Interview: Shane Carruth Unravels the Meaning of ‘Upstream Color’

By  · Published on May 7th, 2013

Shane Carruth’s sophomore effort Upstream Color, which was released on DVD and Blu-ray yesterday, is easily one of the most interesting and unique films of 2013. This story of modern alienation from the director of Primer has been met with competing interpretations, lavish praise, genuine confusion, and (most importantly) a great deal of discussion.

I spoke with Carruth about the film, and here’s what he had to say about Thoreau’s “Walden,” the difficult relationship between mathematics and filmmaking, and picking up pebbles in search of pigs.

Others have described Upstream Color as an abstract film, and I find that strange because it seems to be a film that concretizes certain things that have created distances between us in contemporary society. Is this something you were going for? Were you trying to find a way to connect images to these contemporary feelings?

Yeah. Basically I needed to strip the central character of her narrative and make her sort of a raw nerve so that she can be in constant curiosity and affected at a distance that she couldn’t speak to. That was the core of all of it. I guess that angst that you’re talking about ‐ yes, that was a kernel.

I’m curious about how you took those grand ideals and made them into something material. I’m thinking in particular about worms, pigs, and Walden. How did these specific things come together to convey this greater message?

Well, once I knew I was going to be having characters wake up in a moment that they can’t quite explain what it is they’ve done and how it is they did what they did, and they have to adopt some new version of themselves, I needed a construct to make that happen. I think there’s a lot of ways to do that, but they all seemed too specific to me. I wanted something more universal. I didn’t want a story that people would walk away from and say, “Oh, that’s about a certain religion” or “That’s about the pharmaceutical industry” or “That’s about…Cold War angst” or something. It needed to be universal.

For me, that meant it’s got to feel permanent and in the world we exist in, not some foreign thing that’s been injected. It’s got to feel cyclical and just outside our normal experience. And that’s why it had to go into the natural world.

And once it’s there ‐ there’s a lot of other criteria in my head that it had to fit. I don’t want it to be conspiratorial. I don’t want it managed by somebody or some thing or some intelligence. What I want is something that just exists and carries forward on its own volition. So I came up with this life cycle where you have these three groups of people: the thief, the sampler, and the orchid harvesters. I wanted them separate, and I wanted them performing their little tricks in nature that somehow benefit them. But they don’t actually know or care about the next person in the cycle or the next part of the cycle.

And to me that means it’s not part of a managed process, it’s something that just continues. That was important. But the specifics you’re talking about ‐ the worms and the pigs and all that ‐ to be honest, there’s a lot of information that goes into why those things are picked, but more or less, they’re trying to satisfy what I’ve laid out: it’s got to be a cycle, and it’s got to exist in the natural world.

Speaking of representing the natural world, I’m curious about one particular symbols in your film: Thoreau’s “Walden.” How did that initially come into play? Did you have a relationship to this text going in? Why choose that book?

Basically, because I’ve got this plot set in the natural world, I needed a piece of literature that Kris would be forced to rewrite page by page. That was what was really important. That “menial tasks” section of the film where she’s being processed, that was what was truly important, and I needed a piece of literature [to go with it]. With “Walden,” I had experienced it in high school, and it didn’t leave a great impression on me, as I really wasn’t open to literature at the time.

So I picked it, and it turns out there’s a lot of coincidental language in it that matches up with the plot, so we just keyed up anything that could be in common between the two. Especially in that fugue state near the end, where she’s swimming in the pool and performing that ritual of picking up the pebbles in search for the piglets, for her to be repeating at length, she can only repeat what she’s been imprinted with and that’s “Walden.” So for her to be speaking lines that have somehow to do with her experience (“a menagerie of his wild beasts,” “the sun is but a morning star”), all of these things have some relevance to the rest of Upstream. So it seemed to be an appropriate thing to be doing.

I’m struck by some connections between Primer and Upstream Color. Both are esoteric and particular in their own ways. Each employ a particular language, either aural or visual. And it’s a difficult language, but it’s not inscrutable. And in Primer, it’s largely dialogue-based, but here the connections are made visually. There’s almost no dialogue in the last half hour of this film. What was the transition for you in moving from a dialogue-based means of storytelling to telling a story through visuals and juxtaposition?

To be honest, I did not think about Primer for a second while making this. And I know it makes sense to look at both of them and look for connections. And at first, I was just rejecting that there was any connection whatsoever, but now I have to admit that things have been brought to my attention that I can’t deny anymore. But in the making of this, I was never consciously rejecting Primer like, “that film was about mundane dialogue that accumulated in these little bits of information that adds up to something, so now let’s do the opposite ‐ all visuals and no dialogue.”

It was just that, when I thought of this story, where we have characters that aren’t able to speak about the mania and hysteria and emotional state that they’re being forced through, that necessarily meant that we’ve got to be communicating their subjective experience some other way. Everything has got to ramp up from music to visuals to soundscapes to everything. And I guess that’s really the only thing I was thinking. So I guess there is a connection, but I don’t know if I can speak intelligently about it.

What it sounds like is that the types of stories Primer and Upstream Color are require different means in order to serve those stories.


You do everything on this film. You write, edit, star in, shoot, etc. What was your experience working in all these capacities to execute this particular vision?

The experience was…control freak, as usual. I’m a logjam, and I have a very specific idea of what it is I’m looking for. If I had more resources, I would have tried to hire somebody. So it just needed to be done. And then, I don’t know, I do this thing where I get invested in something, whether it be music or photography, and before long I just feel like “Well, that’s it, it’s cemented now.” So if I force somebody through this, it’s going to frustrate them, because all I’m going to be doing is telling people how to do it how I want it: “I want that light over here.”

It’s something I’m embracing from this one forward. I still need departments. I still need a camera and lighting department. I still need help with music and stuff. But as far as leading those departments, I’m just going to embrace that and just be a control freak basically.

Do you feel your background in mathematics lends itself in significant ways to filmmaking or are they just two completely different fields?

I get asked this question a lot, and it’s tough because I know I was formed by my love of math and how beautiful it is and how pristine it can be and how it does build confidence that any problem can be torn apart and put back together with any diligence and hard work and creative thinking. Whether for good or bad, I know that informs me. There’s something about it. There’s an aesthetic to it that’s hard to verbalize. When something is beautiful in math, everything is just perfectly lined up, and you see through sheer though that something really beautiful can take place. That does inform narrative. But we might be talking about things that are really difficult to put into words.

Upstream Color is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

To read more of FSR’s coverage on the film, you can check out Rob’s rave review, Jack’s extended interview, or my ill-advised analysis of the film.