This is how an interview with Shane Carruth begins.
“Have you ever talked about something over and over again? My brain, at least, feels like I’m hitting a wall.” He punctuates the sentence with a deep exhale. “I know the words because I’ve been saying them a thousand times. I mean, I’ve given this answer probably 300 times. I know the words, yet there’s something in my brain that’s stopping me from saying them. I don’t know what that is.”
If you’re familiar with Carruth’s work, this type of breathlessness will be familiar. We’re sitting in a small, stuffy room in the West Village to talk about his new film, “Upstream Color,” which Carruth wrote, directed, shot, produced, scored, and starred in. Life cycles, pigs, orchids, and Thoreau are all woven through a complex love story, involving a woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) who, after being drugged and robbed of most of her possessions, falls into a relationship with Jeff (Carruth), a mysterious if good-natured man who she meets on a train and who lives in a hotel. He may have embezzled money. She might have a horrific tapeworm. The identities of the characters change over time. They are searching for something, but we’re not sure exactly what. It’s not clear if they know either. Maybe it’s two love stories? It’s all extremely hard to explain.
Carruth attempts to help me out.
“The story is universal. You can’t point to anything and say, oh, it’s a movie about pharmaceuticals, oh, it’s a movie about religion,” Carruth tells me, clearly pained from having to explain his film to yet another journalist. “It’s literally everything, every way we can feel irrational about being affected by things outside of us and not knowing exactly what they are and how they work.”
You get the sense that Carruth could answer every question posed about his film, no matter how arcane, even if he doesn’t feel it’s necessary. No detail is too small, no avenue not fully explored. And although Carruth tells me he is starting to reject the notion that every micro detail must be planned out in advance – that the entire world of the film, on and off the screen, needs to be completely internalized by its creator before production – “Upstream Color” is still the result of rigid planning, a vision emanating from the head of one person and one person only.
“As a viewer, that’s work I respond to – work that I know is singular in some way,” Carruth says. “If I’m being challenged by something on screen, if I don’t quite know why it’s happening, I want to know I can do the work of pulling it apart and that there’ll be something satisfactory about it.”
“If the architecture is sound,” Carruth adds, “you can be lyrical in execution.”
Carruth understands that most viewers don’t want, or aren’t prepared, to do the work of burrowing into a film in search of answers. His first film, 2004’s “Primer,” won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival but never reached an audience beyond a dedicated cult following of fans who took to Internet message boards to map out various theories concerning the film’s complex time-travel narrative. Others were just confused by the zig-zagging plot and ambiguous ending, leading many to dismiss the film as an impenetrable maze of dead ends. “Upstream Color,” arriving in theaters April 5 almost a decade after Carruth’s last film puzzle and just as difficult to parse, has so far elicited a surprisingly different reaction.
“It’s trying something that hasn’t been tried a lot, so it has a certain ambition to it and I think that’s necessarily divisive,” he says about early reaction to the film. “What has happened, or what I think has happened, is we got a more positive start than I expected. Even people who have trouble with it potentially being opaque or obscure still sort of hedge their bets and say, wait, this may need further review.”
To take advantage of the early interest, Carruth has taken full control of the film’s life as it’s released out into the world, independently handling the distribution and crafting the marketing materials on his own. “I don’t want to trick people out of every last dollar,” Carruth adds. “I want to prepare the people who are potentially into something like this. I want them to know that it’s available.”
But there’s more to it than just targeting a specific audience, of making sure people know what they’re walking into.
“The practical side is I sort of need to grab every dollar that can be made on this so I can put it into the next film,” he laughs. “The impractical part is just, now, it seems crazy to me that we would spend 95 percent of our time producing film and then right at the last second hand it off to somebody else to supposedly decipher what it is, when that’s all storytelling is anyways, trying to engage and be compelling while you’re also delivering an exploration.”
“It’s like, why the lack of confidence?”