Film and TV

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."

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Andrew Welch
Contact: Andrew Welch