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Shane Carruth goes upstream

The cinematic auteur on supercheap science-fiction, roadie life and whale-vomit perfume

Taken from the September issue of Dazed & Confused:

When ultra-low-budget philosophical science-fiction drama Primer came out nearly ten years ago, it won a cult following for director Shane Carruth. Upstream Color, his long-awaited second film, is another mindbending shoestring SF flick. Mumblecore queen Amy Seimetz stars as Kris, a creative professional whose life falls apart when she’s fed a worm in a nightclub by a thief and sent into a dangerously suggestible trancelike daze. Emerging traumatised, she encounters a stranger (Carruth) who, it’s intimated, has been through a similar experience. Upstream Color’s world is one of overlapping memories, orchids so intensely blue they seem artificially enhanced and bizarre surgical procedures with surrogate pigs. The vivid puzzle is never entirely elucidated, but seeps under the skin. While in town for the film’s Sundance London premiere, Carruth met Dazed to talk life on the road and his fascination with whale vomit.

Dazed Digital: From directing and acting to cinematography and music, you do almost everything on your films. Is that to retain creative control?

Shane Carruth: It started off as necessity and just being naive – I didn’t know any musicians or how to hire them, so I just played around and it’s now the way it works. I know I’m not the best guy to be doing each of these jobs but I do think it adds a handcraftedness and makes it more singular. If the audience takes the film apart and dwells on it there’s something behind it. It’s not just a product of groupthink.

I got into screenplays, then made Primer. I just tried to figure out everything as I was going – how camera exposures and lenses work and all that

DD: How did you get into filmmaking?

Shane Carruth: I was working as an engineer but I’d been writing in college. I just didn’t know how to make money from it. I had a degree in maths, and stepped into the easiest job I could get for a year while I tried to figure out what to do with writing. I got into screenplays, then made Primer. I just tried to figure out everything as I was going – how camera exposures and lenses work and all that.

DD: Primer’s time-travel plot was complex and thought-out. had you been mulling it over for a while?

Shane Carruth: I don’t even care about time travel at all! But I got obsessed with figuring out something bulletproof. The idea that history was up for grabs and could be altered without the characters even knowing it seemed really horrible, so I was trying to come up with the mechanics for that.

I’m interested in making something that moves quickly, that hopefully is compelling minute-by-minute

DD: There’s a lot in Upstream Color that’s unexplained and hazy...

Shane Carruth: What, no! It’s all clear-cut. I’m kidding. Was it my intention? Yes. Narrative is necessarily veiled. I’m interested in making something that moves quickly, that hopefully is compelling minute-by-minute but really packed densely with exploration. I’m very interested in how re-visitable we can make films. If we can get them closer to a music album then it’s not such an arduous process to revisit and exploration can be a bit more cryptic. Meaning is obtuse, but it’s there.

DD: For instance, we don’t know what these worms which act like drugs are or why they’re there...

Shane Carruth: Right. They are what they are. A worm goes into her, leaves her, goes into a pig, and a connection is made. If it’s more than just what we saw, if we say it’s her soul getting transferred or nucleotides in her genetic material or some other made-up thing, that’s uninformative and steps on the toes of the exploration. Something weighty is being transferred – that’s almost the only message I’d like to convey. If it were some new pharmaceutical drug on the market she took that led to these horrific events, I would be having conversations about why I’m indicting the pharmaceutical industry, but the film doesn’t care. It’s much more universal about all subjective experiences.

DD: Thoreau’s Walden figures heavily. Do you identify with his transcendentalism and philosophy of going back to nature?

Shane Carruth: Not really. It was just raw material.

DD: Why that book then?

Shane Carruth: It’s important to the plot that she rewrite the same work of literature over and over again. I picked Walden thinking that as it’s so boring it wouldn’t wake her up from the state of suggestion she’s under – a thief would have gotten used to lulling his victims into some sort of passivity with it. Then I started to notice really bizarre similarities between elements of the plot of Upstream and prose or language that’s in Walden to do with light, sound, beasts, soil, the natural world. I started playing up those elements.

I felt strongly that some of the story needed to be a certain way and wasn’t sure about why until after we did it

DD: Is the way you work instinctual?

Shane Carruth: I can talk about where the ideas came from but there’s a further obtuse layer of texture – you make choices that seem purely aesthetic, but if as a filmmaker you’ve internalised the story well enough they’re also informative. I felt strongly that some of the story needed to be a certain way and wasn’t sure about why until after we did it. It’s like when an orange rolls off a table and you catch it before you really know it’s falling – what the fuck is that? I felt strongly that the shared-memory scene was massively important, and only later came to understand it’s because they’re encroaching on each other’s identity. I like that because it’s universal. Anyone in a relationship has experienced something like that, where a sense of being in it together turns into the question of where I end and you begin, and why everything has to be about ‘us’.

DD: A scene with a creature from your unfinished film A Topiary appears in Upstream Color as something Kris is working on. Why did you include it?

Shane Carruth: I wanted Kris to have a job based in fiction. We were going to be screwing up our narrative so much I started her off already in that world.

DD: What happened to A Topiary? Not enough funding?

Shane Carruth: I never raised a dollar for it! I spent years putting it together in a way I thought was very commercial, believe it or not, but I couldn’t convince anybody to actually write a cheque. I’ll never raise a dollar from anyone, I promise you that. I’m going to take the money we make from Upstream Color and put it right back into the film I’m making now. I can’t waste a bunch more time having idiotic conversations with people about financing. It just doesn’t work for me.

He wrote, ‘Just paused Upstream Color. Can’t believe how bad an actor Carruth is.’

DD: Acting in Upstream Color yourself must have been intense. Did you ever consider casting another actor?

Shane Carruth: Yeah, I did. Somebody just forwarded me a tweet from someone downloading the film on BitTorrent. He wrote, ‘Just paused Upstream Color. Can’t believe how bad an actor Carruth is.’ But I like stuff like that, it’s funny. My taking on the role was out of necessity, and also just because I wanted to do it. To keep things a bit smaller, one less person to schedule.

DD: You have a new film in pre-production – can you tell us about that?

Shane Carruth: It’s called The Modern Ocean and it’s going to be great. It’s about people that are perfecting trading routes at sea. It essentially turns into a multi-tragic romance with pirates and privateers, explosions and ships at war. Oh, and better yet, I brought this with me today. (takes out a vial) It’s called ambergris. Whales love eating squid but they can’t digest the beaks, so the beaks sit in their intestines for a long time decomposing and then eventually get vomited up. This stuff is now floating in the ocean. It’s disgusting. It’s been very valuable throughout history because it’s the main ingredient in a lot of perfumes.

DD: Vomit perfume, nice. Can I try some?

Shane Carruth: Please, go for it. People find it washed up on the beach. If you Google ‘ambergris’ you find articles with headlines like ‘local man finds £60,000 of ambergris washed up on the shore’ with some weird picture of him holding it. It looks like a big boulder of horse manure that’s very hard and solidified. I assume they turn it into powder and put it into alcohol, because it’s very musky and strong.

DD: What’s your home base now?

I don’t have one. I was living in Dallas for a while. I left there about a year ago and I’ve been on the road ever since. Everything I own is here in London in the hotel. I had a car in Dallas but it was parked in front of my brother’s house and somebody wrecked it, so it’s been hauled away. It had my only other possession in the world in it – an espresso machine. That’s the only thing I kept. But then I realised you can get coffee anywhere.