Shane Carruth Talks Sci-Fi 'A Topiary,' Shares Plot Details, Reveals Steven Soderbergh & David Fincher Were Going To Produce

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by Kevin Jagernauth
March 19, 2013 12:41 PM
5 Comments
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It's taken nearly a decade, but "Primer" writer/director Shane Carruth has returned this year with another acclaimed head-scratcher, "Upstream Color." A film that we raved was "thematically rich, layered and hypnotic," as the movie heads into release next month and the conversation continues to swell, Carruth is opening up to press. And an extensive, must-read piece in Wired is a good place to start, especially for those wondering just what the heck happened with his sci-fi flick "A Topiary."

As fans know, that was the movie that first bubbled up to the surface as Carruth's followup to "Primer," albeit arriving in the filmmaker's typically cryptic manner. Back in 2010, a website popped up (still active) that declared: "Over and over you have been promised adventure but have not found it." And while we had managed to grab hold of the script (read our breakdown here), as anyone realizes, what's on the page and what eventually is formed in the finished product are two totally different things, and as Carruth shared with Wired, it's an ambitious movie that had a lot of support, but just could never get off the ground. But first, here's what it's (generally) about, excerpted from the magazine:

The opening section follows a city worker who becomes obsessed with a recurring starburst pattern he sees hidden everywhere around him, even in traffic grids. He eventually joins with other believers, forming a kaffeeklatsch-cult that’s soon undone by greed and hubris.

The second half follows a group of 10 preteen boys who discover a strange machine that produces small funnels, which in turn can be used to build increasingly agile robotlike creatures. As their creations grow in power and size, the kids’ friendships begin to splinter and they’re forced to confront another group of creature-builders. The movie ends with a massive last-minute reveal, set deep in the cosmos, suggesting that everything we’ve just seen was directed by forces outside the characters’ control.

As you might guess, Carruth's obsessive attention to detail sent him down a rabbit hole of research for what was proposed as a $20 million film. He visited VFX houses, built his own CGI equipment and started designing the creatures. “That’s where I lose my time,” he explained. “I get obsessed with these little things. I think there’s some novel way to find a solution, and I go down the pathway too far.”

But most crucially, he gained the support of Steven Soderbergh -- a fan of "Primer" -- who brought on board David Fincher after reading the script, with the pair backing the movie as executive producers. But as tends to be the case in Hollywood, while lots of people wanted to make the movie, and had meetings about making the movie (Carruth cut a teaser with some early special effects work he had done along with images from Steven Spielberg's films), and talked about making the movie, no one actually fronted the money to make the movie. “If this were the ’70s, people would be throwing money at him,” Soderbergh reflects. “It’s just a different time now.”

Whether or not Carruth will attempt to revive it again, remains to be seen, but for now he seems to have to have left it behind. “I decided that if nobody was gonna say no, I was gonna have to say no,” he admits. “It sort of just broke my heart.” Ours too.

But luckily, it didn't take him long to dust himself off and get moving again, and the result is "Upstream Color" which opens on April 5th.

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5 Comments

  • JB | April 1, 2013 6:32 PMReply

    yet they gave a first timer (Kosinski) a $170M budget to do a turd like Tron Legacy.... oh the power of franchise ...

  • goldfarb | March 20, 2013 6:22 PMReply

    "...built his own CGI equipment" - meaning computers?
    from the Wired piece "...He even built his own small-scale CGI system, renting cloud computers and writing code."
    this also has little or no meaning...
    small scale CGI system = mac/PC + Maya.
    renting cloud computers = rendering on a rented farm
    writing code = little scripts that VFX artists do everyday != applications like Maya, Houdini etc
    that the playlist would just gloss over these things is expected, but Wired?

  • Jon Davies | March 20, 2013 12:58 AMReply

    You can actually see a bit of effects test footage (confirmed by Carruth at a Q&A tonight) of A Topiary in Upstream Color. Appears in an early scene where Amy Seimetz's character is working on editing a film for a brief moment :).

  • 345 | March 19, 2013 9:05 PMReply

    They're both sci fi adventures about young people set in the recent past, so -- similar for sure (not counting A Topiary's weird adult civil-service guy/cult prologue). I was looking forward to Super 8, and it didn't deliver. After reading the script for A Topiary, it doesn't really deliver either. It's also a very hard to read, super-long screenplay. Not to say I don't wish it would have been made. On the page it was sort of clunky, but could've been awesome onscreen. But it has the truncated, scenes-ending-abrubtly quality of Carruth, which got annoying. But it's not nearly as dense as Primer or, I imagine, UC. The main thing about it that's hard to get is how exactly the prologue connects. I mean, it clearly does by the end, but not in a way that makes it seem like it really needed to be there

  • DG | March 19, 2013 1:11 PMReply

    I read somewhere that the release of Super 8 was the final nail in the coffin on this one, that there were a lot of similarities with the plot. Not sure if that's true or not but it seems interesting, especially since it sounds like A Topiary was being developed first

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