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

Upstream Color

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.

All you really need to know about Jack is his favorite movies are: The Last Detail, Rumble Fish, Sunset Boulevard, The Truman Show, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, The Verdict, Closer, Shadow of a Doubt, The Long Goodbye, Spider-Man 2, Jaws, Adaptation, Get Carter, The Last Days of Disco, Carnal Knowledge, Almost Famous, Ed Wood, Ace in the Hole, Barton Fink, and L.A. Confidential.

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