Shane Carruth, Indiedom’s purist, on new movies and old regrets

Shane Carruth, Indiedom’s purist, on new movies and old regrets
An image from Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color.”
(Sundance Film Festival)

Shane Carruth has been one of the independent film world’s most interesting enigmas. After bursting on the scene with the time-travel head-spinner “Primer” in 2004, he disappeared for nine years, barely a word uttered about him save for the occasional whisper of a long-simmering sci-fi film called “A Topiary.”

At Sundance this year he finally surfaced --  but with a different film. “Upstream Color,” starring Carruth himself (he also served as actor, editor, cinematographer and in numerous other capacities) is a meditation on love and honesty, told in the form of a relationship between two wounded people. It also involves piglets. As my colleague Mark Olsen wrote in an interview with Carruth before the festival, the movie was an appealing mix of abstract imagery and plot but tender emotion.

In keeping with the overtones of the title and his reputation, Carruth decided to do things his own way and release “Upstream” himself. He hired a publicist and a theater booker but has overseen all aspects of the release. So far, his film has garnered some solid numbers: Playing on one screen at the IFC Center in New York last week, it took in about $30,000, and some of the screenings had an event feel. It’s set to expand to Los Angeles and other cities this weekend.


FULL COVERAGE: Sundance Film Festival

With the movie set to arrive in the Southland, we caught up with Carruth, 40, who remains steadfast that making and releasing a film can be a vision of one person and not the collaborative -- some would say crowded -- undertaking it’s now become even in the indie world.


Like a certain kind of DIY band, Carruth believes that art and vision should come first -- and as a result, so should the person who’s behind the art and vision. (Sure, every filmmaker says that. But you’ll see that he means it in a...different way.)

Carruth’s position will strike some as naive and others as refreshingly purist. Either way, it’s unique. Here’s a piece of our conversation with him.

Movies Now: You’re about five days into the self-distribution experiment. What’s the main motivation for doing it this way?

Shane Carruth: Well, the big part is wanting to be the person who controls how it is presented and sold to the world. I know it’s a lot of work to distribute your film this way. But I would work 24 hours a day for the whole year, for years and years. I don’t mind. I love to work. It’s the idea of having someone else tell you how to make your film or how to sell it -- that’s the part I can’t really deal with. I would rather do 1,000 things that are work than deal with one thing that’s a political problem.

MN: But even the most independent types need a little industry help, don’t they? Or do you have an issue with indie film as an industry in the first place?

SC: I worked at a job for years. That was that phase of my life. I came to filmmaking because it’s my passion. I decided I can’t have it distorted or marred by someone else deciding what it should be.

MN: Did the way “Primer” was retailed [the now-defunct Thinkfilm released the movie to theaters, where it grossed about $500,000] inform your thoughts on film marketing?

SC: I didn’t have a negative experience on “Primer.” It’s more as a viewer -- I just feel like so many times I’m being sold one thing and shown another. Something is marketed as a horror movie and it’s really a romantic comedy, or whatever it is. The idea here is to be more earnest. I can say with all the material we’ve put out that it’s just a smaller part of what the film is. We’re showing what you’re going to see when you watch the movie. We’re not shying away from the fact that this is a challenging film. People won’t be surprised when they see it because they’re seeing a different movie than they expected from the trailer or poster.


MN: How do prospective studio or financing partners react when you try to have a conversation about doing it this way? Filmmaking-as-collaboration is an article of faith in the movie business. So is the idea of a trailer that doesn’t fully represent the movie, for that matter.

SC: The problem is that the current system has so much momentum no one even has that conversation. No one talks about the fact that there is this bait-and-switch. Even the filmmaking--People talk about final cut as if it’s this rare thing that no one should have. But it’s my work. Why should someone else decide what it should be? The established way for me just causes so much anxiety.

MN: But isn’t there’s anxiety in doing it your way?

SC: It’s true, it does create anxiety. But it’s a different kind of anxiety. It’s not the kind where you have to worry about fraying relationships. You don’t having to worry about what someone else wants to do with your movie. You’d be amazed how much space  and time that frees you up to think about other things.

MN: Speaking of things you’ve spent time thinking about, “A Topiary” has been this kind of mythic project, a white whale you never caught. How do you view it in retrospect?

SC: It’s like a relationship that didn’t end well. Maybe it was good, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe you learn something from it, maybe you don’t. But for my own sanity I knew I couldn’t continue. No one will ever finance that movie. I can finance it, but I don’t have enough money to do that, and it will be a long time that I do, if I ever do. So I’ve just moved on.


MN: Going back to “Primer” -- it was such a media darling when it first hit, but you’ve indicated you’re uncomfortable with the movie you made. Is that true?

SC: When I look at “Primer” all I really see is the rough edges. Its heart is in the right place and I think the idea is worthwhile but the execution isn’t good. People talked about it as a puzzle and that is the minute-to-minute narrative, but that wasn’t what the film is really about. And I think I could have constructed it differently so that people didn’t see it that way.

MN: Do you think “Upstream” is a stronger work?

SC: I do. It’s more substantive. It’s veiled, but the film trades in that. These are characters to whom some bad things happen off-screen, so you’re not always supposed to know. Slate just posted a FAQ and it was everything I wanted people to ask about the movie. I wanted to reprint it on our Website. For me to see things being effectively communicated even some of the time was really encouraging.

MN: At the Sundance screening I attended, there were a lot of questions. People were intrigued by some aspects but baffled by others. What’s been your experience as you’ve taken it around the country at word-of-mouth screenings?

SC: There was a lot of discussion, but in a venue like that I think it was earnest. It’s the same at some of these awareness screenings. People really want to understand. I don’t think people necessarily need answers. I think people need to know that there are answers.

MN: You’ve described your next film, “The Modern Ocean,” as a tragic romance.  The title already has some more  water overtones. Will it also have many of your elliptical  touches?

SC: It’s set on the ocean and with people who are figuring out shipping routes, and there are privateers and adventurers and other things that I hope will also be exciting. And I hope we can shoot this summer. Yes, it will have some of the same emotional language as “Upstream Color.” But it will be more linear. There’s just a lot more going on, so it has to be. The thing with “Upstream” is that the audience can be in the dark because the characters are. This won’t be like that.

MN: The conventional wisdom is that whatever a film costs, it’ll cost X amount more when you shoot on the ocean ...

SC: I’m hoping we have the money. A lot of it depends on how “Upstream” does in the next few weeks. When I say it depends on how “Upstream” does  I don’t mean that in an indirect, “I hope it earns money at the box office so people will finance the next one” kind of way. I mean it literally depends on how it does because every dollar I make from that will go into this new film.

MN: I have to ask, how are you able to support yourself--do you live very frugally? Or did you just make enough money in your previous life [Carruth worked in the software industry in Dallas, and now lives in New York] that you can afford just to make movies now?

SC: It’s a little bit of both. And I don’t have a family, so that’s easier. I can live on not very much.  But I am getting older, which makes it a little bit harder to do that. But right now I’m pouring everything into my next movie. It’s the only thing I do. It’s the only thing I spend my time thinking about.


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