Upstream Color Filmmaker Shane Carruth on the Trials of Making an Indie

Filmmaker Shane Carruth talks about the hard work—and harder lessons—it took to get this wholly original film off the ground.

Courtesy of Sundance Channel

In 2004, writer-director Shane Carruth released Primer, a mind-bending indie that won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and earned him comparisons to David Lynch. On April 5, he's back with the hypnotic Upstream Color, a surreal love story that almost defies description. Most Hollywood romances don't feature human-to-livestock soul transference, for starters—but maybe they should. Per Steven Soderbergh, who's sung Carruth's praises in more than one interview: "We should just give Shane Carruth $10 million and let him go make something." If only it were that easy. Here, Carruth talks about the hard work—and harder lessons—it took to get this wholly original film off the ground.

DETAILS: How in the world did you pitch this movie to people when you were looking for financing?

SHANE CARRUTH: Oh, I never pitched this! There isn't a dollar in this movie that comes from anyone who's done film financing before; it's all me and a couple of friends willing to go along with whatever I had in mind. I'd thought there was only a sliver of common ground between what I wanted to do and what a conventional film financier wants, and what I learned over the years is that there actually isn't a sliver. There's no common ground, at all. It took me a long time to figure that out.

DETAILS: Was it frustrating that it took so long to get your second film made?

SHANE CARRUTH: It was heartbreaking, really. I poured years of work into another project that only exists in my head now. I spent a year trying to convince people it was a commercial prospect, and I got my heart broken. It's like I was an alcoholic and I got up one morning and had to go cold-turkey.

DETAILS: On Upstream Color, you're not just the writer-director and lead actor. You're also the cinematographer, the composer, and the editor.

SHANE CARRUTH: Here's the thing: I know for a fact that I am not the best guy to be doing any of the things I'm trying to do. There's always going to be a better composer or cinematographer or even a better writer, but my hope is that if all of these things are part of a singular vision, then maybe there's a cohesiveness that makes up for the failings of my part in any department.

DETAILS: What is it like to direct yourself as an actor?

SHANE CARRUTH: It's not great. I'm pretty insecure, so there's probably a several-day period in the editing room that I don't like anything I'm seeing, performance-wise. But when you can reduce by one the amount of people whose schedules you have to worry about, that's very helpful! And I have to admit that there's a part of this story that I found very romantic, and I really wanted to be in it and have that experience.

DETAILS: You're distributing this film yourself, without the aid of a big studio. Why?

SHANE CARRUTH: Everyone who makes an independent film has a Plan B. I started interviewing theater owners, and before long it looked like self-distribution was something that was actually possible. Being able to craft my own marketing materials is amazing! If a distributor had this film, they'd push the really genre elements of it—worms and pigs and guns—and it would look like this horror puzzle movie. But that's not what's on this film's mind.

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Last album you loved: "Frank Ocean, Channel Orange. Although the album I've probably played most in my life is the score to Solaris by Cliff Martinez."

Go-to app: "Tweetdeck. That's where I've gotten most of my news. We have a Twitter account for the film, but I don't have a personal account; I have nothing but anxiety thinking about what I might say at 1 A.M. and then regret when I wake up."

Favorite TV show: "I have a really, really hard time sitting down and watching a TV show, except I'm apparently willing to watch the same episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, like, seven times. Last season's finale started with a car wreck and ended up with a trial disproving evolution. So funny!"

— Buchanan

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