Shane Carruth, the famously reclusive director of the ingenious Primer and the modern classic Upstream Color was in India for an event last week. I had a chance to touch the filmmaker's feet and chat with him about his filmmaking process, his opinion on mainstream Hollywood, torrents and the business model of contemporary cinema.
This piece originally appeared in Mint Lounge on Dec 21 2013, below is the full unabridged version.
MF: The most interesting thing about you as a filmmaker is that the films that you make challenge the audiences. Primer was heavily dialogue based, it was extremely hard to follow. Upstream Color communicates mostly visually and in a lot of different non-verbal ways. Was it deliberate to make a nearly silent film after a heavily dialogue driven film?
SC: Well, Upstream Color was not a reaction to Primer being so verbose. I tried to make Primer feel as authentic as possible, that’s what made it so talky. I wanted it to feel mundane, like a journalist doing an investigation. In Upstream it was about thematic balance - the characters are affected by themes you can’t speak to, that are offscreen, that are touching you emotionally rather than verbally. I can’t have characters constantly talking about the plot. I need them to not be aware, I need them to be subjected to and affected and even erratic. The things that affect us emotionally, whether they are psychological, or spiritual, or chemical, or virtual, at no point do people usually address them, because they just don’t know, and that’s what Upstream meant to me.
MF: You are the director, the writer, the lead actor, the cinematographer, the music composer, the editor of your films. Is it a conscious decision to do all these things? Is it because you want to be in complete control of your film, or is it because of budget constraints.
SC: Oh it’s a bit of both actually. When I first started Upstream I didn’t know any filmmakers, so I couldn’t have even gone to somebody even if I wanted to.
MF: You’d made Primer before that, I’m sure you had a few offers coming in after that hit the circuit?
SC: Well, there were offers, but the people I was meeting, they were not filmmakers. They were producers, studio guys. When I decided to make Upstream it was basically to go and do it in my home state of Texas and not tell anybody that we were doing it. Also when I know a scene, and I know how it’s gonna work and what the music is meant to sound like, it becomes really difficult for me to explain to somebody else what it should be like, so I decide to do it myself, and do it exactly the way I need it. It takes me a little bit longer to finish the film but it just works.
MF: But do you tend to lose your objectivity sometimes because you’re the boss of everything?
SC: Yes, and that is a real danger, but I think it’s a necessary one. The thing is, as an audience member the material that I really enjoy in cinema is from films that seem ‘singular’. I want to be challenged by a film to interpret it in some way. And once I have gone through all this work to figure it out, I want to know that there’s a mind behind it that orchestrated this movie. What I don’t want to find out is that there were ten writers, with many more drafts – that’s not meaningful to me. Not that it can’t be meaningful, but I like things to be from one mind as an audience member, and as a filmmaker I tend to go that way as well.
MF: The music in Upstream is so perfectly placed, and it’s so organic. How do you approach the score? Do you compose your music while making the film, or after shooting it?
SC: While writing it actually. I pretty much had the full score before we started shooting Upstream. It just helps cos I have a scene in my mind, and I’m writing it, and if I can get the music, it makes it in some way more real, and makes me more confident that we can execute it the way I imagined it.
What happened with Upstream is when we began production and I started accumulating imagery, I got this sense of tactility during post production. This is how filmmaking is I guess, in some ways it’s deficient, in other ways it sells. The music didn’t need to inform the audience of anything other than the subjected experience of the characters. In fact halfway through production I made a mistake and the music was communicating to the audience something that a character couldn’t know. A lot of films do that, I’m not sure what the term is…
MF: ‘Spoonfeeding the audience’?
SC: Yeah exactly. And once I learned that, I had to get rid of half the music and make new stuff. Some of it happened while filming, some of it while editing.
MF: I must confess that I watched Primer through torrents, I hope you won’t sue me for this?
SC: Not at all, I support torrents, it’s a great social technology. A lot of people saw Primer the same way, and I’m happy that they did.
MF: Upstream Color had quite a radical release. It released on demand just two weeks after hitting theatres. Do you see a major change in the way movies will be released in the future? Do you think the distribution model will change soon?
SC: Oh yes. I’m not smart enough to know what the new model will be like, but yeah like right now a film exists in the US as one distribution model, and then in the UK and here in India as totally different models. That’s obviously gonna go away once the channels are in place, culturally we’re ready for that. Interesting question, though. Do you go to the theatre often?
MF: I don’t actually. Apart from attending film screenings I almost never voluntarily go to the theatre. Except when there’s something like Gravity playing in theatres I’d rather pay to watch a film at home on my computer or TV or tablet.
SC: That’s how I feel too. I know a lot of people love to go to the theatre. But I’d love to see theatres adapt to the people instead of the other way round. At this point I feel like I’m being challenged to come to a theatre. I don’t really know what it’s like here but ..
MF: It’s pretty bad here.
SC: (Chuckles) Ok .. I mean it’s just not an easy prospect to go the theatre, and be forced to watch ads, and even most of the films aren’t so great. I think there’s nothing more satisfying than downloading a movie, watching five minutes of it, and going ‘NOPE that’s not for me I’m outta here’. When you go to a theatre and pay all that money and… well… it’s just not a very pleasurable experience.
MF: Thanks to the internet a lot of good indie movies, yours included, and even some smaller Hollywood films that aren’t marketed by the studios get a lot of appreciation and the audience that they deserve. Do you think at some point in the future the Academy awards will become irrelevant and internet’s word of mouth will actually decide a film’s success and failure?
SC: Oh yes. I think that’s already true. Take for example Kubrick – he was never awarded an Oscar, I think maybe a technical one for 2001. He’s still considered as one of the greatest filmmakers. I think even Orson Welles was never recognized by the Academy. I think these things are very temporary. There are films that came out ten years ago, that made hundreds of millions of dollars, and they’re just not relevant any more. Everything’s a campaign, how can you know what is true outside of the cloud? I’m not gonna win an Oscar, that whole system is certainly not anything that I understand.
MF: Based on your two films it’s really hard to figure out who you are inspired by. Some people compared Upstream to Malick’s films, but that is clearly not true. Which films or filmmakers are you really inspired by?
SC: Well it’s not like I seek out really obscure films or pieces of art, I just have a compulsion to do things a certain way. One of the several other movies that inspired me to try to make a film is Coppola’s The Conversation – I just watched it again a week ago, and it never stops being inspiring. There’s also this Neil LaBute very small budget independent film called In the Company of Men – that movie in particular enthralled me with the fact that the whole film was just a couple of guys talking on the screen and it could still carry dramatic tension. I realized this is a possibility, and that you have to respect the attention of an audience.
Alejandro Amenabar made this wonderful film called Agora that has Rachel Weisz as a philosopher mathematician in 4th century Roman Egypt. It shows different religions jockeying for power on the streets of Alexandria - it’s quite beautiful and it’s a topic I always wanted to address.
MF: A few months ago you’d said that you don’t want to pursue A Topiary any longer. Is that still the case or have you changed your mind?
SC: Oh I don’t think I can pursue it any more.
MF: Damn it.
SC: I know, I know, I really would like to, but I haven’t been able to raise any financing for it.
MF: There’s a scene in Upstream where the lead character is editing some sci fi movie on her computer, is that a scene from A Topiary?
SC: Yeah, I’d developed about 30 minutes of test effects shots, and the footage you see is from those tests.
MF: The whole of the internet wants to know this - what was your connection with Rian Johnson’s Looper?
Oh I met Rian a little bit before The Brothers Bloom, we became friends and he saw what I was doing in the effects shots for A Topiary. He had an idea in Looper where there was this certain concept that he wanted to do where internally what it would be like for somebody to have their memory erased. And it had to do with something washing in and washing out and that things would change as the current was moving. We talked a lot about what that would look like and we came up with a few concepts and I was going to take a stab at doing that. My solution didn’t gel with the studio, they were doing all of their effects through their process and here I was, this outcast, and it was basically having to build this entire effects company over here when all their effects were over there. In the end it was just like let that company figure it out and Rian decided not to have an effect in those scenes anyway. So it was a bunch of talking but it didn’t really materialize.
MF: Given a chance will you ever make a big budget commercial Hollywood film?
SC: Wow no I can’t even imagine that.
MF: Have you received any offers lately for a mainstream commercial film?
SC: Ummmm (Long pause) .. no I haven’t. Even the people that I know are successful, they don’t get calls where somebody says ‘here’s the offer’. It’s more like ‘hey so and so is interested in you doing this film, what do you think?’ And you have to come in and say the right things, and get to know each other, and get to the scripting etc etc. With me, it’s just that they don’t want me, and I don’t want them, so there’s never that initial conversation to begin with.
MF: Since you’re in India I have to ask - have you ever watched any Indian films?
SC: Oh no I haven’t, it’s one these things I’m embarrassed about. In the US we are this myopic country and I’m definitely part of the problem. What would you recommend?
MF: There’s a film called Ship of Theseus, it’s made a young independent filmmaker. It’s an interesting, intellectually stimulating film, quite different from the song and dance style Bollywood is known for.
SC: Interesting. Let me write this down.
MF: I know you’re notoriously secretive about your projects, but let me take a chance. What are you working on next and when can we see it?
SC: I’m writing something called The Modern Ocean, and it’s about modern transport ships pretty much fighting each other on the high seas. There are pirates, sniper rifles but emotionally and from a filmmaking standpoint it shares its DNA with Upstream.
MF: I really hope it’s not going to take nine more years until we see it?