Dallas Filmmaker Shane Carruth Makes Movies the Only Way He Knows How: The Hard Way

The director of Upstream Color on why he and Hollywood don't mix: "I'm a problem."

Following Primer's limited release by ThinkFilm, Carruth began work on an ambitious project called A Topiary, which involved mysterious starbursts and a group of boys who make something like robots. By this time, he'd become acquainted with filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, who lent his name to the project, as well as director David Fincher.

"They were so gracious to have lent their names to that project," Carruth says.

But he couldn't raise a dime. The project went nowhere.

Carruth also stars in Upstream Color.
Carruth also stars in Upstream Color.

"That to me means, that's it," he says. What he had seen as common ground between him and Hollywood vanished. "And now I know that wasn't actually there. Even saying these words I'm baffled as to what the hell's wrong with those people out there."

Now, Carruth says, he spends no time stressing about finding his way in and focuses instead on surviving on the outside. Carruth is the writer, director, co-star, co-editor, cinematographer and composer of Upstream, which he's also distributing. He financed it himself, too, with help from a small number of backers. That meant doing the movie on another thin budget. But it also meant he could wear the same array of hats he'd worn on Primer.

"There isn't a way for me to do it traditionally," he says. "That's not really an option for me, just because I know — I'm a problem. I don't know how to function in that way, where the story can be pushed around by anything other than the filmmakers or the storytellers at the center."

He goes on: "I know full well that I'm not the most talented guy for any of these things that I'm trying to do. But what I hope — what I think — is that having my hands in all of them means that it becomes a more singular work. And so, if it's challenging, then the audience can know that — if they feel compelled to take apart what's challenging, they can feel some level of confidence that there's a reason behind it. That it's not just several different people's efforts to craft it into what they think it should be."

Over lunch in Deep Ellum, Gooden, who acted in Primer and has made several short films, says the team had discussions during production over how to distribute Upstream. In the end, the thought of giving any amount of control to someone outside his small circle was too much for Carruth.

The idea "was to control every aspect of how it's presented to the audience," Gooden says, "and not let anyone else dictate when we're brought out and how we're brought out and what it looks like — the marketing, the trailers, the posters."

They believe it paid off. Gooden says they had 20 screens booked before the movie had even premiered at Sundance in January. When we spoke last week, they were up to 65 and expected that number to rise by as much as two dozen. "This is the way to go for him and his films," Gooden says.

This expansion of Carruth's DIY approach has kept that lone-wolf aspect of Upstream at the center of conversation among his fans and the press: When the movie screened at New York's IFC Center on April 5, it broke a record for the number of advance tickets sold. His team insists that's not why he does it that way.

"He wants the work to sort of stand alone and be evaluated in comparison with any work, not just works in this category, for this budget, or shot on this thing," Burke says. Yet, outside of the films themselves, nothing draws more attention to Carruth than his own back story. They're not likely to complain if that helps them translate the buzz around Upstream into money for their next project, a much bigger (and more expensive) film called The Modern Ocean.

"It's set at sea with a group of people that are trying to perfect trading routes for trading commodities and make them more profitable," Carruth says. "It essentially becomes a tragic romance because all of our characters are chasing down goals that are at odds with each other and there's a history that starts to unfold. And then we wind up being in sort of an adventure with pirates and privateers and ships at war, and all of these other things."

With such a large scope — Pirates! Trading routes! Commodity prices! Love! — it seems almost impossible that Carruth could keep donning all those hats. "I want to write and direct, I want to do music, I want to be considered the cinematographer," he says. "What I do want, though, is to have the resources to have departments that can support all that. I want to be composing music; I don't want to be the guy who's worrying about whether the software in the mixer needs to be updated or the firmware has an issue. That's the bit I need to let go of, and I need to find money to pay for that so I'm not that guy."

Gooden adds: "I think it's possible for him to wear the hats that he wants to wear. And if he wants to grab the camera, then, yeah, I don't see why he won't just grab the camera and shoot."

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