SXSW Interview: Shane Carruth on ‘Upstream Color’ and The Future of Film

By  · Published on March 13th, 2013

Upstream Color isn’t for everyone, a fact that writer/director/star/composer/producer/co-financer/editor/whatever-other-production-job-is-out-there Shane Carruth is quite aware of and wants people to know. To go about doing so, Carruth is handling the marketing himself, making it more a part of the story, rather than a selling tool.

The Primer director went to great lengths to make Upstream Color, as shown by the extensive amount of credits he has on the movie. That behind-the-scenes ambition shows onscreen, something Rob Hunter and most critics agree with. The movie has a normal three act structure, but what Carruth does with that old formula is to tell the usual connective tissue and key moments through music, cinematography, and silence, instead of blaring exposition.

Carruth spoke to us about his lyrical style, Upstream Color’s narrative, and why there’s no Chaos Theory speech from Jeff Goldblum in the movie:

Looking at this and Primer, they never feel like they’re willfully difficult. When you are writing the script, do you think about how an audience would respond to this or do you just let it all come out naturally?

No, absolutely. That’s part of the job. Storytelling wouldn’t be storytelling if it didn’t have both halves. I can pretend to be an auteur and I’ve got to do this exploration and this subtextual thing, and that’s all great. But if that’s all it is that’s not storytelling. It’s also got to be compelling for an audience moment by moment. These are the two things that are the necessary ingredients. So yeah, I’m always thinking that. I would never do something that would willfully bore or be ponderous or any of that stuff.

There are moments in the film that, in a really crass way, that really slow down. But they slow down in a very purposeful time amidst a bunch of cuts and noise and a lot of activity. I mean if you look at the timeline on the film there’s like 1,800 cuts. But if you look at it, there’s these 90 second sections that are spaced throughout that are just like long, long takes. I think you earn the ability to do that by making sure not to waste a millisecond of time anywhere else.

In an interview close to Primer’s release you said you didn’t look at it first as a science fiction movie; it just came from theme. Was it the same approach here?

Yeah. I kept the idea of personal narratives and personal identities and how they work. It started in a very benign way. I just felt like every conversation I was having with people was…like, if it was about some political story of the day, it’s like they were bringing their talking points and I was bringing mine, and we were mashing them up one for one. And it didn’t feel like we were really talking. It was just like, “Oh, you watch that channel and I watch this channel, so now we’re just making our notes.”

That’s not where it ended, but that’s sort of where it started. The idea that we’re just all walking around representing our identities I wanted to explore. I wanted to break that down and I wanted to strip some characters of that and have them rebuild that potentially with the wrong information and then explore what kind of tension would exist when somebody is living out something that they suspect is wrong.

I think as that got bigger and bigger and it stopped being about politics and it started being about everything, not just religion, not just scientific beliefs, but like all identity, everything that you could subjectively know about yourself or the world, it got really emotional, like thinking about that, because that’s a big deal. I think that’s when it tripped into a romance, because having a couple characters that are just that bottom is…there couldn’t be a more romantic premise for me than people that are just destroyed and suspect that there’s some other way that things should be.

Last night my editor said he doesn’t think an audience so much watches your films as they feel them. I think a large part of that comes from not a lot of spoken exposition. Was that a very conscious decision early on?

Yes it is, although the difficulty to every answer to all of these questions is really nuance, so I can go either way. I absolutely do not like exposition. It feels to me like every time I need it, it seems like there must be some other way to get around this. We cannot have this scene where Jeff Goldbloom explains Chaos Theory. We cannot do that.

So I’m always trying to find a way around it. With this story, because so much is nonverbal, and at a distance, and suspicions, and mania, and emotion without being able to point at what they are, that just, in my mind, makes it even more important that I can’t have characters talk about what’s going on.

You asked a simple question, whether it was always that way, and I would say 80% of it was always that way. The script probably had a line or two in it that would technically have been exposition, and those were excised out once the visual language started to really develop.

Can you give me an example of a line or two that you cut?

I can. This is dangerous territory because I don’t believe in deleted scenes. There was a bit of dialogue where the Sampler sort of explains the process that he’s going to put her through, that she’s going to be drinking this mixture that is going to force this worm out of her. I took that out just because everything else was…The things that are happening on screen are happening on screen. Like we’re watching them happen. If we see that she’s taking a drink and we see that it’s part of the process, to me that’s enough. Let’s just get on to the stuff that we want to get to. So I cut that out.

So a fair amount of what to say and what not to say comes out of editing?

It’s everywhere, because that’s the thing. It can be in the writing process, it can be in editing, it can be in production. This is what’s been happening, but I haven’t had to verbalize it until recently. But basically, I think if film is going to be…if it’s going to reach the height of what it can do…and I don’t think we’re done by a longshot. I’m not interested in trying to figure out 3D or virtual reality or any of the other ways to experience narrative. I think we’re fine with the tools that we have. I don’t think it’s nearly reached its height. I think what it has to do is stop pretending that it’s books that we can watch and it’s got to be something else. I don’t know what the words are for that something else, but I sort of know where the edges are.

For that to happen, it’s got to have a really strong architecture, like the story, the plot, the subtext. It’s all got to be there. If you took those elements out and put them in another medium, they would still be there and it would hopefully still be successful. But with film, defining that I hope can be lyrical. I hope we can use all the tools of visual language and music and sound to sort of swim around with the architecture. If the filmmakers know it well enough, if they’ve internalized it well enough, then we should be able to…you know, in the same way that you could play your musical instrument and you know a piece of music so well, you should be able to play with it in performance and recognize that if there’s a two minute avenue where I can just go with the string section and do something really interesting but, still, it’s thematically true, then I should do that. It can’t be made up just to be made up. It’s got to stay true to the…Anyway, I’m all over the place.

No, I hear you. Even with the lyrical nature of the film, looking at it as a whole, the movie does go from point A to point B, story-wise. Are there narrative conventions that you do follow in your head?

Well, this may be one of those things where I actually don’t have a lot of experience doing what I try to do. I do typically everything in isolation. I don’t read books on how to write screenplays just because I’m stubborn. So it’s all sort of made up. So I don’t know what I would fall back on as a crutch. But I don’t know. I’m sure there’s something there.

So there are no famous narrative devices you like to use?

Oh, yeah. I know that I’m starting to recognize that I like to develop little plot experiment devices in the story. It doesn’t start there, but I’m recognizing that as part of the thing that would hopefully make a story compelling to introduce some mechanism that we have to sort of explain… like in Upstream Color there is this mechanism for this life cycle or Orchid Pig worms, and all of that had to be developed in a way that met some threshold in my mind that made it balanced. You know, the three points in the triangle, they can’t know about each other. There’s all this criteria that developed in my head that they needed to follow.

And so, that’s not necessarily subtextual.What we care most about is our characters and that they are being affected at a distance. And so, like in this new story I’m writing, it deals with a lot of stuff. But it’s large sums of money have to be transferred in a way that…I sort of refuse to let it be the thing where somebody is at a computer terminal typing away and we’re meant to care.

Because of that and because of 10 other reason, I’m developing a fake form of finance, of bank transfers. It’s just different and it involves a big room and a clearinghouse and people that have to walk around with certain bits of paper and get time stamping. It’s a whole process. And that sounds horrible and boring, but I really think in the film itself it’s going to be really compelling and it won’t be somebody sitting at a computer terminal. So I know that that happens. I know that’s a crutch. I should not have said that…

[Laughs] I don’t mind.

No, no. It’s fine.

I want to end on your thoughts on the future of cinema. You and Edward Burns are really showing the advantage of online and playing to your fanbase, as well as just going out and actually making it yourself. Do you see yourself sticking to that model?

I do now.

Why’s that?

Because once I started going down this road, it became clear to me, and I don’t know why it didn’t before, that if I can make every decision, if I can cut my own trailers, if I can do the poster, if I can handle the way that the story is met by the audience or what they know about it, that’s contextualizing it. It’s a continuation of storytelling. It’s like picking the opening title sequence, if you were to have one. You are still delivering information. And I don’t…It’s too much fun right now. Not fun, but it’s part of the story now. So I wouldn’t hand that over to anybody and expect them to…You know, here’s us. We’re a bunch of filmmakers. We made this thing. We know how to do storytelling really well, but then in the last 5% we’re like, “Oh, we don’t know. You figure out how to sell it.”

That can be the most crucial part, though.

Yeah. Well, that’s the thing, is like I’ve got a different goal than a distributor. I’m not here to make every last dollar I can make. I’m here to make sure that the people that would receive a work like this knows that it exists. But I don’t want everybody knowing, because I’m just going to piss people off.

It’s definitely not made for everybody.

Yeah. We’ve all seen this throughout the years.

The Tree of Life is probably the best recent example.

Is it?

I remember hearing about walkouts and theaters putting up signs saying “no refunds” for it.

Yeah. No, you are right. I heard that, too. I’ve heard stories about movies that are really maybe difficult and really dramatic and good, but they are being sold as romantic comedies. All it’s going to do is just…that’s hurting the work, because that just makes it impossible for anyone to see it correctly.

Anyways, yes. So I would never give that up.

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Upstream Color opens in limited release and VOD on April 5th.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.