In 2004, Shane Carruth's micro budget sci-fi drama Primer won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Following two young scientist buddies who invent a device that manipulates time, the film was distinguished by decidedly technical dialogue, an experimental plot structure and a probing philosophical edge. It refused to simplify aspects for mainstream audiences, and later went on to earn widespread critical acclaim.
I’ve been pleased by other people’s version of what the movie is about, but for myself, I wouldn’t like to say
Almost a decade later, Carruth's second film, the romantic thriller Upstream Color, is even less easy to define. The director himself prefers that the trailer and posters speak for themselves. “I'm really comfortable with other materials conveying and contextualising the film,” says the filmmaker. “I've been pleased by other people's version of what the movie is about, but for myself, I wouldn't like to say.”
Even more enigmatic and hard to define than Primer, the events of Upstream Color involve Jeff (played by Carruth) and Kris (Amy Seimetz), who've become drawn together after realising they've both had their lives compromised in similar ways. Although oblivious to the events, Kris was drugged by a thief and had a wormlike parasite inserted into her which resulted in a state of manipulative hypnosis. The film explores the ambiguous connection between the two characters as they piece together their damaged lives.
While the initial plot may read like an early body horror offering from David Cronenberg, Carruth has his own distinctive agenda to explore. “What I wanted to do was take a character and put her in a situation where she wakes up and looks like she's done some things that she can't explain and then she is basically redefined as the narrative changes,” explains Carruth. “I wanted to explore the idea of how much of our identity is malleable and dependant on where we get our news from, what our relationships have been like in the past and where we were born in the world. The more I was playing with subjectivity, the more I became convinced that it's a way to name the off-screen forces that we think are affecting us or affecting everything – whether that be religious, cosmic or biological forces or some small molecular mechanism that is the reason things are happening.”
Eschewing traditional dialogue scenes with a fragmented structure that invites speculation and personal interpretation, Upstream Color draws heavily on sound and imagery to suggest meaning. Music is a crucial element, too, and was something that evolved during the production process. “I wrote the whole score while I was writing the script,” says Carruth. “Then as the elements of the production came together – experimenting with cinematography, how affective that would be in suggesting curiosity and then seeing how affective Amy was as an actor – there was something that told me half the music I wrote was somehow wrong,” he says “Then I realised that the music was playing the mind of the audience and what they're seeing on screen. What it needed to be doing was conveying the mind of the onscreen characters and what their experience was.”
Taking on a plethora of creative roles, including writing, producing, camera operating, editing, composing and co-starring in the film, Carruth admits he may have a problem with delegation. “It's a personality flaw, basically. It started off as necessity with Primer. I was naïve and didn't know any of this stuff and didn't know anybody in the film production industry,” he reveals. “With this I got extremely passionate about the story and didn't really want to let anybody from outside to know it existed. I needed to take hold of it and really get it going and it's just sometimes easier if, [for example], you know what the music should be like than to choke somebody else into writing something that's sort of what you want – it works like that across all the departments,” he continues. “But delegation is something that I have to solve. I need to do a better job at that!”
In addition, the filmmaker is distributing the film himself in North America (Palace Films is releasing it in Australia), out of a wariness that Upstream Color could be wrongly packaged and also to enable him to reach out to open-minded audiences. “I felt there was the potential that the film could be sold as something that it's not. For example, there are a lot of elements in the film that could be sold as a horror film, which it's not,” he suggests. “I want to be in control of what an audience knows about this, what they think about it, and try to convince people that are open to the exploration or to let them know that it's available. Doing the distribution myself meant that I got to make those kind of decisions, crafting trailers and posters according to my sense of things.”
When asked what he wants audiences to take away from Upstream Color, the filmmaker says he can only describe this in terms of what he would want as a viewer. “I like the story to explore material that's new and maybe universal enough that's its worth the effort,” he considers. “But I also like to be challenged and have something to revisit in my head afterwards or perhaps to watch the film again and have a richer experience, as long as the subtext of the meaning is actually worth spending time on and not just a puzzle to solve.”
Upstream Color is released in Australia August 22.