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The Pleasure of Fundamental Forms: A Chat with 'Upstream Color' Director Shane Carruth

The software developer-turned-director on calculus and other things that are true.
April 19, 2013, 7:00pm

Shane Carruth was a software engineer when he made Primer way back in 2002 for a mere $7,000. That film became a cult hit and a cornerstone in the time travel subgenre. This has a lot to do with how different it is than most any other time travel story, how it turns a fantastical concept into something agonizingly real and even mundane. Not mundane in the sense of dull or everyday, but mundane in the sense of having to fit around the rules and shapes of the real world we live in. It's only somewhat the same thing.

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Primer is sometimes frustrating and often confusing, but if you've ever really thought about time travel, you might find yourself frustrated and confused. Or, you should find yourself frustrated and confused. You could say Primer respects its underlying concept, and that's surprisingly different. People on the internet seem to spend a good deal of time trying to unravel Primer, trying to figure out what actually happened. Theorize a theory. It's fun, but that's also kind of missing the point.

The few characters in Primer are just barely hanging on to what's happening themselves, absorbed by the idea of cashing in and less so the idea of dramatically changing the world forever. Which is a thing that can happen in any science when discovery itself becomes exponential. Richard Feynman's writing about his time working on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos comes to mind--like a summer camp, but more adult, more mundane. Spending every day building a bomb to end the world becomes, well, everyday.

Carruth has a new movie out, called Upstream Color. It has some things in common with Primer, one of those being the need to immediately see it again. The reasons are slightly different. Part of it is the wanting to understand it better, but also something new: the film is absolutely fucking beautiful. How it sounds, looks, feels: Upstream feels like something is being painted on your insides. It stays like that too, or maybe even gets more vivid.

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Upstream Color is about nature in a way, about subjugation to some upstream force (literal and otherwise). A man and woman find themselves both populated by that force, and an entirely new way of being unfolds. I wouldn't say it's confusing in any normal way of things being confusing, but the movie doesn't lend itself well to plot synopsis. A couple of weeks ago, I talked to Carruth, less so to get some damn answers about either of his movies than to get an idea of the stuff surrounding those answers.

What do you wish people would ask you about Upstream Color?

One thing that I really was struck by is how a consensus came to be for [the film]. Not any one person, after seeing it once, would have just nailed everything it was trying to do, but eventually there was a conversation that took place that I feel like could not be closer to my intent for the film.

It’s just a level of, does somebody find the material compelling enough to care? I feel the explanation is pretty thorough and it’s telegraphing pretty well, at least in a modern sense. I don’t know, it’s hard for me to both see the critique and the author at the same time. I guess I just have more confidence in doing that—now, I’m definitely not feeling like I need to shy away.

Unfair question, but what is your idea of the movie, of what it is or supposed to mean?

Unfortunately, I’ve reached a point with this question where there’s one true answer and I’ve tried to change up the wording about a thousand times. It’s about personal identity, personal narratives. It started as a thought experiment of what if you strip that away from somebody, strip away the way they view themselves, and their worldview and the way they imagine the world, and all that.

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Strip that away, and force them to regrow based on circumstances that they can’t quite explain or atone for, but it points to them being a certain type of person. And they would, you know. What if they had to embrace that and live that? That’s where it started. It got a lot broader and hopefully more universal, and a lot more emotional the bigger and bigger it got.

I think I started out thinking, well, if you strip away all the subjective experience, strip away all that somebody had accumulated over their life or their experiences, then there will still be a core underneath it. There could still be something there in that core, and that could be really interesting to figure out what that core is, and I think what happened was that because I was peeling back layer after layer—taking back somebody’s political beliefs and their religious beliefs, their relationships, their emotions, how they feel about something—taking all those things away, it just felt more and more like there may not be anything underneath it.

There may not be a core. That’s not necessarily a positive or negative thing, but it could potentially be a true thing, and it’s definitely worth looking into. That’s where this all came from, and then I just wanted to shortcut into that …

Do you think you arrived at an answer? Is there a core?

Even if I did, I wouldn't trying to convey whatever truth I found. I think narrative works best when it's used to help define the question, help define the edges of what's universal or true about the question, not about the answer. I think it's possible that the answers change, but the questions stay the same and the questions define where we are.

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I imagine that if we woke up in a cave, the way to find out where this cave is, is in part tunneling in all different directions. Those tunnels aren't answers. Those are just defining the questions. That's the way I think about writing, just to say out loud: here's a question. I've got it, now you've got it too. And that's one less thing people have to puzzle together for themselves. It just becomes a part of the shared understanding of what our questions are.

You studied math and, before movies, was a software engineer. Can you relate math and writing? Has math made you a different sort of writer?

I'm not sure. Maybe it has. It's tough because I don't know anything else outside of what I do, or how I do it. I was really drawn to math once I saw calculus. There's real beauty in the way that works. It's this hypothetical, imagined machine that exists, and it solves problems.

You can take a problem--just taking an area under a curve. That is an abstract notion. When you're adding up apples, that makes sense. But to take something as abstract as a curve and quantify the area underneath it, that's an interesting thing. For that machinery to have been invented as a thought, or function of thought, there's something really beautiful about that.

What's even more beautiful is that that is a true thing in the universe. You could have two separate cultures, and they would both come to that eventually. If they never had any shared language, they would come to that. That's really sort of beautiful.

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I guess when I'm writing, that's what I'm looking for. I'm looking for a balance and a pristineness to like the underlying architecture. With Upstream, there is an architecture to this plot that is followed enough to be potentially be repurposed in all sorts of different forms, in other media. Not that it should be. Like the Tortoise and the Hare can be used in all sorts of different ways. The story itself is true, and when it's reduced, it's this very solid thing.

That's what I strive for, something that's universal and true and solid. With Upstream, the execution is very lyrical, very elliptical, but what's at its core is solid.

I was struck by the treatment of nature in Upstream. Nature is so often not a part of movies until something is a ‘nature movie.’ People in movies tend to exist within an ecosystem of people, which sometimes feels true, but it really isn’t. Just the scene of soil running through human fingers--that felt surprising. Can you talk about how the natural world came to be such a character?

I'm trying to pick from the six things it probably is. There are a lot of ways to strip these central characters of their personal narrative. It could be a new pharmaceutical drug or a new religion or a supernatural thing. Those things are going to be too specific.

What I needed was something universal. [Otherwise], it would be an indictment of the pharmaceutical industry or an indictment of religion or something else specific. I am only interested in all of the ways we can be affected at a distance by things that are difficult to wrap our heads around. Because of that, I wanted a construct or shortcut into that loss of narrative that was not specific or universal.

I almost had to go to the natural world, because what else would it have been? If I'm going to suggest that something is ageless and has always been around, I'm going to have to go to nature. That's what seemed appropriate to me.

That and, to me, we have a situation where our characters are affected by the things that are happening upstream but they can't talk about those things. They can't speak to them. They don't have the language to talk about that. When they experience mania or emotions or attraction or repulsion they can't know that's it's a foreign, weird thing. They can only feel contradictions.

Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv