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Interview: Shane Carruth of 'Upstream Color,' Part 2

On self-distribution, self-reliance, color & light and much more ...

By James Rocchi Apr 4, 2013 6:15PM

In part one of our interview with "Upstream Color" writer-director-star-distributor Shane Carruth, we talked about the film's moody metaphysics and strange science. In this second part, Carruth talks about his approach to camerawork, mind control, "All the President's Men," his never-made what-could-have-been film "A Topiary" and much, much more. We spoke with Carruth at the Sundance Film Festival. 

MSN Movies: One of the things that's easy to love about "Primer," which I read in The New York Times interview you had very early on, was that was a big inspiration for the cinematography was "All the President's Men."


Oh, yeah.


Which is a movie I can watch the heck out of.




Was there anything you were thinking of for the pallette of this? And also, you have to think about the palette pretty carefully when the word "color" is in your title?


(Laughs) Yeah, exactly. I know that I am influenced by so many things. I don’t know specifically what it would be. I know that there was a lot of time and effort spent into building this aesthetic. I mean long before we were in production, (there was time spent on the question) of what it would look like and how things would be framed and the sort of language. And then once we started shooting it changed a bit there, too. I don’t know. There's so many shots of hands in this movie. And it's because we're talking about people that are in search of something they cant quite get to, they can't name, they can't speak about it intelligently, but it is something in them that's haunting. And the way that we understand the world is this (holds up hands), with our hands and our fingers, and everything's very tactile. That's how we come to know things. And because of that, I think that dictates the cinematography and the way it's shot has to have some, I don’t know if naturalism is the word, but it's got to feel tactile.


Concrete, yet ethereal.




There's also this thematic thing of blue with great moments of emotional connection, or themes expressed in brown sweaters on what are pig-like days.


(Nods) There we go.

 Bing: More on Shane Carruth


I mean, do you think about ... how that kind of humanity and realism may be the only reason to do these kind of weird sci-fi riffs?


It starts with an exploration of something. This one's about building up your own personal narrative, and coming to have an identity that says you deserve this or you deserve that or somebody else deserves certain treatment from you or you have a philosophical belief or a way of, you know, everything we think of as our identity. And once that comes to be, that's the thing that's dictating what we're saying and behaving. So is it identity that dictates behavior or behavior that dictates identity? And so breaking this apart and letting them build it back up, that's the exploration of this. And so when it comes to narrative in my mind that's the highest purpose of this --  not to have a morality tale, not to just titillate, but to explore. And if I could come up with that exploration in a paragraph, then it's probably not worth exploring. I think it's only if it requires some time to meditate and to turn over and you can create a narrative that allows people to do that -- that's what these things are. That's what these narratives are.


What was the a-to-b, start to finish script-to-film timeline on this?


Well, some of these story elements were sort of accumulating and I was definitely, ... like everything I just talked about with this exploration of personal narrative, that was something that kept recurring just in life. You know -- you're having a conversation with people and you're like, "Am I talking to them or am I talking to a series of talking points that they got on their cable?"


Their programming.


Yes, exactly. And that just continued to happen, and I started to think about it in really emotional terms, because it does seem to get right to the heart of how much control we have over the things that we think or say or do.  And I don’t know. So I had these story elements, I knew I was going to be doing, knew what I was going to be exploring, and it sort of came together pretty quickly considering, 'cause I typically take forever to write. And I think this was written in something like three months.






Is it crazy that the only movie I can think of to compare this to, one of the first I thought of was "Internal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"?


I mean, I think that's...


Not unless you hate it and you want to flip the table over on me. But that comparison is in terms of how you have a pseudo-scientific idea, you've run the whole film through it, in order to actually have  terms of like you have an idea, ran through it, we're going to have this really touching exploration of what it means to love, dot dot dot.


No, not at all. Well ... Charlie Kaufman is a genius, and I'm way too humbled to even think that it's the same. Yeah, I don’t know what to say, yeah. 


The other thing I wanted to ask is, is it wrong to see a little bit of Buddhism in the film?




In that people always say they get the whole Buddha thing, "It's all good," when really what it should be is, "It's all suffering," or "It'll all be suffering until you give up on what makes you suffer."




And I'm wondering if some of that is what these characters' emotional journeys are about.


Yeah, I mean the thing is it's ... I hope it's more universal than that. Because of this that, the central bit here is that we're talking about people that are affected by things happening at a distance or off-screen. And I think, you know, all religions are a version of that. They're a version of trying to explain what's happening right now today in this space because of something that's happening far away. And so that feeling, that nag(ging feeling), that says there's something else afoot here ... I think that's universal. And I think that's what's on the film's mind, really


Is it wrong to admire the elegance of The Thief's "programming language" when he uses the film's device to control his victims? When he keeps people from entering or leaving certain rooms by saying the floor will or won't support their weight, or that they can't look at him due to his 'disfigurement' where his head is made of the same material as the sun ...


Yup, yup, yup, well said. No, absolutely. That's the hope.


Is it wrong that maybe I want Marvel comics to call you to finally make a good superhero film, with that kind of really smart approach to the pseudo-scientific elements?


(Laughs). Yeah. No, I mean (the Thief) definitely has a very specific voice. And I would explain to Thiago, the actor that this is a guy who has done this countless times, and this is a language that's been perfected thousands of times, and it doesn't mean anything to him. It's completely rote, and he's found a way to manipulate efficiently and he's seen it a thousand times. He's completely competent in it, and there isn't any ... there's no arguments. There's no persuasion in the way that he speaks, 'cause he has all power.


And the whole things of making the Christmas lanyards out of rolled papers where characters have hand-copied pages of Thoreau's "Walden" is just The Thief's convenient way of having people do a waiting subroutine, kind of?


It is that and hopefully other things, yeah.


Yeah? Because of course later on Seimetz's character essentially "runs" that program for herself and figures out about self-reliance.


Yeah exactly, wow.




I mean just that that you know he's had her transcribe this book as menial labor basically, and she gets back to it. She uncovers something by doing the exact same thing. I mean this combination of menial tasks, of picking up these rocks off the bottom of the pool because she's compelled to search ... and at the same time to recite and quote back this call and response from lines that she knows internally from Walden ...but doesn’t know why she knows (them).


And has no understanding for the feeling of.


Yes, exactly, and that this would trigger like a relapse of something, yeah.


That's interesting, 'cause there's a classic Zen exercise of 'dig a hole, fill it up.'


Yeah, yeah, yeah. Exactly, exactly. And so much of Catholicism is the same way where it's just these activities you've got to, it's like...


The Stations of the Cross.


Yes, like trying to...


"You will do five or ten 'Hail Mary's.'" Like "You just run this code the following number of times ..."




I don’t know what the hell "A Topiary" is about, pardon my vulgar language, aside from that it pretty much can't happen. I'm given to understand the difficulties of executing it in a way that made you happy seem to have eluded you in a way where you can do it cost-effectively?


It's because there's no common ground between me and film finance, conventional film finance.


Can we talk about how that's film finance's problem? I mean seriously, like that's nonsense.


I agree.


But so what would "A Topiary" have if ... blow my mind here...




Pitch me "A Topiary," like the two sentence deal. What goes on the poster? What would Don LaFontaine say?


Like the story? What's the story?


Really basically, yeah. 'In a world ...'


Well, in the same way that ... well okay ... it's about ... the bulk of it is about 10 kids that get hold of the ability to create (moving, self-aware,) automata, or creatures (out of debris and junk), for lack of a better word.

The type we see in the background on the screen at Amy Seimetz's work in 'Upstream Color?"


Exactly. That's one of the creatures. That's a small version of one of the creatures.

You're self-releasing this.


Uh huh.


And there's the whole Prince thing of "unless you own the masters, your masters own you." Do you feel confident that you are going to be able to turn a profit?




Excellent.  The film industry's turning into Brazil, and you either have a 200 million dollar movie or a 200 dollar movie, and there's nothing in between. And self-distribution's always been a tough thing to pull off. Are you working on it in that way?


Sort of, yeah. There's some, well I mean it's like none of what we're doing is necessarily the biggest change in the world. I mean we're booking theaters. We're in over 20 markets now when we open in April. Digital distribution will happen about a month later. We're good (for)  getting onto cable VOD, retail DVD, you know all of the iTunes, Amazon, all of the other digital outlets. That's what's so crazy is like this is completely possible now. 


But would you cold call a theater and go, "Hello..."


No, I hired a theater booker, and he knows exactly what he's doing. And we convinced theaters that we've got a decent film and that people will come out and see it. And there was something last week in Midway just a few miles away from here called Art House Convergence, and it's a little bit like... well it's a conference for art house managers, and we showed the film to them in order to you know maybe get a few more bookings that way.


Much in the way Paramount shows reels of "Iron Man 3" at Cinecon.


Or ShoWest for theater bookers. Yeah, there's a path here that ... it's interesting you say about it's either $200 million or $200, 'cause I think yeah that is the way people think, but I think it's wrong. I think, you know, there's a path here where now that it's possible, now that digital makes up so much of the revenue on films and that digital is accessible to independent filmmakers, the rules are just a bit different. They're continuing to evolve.




And for me, what that means is I get to continue storytelling through the marketing. Like we craft each of these things. If I want to cut a clip, you know, I cut the trailer, and then before that there's the two clips that were released, the "Head Like the Sun" and "Starlings." And the first one's really confounding. It has some visual elements to it that are just meant to be like, "We're coming. It's not going to make sense yet, but it will later." But then the next clip is this one that has nothing to do with any of that. It's just watching a couple ... have angst-y, dark moments ... These aren’t typical trailers at all.


How great does it feel to know that you're working to keep conspiracy theorists everywhere happy? I mean, I've seen the online flow charts of "Primer." I've seen people talk about "A Topiary" like it's a lost, apocryphal book of revelations. Does it feel good to know you have a 10-person fanatical fan base for everything?


(Laughs) Oh, I mean it's really gratifying.


"Primer" is the number one watched thing on Netflix Instant right now.


Isn't that weird? I almost can't make sense of that. I saw that.


Well,  a friend of mine said that he had just seen "Looper" and all he wanted to do was watch time travel stories.


Ah, I see. Huh. But still, I don’t see how it's number one. It must be some ... quirk in the system or something that's saying that ... 'cause why would that be? Wouldn't ... isn't there some big movie out, or something?

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