Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

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.
9

 Amy Seimetz in Upstream Color (skip)
You mentioned that the score you composed changed greatly after the film was shot? 

Yes, I tried to puzzle it apart a little and figure out why is that -- when I wrote this I had a piece of music and it was working fine, but now that we've executed it, it seems out of place? And that's when I finally met the idea that it's because I’m representing cinematographically a subjective experience and my music is informing something else. And that’s when it needed to change and to get in line with the rest of the language. 

"I don’t want to be thought of as somebody who's spiritually ambiguous, but the reality is there’s unknown things happening."
The word "subjective" creeps up a lot in the conversation around the film, yet we're never truly in the characters' heads -- for one thing we have more knowledge than they do so we can't absolutely relate to their state of being. I came to "narrowly focused objectivity" instead? 

I think that's valid. What I want to say when I say subjectivity is POV-type stuff, but I would never make that choice, to shoot from someone's point of view. What I do is, well, there's a lot of shots of the backs of people's heads and of them traversing different areas, so I think that's completely true, we are not in their heads, but we are intimate with their experience and I think that's what I’m trying to get to. 

Very little is spelled out in "Upstream Color," but for me perhaps the most ambivalent and enigmatic character was The Sampler. How do you define his relationship to the pigs, and then to the people connected? 

[The “farm” is] his place to be in touch with the world -- he can go and meditate and be in communion with all of the people that are tethered to these beasts. It's where he goes to get his inspiration, where he goes to get whatever emotional experience he might be shopping for at that moment. 
Upstream Color Sampler Pigs

The hope is that that's a bit of a question, because he ends up being the one that Kris finds culpable for what's happened, I wanted him to be a character that we wouldn't know. Basically all we see him do is observe. We see the thief do something malicious; we see the orchid guy doing something which is the opposite of that -- pretty peaceful and non-confrontational; and then we've got this sampler who is deeply involved with all of the characters but he's only observing. But then the question is, is he culpable at all if he's benefitting from this traumatic experience even though he's not the one who caused it? 

And that became very important because we're talking about offscreen forces. But it's meant to be more universal than a religious or [other] belief system, it should encompass pharmaceuticals or someone with a belief system about fate or cosmic whatever or even political belief systems or anything that informs you of things that aren't your fault that you're being affected by. "They're out there, and I'm the way I am because of this," or "I'm doing what I'm doing because of how they're touching me, affecting me." 

Shane Carruth, Upstream Color

So because of that, The Sampler isn't meant to be necessarily God, but he represents that thing, whether that's a good or bad thing or even real, and so to track him down and blame him and punish him -- it's one of the things that I think is subversive about the film. It's selling a moment that I imagine to be very satisfying in Kris's mind, because she believes that he’s the culprit and so the audience is probably going along with that because the music and everything is telling you "oh we're getting the bad guy." But the text of the story means I would hope somebody would go, "wait, why is he a bad guy? He didn't do anything, what's going on there?"

You mention faith, and that was something I felt most strongly from the film, that it showed a strange faith that everything is ultimately explicable, everything is the effect of causes, and those causes could be found out… but the causes are so infinitely complex that it feels like wonder. 

Yes! Yes absolutely. Arthur C Clarke says any sufficiently advanced technology will appear as magic -- it's meeting the infinite. I'm constantly surprised by… an orange will roll off a table and I'll catch it before I knew it was falling. Something happens there. We could write it off and say "subconsciously I knew that was happening" but there’s so many things every day -- I'm amazed by how little we know. 

Upstream Color biology
Have you heard of these parasites that infect the brains of wasps and make them fly erratically? And ants as well. In the natural world they’re starting to recognize that there are these relationships that are happening where these miniature organisms are infecting the brains of flies and ants and other animals and causing in them behavior that is counterintuitive: making an ant climb to the top of a tree and throw itself off and so all the ants collect in a pile at the bottom and a fungus devours them. And nobody would have expected this to happen because you would have needed to be able to focus on what’s in the brain of an ant to explain the behavior. We're just learning about that -- who knows what else we're learning about? There are so many question marks when it comes to human behavior and even biological behavior. 

I just feel like there are so many things that are coming, there’s going to be some understanding in the next hundred years that will be as much of a sea change in our understanding as relativity or evolution or DNA have been. It just feels like these things will continue to come. And I'm shocked by that, because I feel like I've been raised in a world that says "we’ve figured out everything and now it's just a matter of collecting the data" and I know that we will come to understand something else about how we are communicating. I feel like there's more going on between two people than it seems like. 

I don’t want to be thought of as somebody who's spiritually ambiguous, but the reality is there’s unknown things happening. I’m not ready to point at what they are or what the reason is, but I know they exist.

The self-distributed "Upstream Color" is on limited theatrical release now, and will be available through VOD and digital platforms May 7th.

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


The Playlist

The obsessives' guide to contemporary cinema via film discussion, news, reviews, features, nostalgia, movie music, soundtracks, DVDs and more.


E-Mail Updates