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

Upstream Color Teaser Trailer

So a fair amount of what to say and what not to say comes out of editing?

It’s everywhere, because that’s the thing. It can be in the writing process, it can be in editing, it can be in production. This is what’s been happening, but I haven’t had to verbalize it until recently. But basically, I think if film is going to be…if it’s going to reach the height of what it can do…and I don’t think we’re done by a longshot. I’m not interested in trying to figure out 3D or virtual reality or any of the other ways to experience narrative. I think we’re fine with the tools that we have. I don’t think it’s nearly reached its height. I think what it has to do is stop pretending that it’s books that we can watch and it’s got to be something else. I don’t know what the words are for that something else, but I sort of know where the edges are.

For that to happen, it’s got to have a really strong architecture, like the story, the plot, the subtext. It’s all got to be there. If you took those elements out and put them in another medium, they would still be there and it would hopefully still be successful. But with film, defining that I hope can be lyrical. I hope we can use all the tools of visual language and music and sound to sort of swim around with the architecture. If the filmmakers know it well enough, if they’ve internalized it well enough, then we should be able to…you know, in the same way that you could play your musical instrument and you know a piece of music so well, you should be able to play with it in performance and recognize that if there’s a two minute avenue where I can just go with the string section and do something really interesting but, still, it’s thematically true, then I should do that. It can’t be made up just to be made up. It’s got to stay true to the…Anyway, I’m all over the place.

No, I hear you. Even with the lyrical nature of the film, looking at it as a whole, the movie does go from point A to point B, story-wise. Are there narrative conventions that you do follow in your head?

Well, this may be one of those things where I actually don’t have a lot of experience doing what I try to do. I do typically everything in isolation. I don’t read books on how to write screenplays just because I’m stubborn. So it’s all sort of made up. So I don’t know what I would fall back on as a crutch. But I don’t know. I’m sure there’s something there.

So there are no famous narrative devices you like to use?

Oh, yeah. I know that I’m starting to recognize that I like to develop little plot experiment devices in the story. It doesn’t start there, but I’m recognizing that as part of the thing that would hopefully make a story compelling to introduce some mechanism that we have to sort of explain… like in Upstream Color there is this mechanism for this life cycle or Orchid Pig worms, and all of that had to be developed in a way that met some threshold in my mind that made it balanced. You know, the three points in the triangle, they can’t know about each other. There’s all this criteria that developed in my head that they needed to follow.

And so, that’s not necessarily subtextual.What we care most about is our characters and that they are being affected at a distance. And so, like in this new story I’m writing, it deals with a lot of stuff. But it’s large sums of money have to be transferred in a way that…I sort of refuse to let it be the thing where somebody is at a computer terminal typing away and we’re meant to care.

Because of that and because of 10 other reason, I’m developing a fake form of finance, of bank transfers. It’s just different and it involves a big room and a clearinghouse and people that have to walk around with certain bits of paper and get time stamping. It’s a whole process. And that sounds horrible and boring, but I really think in the film itself it’s going to be really compelling and it won’t be somebody sitting at a computer terminal. So I know that that happens. I know that’s a crutch. I should not have said that…

[Laughs] I don’t mind.

No, no. It’s fine.

I want to end on your thoughts on the future of cinema. You and Edward Burns are really showing the advantage of online and playing to your fanbase, as well as just going out and actually making it yourself. Do you see yourself sticking to that model?

I do now.

Why’s that?

Because once I started going down this road, it became clear to me, and I don’t know why it didn’t before, that if I can make every decision, if I can cut my own trailers, if I can do the poster, if I can handle the way that the story is met by the audience or what they know about it, that’s contextualizing it. It’s a continuation of storytelling. It’s like picking the opening title sequence, if you were to have one. You are still delivering information. And I don’t…It’s too much fun right now. Not fun, but it’s part of the story now. So I wouldn’t hand that over to anybody and expect them to…You know, here’s us. We’re a bunch of filmmakers. We made this thing. We know how to do storytelling really well, but then in the last 5% we’re like, “Oh, we don’t know. You figure out how to sell it.”

That can be the most crucial part, though.

Yeah. Well, that’s the thing, is like I’ve got a different goal than a distributor. I’m not here to make every last dollar I can make. I’m here to make sure that the people that would receive a work like this knows that it exists. But I don’t want everybody knowing, because I’m just going to piss people off.

It’s definitely not made for everybody.

Yeah. We’ve all seen this throughout the years.

The Tree of Life is probably the best recent example.

Is it?

I remember hearing about walkouts and theaters putting up signs saying “no refunds” for it.

Yeah. No, you are right. I heard that, too. I’ve heard stories about movies that are really maybe difficult and really dramatic and good, but they are being sold as romantic comedies. All it’s going to do is just…that’s hurting the work, because that just makes it impossible for anyone to see it correctly.

Anyways, yes. So I would never give that up.

Upstream Color opens in limited release and VOD on April 5th.

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, Spider-Man 2, Jaws, Adaptation, Get Carter, The Last Days of Disco, Carnal Knowledge, Almost Famous, Ed Wood, Barton Fink, and L.A. Confidential.

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