Upstream Color director Shane Carruth talks exclusively to Dr. Garth Twa about making the film, directing himself and his future work.
Your films tend to explore interiority, and be ardently non-Hollywood studio…
Shane Carruth: I think narrative is necessarily veiled no matter what you’re doing. It’s just how veiled—if it’s a Garfield cartoon it’s not very veiled, but it is somewhat because there’s something you don’t know, there’s 90 minutes that are about to elapse and you don’t know necessarily where it’s going to end, or at least how it’s going to get there, so there’s a minute-by-minute process happening where the audience’s brain or our brains are wondering what’s next? What’s going to be the funny thing that happens next? And then on the other end of the spectrum, maybe, you have something like The Master, P.T. Anderson’s film where it’s relatively obtuse, you don’t know why things are happening when they’re happening, what’s real, what isn’t, what the meaning of it is. And then there’s everything in between. But I think that’s what narrative does, that’s one of the things it has to do or else it’s not compelling. And so, I think I’ve picked a place on the spectrum, or maybe it’s off the spectrum, I don’t know, but in my mind it’s on the spectrum and it’s more or less what I would like to see. I think with Upstream Color the narrative is more or less relatively clear. It’s actually pretty simple by the time the credits roll. I think the thing is, the film is telegraphing that it’s got its head around something else and that’s not abundantly clear by the credits, because that’s…(sighs), as an audience member, I don’t want that. I want to go to a café and talk to friends, or I want to dwell on it myself and hopefully it wasn’t such an arduous process to watch it—maybe it was enjoyable—that I’d like to maybe look at it again and see how it plays, knowing everything that I know from the first time. So that’s how I enjoy film, so that’s how they go.
Who do you actually associate yourself with more, the character you play or the sound engineer, The Sampler?
Probably neither. Probably Chris, probably the lead actress, Amy Symons. I mean if I had to pick one. I feel like her experience is universal, the idea of being lost and curious, that there must be something that’s pushing me around, there must be some reason why I’m experiencing the emotions and mania that I am even when I can’t quite point to it, and feeling like the narrative is being written somewhere else. I think that’s a relatively universal feeling and that’s what the film is trying to get into. And so for me, that’s where I find myself most of the time, not orchestrating but feeling like I’m being orchestrated.
Can you talk a little about the ending?
This is not one of those things that I should be talking about. I don’t think an author should say anything after the end credits, but here we are! Yeah, that ending. I mean I think it’s pretty subversive, to be honest, because everything about it is being played in a very positive manner, the cinematography, Amy’s performance, the music, the sheer fact that she’s nestling these piglets, that’s a pretty…at first glance that is a resolve. That’s peaceful. She’s broken the cycle and she’s found something peaceful. But I think that the text of that is not that at all, the idea that she ended up getting a guy that she found culpable but has no clue that that wasn’t necessarily the guy. The guy that she got may or may not have even been culpable at all, and that we know she’s not going to have children, and the best she can hope for is this tenuous relationship with these things that are not going to return it, in any real way. It’s taken the entire exploration and trying to encapsulate it in the last few minutes and just redouble it. She’s trading one false narrative for another, really, and that was really important to me because if it wasn’t that way, if she had gotten the thief, let’s say, then I feel like the film would be preaching something, it would be saying that when you’re lost in the fog of your own narrative or identity or whatever, you can somehow force your way through it and exact vengeance and win the day. And I don’t know if that’s true, and if I did, I wouldn’t necessarily use a film to say that. I like narrative that does a good job of defining questions and not necessarily try to preach something that the author believes is true, or not.
What was the inspiration for the story?
Do you mean where it started or where did the weird stuff come from?
Well, it started with just the exploration of identity and personal narrative, and it was real trivial to be honest. I have two brothers and we always get into conversations, arguments about news items of the day or politics or whatever, and after a while it just seems like they bring their talking points to the discussion and I bring mine, and you can sort of tell where they get their news and where I get mine because it’s got that agenda behind it. After a while it seems we’re not talking anymore, we’re just bringing the other sides’ information, doing the math, and walking away. And so that’s where it sort of started; how much of that is encompassing us, how much of what we are is just walking around as tablets that have been imprinted with a list of talking points, or a list of beliefs, and there isn’t anything that can be done to change those. That started me on the path, ‘Okay, great, I want to have some characters and I want to strip them of everything they thought they knew about themselves.’ And then it just got bigger and bigger and bigger. And I started stripping away everything, not just political beliefs or religious beliefs, or cosmic beliefs, but the way that they would relate to anybody around them or relate to the world, or the way they imagined the world viewed them; just everything that your subjective experience can be. And that eventually just got so sort of horrific for me to think about that, and I also got deeply emotional thinking about it. That’s sort of the turning point, where I got very passionate and had to see this story through because I think this is a really good work if we can do a thorough exploration of this. Anyway, to support that, to support how you take a character or characters and strip them of everything, that’s where the weird elements come in. And I wanted something that was imbedded in the environment, or in the place where we live, because I wanted it to feel like it’d been around for a long time, as long as we have. I didn’t want it to be a foreign agent that was invading the circumstances; I wanted it to be something that was here, out of our experience, but that’s always been around. And I wanted it to be cyclical, so there wasn’t any one person that was trying to manage it or a conspiracy of any kind, and so that meant that I needed these sort of people that had found these tricks in nature and who are just performing them to benefit themselves, not because they care about what came before or after. So fitting that criteria, trying to solve that, is where we get organic life cycle; we get animals, and plants, a presence that’s flowing among them. And then it just gets bigger, bigger after that, but that’s more or less how it started.
How does it feel to act in your movies? Is it easier, is it harder?
It’s both. It’s helpful for me because when I’m in a scene I have access to information that I don’t think I would have if I was watching it, from the outside, so that’s really good. That helps me, because I haven’t directed actors a lot. It turns out I probably didn’t need that in this film, I mean Amy is so good, and so is Andrew. I mean everybody involved is just…they didn’t really need much. You hear about these tricks that directors have to do to get people to perform properly and I’ve never had to do that. To be honest, this was pretty small production, and having one less person you have to schedule was actually a pretty big deal. And I sort of wanted to do it if I could, if I didn’t break it. I really did like that central story and I wanted to be a part of it.
Do you have any experience in acting classes or anything?
That seems like a trick question. No, no I don’t. Probably should.
Where does the title come from?
Titles are so horrible, you know? If you have something that doesn’t mean anything, it’s sort of pretentious. And if you have something that’s too meaningful, it’s doubly pretentious. It’s difficult to know what to do because titles are just place marks after a while. I really liked the idea of using the term ‘upstream’ because we are talking so much about characters that are being affected by things that are happening in some other place, they don’t have access to that information, so it’s as if something’s being delivered from a place they can’t know about. And then, at the end, that ten minutes when they’re going after the pig farmer, or the Sampler, is sort of a version of Heart of Darkness, where now that they know what the problem is, it’s the journey upriver to go get it, and solve it. So upstream seemed right and I…I probably shouldn’t say more, because it’s not much more meaningful than that. I mean, color, it just seems…there’s the shape and color, and the color’s more amorphous, so I wanted that in there.
There must be something that’s pushing me around, there must be some reason why I’m experiencing the emotions and mania that I am even when I can’t quite point to it, and feeling like the narrative is being written somewhere else.
How closely did the film follow the script?
I’m writing something now and it’s 100% informed by this film and the process of making the film. I like to think that from the writing stage I or any writer should be smart enough to just know everything, everything that’s coming down the road, and how it’s meant to play out, and how it moves, every scene. The reality is that there was a lot of good stuff that happened that was still true thematically and made the film better, but it was not something I knew about beforehand. It was something we had to learn. Because, I believe, we had so well internalized the story and what it was trying to do that we could start to make some choices that didn’t make a ton of sense at the moment, but then did make sense once the pieces were together and I’m not really proud of that, that sounds wishy washy to me, but it’s also really true. The shared memory sequence in this film is one of those things where it was written a certain way, and then it changed, and I was trying to tell everybody, ‘Here’s what we’re shooting,’ and I rewrote it. ‘We’re going to start off and have these shared memories. It’s going to be fun and light, and we’re going to shoot it in a ton of locations. But by the end of it, the shared memories are going to be really frustrating; it’s going to be this thing that they don’t want anymore and is not fun at all.’ But I couldn’t quite explain why we were doing that, or at least I couldn’t explain it to my satisfaction. Afterwards, I came to realize that that was everything we were doing, from a plot perspective; it was always going to be part of it because they’re in communion with these pigs, and there’s a bi-directional sort of flow of information that’s happening, so it’s easy to imagine there’s a lot of confusion taking place about what they remember and why. I think that’s what’s really important about relationships, how the things that feel very light and fun and join us together and make us feel like a unit can be the things that really frustrate later when it doesn’t feel like we’ve got any barriers and I don’t know where I end and they begin. I don’t even know if I’m explaining it well now but I know it’s an important thing and I’m proud that’s it’s in the film and I know that…it’s good that it’s in there.
Do you think your expression is more visual, aural…the first 30 minutes or so there is almost no dialogue.
I think it’s specific to this. I mean Primer is nothing but talking—talking, talking, talking, all the time. This is not that at all. I’ve been asked, ‘Oh, is that a reaction to the other?’ and it really isn’t. For both of the films, that’s what was necessary. Upstream is so much about nonverbal communication, so the first rule is going to be she’s never going to be able say anything that she would be feeling out loud. She’s never going to go, ‘Oh, I feel this mania but I can’t explain why’—she can’t say that. And so she can’t say a lot of things. And they can’t say a lot of things, and so it puts us in a world where we’ve got to be using all the other elements of film to deliver something close to what the subjective experience is for them. We’ve got to heighten sound, and heighten music, and heighten cinematography, and make sure that we’re suggesting a certain tactility and curiosity with the visuals. Because we can’t say it. We can’t just talk about it. And that was really important for this. Whereas with Primer, it was more of a procedural, it was about showing otherworldly, or big events in a really mundane manner.
Has watching movies inspired you to make films?
Yeah, Nothing crazy, though. I’ve probably watched Solaris, and Punch Drunk Love, on a loop. Vivre Sa Vie I’ve watched on a loop, probably for weeks. I just sort of have it on in the room, you know, the way you’d have music on. And even a movie like The Hustler, for some reason. I didn’t get that film until I saw it twelve times and then it sort of broke my heart once I saw what it was. So nothing strange. Just the big hits, the main hits.
Would you say that, of the art forms, cinema is the most influential, or are there other art forms out there that influence you as an artist?
I don’t know. I don’t know what influences me. Cause I have a hard time watching movies now.
Any other art forms?
Sure, it must be film, right? Or I wouldn’t be trying to do film. I’d try to do something else.
What was the prep like on the film?
I was composing the score while I was doing the writing and when I finished the end of the script, we had sort of the full score. And I was doing a lot of the time-lapse photography, the miniature stuff, the microscopic stuff, just to make sure we could get something that looked about right. Casey Gooden, one of the producers, and I would do camera tests. We’d go jump on a train, make sure the lens system was something that was going to work for us, and so it started to come together and it became clear what we were going to be able to convey. When Amy showed up in town we saw how effective she was going to be, and we have our cinematography and we’ve got a bit of score, and you know all the elements or you can sort of squint your eyes and know here’s what it’s going to be like, and then there’s a weird situation that happens where, because Amy is more or less bullet-proof, that means we can step off the gas on a few other things. I don’t need to shy away from shooting her in a certain way, or the music doesn’t need to convey everything, it just needs to convey what’s missing. It’s a process. And knowing that, I want a bigger version on the next film. I feel like we should; like a band that’s in a rehearsal hall for months, before they go on tour, that’s what we need to be doing. It’ s probably just preproduction, but whatever. I don’t know anything about movies, so…
There was a large gap between Primer and this film—are we going to have to wait long time for the next one?
No, not at all. I wasted a bunch of time trying to figure out how to get financing for a bigger film from traditional film finance people, and it didn’t work out. No, next time around I’m not looking for financing. We’re just going to shoot it at the end of summer, hopefully, and get going.
How’s that coming along?
So far, it always starts with what is the exploration? What is the thing that’s universal or nuanced or worthy of an inspection, and maybe hasn’t been tread over too much? That’s where it always starts. Like with Primer; it was just about the equation of trust, and if trust is dependent on what you’re liable to lose, and if that trust is betrayed, then let’s elevate the power in the room. Let’s raise the stakes and see what happens, follow it to its logical conclusion. So then, okay, what’s this power? What’s this thing that can be lost? And so I landed on a time machine. Cause the idea of rewriting somebody’s history without them even knowing it seems really horrific. So this next one… I probably shouldn’t say too much, ‘cause I’m still sort of enjoying puzzling it apart, is what it is. But it’s a good thing, a good thing.