The last time Shane Carruth was at Sundance in 2004, he brought his first film Primer, a movie about four corporate engineers who construct a scientifically-sound time-machine in the garage after-hours and proceed to experiment with time-jumping for profit. It cost only $7,000 to make, but it didn’t look or feel like it was made in someone’s garage, even though Carruth wrote, directed, produced, cast, scored, edited, provided sound and production design, and, oh yes, starred in the movie. It quickly became the buzzy must-see at that year’s festival, and it went home with the Grand Jury Prize.
Carruth hasn’t been stuck in a time loop since then, but it took nine years for him to deliver his second film, Upstream Color, which premiered at Sundance yesterday. In this surreal romantic-thriller that evokes the visual and acoustic stylings of Stanley Kubrick, a woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) is abducted by thieves and implanted with a parasite that places her in a state of almost hypnotic compliance. When she recovers, with no real memory of what occurred, her life collapses. Until she meets Jeff (Carruth), who’s drawn to her for some reason he can’t explain. Together, they try to piece together their lives even as the universe seems to be conspiring against them.
Carruth was again a multi-hyphenate on Upstream Color, and this time, he’s even taken the next step and is supervising distribution as well. His movie will open in theaters on April 5 in New York at the IFC Center before expanding to other markets. He spoke to EW about his new movie and personifying the Sundance ethos.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The acoustics of Upstream Color are extremely unique and creative. Not only are there vital sound cues throughout, but the silences are equally important. In fact, there’s practically no dialog in the last third of the film. Were you conscious of that when you started?
SHANE CARRUTH: No, I don’t think that I was, and I’m not proud of not knowing that. The first third is almost a conventional thriller — not really, because nothing about the movie is conventional — but if it just went on like that another 90 minutes, it would be a sci-fi type thing and that would be that. But all of it is setting up these rigid plot elements, and then the middle third sort of takes a left turn, when it gets into the implications of what we’ve seen of a relationship on a more intimate level and a more psychological level. It becomes very lyrical and experiential, where everything that the music is doing and everything that the camera is doing, and the performances are meant to almost be completely subjective. We almost stop watching it from an objective point of view, and we start getting into it. And then the last third, everything reduces. We’re in a sparse white room, we’re in a pool, we’re not even saying words, we’re quoting lines from Walden. Nothing about narrative is there except for the follow-through on what we’ve seen. We’re now just looking at it bare. And that’s what that last third felt like, so that’s why the dialog goes away. I think in the original script, there was a bit of a conversation between the abductees, but I guess it occurred to me that I feel like I can do a better job cutting the dialog out and letting the music play. I’ll get to the same point but I’ll get to it in a more subjective, emotional, hopefully musical way, instead of a precise here’s-how-our-story-ends way.
You’ve said that All the President’s Men and The Limey were two films that you watched back in the days of making Primer. Were they any particular films that you absorbed during the making of Upstream?
I’m so scared to answer this because I can absolutely tell you what I was watching the year that I was writing this. But I really do wonder whether it’s connective at all. I know on a loop I had Vivre Sa Vie, The Hustler, which is one my favorites, and Lawrence of Arabia. I love the concept of the romance that exists when people are broken. Like, the promise of a romance when you’re at the bottom. I think that’s infinitely compelling and romantic. Maybe I wanted to have a bit of that from The Hustler, but I don’t know.
Back in 2004, Primer was the big winner at Sundance. And then for a long time, your followup was supposed to be something else.
When did Upstream jump in front of Topiary.
About a year and a half ago. I really invested myself in Topiary and spent years working on a lot of the production elements of how to do an effects workflow that I thought would meet the aesthetic that I really wanted. I probably spent a year doing meetings off and on out in L.A., and it was becoming a real quicksand situation. I really had a lot of enthusiasm and was pretending like it was continuing to go forward, but the reality was that was nothing was happening. I guess I got to the point where I think my heart got broke on it. If I had to try to convince one more person that [the movie] is marketable or commercial when I’m looking at it and know it is, I’m just going to [quit it].
Along the same time, I started to have these story elements that were coming together that became Upstream Color, and I got really, really passionate about it. And the more I looked at it, the more I saw it in the terms of, “This is something I can go do, and I don’t have to ask anybody for permission.” In fact, I can just do it here and I don’t even have to go tell anybody that I’m doing it. So that’s what I did.
I’m sure after Primer, you were given opportunities to make movies with bigger budgets, and were offered a peek behind the curtain, so to speak, in terms of how the industry operates. What did you see during that experience that pointed you in this direction?
As far as distribution?
It really comes down to the fact that it’s possible to go out theatrically and then go out digitally a month later. Like we’re booked in over 20 North American markets right now, and we just came to Sundance. And we hope to be in even more by the time we get to April and hopefully have a good roll-out. I guess the thing is it’s possible, and then once I realized it was possible, that means a bunch of other things. That means I’m not talking to anybody about what kind of teasers and trailers I’m going to release. I’m not asking permission for a poster. I don’t have a contract that says I have “reasonably consultation,” I think, is the phrase. I just do it — we do it. That process of going down this road and contextualizing the film exactly the way that I think it needs to be seen, I don’t think I could ever give that up. It’s just too valuable. So realizing that was the case, that was the final nail in the coffin.
So you don’t expect to be working in the studio system anytime soon?
I don’t think that I’m going to get any financing from the conventional sources. There’s not a lot of common ground between what I need to do to make a film and what they need me to do. So that means that any revenue I generate from a film is directly connected to my ability to make the next one. So it becomes really important to me that this is a financial successful thing.
At a place like Sundance, you’re kind of the personification of what they’re trying to do here in a lot of ways. Do you get a sense that filmmakers are looking at you as — I don’t want to say a beacon — but as someone who has answers?
Yeah, but I want that. I’m not the first. I mean, Detropia, by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, they did this as well. They raised money on Kickstarter. They hired a theater booker — who is the same guy that I hired – and I’m completely inspired by what they’ve done. And I’m sure maybe they’re inspired by whatever group was before them. And it’s possible — I guess that’s what it comes down to. From a completely financial standpoint, digital is starting to crack as far as an independent filmmaker’s access to getting your story out there – Amazon, iTunes, all of those. It makes the prospect of doing it yourself — not easy by any means — but possible, maybe for the first time. It’s not for everybody, but it’s just too compelling to turn away from right now.
I couldn’t help but notice that you did receive a shout-out on Looper, Rian Johnson’s time-travel movie with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Was that for a consultancy on the science of time-travel?
Rian is smarter than I am, so there’s no such thing as me consulting him. He’s a good friend and was really nice to show me the script. He had seen some of my effects tests on Topiary, and wanted something set apart from anything we’d seen before that would show the way people’s memories come in and out of being erased. He had seen my effects test and thought maybe there was a way to make this happen. So we spent some time investigating that, but that’s about it. He’s great.
You made us wait nine years for your second film. You’re not going to make us wait another nine years for the next one, are you?
That’s the hope. I’m writing right now. I think I’m close to done, and I want to be shooting soon, mainly because I think something happened on Upstream Color where there’s a language that came to be, and I’m not done with it. I can’t wait to get back into it and push it further and further.
Is this The Modern Ocean?
Yes, it is a tragic romance at sea in the world of commodities trading… with pirates, repo-men, ships at war, everything. It’s going to be fun.