Shane Carruth, the famously reclusive 42-year-old director of the modern classic Upstream Color (2013), is a former software engineer who burst on to the indie cinema scene with the low-budget sci-fi film Primer in 2004. Known for labouring over his projects and his non-derivative style, Carruth was recently in Mumbai for Johnnie Walker—The Journey festival. In this interview, he talks about staying away from commercial Hollywood, the Internet’s role in distributing indie cinema, and his next film.
‘Primer’ was heavily dialogue-based, while ‘Upstream Color’ communicates mostly visually. Was it deliberate to make a nearly silent film after ‘Primer’?
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 Color it was about thematic balance—the characters are affected by themes you can’t speak to, that are off screen, that are touching you emotionally rather than verbally. 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 Color meant to me.
You are director, writer, lead actor, cinematographer, music composer and editor in your films. Is that because you want to be in complete control or is it budget constraints?
Oh it’s a bit of both actually. When I first started Upstream I didn’t know any film-makers, so I couldn’t have even gone to somebody even if I wanted to.
You had made ‘Primer’ before that, I’m sure you had a few offers coming in after that hit the circuit.
Well, there were offers, but the people I was meeting, they were not film-makers. 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.
But do you tend to lose your objectivity sometimes because you’re the boss of everything?
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 10 writers, with many more drafts—that’s not meaningful to me.
‘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?
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.
Some people compared ‘Upstream’ to Terrence Malick’s films. Which films or film-makers are you inspired by?
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 Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation—I just watched it again a week ago, and it never stops being inspiring. There’s also this 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 Amenábar made this wonderful film called Agora that has Rachel Weisz as a philosopher mathematician in fourth-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.
What are you working on next and when can we see it?
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 film-making standpoint, it shares its DNA with Upstream.
I really hope it’s not going to take nine more years.
(Laughs) Me too, I mean I can’t afford to wait that long