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Interview: Shane Carruth Talks Trying To Make The Perfect "Album Film" With 'Upstream Color'

The Playlist By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist April 3, 2013 at 2:35PM

In Part One of our Shane Carruth interview, we brought you news of the "Primer" director's other projects -- the abortive "A Topiary," his work on Rian Johnson's "Looper" and the gestating "The Modern Ocean." But, of course, the real excitement is for "Upstream Color," which hits theaters this Friday, and it's a film that those Playlisters who've seen it have been profoundly impressed by. We can't wait for what will no doubt become a lively discourse because, much as we loved it, the film's willful impressionism has seen more than a few viewers, perhaps initially attracted by the genre trappings, leave the cinema (early) and frustrated. But as Carruth himself says, "People who are getting it are really getting it," and we humbly count ourselves among the latter group. During our extensive interview with the filmmaker at the Berlin International Film Festival, we got to talk in depth about his inspirations, his process and his hopes for the film's reception.
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Shane Carruth, Upstream Color

In Part One of our Shane Carruth interview, we brought you news of the "Primer" director's other projects -- the abortive "A Topiary," his work on Rian Johnson's "Looper" and the gestating "The Modern Ocean." But, of course, the real excitement is for "Upstream Color," which hits theaters this Friday, and it's a film that those Playlisters who've seen it have been profoundly impressed by. We can't wait for what will no doubt become a lively discourse because, much as we loved it, the film's willful impressionism has seen more than a few viewers, perhaps initially attracted by the genre trappings, leave the cinema (early) and frustrated. But as Carruth himself says, "People who are getting it are really getting it," and we humbly count ourselves among the latter group. During our extensive interview with the filmmaker at the Berlin International Film Festival, we got to talk in depth about his inspirations, his process and his hopes for the film's reception.

"Narrative is always going to be a bit puzzling because if it wasn't it would be a thesis that would explain the exploration, and no one would read that because what would be the point?"
The Playlist: "Upstream Color" doesn't feel at all compromised, but with a personal financial stake at risk, how did you approach the balance between artistic aims and commercial appeal?
I have to admit, the narrative is two parts -- maybe not only two parts -- but in my mind it's two major parts. And one is all the stuff that I want it to be: the exploration, the subtext, all the stuff that makes me feel good about creating something that might have some real nutrition in it. But then there's the other half which is keeping an audience or reader's attention moment by moment, and that's storytelling, that's '1001 Nights.' We've been doing this for a long time, so I definitely have a commercial sensibility whatever that is, but that doesn't mean everything.

I can only write to myself as the audience and I know what appeals to me. And it's not the most obscure works in the world. I still enjoy things that are enjoyed by large enough group of people to warrant them existing. So that's the measuring stick.

And how do you feel about the reaction so far?
I've really been happy. Because the film is what it is, and it was going to be divisive -- that much I was pretty sure of. I tell myself that's because it's trying something new and there are some people that are always going to get that immediately and judge it accordingly and maybe have a good experience, maybe not. But then there are others that are going to have a certain expectation and this film is not going to meet that for them because it's trying something else. So that necessarily means that when it's first met by an audience there will be some division.

What I'm really happy about is that it's seems to be leaning more positive than that and people that are getting it are really getting it. It's sort of being reflected in the Q&As. You know, there's a nightmare version of a Q&A where you get "What camera did you shoot it on?" "What was the budget?" "What was it like working with X?" [ironically all these questions were asked at the Berlin Q&A] and I really feel like most of the time these Q&As are pretty substantial and are really getting to what the film has on its mind, and that's pretty satisfying. So I don't know if it could be much better.

I think of this as the beginning of the conversation. When I read a review online and somebody is just absolutely getting what the film is trying to do and they did it in one viewing, and I see that a few times, that to me means it is there. So now it's a matter of whether of a consensus can be built. I am not the most confident person in the world but I could not be more confident in this work -- it's a very good thing. So I feel like it's an eventuality that people will come to see it on the terms that it wants to be seen, and that's all I could really hope for.

Upstream Color

Speaking of getting the film "in one viewing" is that what you envisaged, or did you design it with an eye to repeat viewings?
My hope is that there will be by the end of one viewing a real emotional experience that's not un-understandable or obtuse: we know what we just experienced in terms of the emotional arc of the film. I think plot-wise, my feeling is that most of it's coming across [first time]. The thing is the storytelling is very dense and the way it's explored is lyrical, and that will tend to be not so on the nose.

But it's funny, because I've read some negative reviews that say, "Oh, this is obscure, it's obtuse" and then they'll go and list the plot, point by point and they're nailing it! They're getting it completely, so then I'm left to wonder, "Well, what was obscure about it?" And it can only have been, I guess, the meaning of these events, which to be honest, that's fine -- isn't that what we want? Isn't that what we're doing? Narrative is always going to be a bit puzzling because if it wasn't it would be a thesis that would explain the exploration, and no one would read that because what would be the point?

I think of it as an album that you put on and after you listen to an album once you can definitely know whether that's your style and whether that's something you want to spend any time with, but you don't have your full experience yet -- you don't have that for another maybe eight months and if it's a good enough thing to live with, then you live with it, you internalize it and you come to know more about it.

I don't think "Upstream Color" is quite yet the perfect version of that, but that's what I am compelled by now, I think that's a form I would like to see perfected: the album film. You put it on and you experience it for a longer amount of your life than just once and then you have an opinion…

This article is related to: Shane Carruth, Upstream Color, Berlin International Film Festival, Interview, Interviews


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