It’s been a long while since filmmaker Shane Carruth introduced himself to the independent scene with his critically-acclaimed science fiction mind-bender “Primer,” which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004. Nine years later, Carruth, as beautifully abstract of a storyteller as ever, gives audiences his second film, “Upstream Color,” a fascinating drama, which he also stars in, about a young woman who is abducted and infected with a mind-altering worm. Later, the woman meets a man on a train who might also have experienced the same kind of bizarre kidnapping.
During an interview at the South by Southwest Film Festival this past March, Carruth talked about what he hopes audiences take from a film he considers “divisive” and how the script organically formed as he wrote it.
“Upstream Color” is now available on Netflix and DVD/Blu-ray.
As a filmmaker, how does it feel to hear someone say they probably need to see your film a couple more times before they can honestly say they were able to fully grasp every nuance you examined?
I definitely don’t count it as a negative. My hope is that people have an emotional experience the first time through and that they understand the mechanics of the world and how they work. I hope they’ve been instilled with some confidence that there is something worthwhile to explore in it. As an audience member, the thing I appreciate the most are films I can revisit and see more depth each time. The hope is that it’s not so taxing and actually enjoyable to revisit a time or two. I know that’s how I am with my favorite films. I’ll just put them on and let them stay on a loop. I’ll treat them more like an album instead of a movie.
Was it a conscious decision going into writing this film that you would be asking a lot of your audience or was it more of an organic process that kept sprouting more roots?
Oh, wow. I knew something about it as I was writing it. I have to admit there was more and more that came to be because I was writing the music, the score, at the same time I was writing the script. Those were informing each other. Then we started creating the visual language and how it was going to work. There’s a lot involved. All the different storytelling elements start having a conversation with one another. This is a story about people being affected at a distance. They’re experiencing different things like attraction and disgust, but they can’t point to why they’re experiencing these things. Those are events that are happening off screen that are somehow provoking them. They can’t even speak to what those things are or the fact that it’s happening. If we start talking about this in dialogue, we’re going to break the spell. I’m not really sure where that happened, but it was gradual.
Not everyone is going to come up with the same meaning behind “Upstream Color,” which makes films like this such a breath of fresh air in my opinion. Do do you hope viewers try to dissect and find a significant meaning for them or is it enough that they watched it, thought it was like nothing they have ever seen before, but can admit they had no idea what was going on at times?
It’s hard to talk about this. The film is always going to be divisive because it’s trying something different, so some people are going to key into that early. I think those people will judge it based on what it’s trying to do. It’s not going to quite meet other people’s expectations. They’re probably not going to react well. But I always thought it would be divisive up front. What I think is interesting are bad reviews. I love reading them. There haven’t been a lot of them, but I do seek them out. What I’m finding out is if someone says, “Oh, this is too obscure, it’s too opaque” they will typically go and explain the plot beat by beat and do a really great job of it. Then I’m left to wonder, “What was so obscure or opaque about this?” I don’t think the answer is “the plot.” I think the meaning of it is nuanced. It does require drawing in the audience instead of broadcasting something out. If somebody is interested in having this experience, then great. If they’re not, then maybe we’ll catch up with one another in a few years.
There is this very bizarre link between man and animal, in this case the pig, in this film. Talk a little about that specific aspect of the film and why you decided to make that connection.
I wanted to embed the story in nature. I wanted to feel like it had been there a long time and remain cyclical. There is a plot link. I picked pigs because they’re physiologically so similar to humans. We transfer so many of the same diseases. They’re also brought up so much in our culture – whether it’s Christ casting out demons into a herd of pigs or [George] Orwell in “Animal Farm.” Pigs are not attractive. Nothing about them is something you’d want. To have a corral of them sitting around ready to be sampled for an emotional experience seemed to be appropriate.
Connection, of course, is one of the main themes I found in the film. Because no one makes films in the industry like you do and because you seem to be doing this on your own to some degree, do you feel connected to the film industry or do you feel like an outsider?
I don’t feel connected. I think we’re experiencing an interesting moment in [filmmaking] where I can do it and be far outside of it. I don’t try to burn [the industry] down, but I don’t know how to make storytelling work within those confines. I need to figure it out some other way.
Is writer Henry David Thoreau someone you read yourself since he is referenced in the film?
It’s really interesting. I hadn’t read Thoreau since high school and I didn’t like it back then. I mean, I understood it but I didn’t think I needed to spend so much time reading about transcendentalism and the minutia of life and isolation. I picked [“Walden”] for the film because I needed someone to be writing and rewriting from it. I wanted to pick a book that I thought would never ever wake them up from their suggested state. I wanted something really boring and dry. The fact it was about the natural world was good, too, because my little cycle I built was very much about soil and worms and water and life. But I didn’t realize how very fitting it was until I really started looking at it for bits of prose. That’s when I started looking at the book and realized there are these bizarre coincidences.
How important is it to you as a filmmaker to be distinct? Like if I told you “Upstream Color” reminded me of another film I enjoyed, would you take that as a compliment or not?
I’m not going out of my way to be completely different than anything else. I do believe the film is different. I do believe it’s a new ambition, but I don’t believe it’s a rejection of everything else. I feel like I found a silver mine and I want to pursue it.