Minutes after seeing the challenging, cinematic puzzle of a film Upstream Colour, there were so many questions running through my mind that I wanted to put to the filmmaker Shane Carruth – so fortunately, a couple of months on, I was given the chance to do just that – as we spoke exclusively to the talented director ahead of the film’s release.
As the director, writer, co-lead, producer, cinematographer, editor – and even the musical supervisor – it’s fair to say Upstream Colour is a film close to Carruth’s heart, and we discuss where this creative idea originated from. He also tells us about him being a “control freak”, why he chose to distribute the film himself, and what he gains from presenting such a provocative and frugal piece of cinema to his audience – an expectant audience, following his previous Sundance sensation Primer.
Where did the idea for Upstream Colour originate from?
The idea that everybody’s experience is so subjective and I wanted to do an exploration of how we build narratives for ourselves and so I wanted to take somebody and strip them of everything that they thought about themselves. That’s where it started, and it grew from there in how it would happen. I didn’t want it be to anything external – it couldn’t be something that lands from space or whatever, but something that was mundane and around us but maybe just outside our experience, so that pointed to the natural world and this life cycle. If it’s an outside thing or comes from somewhere else, then that means it’s a new concept, but I wanted something that felt like it has been around for as long as we have.
You are the writer, director, co-lead, producer, cinematographer, editor… Is that how you always want to work, to be heavily involved in so many areas?
It is now, yeah. With Primer it started off by being naïve, and this time around a lot of it was necessity but I’ve also come to understand that I’m just a control freak. I really like the idea that the music, the writing and the cinematography are all informed by the same singularity, and mainly because that’s what I enjoy when I’m viewing something – to know that if information coded in some way, which I think it always is in a narrative, I would like to know that if I do the work as an audience member to unravel it and figure it out basically, I want to know that there’s something behind it. I don’t want to find out that the thing that is very compelling to me was an accident because there were several people doing rewrites of the script, or a random idea came that nobody got rid of, or whatever could have happened. I want to know that there’s a reason, and if that comes from one voice I think you can safer about that.
Do you reckon you could ever seen yourself taking on a project from somebody else’s screenplay? Or perhaps letting somebody else direct your script?
It will always be written and directed by me. I believe pretty strongly that that’s the way I want to work. I would be horrible, I would be truly horrible directing somebody else’s material, or the other way around. It would be a bad proposition I think.
You also self-distributed the film – how important was it for you to be involved in that process? It must have been quite invigorating to contextualise it yourself?
Yeah absolutely, that is exactly what it is. It gives you the opportunity to continue the storytelling through the marketing materials. Cutting trailers and highlighting what I believe to be the more substantial parts to the films, not necessarily the ones that will get the most amount of people to fork over money. The posters as well… You could make a very commercial for this, but it was important to pick an image or go with an image, with us in a bathtub, that speaks about the film and how it works and what its language is, and what’s on its mind. It’s exactly what you said, just contextualising everything.
It must be quite liberating to have that creative freedom – are you surprised more filmmakers don’t get involved in this process?
Yes and no. I am surprised because I could never give it up really it I have the ability to do it – but at the same time, it’s an enormous amount of work and as you’re doing, at least for me, I’m not making another film, and that can be difficult. But yeah I would like to see more of it, I think it’d be great.
Do you think it’s really important for you that audiences go in unaware to Upstream Colour – knowing as little as possible?
I dunno, I mean that’s how I like to see things, I don’t like to know. It doesn’t make a film any better when you ruin the surprises. I’m at a point now where I’d rather watch a movie that I have seen 10 times, and I’d rather see it once more than to do the hard work of charging through so many films that I’m not going to like.
Your work is so innovative and you’re creating a really unique style of filmmaking – is that a deliberate attempt to try and be incomparable to other directors, or if that’s just how your films are?
I don’t know. It’s weird, you don’t think about these things until afterwards. I just try and do what’s appropriate. With Upstream, we’re following Kris through her subjective experience and her narrative changes a series of times in the film. To me that meant that as we get more and more synced up with her experience, the cinematic road can change. Whatever is appropriate to the story.
Upstream Colour is a provocative piece of cinema and almost like a puzzle, with a variety of images and concepts brought together – is that how you like to present your films? To trigger such an array of emotions from the audience, and make them work hard to find the answers?
I guess so – it’s what I am compelled by as an audience member. I think that all narratives are coded or puzzling in some way. Even in a cartoon or a children’s film, you’re wondering how this is going to end and what’s coming next. There is always the sense of, I don’t know something but I would like to know it – so I am going to pay attention. I think you pick your level, and if you try to densely pack a narrative with exploration that’s another thing that makes it more veiled, because you’re trying to do so much and you don’t have time to stop every time and have somebody come on screen and explain the dialogue or do some exposition to explain what everything is.
The film can be taken in so many ways – do you appreciate hearing different people’s interpretations of the meaning behind the film?
I do. I believe, or at least my hope is that, it’s not something that is necessarily open to all interpretation. My hope is that if I have done my job properly, there is only one main interpretation that satisfies all the questions, and what I enjoy seeing when you start to see a consensus build around the intention of the film. That is extremely satisfying to see that it’s working, and that’s something that is something that has become more fun in the last couple of decades with the internet and everybody having the ability to contribute to the conversation. It’s something I saw with Primer, because there was a consensus about what actually happened and how it all worked and what it was meant to convey – and that is really cool to see.
Since Primer was released back in 2004, you’ve gained something of a cult following, did you therefore feel a bit more pressure placed upon you this time around, knowing there was an established and expectant fan base?
No, I didn’t. I think back now and think that maybe I should have. There are two things, one – I really didn’t understand that people even knew what Primer was or why they were continuing to watch it. Two – the reality is, from early on when I was writing the script for Upstream, I really fell in love with it, I was very proud of this narrative, so really I wasn’t worried at all. Or at least I wasn’t thinking in terms of, I better live up to expectation. I was just so proud to have this, it feels like a gift sometimes to be given a story, so I was so happy to have it.
Amy Seimetz is so enigmatic as Kris, how did she come to be involved in the picture?
A friend knew her and suggested her and I called her up. She lived in Florida and I was in Texas. I called her without seeing her act in anything, but she sent me a copy of a film she had written and directed, which she didn’t act in – but I got very shortly into it and then decided that if we were lucky enough to get her, we needed to get her, because she was such a great storyteller and she would make such a great contribution.
We see Kris editing a film in the movie – I’ve heard that is a glimpse of your next movie A Topiary? How is that coming along – any plans to revisit it one day?
No I don’t. It’s not coming along at all, actually. That was one of the things that helped me understand that if I’m lucky enough to make films for a living then they’re going to be in ways that I know how to pay for. I don’t understand the mechanics in raising funds for movies, and I spent a lot of times in meetings trying to figure that out and never really got there.
Both of your films have been made with modest sized budgets – would you like to make a sic-fi for tens of millions of dollars? Is that a challenge you’d relish? Or do you prefer the more do-it-yourself elements that come with independent filmmaking?
I definitely would like to work with better finances and more money – but not just to be bigger, but because I feel like there is a certain stress load that starts to affect how well the story is being made and that is what I would love to pay to get rid of. So yeah, everybody loves tools and I would love to have the right tools – but I dunno, I’d have to figure out a way to retain control and be singular in doing it.
One project you have got coming up is Modern Ocean – can you tell us a little about that?
Still writing that, and hope to be done within the next month or so. Yeah, I can’t wait, I think it’s going to be pretty good [laughs].
Upstream Colour is released on August 30 and our review can be read here.