internalize the story and subtext so well that all of the departments can start to speak to each other -- that music can speak to cinematography can speak to writing and back again. If the filmmaker has internalized everything that well, they can start to make decisions that are sometimes difficult to verbalize, but also hopefully always singular and unified with the theme. That's what I'm really passionate about right now and I want to go even further with on the next film. It's like when you know a piece of music so well, you can start to improvise, but still stay true to the music. Filmmaking is a thousand choices a day and it's important to just let those choices potentially be informed by something deeper.
TWoP: You're distributing the movie yourself in theaters -- as well as via video on demand and DVD -- instead of going through an established company. Was that the plan from the beginning?
Carruth: I think it was always in the back of my head, especially since so much of a film's audience and revenue now comes from the digital realm and that part of the equation is a lot easier to solver than it used to be. After that, it's just the challenge of theatrical. Last summer, I came to New York and started talking to people and figured out what it might cost and those conversations went really well. Before long, it looked like it was actually possible, just a lot of work. The benefit of that work is that all of the marketing that's going to contextualize this film is going to come from the filmmakers. We are going to continue storytelling by showing people what to expect. My goal is not to make every last dollar I can make -- my goal is to make sure people receive the film in the proper context and I believe that's a different goal than what you see from a typical distributor. I'm still locked in that mode where I feel theatrical legitimizes a film in some way. I'm really surprised we're booked into 50 theaters right now. I don't know what I expected, but that seems pretty good for a distribution company that didn't exist up until a few months ago. I'm amazed by that, that it's actually possible and that people seem to be receptive to it. Typically, if a film plays at Sundance, it wouldn't think of coming out theatrically until it played every possible festival it could throughout the year. I didn't necessarily think that was correct. When I'm in the suburbs and hear about some film coming out at Sundance, I've been trained to not care because I know that I won't see it for a year. With Upstream Color, it's completely different. It comes into awareness and within a matter of a couple months, it's everywhere.
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