Interview: Shane Carruth, 'Upstream Color'

Upstream Color Q&A at Sundance

On Friday, the movie Upstream Color opened in Austin and is currently screening at Violet Crown Cinema and Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter.

While at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, I sat down for a conversation about the film with writer/director Shane Carruth, pictured above with producer Casey Gooden, production designer Tom Walker and editor David Lowery. This psychological science-fiction narrative is Carruth's long-awaited second feature.

Carruth also stars in the film with Amy Seimetz as a couple reluctantly brought together by forces of nature and fate beyond their control. Together they must piece together their lives and come to an understanding of their connection to one another and other people.

Slackerwood: You premiered Upstream Color at Sundance. How was the premiere screening and Q&A?

Shane Carruth: The first time the public saw this film, it was in a large theater so I had a little anxiety. I start to think there must be some sort of skill or technique to this (Q&A) and I need to practice or something. The reality is that once you get into it, as long as I've done my work -- as long as I know the film -- then typically it's not the worst thing in the world to just have to talk about it.

It's been awhile since your first film, Primer -- can you talk about the journey to the screen for Upstream Color?

Carruth: I wasted a bunch of time trying to do this other bigger thing that I couldn't get financed. So this film actually happened pretty fast. I'd been accumulating notes for it for a long time, so when I made the decision that I was going to drop everything and make this, I think that I had the script done in about three months, and then just pointed at a date and said, "we're shooting then." It was actually pretty fast. The time in between was just me coming to understand that there is no common ground between me and traditional film finance.

It only took you three months to write the script?

Carruth: I say that I wrote it in three months, but I guess that does bely the fact that I was accumulating notes for years before I just sat down with it and took all the bits that were important and made them cohesive.

It was a journey too after that, the way the aesthetic meets the story and I let that affect the story and let it be a conversation back and forth. The way that the film works changed just the tiniest bit. The story itself is exactly the same, but the atmospheric bit in the middle and then where it goes in the end, where we are in a world of almost complete subtext - a lot of that had to do with just coming to understand the execution and the aesthetic of it and how everything had to be tactile in some way. It's a process, it's hard to talk about.

What was your inspiration for the theme of Upstream Color?

Carruth: I was really interested in how people come to their own identities, and how they are shaped, and whether there's anything that can be done about that, or once that's done free will may or may not be there anymore. It may be your identity speaking and no free speaking.

I wanted to take some characters and bring them low and break them down, and have them have to build this back up. To wake up at some moment and not understand how it is that they got there and how to explain it with the evidence around them -- and they'll probably get it wrong.

That was step one, and then figure out the mechanism for how that would happen and that the mechanism needed to be hopefully mythological or otherworldly. It needed to satisfy a whole bunch of things that are difficult to to verbalize but it felt like that it needed to feel like a cycle that had been going on forever in perpetuity and in the natural world in some way. One thing led to another.
Upstream Color Still Photo Jeff
What do you think about the various interpretations of Upstream Color?

Carruth: Narrative necessarily is going to be something that has to be wrestled with in some way, I think that has to be the point -- or else why? If there's some exploration to be done, you could write a very dry doctoral thesis that would spell everything out, and try to make a logical case for going this way or that. It would be a horrible experience to read that. If you had to write a story that has absolutely nothing in its mind -- but it was action-packed second by second -- that's horrible too, because what's the point of that?

The idea has been forever since the creation of narrative that you take a little of both, and you make it compelling and make it substantial as far as the exploration goes. That's what this is really trying to be. But I think when you do that, it has to be turned over a bit in the mind of the viewer. That has to be part of it, or it's not a rich experience.

It's not meant to be this abstract thing that different people look at and get different things. But it is something that I know will happen initially, because this is the beginning of the conversation. This is a new thing, and it is aspiring to something slightly different than I think what people are used to.

I feel very confident that it will eventually become clear what the aspirations are that the film has. Some people are getting it immediately, some are not. I believe if someone has a less than positive opinion, it's potentially because they want it to be this animal, but it's this one over here. I know that this happens with me, there's pieces of music I listen to and they don't do what I needed them to do, and I dismiss them. Then I'll hear the music again, and realize that they had something else going on. Then I come to understand that I can judge this, but I've got to judge it based on what it's trying to do -- not what I thought it was going to do.

I think that's what this is, this is the beginning of the conversation. I'm confident that it will eventually be clear what the exploration and intent is.

Upstream Color Still Photo Pigs at Night

The following question is a potential spoiler.

Your character Jeff specifically had to rebuild his identity, and help Kris with her recovery. Can you speak about that?

Carruth: They are connected to these pigs, and these pigs are connected to these other pigs in this sort of corral, and there's this sort of communion that's happening there. I guess what I thought of it was these pigs are in this corral and they are connected to humans in the city or somewhere else. We've got these unique situation where Kris and Jeff somehow came into proximity to each another.

That's what's happening that's relatively novel here -- that doesn't typically happen and so they come close to each other and there's this attraction because their pigs are attracted but they're not organically into it. They probably wouldn't if their pigs weren't forcing them to act in this way from off-screen, they probably wouldn't enjoy each other's company.

There's a lot of tension because of that, so the shared memories bit -- it's like they are too intertwined. They don't know where one ends, and the other begins. It's both a positive and potentially a manic thing. I wanted to see that and there was something about that, that feels universal.

Like being in an intimate relationship with somebody, it does feel like that sometimes. It does feel like "Can't I have some ownership of something, without it always being something that's shared?" That's too literal, but theres something that is important and universal and I wanted to see that.

[Photo credit: Upstream Color Q&A at Sundance, courtesy of Sundance Institute]