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Shane Carruth back in the pool with 'Upstream Color'

Posted 6:17am on Wednesday, Apr. 10, 2013

PARK CITY, Utah - Meet the publicist in the lobby of the Park City Marriott, follow him to the ground floor, make your way through one of the hotel's suites, pass through the suite's sliding glass door, and enter a heated outdoor courtyard, an almost unnervingly serene oasis in the midst of the notorious tumult of the Sundance Film Festival.

It's here that Shane Carruth -- the Richardson-raised director of one the festival's most talked-about titles, an exceedingly strange thriller called Upstream Color -- is waiting for you.

He sports a loose-fitting cardigan that he has wrapped tightly around his slim torso. The angles of his boyishly handsome face look sharper than when he last generated buzz here, nearly a decade ago; his eyes are a little haggard, as if it has been awhile since he's gotten a full eight hours of sleep. An Italian grandmother might take one look at him and say, "We need to fatten you up."

And from virtually the first question of the interview, Carruth -- who won the 2004 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance with the micro-budgeted, time-travel curio Primer and then seemed to disappear from filmmaking without a trace -- seems to confirm his reputation as an elusive mystery man.

How did he make a living during that long gap between Primer and Upstream Color?

"I get asked this a lot," he says, less defiant than politely skeptical. "Maybe you can help me with this. Because I want to be informative and stuff, but I don't know what other jobs people have where this is a topic. Because I'm embarrassed to talk about it. If I were a lawyer, nobody would say, 'How have you been paying your bills?' "

Well, they might, I point out -- especially if he were a successful lawyer who suddenly stopped working.

"I understand that," he concedes. "I need to stop having a problem with it. I live incredibly cheaply. I live in Dallas. I think people might be surprised how cheaply one can live. I don't have a family. I basically have to pay rent and I have to eat. That's it."

With Shane Carruth, though, the moment one riddle is solved, a new set of riddles is revealed.

It turns out that many of those lost years were spent working on a still-unmade film titled A Topiary, which the writer-director tried unsuccessfully to finance through traditional Hollywood channels. He says he spent nearly two years working just on special effects for that project. ("I got obsessed with it, and I went down that path," he says.)

And then there's the puzzle box that is Upstream Color, which opens theatrically April 19 at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas. Shot in North Texas in 2010 and 2011, the film takes viewers on a tortuous, frequently mystifying journey that involves (among other things) identify theft, mind-controlling worms and a Philip Glass-like music composer who doubles as a pig farmer.

It was greeted at Sundance with both ecstatic praise (a Time magazine blog post asked, "Did one of the best movies ever made just premiere at Sundance?") and complete befuddlement (a critic for The Hollywood Reporter wrote, "this densely exploratory work will cue both elation for its many beauties and deep-furrowed brows about what the hell is going on.")

Talk about wearing multiple hats: Carruth wrote, directed, co-produced and co-edited the film; composed the score; and served as his own cinematographer. He's also one of the film's lead actors.

Check out a mini-review of Upstream Color by clicking here. For a full review, check back at DFW.com next week.

Perhaps most curious of all: At a festival where filmmakers dream of hitting the indie lottery and scoring a multimillion-dollar distribution deal, Carruth, who is now 40, took his movie off the selling block even before it got to market. He decided, instead, to distribute it himself -- a gamble that few established filmmakers have taken.

In an age of great financial uncertainty for independent filmmaking -- and in an industry notorious for forcing its players to compromise -- this mad cinematic scientist simply refuses to play by anyone else's rules.

He says, "It's not possible for me to bend. I had a job. I left it for the thing that I'm truly passionate for. To take this thing I'm passionate about and dirty it up by making it about money, I can't do that. I'm not going to pervert my filmmaking."

Not-so-indie spirit

To understand why people are so fascinated by Shane Carruth and his long absence from movies, a brief film history lesson is in order.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, emerging directors like Steven Soderbergh ( sex, lies and videotape), Quentin Tarantino ( Reservoir Dogs), and Richard Linklater ( Slacker) were creating exciting, ultra-cool alternatives to the increasingly corporate-flavored product coming from the big studios, and an entire indie movement was born, centered on the Robert Redford-founded Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

But by the early 2000s, Hollywood seemed on the verge of co-opting the indies altogether. Star-driven, higher-budgeted titles like In the Bedroom, with Sissy Spacek and Marisa Tomei, or Garden State, with Zach Braff and Natalie Portman, started hogging the attention away from the scrappy, no-budget efforts. Instead of creating groundbreaking new work, more and more young filmmakers -- Christopher Nolan ( Memento), say, or Justin Lin ( Better Luck Tomorrow) -- seemed to be using Sundance as an audition reel, so they could then go on to make a $100 million summer blockbuster.

Enter Carruth, whose father was an Air Force staff sergeant and who moved frequently throughout his childhood, before settling in Richardson. Carruth grew up on a familiar diet of Spielberg and Lucas -- the kind of movies that make budding filmmakers fall in love with the Hollywood system, not necessarily want to rebel against it. But after graduating from J.J. Pearce High School and Stephen F. Austin State University, he found himself frustrated in his white-collar job as a software engineer, yearning to make a movie of his own. (There's a scene in Upstream Color where Carruth's character mysteriously trashes his corporate office and fights with his co-workers -- perhaps a bit of belated autobiographical wish fulfillment.)

With a reported budget of $7,000 and featuring a group of actors that nobody had ever heard of (including Carruth himself), Primer went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, an under-the radar triumph that seemed to renew people's faith in the myth of modern independent filmmaking; no need for connections or a big-name agent, only a vision and a home video camera.

It helped, too, that Primer was so distinct, a time-travel thriller with rapid-fire, techno-geek dialogue, like some bastard child of David Mamet and Richard Feynman. Post-Sundance, the film didn't make much of a dent commercially, grossing less than $500,000. But it nonetheless found a devoted following. One especially devoted fan created a hilariously convoluted flowchart of the film's multiple timelines.

Carruth seemed certain to follow in the footsteps of Darren Aronofsky, who made his name at Sundance in the late 1990s with the similarly cryptic Pi before going on to earn his place on the Hollywood A-list with The Wrestler and Black Swan.

And then ... well, nothing. It began to seem as if Shane Carruth would go down in the film history books as a Salinger-esque one-hit wonder.

"It took awhile for me to realize that there wasn't any common ground between what I needed to do and what conventional film financing would need me to do," Carruth told me.

Throughout the later 2000s, Carruth worked on A Topiary, taking countless meetings with studios and potential financiers, trying to raise a budgeted $20 million. Again and again, he hit the same brick wall: If a movie is going to cost that much, it's almost certainly going to need a star attached to it; and if multiple investors are writing checks, a lot of them are going to want to have a say.

"I don't have a problem with famous faces," he says. "But the concept of starting there seems wrought with problems. Not because they're bad people, but because you're immediately introducing an ego and a power structure that has nothing to do with the narrative.

"If this powerful star is the one that's securing the financing and they have something to say about the story, then suddenly we're negotiating the story. And I don't see how that's possible.

He continues, "There's 10, 20, 30 things like that -- whoever writes the checks is your boss."

Eventually, Carruth decided he would have to abandon A Topiary, a painful but necessary decision, he says. He had an idea for another project that could be shot in his home base of Dallas. If he could also hire his own distribution and marketing teams, and take advantage of emerging technologies like video-on-demand, he might be able to make this movie without having anything to do with Hollywood.

It would be the ultimate DIY epic, and he would be responsible for virtually every aspect of it.

Making sense of 'Color'

"His mind is constantly creating," says Andrew Sensenig, the Dallas-based actor who plays the mysterious Sampler in Upstream Color. "There'd be times that we'd be shooting, and he'd stop and we'd be quiet and just stand there for two minutes. It's almost like he's translating a language in his head, so that he can explain what he's thinking in a way that people would be able to understand."

Indeed, talk to just about anyone whom Carruth has worked with, and you'll hear a similar story.

Frank Mosley, another Dallas-based actor who appears in the film, describes arriving on set with only a limited knowledge of what Upstream Color would be about. Carruth preferred that Mosley only read the pages of the script that featured his character.

"Everybody talks about how he's this recluse, and this kind of tortured genius, and he might very well be," says Mosley. "He was just so focused. So when you were working with him, you always felt like he was 20 steps ahead of you. You would constantly be trying to keep up with him, to give him what he needs for this vision he has, even though I only had half the story of it."

But is Carruth's vision ultimately a little too bound up in his own head?

That's the question a lot of film nerds will be debating as Upstream Color reaches theaters. The story revolves around Kris (Amy Seimetz), a woman who is kidnapped by a man and forced to swallow a pill that contains a worm harvested from orchids. She wakes from a fugue state and eventually makes her way to Sensenig's character, who removes the worm and transplants it into one of his pigs.

Later, Kris falls in love with Jeff (Carruth), who may have suffered the same kidnapping fate, and the two try to get to the bottom of a mystery that involves dozens of others.

Yet no plot description can accurately convey the strangeness of Upstream Color, or its shimmering, hallucinogenic beauty. As Carruth's dreamy, faintly techno-ish music plays on the soundtrack, images float past our eyes. The timeline is fractured -- or, more accurately, circular. Just when you think you have things figured out, the story skitters off in another direction. Less a traditional narrative, Carruth's film aims to capture a state of feeling, a sense of distress and panic spilling out in every direction.

Perhaps predictably, asking Carruth to explain his movie results in a freefall down the proverbial rabbit hole. At the question-and-answer session following the film's premiere at Sundance, Carruth stood onstage talking about how "it starts with the whole idea of three points on a triangle -- orchid, worm, pig." Audience members shot puzzled looks at one another, even more baffled than before.

But as with the similarly confounding Primer, the wonder of Upstream Color is that, even if you have no idea what it means on first viewing, you know it means something. It's too controlled, too striking, too plainly beautiful to be shrugged off as mere art-film doodling.

Carruth, who is living in New York City, having recently given up his rental house in Dallas, doesn't sound the least bit arrogant when he tells me: "I really do think it's something new. I believe it has a language of its own, and I'm struggling to explain why. It seems pretty audacious to say that, but I do think that."

What the future holds

If Primer emerged at a time when indie cinema seemed to be suffering an identity crisis, Upstream Color arrives at a moment when the stakes are even higher: No one seems to know how to make money on these films anymore.

For every Beasts of the Southern Wild-style breakout, there are dozens more titles that disappear without a trace. Video-on-demand would seem to have introduced an important revenue stream for filmmakers, but the ease of self-distributing a movie in this fashion has also resulted in a glutting of the market; it's now even harder for any one film to break out of the pack.

"It's almost impossible to recoup your budget on an indie film right now from the minimum guarantees being offered by most distributors," explains Ryland Aldrich, who writes about independent film for the website TwitchFilm.com. "Those minimum guarantees have almost dried up, or they're much smaller than they were just a few years ago."

Carruth didn't pursue self-distribution as a Plan B, the way some directors do after their movies fail to sell. This was his plan all along, to take the film industry almost entirely out of the moviemaking equation.

Considering its modest cost, and the advance publicity it has already garnered, Upstream Color seems likely to earn the director a profit. (Carruth declines to disclose the budget of Upstream Color, but most observers' estimates are in the low six figures.)

But whether a less-known director could successfully follow this same model is another question. For that matter, it doesn't seem likely that Carruth will be able to do this again -- not if he wants to make a higher-budgeted film.

In which case, might this bold experiment ultimately come back to haunt Carruth, by creating an irreparable rift between him and Hollywood? Will he come to be seen as too difficult and idiosyncratic, so that nobody will want to write him a check? Will he end up following in the footsteps of, say, Orson Welles, another famously controlling, once-in-a-century visionary who by the end of his career found it virtually impossible to obtain funding for his work?

Carruth insists otherwise, even as he acknowledges he hasn't figured out how to finance his next project, a contemporary pirate story tentatively titled The Modern Ocean, which he'd like to begin shooting this summer.

"I'm not here to attack the industry," Carruth says. "But I am here to recognize that there's not any common space for us. My hope is that I make another film and that in 18 months we're doing this again. We're going to have to solve the money issue -- where do you get decent money?"

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