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Interview: Shane Carruth Reveals The Mysteries Of 'Upstream Color'

The Playlist By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist April 8, 2013 at 3:02PM

In the hopes that some of you got to see "Upstream Color" over the weekend at one of its few, packed screenings, we're bringing you the concluding part of our interview with director Shane Carruth from the Berlin Film Festival, in which we spoke in a more minute way about the ins and outs of the film's plot, the motivations of some of its key characters, the thematic importance of the sound design and the metaphysics that underlies its ultimate meaning. Those who haven't yet had the singular pleasure of seeing it, we can only urge to go back and read parts one and two of the interview, or our review from Sundance, and then bookmark this one for later, as it's probably too close a reading of the film for anyone who hasn't yet become entangled in its enigmas.
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Upstream Color

In the hopes that some of you got to see "Upstream Color" over the weekend at one of its few, packed screenings, we're bringing you the concluding part of our interview with director Shane Carruth from the Berlin Film Festival, in which we spoke in a more minute way about the ins and outs of the film's plot, the motivations of some of its key characters, the thematic importance of the sound design and the metaphysics that underlies its ultimate meaning. Those who haven't yet had the singular pleasure of seeing it, we can only urge to go back and read parts one and two of the interview, or our review from Sundance, and then bookmark this one for later, as it's probably too close a reading of the film for anyone who hasn't yet become entangled in its enigmas. 


To be safe we'll plaster this with a *spoiler* warning up top too, not because it's a film that we could easily spoil, exactly, more it's that we wouldn't want to rob anyone of any of sheer knotty pleasure of unraveling the proceedings for themselves, and afterwards, amongst friends and beers. And when that process then proves inadequate to your needs, here you can find the writer /director /composer /cinematographer /actor /distributor himself weighing in. 

"I would say 'Upstream Color' is a romance. But I would say the best part of 'The Hustler' is romance, because of that romantic promise that exists when you have characters that don’t have anything to lose."

Carruth has an interestingly ambivalent (but of course!) take on the notion of the author of a piece outlining its "correct" interpretation, though. As he mentioned in part 2 of our interview, he is not exactly a proponent of the anyone's-interpretation-is-as-valid-as-anyone-else's school of thought, while at the same time he acknowledges that sometimes him offering the final word on what x or y means "might not be servicing the conversation or the film" and at worst may seem like "explaining why the joke is funny." 

But all that said, "Upstream Color" doesn't simply invite debate, it demands it, and Carruth, justifiably proud, in his quiet way of the kind of questions his film raises, actually proved happy to plunge right in. 

In "Upstream Color" you combine many generic elements, but if you were forced to define the film as one thing, what would it be? 

That's tough. I would say romance. But I would say the best part of "The Hustler" is romance, because that romantic promise that exists when you have characters that are broken down and don’t have anything to lose, that is so alluring. Once I knew that's where we were going to get to in the story, that’s when I got really passionate for it. The rest of it really services that, I mean, I hope it's fun but that's the way I think of it. 

But there's only a small part of it that's their relationship, some of the romanticism is Kris and her whole story of being broken down and there being some resolution -- it's sort of a comedy of errors and it becomes more of a heart-of-darkness going upstream to solve the problem… but yes. It's tough but I would say romance. 

So we can read it as a kind of metaphorical parallel with the mysterious, uncontrollable process of falling in love? 

Well, [the two characters are] being forced together by offscreen forces -- the pigs are coming together -- but there's a real tension because it's not happening organically. So we’re two people in a city meeting on a train: this is meant to go a certain way. But it's not going that way for whatever reason and I just felt like there would be a lot of tension in that constant poking from offscreen that's pushing you toward something. 

Upstream Color Carruth Seimetz Window

And an extension of that becomes the shared memory bit where something that starts off as romantic, as in "oh, that was your story… No it's mine! It's mine… " -- it's funny, but then before long it's maddening, like, "where do I stop and you begin? This is too much, this communion is not right." Hopefully that's all stuff that's universal in relationships anyway so we get to heighten those and play with those in a very short-cut type way. 

A lot of the romance, the lyricism and the lines we can draw between otherwise unconnected images and events seemed to be a factor of the soundscape you created? 

When it comes to the sound design, it feels like there's a lot of different reasons to heighten it to where it got. One is that so much of what's happening is non-verbal that we have to. And, I keep on coming back to the word tactile, there’s a tactility. We have characters that are always in search of something or curious about something but they can't even speak to what that something is. 

What I imagine it to be is they would have an emotional experience or a mania and they couldn't point to what was causing it and that would drive them to be curious about their surroundings, and so this film has so many shots of hands, coming across walls and sheets and across skin, and it just seems that's how you meet the material world, that's how you come to understand it. 

And that's where you get into the very narrow depth of field with cinematography, and certain shot selection and that's what informs sound, and why the sound would have to be heightened, especially when you're talking about nature and the natural world. We've got characters that we're suggesting are haunted by, one: an experience in which a guy told them his head was made of the sun, and that water was involved and the practice of minutia and stupid moments of rewriting narratives and putting them in paper chains, all of this stuff that doesn't end in anything constructive or meaningful. 

And then there's the language of "Walden" [ed. a novel used literally and figuratively in the movie] which is about the natural world and is this figurative language. All of that points to… we need to hear when a leaf rustles, because we're going to connect that to the paper straws that are being made in a loop. Because there’s no talking about it, what's haunting them needs to come up in volume and be precise. It's hard, because it's a nuanced negotiation and not necessarily something that was decided up front like “Okay, all sound must be perfect now, all sound must be heightened” it's just intuitive after a while. 

Upstream Color Seimetz water
It's certainly evocative...I found myself humming along to a floor cleaning machine's drone in the train station after the film, this weird perfect note that I don't think I'd have heard the same way in other circumstances… 

Things like that happen to me a lot! I'm constantly hearing music in the air conditioning duct systems. And in the film itself there's a lot of sampling -- of washing machines and copiers and the hum underwater. I talked the aquatics park into letting us shoot at midnight, so there was a time where it was just me, and one of the producers and then Amy [Seimetz, who plays Kris], shooting the underwater scenes and it was just eerily quiet. You can hear the sodium lights underwater and it was this weird thing, it would get bass-y underwater, so I recorded that and it became part of the soundscape. It’s this very muffled thing, and then there's different things I would do on my computer after, to shorten it or elongate it or change the pitch or whatever. 

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


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