Nearly 10 years ago, filmmaker Shane Carruth practically came out of nowhere with Primer, a brainy sci-fi thriller about two engineers who accidentally invent a time machine. The film won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, and longtime fans wondered what Carruth would do next. There were rumors of another film called A Topiary, but the project was scrapped, so Carruth surprised the film world when he announced his follow-up Upstream Color would headline this year at Sundance.
Like Primer, Upstream Color (which opens TODAY at West End Cinema) has a challenging narrative, yet attentive audiences will find it accessible. It tells the story of Kris (Amy Seimetz), a woman who’s the victim of a dangerous kind of mind control. A thief (Thiago Martins) infects her with a worm, which leaves her completely open to the power of suggestion. She hands over her livelihood while she’s under hypnosis, and her life is in shambles afterward. Kris tries to rebuild afterward, and then she meets Jeff (Carruth), who instinctively feels a kinship with her. The two form a bond, one that’s fractured by their respective pasts. Kris and Jeff also connect with the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), a mysterious scientist who uses the Thief’s victims for bizarre experiments. All these elements coalesce into a narrative that’s more life affirming than it is obscure. In addition to writing, directing and starring in the film, Carruth also composed the score. And since the last third of Upstream Color unfolds without dialogue, our conversation began there.
What’s your musical background?
I don’t really have any. Like everything else I try to do, I get a little too interested. I dabble, and then I get a little too committed, so I get consumed with it. I took piano lessons when I was a kid, but not enough to where I could actually play. I quit after about a month or so – I got bored with the technique.
Still, the film score is so polished and you’re in a unique position because most filmmakers aren’t also composers. So I’m wondering how thought about musical cues as you filmed?
Most of the music is written in the script stage. All of my bizarre weirdness starts from someplace, but basically when I’m writing a script, I have a sense of how the scene will play out in my head. Writing the music instills a little [early] confidence that we can get there. If I know what we can go with the cinematography, the writing, the locations, the aesthetics, as well as the music, then I know 90 percent of what I need to know. That is a doable scene. That’s the way it starts and before long, I’ve got something I think of as the score. The proposition of hiring a composer just seems frustrating because it’s all set in my head.
Did you ever play music as a means of instructing your actors?
I only played music for Amy. The other actors didn’t need to know exactly what was happening. In the movie, there’s two pieces of music that get combined later into a third piece of music. First, there’s this disjointed piano. It’s trying to be a love theme, but it can’t because it’s stilted just like [Kris and Jeff]. When they meet on the train, that’s the part of the movie where they’re supposed to get along, flirt and be charming. But it’s not working, it’s agitated, and the music reflects that. Then there is another bit of music that’s more ominous and sweeping, with some minor chords. When we wind up in the shared memory section, there’s a combination of the two [pieces] that are playing against each other. Amy heard all of it, but she’s so good she didn’t really need it.
Speaking of the shared memory section, those scenes are so elliptical and strange. What were you trying to achieve with all this repetition?
So much of the movie has to be non-verbal. The characters are affected by things that happen off-screen, but not in a way they can articulate. They can’t even really tell how they’re affected, but we need to know that. Everything that happens in the middle third of this film is trying to convey the subjective experience of the characters on screen. For example, there is a domestic bliss section of the film, where there’s a small inkling where there may be a resolution: that the two of them, together, is something. I guess the editing and camerawork [during those scenes] is meant to convey subjectivity. When I think where I was this time last year, I could probably hone down the week and what I was doing, but I know I’d screw it up. I don’t know whether I argued with someone in the park, or in a hallway. The specific content doesn’t really matter. The memory of the content is what matters. This is my version of a POV shot, basically.
Many scenes raise questions about what’s precisely happening. To what extent do you know the audience to analyze what’s going on? When do you want us to just accept?
That’s a tough one. It’s not a random assemblage of imagery. It’s all there for a reason; admittedly, it’s more veiled than a typical narrative, but it’s almost exactly as veiled as I’d want something to be as an audience member. It’s interesting because everyone is in different places, not in terms of education or intelligence, but in how they receive work. My hope is that in one viewing they’ll more or less see a narrative, and they’ll have some sense of the emotional arc. But as to every little thing and what it means, I don’t expect them to unpack it all in one viewing. It’s always going to be thought about long after the credits and potentially revisited.
I try to think about it in terms of other media. Take poetry, for example. In the best poetry in the world, something about it agitates you and makes you say, “Wait, what? Why?” After a while, those questions become internalized, and meaning arises from that. Upstream Color is going for that. It’s like an album you’d put on repeatedly. I’m not sure I expect people to watch the movie 10 times in a row. I’m curious about that direction, though, in terms of narrative.
To what extent were you playing with tropes of other types of movies? There’s a lot going on in terms of romance and revenge.
There’s actually a lot that’s meant to be subversive. In the last third, Kris has her psychic break and she comes to this understanding that the Sampler is culpable in some way. That’s a version of “Heart of Darkness.” It’s going up the river to solve the problem, but everything from that scene onward is played one way. It’s her subjective experience, so her performance and the film are telling us, “Great. Got it. Got justice.” That’s how it’s performed. And in the end, everything about the film is positive, peaceful, and even warm. But if you were to look at the text of either of those events, the Sampler never does anything to harm her. He’s only an observer. The only guy who does anything to her is the Thief, and she didn’t get him. She supplanted one narrative for another, false one. So in terms of tropes and subversion, that’s definitely what the film is going for.
Where did you get the idea for the worm?
You build up these criteria [for a film]. The solution has to meet six different criteria. It has to be embedded in the natural world, it can’t be some foreign thing that shows up, and it can’t be topical. Otherwise, the story can’t be too specific or it becomes an indictment of something in our culture. So it’s got to be universal, and for me, one way to achieve [universality] is to put the drug in our world. It’s been with us the whole time. I need [the plot] to be a cycle so it’s less conspiratorial: [what we see] is just a cycle that’s out there. When we see the Thief, the Sampler, and the orchid harvesters, they’re all doing their part to promote the cycle, but they’re not doing it knowingly. They’re just doing their part which benefits them in some way. There’s no good or bad, it’s just happening. So where did the idea for the worm come from? It fits into that cycle.
Are these criteria a challenge for yourself as you start a film?
I would love to talk to another writer. When you’re talking about coming up with a narrative, there’s the exploration, there’s the subtext, and there’s all this stuff you want so it’s all a worthwhile exercise. But when you’re talking about the execution or building the plot, problem-solving is the only way to think about that process. It’s got to work, and it’s got to live up to its own logic. And it’s hard. During the shoot, we all spent more time and energy hacking away with what we had instead of using the right tools to make the production excel.
How did you shoot the microscopic special effects?
It’s all practical. Some of it started early in the writing process. I wanted to see this presence that would be permeating [through Kris]. So I started experimenting with time lapse stuff. I ended up with Orbeez, a kid’s toy I bought at Target. They’re a bag of these tiny little pearls, and when put them in water, they soak it up and become the size of marbles. It takes them about an hour to do this, so I would do time lapse shots while I was writing. I would set something up, write, and look at it later. I mixed them with sand and mud, and I’d then light them underneath to achieve this nice blooming effect. And when we got into production, my production designer Tom Walker really came up with some wonderful ways to show the interior of a body. We did a lot of experimenting with worm effects. There’s a lot more that ended up getting cut because the movie was bordering on becoming about beautiful effects, not the story.
Speaking of your production team, to what extent did David Lowery help with the editing process?
He was massive help. He edited while we were shooting. I edited a chunk of it when we began filming, but was slipping. I was losing sleep, other things were failing, and we were falling further and further behind every day. I asked him to help about a month into the shoot, and he was amazing. It was a true collaboration. I would shoot, he would edit, and we’d have our conversations. Sometimes I would talk about what I shot that day – “Here’s why what we shot what we did, and here’s why it doesn’t match the storyboards” – and that would become plan B. He would take that and form a plan C, which would become the blueprint for the next day’s shoot. His ideas were so valuable, and I trusted him because he took the time to understand what it is that we were doing.
I wanted to talk about Thoreau’s “Walden” a little bit since Kris reads from it obsessively. Would my take of the movie change if I saw the movie, read the book, and saw it again?
No, I don’t think it would. The movie is using the book as raw source material. It’s almost like gibberish or Pig Latin in some ways. I don’t mean to disparage the book because it’s wonderful in its own right… It’s just part of my [production] toolkit because the language is appropriate for the scene where she’s quoting passages from the text.
You’ve been doing special screenings of Upstream Color across the country. Do you feel obligated to do them because of the time that’s elapsed between Primer and now?
My obligation is to the film. This is a compromise: what I owe this film is my best attempt to infect culture with it so it has a high enough chance to live on its own. The film could sit in a house in a corner of a room, where no one would ever see it, or it has to reach a certain number of people in order to have a chance of relevance. So when I’m doing audience Q&As even when I suspect that’s something an author shouldn’t be doing immediately after the credits roll, then I’m happy to do it. I’m lucky to do it. That’s the compromise.