SXSW Interview: Writer, Director & Actor Shane Carruth Talks ‘Upstream Color’

Shane: "If an actor has their skill set figured out and they’re smart enough to key into what your story is, really there’s not a lot to talk about"

shane-carruth-upstream-colorIf you haven’t seen Shane Carruth’s directorial debut, Primer, you are missing out. It’s really something to witness and it’s one of those debut films that people are still in awe of.

His sophomore effort is Upstream Color, which screened at SXSW. The film, which also stars Amy Seimetz, is about how two people mysteriously come together by a strange, almost mystical and kind of evil organism. The film explores ideas about life, love and the images and imagery he captures on film is something that you really should witness in a theater. It might take you a couple minutes to get into it but once you do, the film just takes over and you’re engulfed in this world he’s created. It’s really quite something.

Like Primer, Shane was the writer, director, producer, composer, editor and actor on the film and it’s a massive undertaking. When I talked with him at SXSW, I have to say, he was completely inspiring and I would love to have half his energy and intelligence.

In the interview, we talk about his decision to be the lead actor, if he has any vanity at all when watching himself on-screen, casting and how he got the inspiration for the story.

For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes 

Upstream Color opens in New York today and expands around the country April 12th.

The germ of the idea, how did that come about? Did it just pop into your head?

Shane Carruth: No. It was probably… it started sort of benign. It was just about, like, personal narratives and personal identity. I think I started having these conversations with people where, like, just about something trivial, like some news item of the day, and they would have their take on it and I would have my take on it, but it seemed like more times than not we were just lining up talking points. We weren’t really having a conversation, it just, like, either maybe they’re liberal and I’m conversation or maybe it’s the other way around and that’s the beginning and end of the conversation. And I guess I started to notice that that wasn’t just with politics or current events, that it started to be with everything. Be with political beliefs or religious beliefs or cosmic beliefs or scientific beliefs or, you know, just morality in general and all of these things.

And that’s when it started. I started playing with this thought experiment of, “Ok, well, great. What if you stripped somebody of that? Just take it away and then they have to rebuild it based on maybe the wrong information.” I guess that became the kernel of it. I knew I would have characters that would have a moment where they wake up, it looks like they have done something, they can’t quite atone for why they would have, and so the explanation they come up with becomes the narrative and that’s what they try to fulfill and live by. And there would be this tension because they’re not quite…  I would think they would be suspicious that there’s something just a bit off about this. Anyway, so that’s where it started.

In order to make that happen, that’s when I came up with the weird, you know, sort of lifecycle swarming around them. And it just needed to satisfy all this different criteria.

And I wanted some system at play that would be swarming around these characters that they couldn’t know about. It would be out there, it would be offscreen and happing and affecting them, but they can’t know that it’s there.

So, yeah, I mean, it was a really long sort of process but it was… it started slow and then I got very, very passionate about what it could feel like emotionally, and so that led to this element.


You’re also acting in this. Was that a necessity because you’re like, “I don’t have the time to  explain or work with somebody because I know exactly what I want.”

Shane Carruth: Yeah, it’s a lot of things. It’s, one, when you’re dealing, at this level of production, one less person to have to figure out schedule wise. That’s always a good thing. That’s not the whole story, though.

I guess a couple other reasons are that I don’t have a lot of experience working with actors, but I do know that when you’re in a scene with somebody you know something about that scene that maybe you don’t if you’re just observing it. Like when Amy and I are interacting, there’s some information being transferred back and forth when you provoke someone and then they react and they provoke you, you’re receiving something. So it’s just good to get your hands dirty and be in there if you can, I believe.

And then, I have to admit, there’s a real selfish side of this that I found this story to be pretty compelling and romantic and sort of liked the idea of being able to step into it if I could.

Is there sort of a vain side to you where you, like, when you do a scene you’re like, “I just screwed that up. Let’s do it again.” Or you run back and look at playback or… I don’t know if you had  that, but where you’re like, “Alright, Amy you were great, but I just wanna redo this.”

Shane Carruth: Yeah, no, my memory is that I was the problem most of the time.

Oh yeah?

Shane Carruth: Yeah, well, because I was like, “No, no. Let’s go again. No, let’s go again.” And I do, I actually remember Amy saying, “What is it… what are you trying to actually do? Because it’s the same every time.” And I was like, “No, no, no. The first three were horrible and this one’s getting better.” And I swear in my head that’s what I thought. And then I would look at it later and be like, “Yeah, why? The first one was the same thing. It wasn’t getting any… it’s just the same. It is what it is.” So, I don’t know. Yeah, I’m a problem.

Have you taken any sort of acting lessons or classes?

Shane Carruth: Yeah, no. I haven’t taken any. Probably should.

No, no. I thought you were great and that’s why I asked. But congratulations and well done.

Shane Carruth: Oh, thanks.

You went to college and you were a math major?

Shane Carruth: Yeah, that’s right.

Had you always sort of envisioned or wanted to get into this?

Shane Carruth: Sort of. It’s weird, I fell into math just because I just found it so beautiful. Like, there was just a balance to it. But at the same time I was writing a lot. I didn’t know what form it was gonna take because I was writing short stories and then after a while I was working on something I thought would be a novel and I only got about halfway through. So I was learning about how… what it is that I think I can do.

Because, for instance, with the novel, I found about halfway through that I was refusing to write internal monologue or really anything that you couldn’t observe if you were just in the room. And after a while, it occurred to me that I’m just writing screenplays. Like, I’m just writing what you can see and hear, I’m not adding any more information. And I also enjoyed the thriftiness of being able to convey somebody’s mental state by a few actions that they would perform.

So, anyways, that and a bunch of, you know, seeing other films that were really affecting me put me on that path and I just, I don’t know, I eventually just came to understand or believe that film is the height of narrative right now and I wanted to be involved with it.

When you made that realization, did you devour books, screenwriting books?

Shane Carruth: I’ve never read a book on screenplay writing. For whatever reason…

That’s amazing.

Shane Carruth: …that seems wrong. I definitely read a ton of books on filmmaking and, yeah, but for whatever reason, when it comes to the writing, I have something in me that doesn’t want to… I don’t wanna be affected by how this is meant to go. Like, I know there’s a 3 act structure, I get that, and I don’t wanna know that because I don’t want a 3 act structure. I want to figure out what else it can be. So I’m worried. I guess I’m worried about learning.

Well, your writing process, do you schedule time out of the day?

Shane Carruth: It changes because at first, for me, maybe this is what it is for you, but it’s like at first it’s… you have to be diligent. Like, if you don’t wanna do it, you do it anyways. It’s like running every morning or something. But after a while when you fall in love with it or whatever, then it’s like everything in my life needs to go away so I can write. I need to write every minute of the day. So it’s the spectrum.


Casting, did you know the actors prior to this?

Shane Carruth: No, I didn’t know any of them. Everybody but Amy was part of a casting process in Dallas and for her I was investigating all avenues and her name was given to me by David Lowry basically and Toby Halbrix. And she was in Florida and I called her up. I think I just saw a few, like, maybe 60 seconds of her acting on YouTube, but I was just calling her up because I was meant to call all… everybody and just sort of field possibilities. So she was in the middle of editing her film that she wrote and directed called Sun Don’t Shine and at the time I knew nothing. I didn’t know who she was, I didn’t know anything, but here’s an actress telling me she’s editing a film and I was like, “Ok, whatever. That’s probably not true.” Or she’s sitting with an editor or something. I don’t know, there’s something about this that’s off. She goes, “No, yeah. I can send it to you if you’d like.” And I was like, “Yeah, I’d love to see that.” And I was expecting to see some, I don’t even know, some, like, experimental fashion thing. I don’t even know what I was thinking. And I turned it on and I got about 10 minutes in and was so amazed by it that I didn’t consciously decide, but I’m pretty sure I had already decided that she needed to be the lead because she just gets narrative and I just felt like we’re going to have a shorthand here. There’s going to be less and less and less to have to talk about because she obviously gets how this stuff works and works so well. Yeah. And then I sort of get a little bit worried like why would I bring somebody to town that’s probably a better director than me? That doesn’t make a lot of sense. It was great.

Do you think you’re getting better at directing actors? Or was it difficult for you at first? Because you have a specific idea what you want, probably more so than most people because you’re doing everything on the production. Did you find it difficult to sort of convey that?

Shane Carruth: No. It’s weird. I don’t know what the difficulty is with… because if an actor has their skill set figured out and they’re smart enough to key into what your story is, really there’s not a lot to talk about, in my understanding.

It’s only when we have these stories of directors having to trick actors into thinking one way or the other. That seems like an issue. That doesn’t seem like something that we should be… that shouldn’t be a skill. That’s almost like when things go bad how do you… I don’t know. I don’t know. I would hope that to solve that in the casting process instead of the we’re on set and I can’t seem to explain to an actor what it is that we’re doing. That doesn’t sound right. So I hope that that’s not a skill I develop.

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