Upstream Color
Photo courtesy of ERBP Films

It’s been nearly 10 years since his science-fiction indie “Primer” left audiences spellbound, which makes the arrival of Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color” an even more momentous occasion.

Like “Primer” – which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2004 – Carruth wore an assortment of hats throughout the film’s development: director, writer, actor, producer, editor, cinematographer, and composer, to name a few. It’s a shoestring indie in the truest sense of the term, self-distributed by Carruth with a theatrical run this month (it opens Friday, April 26, at Harkins Valley Art in Tempe) and a digital/DVD release planned for May.

Although he insists that the film is not too difficult to describe, there’s no use trying to sum up this enigmatic, breathtaking work in a mere couple sentences. Instead, why don’t you just go discover it for yourself? Not only is “Upstream Color” an experience that’s not to be missed but it was also created by one of the most visionary and down-to-earth filmmakers working today, as I was pleased to discover during a recent interview.

The East Valley Tribune caught up with Carruth last month to discuss cinematography, Kesha and “Upstream Color,” opening at Harkins Valley Art in Tempe this Friday.

Q: To begin with, could you tell me about what inspired this film or maybe what you hoped to convey through the story?

A: Yeah, this is, uh – sorry, I’m doing that thing again where I’m trying to find a good way to say it – it’s about personal narrative and identity. I strip that from some people and often rebuild it and explore all of the different ways that our subjective experience can be affected by things that are difficult to verbalize. That’s where it all started and I wanted to come up with some compromise to make that happen, so that led to the life cycle that’s created in the film.

Q: What were some of the challenges of being so heavily involved in all aspects of the film, specifically in directing scenes that you were acting in as well?

A: It’s a nightmare. I’m the logjam, constantly, where nothing can get done until it comes through me and I work slowly so nobody says they’re frustrated, but I assume they must be. So that’s probably the biggest challenge and lack of sleep is another. Not really doing anything as well as somebody could probably have done it, that’s another challenge. [Laughs.]

I don’t know, it all starts as a necessity and then it winds up being something where I’m hopeful that all these different elements are pointing in the same direction. It’s unified in its explosive theme and that there’s some real singularness to the content in that, I know as an audience member if I’m watching something and I’m challenged by it, I want to know that if I take it apart, there’s going to be an answer behind there or something that will be unveiled.

When I’m watching a work that is too collaborative – and by that, I mean that it’s gone through five rewrites by different writing teams – you wonder if what you’re looking at is an artifact leftover from the second rewrite or whether it’s purposeful and it really is part of the subtext or exploration. I like work that’s very singular so I can know that I can tear it apart and hopefully find something.

Q: I was really struck by the performance of your costar, Amy Seimetz, who I read is also a filmmaker. Given her creative background, what was your experience like working and collaborating with her?

A: Yeah, she’s a filmmaker and a wonderful woman. She’s got a great film called “Sun Don’t Shine” that will be out in a few weeks. She gets narrative in a real way and so, what’s funny is that our conversations are probably, definitely more efficient than they might have been if she didn’t already have her hands in writing and directing. I don’t know – I’m trying to think if there’s an anecdote or anything, but bottom line, she just showed up and knew what she was doing.

Q: One of the most stunning aspects of the film for me was your cinematography. Do you maybe have a favorite shot or sequence?

A: There’s like a three-minute sequence in there – the shared memory sequence – that goes from something light and potentially funny and even a bit romantic, maybe, that they might have some memories confused about whose is whose. Then it transitions to this thing where it’s real agitation and real annoyance, and I’m really proud of that. I feel like it does a decent job of talking about the things that make us feel bound to each other, in a good way, but can sometimes turn into something where it becomes really a negative feeling, where you don’t know where you end and they begin. It’s this lack of identity.

I guess I really like the way the sequence plays out and I like the fact that that and everything in Kris and Jeff’s experience together is something if you didn’t have these otherworldly elements going on – you didn’t know they were connected to these pigs somewhere else in the world – that those are still moments you could potentially see in relationships. In my mind, it works both ways. It’s like in our story, the audience knows that these people are being affected at a distance but they don’t. It’s still a universal experience.

Q: Following your experience with “Primer,” what motivated you to self-distribute this film? Do you think it’s a decision you’ll stick with for future projects?

A: Well, it wasn’t a bad reaction to the distribution of “Primer” but I did learn some things about bad distribution. Basically, just the mechanics of how distribution of films work and that basically no matter what a contract says, whoever has the checkbook is the one that makes the final choices. That gave me a little bit of understanding of that if I expect to have this film contextualized or crafted or marketed in the way that serves what the film is versus what it could potentially be sold as, I will need to invest on my own. Knowing what I know now and having this experience, I definitely made a ton of mistakes and it’s an enormous amount of work, but I can’t imagine a situation where I’d ever give this up, if I’m lucky enough to make my next film.

Q: Is there still a future for your much-discussed project, “A Topiary,” or have you already moved on to another film?

A: Yeah, I’ll be shooting another project I have called “The Modern Ocean” that I’m just finishing the script on. That’ll be next. I don’t have any plans to make “Topiary” or to pursue it anymore. I don’t know.

Q: To wrap things up, what are some things you’ve enjoyed lately in terms of recent films, television, music, or anything like that?

A: Oh wow. I haven’t been seeing any films or TV, but I’ve been listening to the most popular Top 40 music you can. I shouldn’t admit it, I guess, except that it’s just so funny to me. I’ve been able to meet some filmmakers and get to know more and more filmmakers, and I sort of brought out some Kesha the other night? [Laughs.]

It’s not something that you’re supposed to be listening to if you’re doing one of these art films or whatever, but I’ve just been spending so much time in this contextual world that I just sort of want to listen to Kesha sometimes. I’ll be with all of these other guys – I won’t name names because I’ll just be outing them – but they’re really all just closet Kesha fans as well. So I don’t know, there’s something strange going on.

For more information about the film, visit

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