Shane Carruth stunned Sundance in 2004 with his ultracheap time-travel tale, Primer. Now, after nearly a decade of silence, the DIY director is back with a trippy meditation on life called Upstream Color.
”Insanity is the insistence on meaning,” the poet Frank Bidart once wrote. So, yes, if you’re walking down the street, and you start to notice patterns in the world around you — say, in the directions that the birds are flying, or the numbers that pop up on signs and addresses — and you think someone is trying to send you a message, you might be crazy. Then again, if the same thing happens when you’re in a movie theater, you’re probably just watching a Shane Carruth film.
When the self-taught director’s new feature, Upstream Color, opens in select theaters in April (it’s also available on demand starting May 7), it’s bound to inspire endless theorizing about what it all means. The film, which is not rated, follows a mysterious man who drugs a woman (Amy Seimetz) with a hallucinogenic worm, brainwashes her, and steals her money. While she’s trying to put her life back together, she meets another man (Carruth) who may have gone through the same thing. Also, the story involves a pig farm. Let’s just say it’s complicated. But if the plot is hard to sum up, Carruth is okay with that. He compares watching Upstream Color to listening to a record. ”Nobody gets to the end of the album and thinks, Okay, I know all there is to know about that,” says the 40-year-old. ”You listen again, and over time you find the patterns.”
Carruth is best known for his 2004 debut, Primer, a visionary time-travel movie that he made for $7,000 by writing, directing, filming, editing, producing, starring, and composing the score himself. He’s since earned a cult following of superfans who watch his films again and again, searching for symbolism. (Full disclosure: I once spent a whole day on a Primer message board, trying to map out its different timelines by color-coding each scene.) After Primer beat out crowd favorites Napoleon Dynamite and Garden State for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004, Steven Soderbergh became one of Carruth’s many devotees. ”I view Shane as the illegitimate offspring of David Lynch and James Cameron,” he tells EW.
But at the height of his fame, Carruth disappeared. He spent the next five years writing his second feature, A Topiary — a sci-fi epic about a group of kids who build a giant, animal-like creature — and living off the money he made from Primer. Though Soderbergh and David Fincher signed on to produce A Topiary in 2009, Carruth couldn’t raise the projected $14 million budget. He has called it ”the thing I basically wasted my whole life on.”
So when Sundance announced that Upstream Color would premiere at the fest this year, Carruth’s fans were eager to welcome him back. It helped that Upstream was another DIY project, one that found him not only writing, directing, and producing but also distributing the movie himself. In the hours after the announcement was made, ”Upstream Color” was reportedly trending higher on Twitter than ”Sundance.” And Carruth is only too happy to have viewers pick his movies apart again. ”I’m hopeful that people see the story the first time and there’s an emotional experience,” he says. ”But as far as being able to see movies over and over and realize, Oh, there’s something else in there? I like that.”
If the movie is a bit of a mystery, so is Carruth. He doesn’t like to talk about his personal life, but he has acknowledged that he once worked as an engineer, developing flight-simulation software. Online photos recently captured him shooting Upstream Color with a hacked GH2 camera, but he’d rather not talk about that, either. And he won’t discuss the budget. But maybe that all adds to the film’s intrigue. ”There’s a lot of speculation about Shane’s living circumstances,” says Soderbergh, laughing. ”He’s so off the grid! The particulars of how he supports himself are too terrifying to contemplate. But every time I see him, he seems healthy and clean.”
Knowing that Carruth was a math major at Texas’ Stephen F. Austin State University, some fans have noticed connections between the pigs and the humans in Upstream Color and suggested that the movie is a nod to the Theory of Everything in physics, which links all physical phenomena. But Carruth says he was inspired by a debate he had with his friends, in which each person kept repeating his or her own beliefs. ”It got me thinking that everything a person thinks is already cemented,” he remembers. ”So I thought, What if we stripped that away, and somebody’s forced to rebuild that?… It’s really about subjectivity. Nobody is having the same experience.”
You could say the same thing about watching Upstream, and that’s exactly what Carruth wants. ”The best writers can do is define the question,” he says. ”I don’t think the answers are really for us to figure out.”