Shane Carruth wrote, produced, edited, scored, and acted in his 2004 directorial debut, Primer, a labyrinthine time travel narrative, which, in the decade since its release, has been analyzed and charted by cineastes and lovers of thoughtful science fiction. Before becoming a director, the 40-year-old Texan studied mathematics and worked as a software engineer, earning technical skills he applied deftly to the film’s meticulous details. Primer, which was made for $7,000, was lauded for its seemingly realistic portrayal of far-out ideas and won the Grand Jury Prize at that year’s Sundance Film Festival.
This Friday, Carruth will release his anticipated follow-up, Upstream Color, for which he has added distribution to his long list of auteur duties. The film is a mysterious soup of percolating sonic textures, often-wordless acting, and a nebulous storyline that is simultaneously preternatural and deeply connected to the natural sciences. The film is loosely constructed around the life cycle of an organism that moves from plants to worms to humans—who drop into a trance when the worm enters them—to pigs and back to plants. The unwilling recipients of this parisitic organism experience a sensation that borders on love, metaphysical unity, and, eventually, a blurring of identity.
This cycle is never explicitly described, and detailing the plot of Upstream Color is about as revealing as pulling apart the storylines of Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, or Terrence Malick films. Like these directors, Carruth creates experiences, not illustrated narratives. And while he speaks openly about the conditions surrounding the film’s genesis, he is reluctant to discuss the film itself, which is a hermetic, meticulously constructed world that exists outside the confines of language. Over coffee at a Manhattan hotel, Carruth wrestles with questions about Upstream Color while considering the bleak reality of today’s science fiction.
BULLETT: You’ve said you prefer the word “mythic” to science fiction when describing Upstream Color. Why is that?
SHANE CARRUTH: I like the pure idea of science fiction. What I don’t like is what it’s become or what people understand it to be today. We’ve got to explore something universal in a narrative—that’s the whole point of science fiction. The Greeks used mythology. They had a whole system of gods they could use to represent different aspects of nature.
Exactly. Unfortunately most of today’s science fiction is used for sheer entertainment or titillation or just as an aesthetic. But I hope that the architecture of the [Upstream Color] story is so strong that you could repurpose it. You could take it out of this film completely, repurpose it in a hundred years in a different setting with different characters, and it would still be relevant. Everything about it feels more like a fable than a modern story.
Can you think of other stories or films that function in a mythic way?
Heart of Darkness. It’s about the suspense of going upriver and putting an end to something that has changed and maybe isn’t what you thought it was going to be. That’s a universal concept that could be repurposed a thousand different ways.
And, of course, it was repurposed in Apocalypse Now.
Yeah, I mean, we’re talking about archetypes. Star Wars is also full of archetypes. There are things that are common no matter where you come from.
How important is cause-and-effect logic to telling a story? Primer, for instance, sort of hinges on that.
Logic is extremely important. You’ve got to have a house with a really good structure before you can start putting in floorboards and painting walls in different colors. When the architecture is solid, then you have the permission to be lyrical.
Primer has been described as a puzzle with an answer that can be revealed over multiple viewings. But this new film doesn’t seem to have an answer—just more questions.
The hope is that it’s not something you have to see twice or more, but rather something you want to see twice or more. The narrative bits get less and less important the further along you get. They’re still in there, of course, if somebody wanted to dissect every nook and cranny of how it unfolds. Nothing is in there because I went down some madman path. It’s either a perfectly cemented story or it’s my attempt to make one, and maybe I’ve failed—but nothing is in there just because I’m in love with a piece of music or an image of ice water.
You’ve said that you have to “infect culture at some level so that this [film] has a chance to live on its own,” and I wonder if this metaphor of art as organism is something that’s important to you.
Yeah, completely. If we’re just talking about filmmaking, there are two ends of the spectrum. On the far left is this: You can write a screenplay and it can go in the corner of your room and no one will ever read it and it won’t ever get made. It won’t matter because it can’t matter, because no one has experienced it. On the far right is this: You can make a film that everybody wants to pay 15 bucks to see, and it can make a billion dollars, but, to be honest, it probably doesn’t have a lot of substance to it and it probably won’t be relevant in a hundred years. Then there’s an entire spectrum in between of connecting really deeply with a small group of people or connecting maybe not so deeply but with a bigger group of people. I don’t have to win the lottery on the far right, but I have to do something better than let the screenplay be in the corner of my room. It has to somehow get out there so that it has a chance to live, so that people get to see it and to judge whether or not they’d like to dismiss it. If it isn’t worthy of continuing to exist in culture, then it won’t. But if it is, it will. It’s like with a virus—when you study a virus there are just a couple of mechanisms that dictate whether or not it’s going to kill the world, and one of them is that it not only has to be deadly but it’s got to wait a bit before it kills the host.
So that the host can move and spread the virus.
Yes, exactly. That’s breaking it down way too simply and the metaphor doesn’t really work after a while, but that’s the way I think of it. You’ve just got to infect at some level.
For you, is bewilderment a worthy response from an audience?
If I started talking to you in Portuguese right now, you would be immediately confused. But eventually you’d catch on—“Oh wait, that’s not even English. That’s something else.” And then you can decide whether you want to care or listen or draw correlations. But if you’re trying something new that doesn’t have a clear category or definition, then it’s going to bewilder some people and that’s not their fault—I don’t think it’s mine either—because it’s unfortunately part of the process.
Is newness important to you?
Yes, it is.
Because I see writing like this: We all wake up in a cave and don’t know where we are, so we assign people to dig in certain directions. When they carve tunnels, we start to understand the place in which we exist. Everything that’s new is a new direction, or maybe it’s not completely new. Maybe somebody went down a tunnel that’s already been carved and decided halfway down to carve left. We’ll eventually tunnel out something that will define what’s universal about our experience, so I think we’ve got to try something new.
Where are we going?
Where are we going? That’s why I love writing.