Friday Film: Peter interviews director Shane Carruth about his new film Upstream Color

Film Friday . . . in which Peter urges you to go see a movie.


While posts about film adaptations of comics or ticket giveaways may crop up here occasionally, this time I am going to give a straight ahead recommendation to a film opening at the TIFF this week. I have long recommended Shane Carruth’s first film “Primer” (2003). If one wants to classify it as science fiction then it is certainly among my few favourite films of the genre. “Upstream Color” now joins that list.

His films are mercifully free of the heavy handed exposition that tends to accompany any science in contemporary entertainment and “Primer” is one of the only films I can recall where engineers talking amongst themselves actually speak like engineers talking amongst themselves.

I had the pleasure of seeing his latest film “Upstream Color” last week and, like “Primer”, I will be thinking about this one for a long time to come. It has already been widely reviewed and summarized (New York Times and Film School Rejects) and there are much better edited interviews (Film School Rejects and Christianity Today) than anything I can offer. (I promise you, this will be the only time this website will ever out-link to

In part because his films are difficult to talk about succinctly, the story of their production end up being discussed as much as the films themselves. Notably, he has assumed the roles of producer / writer / director / lead actor / composer / editor / cinematographer in the past — and on his new film, taking on distribution and publicity.

Comics and cinema were equal interests/loves of mine for a long time and my tastes in both run down similar paths: the extent to which I find a work interesting is directly proportional to how much a single artistic personality shows through in the work. This is often much easier to find in contemporary comics than it is in film, and I get to deal with cartoonists making and selling their own work every day. There are, of course, collaborations in comics that I love and find fascinating (Sim & Gerhard, Dupuy & Berberian, Ruppert & Mulot) but it is no secret how often I first turn to the works of Seth, Chester Brown, Chris Ware, etc. when recommending comics.

In getting the chance to talk with Carruth, I wanted to ask him about him about some of the elements in his films that interest me most. He gave long, thoughtful answers and I wanted to present many of them in full. Please note SPOILERS FOLLOW the trailer below.

Much has been made of the extent to which you are filling as many of the roles in making this film as possible. How much of this has been by necessity and how much by design?

I wish I knew that. No matter what, the answer is going to be nuanced. When I’m writing I have something in my head and I’m not necessarily confident that we will execute it until I do a few things. I write the music that I feel is a close approximation of what I need for that, I will typically go out and do some camera tests, make sure that the shot that I need can be executed in the way I think it needs to be — and a few other things. Those give me a level of confidence that “OK, great, we can get to this moment and I can build on this” and that is a known quantity and then before long I have something that I feel is the full score for the film. It becomes difficult to invite somebody else in to be a composer so that they can be frustrated with my preconceptions of what it should be.

When it comes to cinematography, it is the same thing. When I know the lighting schematic, when I know how we are going to use light as a sub-textual presence, it becomes more and more difficult to hand that off to somebody else. It starts of as necessity, or confidence building excercises and before long I can’t step away from it. I was entertaining the idea of doing just that and just focusing on writing and directing and trying to get wonderful, competent people but at this point I’m just sort of going to embrace the things that I am passionate about even if I’m not the best person that should be doing them. I’m hopeful that there is something that arises from having my hands in different departments that you can make sure that they are all unified and working together.

That doesn’t mean that it isn’t collaborative, David Lowery is the co-editor and that was a truly collaborative experience. Tom Walker, production designer — a truly, truly collaborative experience. Amy, as an actress, that was incredible collaborative so, I’m learning about where I’m going to be a control freak and where I’m going to let it go a bit. But what I think it comes down to is that these are three people that are willing to spend the time and energy invested in internalizing the story and intent of the film — and that is mandatory. I don’t know that that is always the case.

Do you have role models in the world of film in terms of this complete approach?

Yes, absolutely. Same ones that everyone would know.

Sodebergh, is all over his films in terms of editing and cinematography as well as writing and directing. He is a real, I hate the words “art” and “artist”. You know when you watch his films that you are only seeing things that have been filtered through or have been created by his singular sense of it. Everyone says Kubrick, but that is not wrong, Kubrick is amazing. I lately have been more and more inspired by Godard and Truffaut, not necessarily because of a controlling nature but the sense that shooting on the sorts of cameras that they were and the film stock they were shooting on really did say “look, the tools are not the thing, the tools are not the story, the story is the story and we are going to use whatever is appropriate”. At least that is what is being communicated to me. I’m never looking to ape anybody or copy somebody but these people give you permission to think in a certain way. In a way that would be difficult to set out on your own and just decide — there are precedents set and you have permission to try that yourself.

We talked a little bit about comics, which he used to read but not currently and didn’t get into any specifics other than being of the age to remember the release of the original Miller Dark Knight. He said found the “inherent strength of comics is in composition” and how provocative one wonderfully distilled image can be. We also spoke about storyboarding and it comes as no surprise that he does his own. Given that he is also the one reading them it isn’t so much a problems that “they are not good, they are chicken scratch little things you can barely tell, that ‘oh that is supposed to be a head, a building or a corridor’”.


Now a question about your storytelling — you are on record as having a dislike of unnecessary exposition. North American cinema tends not to have excessive exposition but closure is often overplayed as well. The last scene in “Primer” manages to be very satisfying without providing closure or tying up a significant number of threads. “Upstream Color” provides a little more closure not just for central characters, but also for some characters we meet only at the film’s end. Do you have any particular thoughts about closure as it exists in North American cinema?

I’ve never had to verbalize this, but yes. I think narrative works best when it is not a morality tale and it is not trying to preach a truth of some kind and it is not trying to have a happy ending for the sake of it, or a sad ending for the sake of it. Narrative works when the exploration is doing a really good job of defining the edges of a question or a condition that is universal or nuanced, something really difficult to sum up in paragraph. That’s what I think narrative is best at — well, that is half of it, the other half is, we’ve got to tell a story, to compel an audience or reader to stick around, minute by minute, and want to stick around for that next minute. Those are the two halves as I see them. If we only talk about the exploration half, or the sub-textual half, if I have an ending, [as] in this movie, if [instead] Kris were able to find that guy, the thief, that did that to her from the beginning, and she did him in and found justice and then resolved her situation and we played it out the way we did, unfortunately I believe that that is saying that if you can face down the fog of your own narrative and pierce through it, that you will eventually solve it and I don’t know if that is a true thing. Even if I thought it was I wouldn’t be preaching it because I’m not here to deliver a true statement, I’m here to deliver what I think is a true question.

An ending for me is like “Yeah, we’ve got to stop telling the story at some point.” The best I can do is a version of encapsulating what we’ve been exploring so far and that is what I’m trying to do with Upstream. There are two things that happen in the last fifth of the film. One is that Kris goes and gets the guy that she finds culpable for her state and this is a guy that we never saw him do anything harmful. He has only ever been an observer, but she’s got it fixed in her head that he’s the guy — and she does him in and that breaks the cycle and she does find a resolution — but it is more or less that she is replacing one false narrative with another. She’ll never know that, only we will know that from seeing the film. The very ending where the cinematography, music and Amy’s performance, everything about that last scene is telegraphing something of peacefulness, resolution and positiveness. I think really the text of it is not that, the text of it pretty melancholy — here is a woman that we know will never have children, that the best she can do is have some weird connection to livestock that are never going to properly return it, I imagine, and so that is the best I can do. She is having a subjectively positive moment but the text of the story is not positive. It is like we are still playing with false narratives all the way to the credits.

Upstream Color opens at Tiff Bell Lightbox April 12th