Dallas Filmmaker Shane Carruth Makes Movies the Only Way He Knows How: The Hard Way
The camera establishes a tent in the middle of a field. We're in the country, we assume, far away from any metropolis. Then, with a cut to the interior of the tent, we see two cots. A young woman lies on one, a small pig on the other. A mysterious man in a sweater moves between them. He's taking something from the woman and putting it into the pig.
Out of context, this scene from Upstream Color, the luminous new movie by Dallas filmmaker and Sundance cult hero Shane Carruth, makes no sense. Even in context it takes awhile to fully understand what's going on: The woman has had her mind hijacked by a thief who controls other people's thoughts with orchid larvae. The mysterious man, listed in the credits as The Sampler, has come to her aid, by transplanting the larva inside her body to the body of the small pig.
If you could inhabit the scene and slip through the flaps of that tent, you would emerge to find neither a large, open field in the countryside nor a well-appointed craft-services table in Hollywood. You would find, instead, a quiet street in Plano. And if you turned around, you would see Carruth's rental home, with its tan bricks and half-circle drive. A couple tents, purchased from a nearby Walmart, would be erected on his lawn, a crew of 15 scattered across the property, trying to understand and translate Carruth's vision.
"The neighbors did not quite know what was going on," Carruth says.
Judging by how often Carruth has been asked about the meaning of his movies, the same is true of audiences. But to Carruth and his fans, that's part of the allure.
Film geekdom has been waiting for Carruth's sophomore film ever since his first, Primer, won the top prize at Sundance in 2004 — on a $7,000 budget, despite taking years for Carruth to finish. What they'll get when Upstream Color is finally released in Dallas on Friday is a movie that, like Primer, grows in complexity: Eventually, Upstream introduces its main character, Kris, to a man named Jeff, played by Carruth. Jeff has also been a victim of the thief. They form a bond that's mirrored by their animal surrogates at The Sampler's pig farm. The film is about identity and subjectivity, which Carruth strove hard to communicate formally, through the movie's narrow depth of field.
"Things are just outside the characters' experience," he says. "They're trying to find the edges of where things are." He adds, "Having that millimeter that's in focus is suggestive, to me, of only knowing the millimeter that you're touching of a surface or a wall."
With its jump cuts, lack of exposition and fragmented narrative, the experience of watching Upstream Color can be disorienting, and its ending — non-spoiler alert — provides very little resolution. There's a sense of uplift and beauty, but it's undercut by the audience having knowledge the characters don't. What we want — what we expect — are answers, but that runs contrary to what Carruth believes a story should do.
"What I feel like narrative is best at is not trying to deliver answers," he says. "It's trying to do a really thorough job of exploring the questions and where the questions are nuanced."
The reason it took Carruth nine years to not answer these questions has everything to do with control: the control he wants desperately to keep, the control he feared Hollywood would wrest away. He accepts help from very few people — family and friends, mostly, including producers Casey Gooden and Meredith Burke. "He trusts very few people, and so the people that he does trust he leans on heavily," Burke says.
That comes with pitfalls, including a steep learning curve and the risk of getting swept away by his own ambition. Carruth is self-taught in a way most other filmmakers aren't. What he knows about shooting, editing and composing were gleaned from his experience making Primer, which his brother John describes as having the feel of a college project or a hobby.
As kids, John says, there was nothing to predict that Carruth would pursue filmmaking. He recalls Carruth and his three siblings making stop-motion videos as children using Star Trek figurines, but "that was just playtime. There was nothing ever serious about cinematography or film history or anything like that really until maybe a year or two leading up to [Primer]."
He was a curious kid who excelled in math at J.J. Pierce and, later, Stephen F. Austin University. It was a serious car accident that ultimately took Carruth away from software engineering, which he'd long been dissatisfied with, John says. "It was kinda — not kinda, it absolutely was the catalyst to push him towards film and writing and making stories."
The accident happened while Carruth was living in California. During his recovery, he watched movies: All the President's Men, The Conversation, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Days of Heaven. His decision to make Primer, when it came, was a surprise, but his family took it in stride. "It was no different really than when people support their brothers, sons, daughters at baseball games and sporting events," John says. "You go there because that's what you do as family."
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.
"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."
He likely won't, however, be picking up the camera back at his old rental house in Plano. All the world is potentially a stage for The Modern Ocean, which could mean giving up Dallas when it comes time to film. He also worries he's squeezed everything he can out of North Texas. "We are running the gamut as far as inner cities, alleyways, suburbs, trains, outdoors, nature," he says. "I don't believe there's a corner of Dallas we did not shoot in."
That's part of the reason Carruth's been living, sort of, in New York, bouncing from here to there. (The other is its location on the movie-distribution trading route.) "I don't know where I live right now," he says. "I'm about to get back on a plane Tuesday and do another month of traveling. I think I end up back here, but I'm not really sure."
Wherever he lands, he'll be there alone, just him and that blinking cursor, with a script to finish.
"I know full well that here's the project that I'm working on now, we're going to move forward and we're going to make it," he says. "And it's going to be a really good work, and we're not going to waste our time trying to pitch it to people or, I don't know, ask for notes and try to figure out what it is that they would like us to make."
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