For some an inscrutable experience, for others an intrepid, abstract exploration of love and trauma, Upstream Color beguilingly heralds Shane Carruth's return to filmmaking after nearly a full decade of silence. Much like his famously smart and inexpensive debut, Primer, Carruth's sophomore effort begins an investigation of human nature by exploiting scientific concepts for their aesthetic potential. In the movie's enchanting yet darkly textural prologue, we observe the life cycle of a mind-controlling parasite, tracing its path from polluted river source to flora-embedded larvae to brain-addled host: a thirtysomething woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) who's forced to swallow the manipulative worm by a con man-cum-horticultural enthusiast. From there, the story branches out and forms a gnarl somewhat resembling a romantic drama (with Kris's similarly swindled beau played by Carruth himself), albeit one that includes a subplot about an ambient music-composing pig farmer (Andrew Sensenig). I spoke to Carruth about his new film's sensual and philosophical nuances, and about how he hopes its ending will eventually appear less resolved than its surface suggests.
I've read that you started writing Upstream Color's story thinking about character, but for the first third or so I felt it moving forward more tactilely—the film speaks through a language of texture. I'm wondering how that got built.
It's funny because that's the word that I use when people ask about how the cinematography came together. I say that there's a tactility that's necessary to this. And that tactility dictates many things. It dictates the silver, narrow depth of field, and it dictates all these shots of hands following surfaces. All of the film's characters are disconnected from one another and affected by things at a distance. So there's a constant curiosity about where they are and what the edges around them are and what could be just past those edges. So to me, that forces a narrow depth of field. Something that's just a few centimeters deep, where your fingers might touch the edges of a wall and everything else becomes an abstract, blurred shape…because everybody is isolated. So it's interesting to hear you use that word.
But I feel like at some point in the film there's a sonic element that comes into it as well. Where we begin to experience things not just through haptic texture, but also through aural texture. There's a way in which the film progresses from the sense of touch, which is just barely outward, to the sense of hearing, which is just barely inward. And then the third act combines the two.
Well, the music always needed to be a part of the on-screen characters' subjective experience, and never about framing the audience's mindset or telegraphing to them what they're meant to think. So that led to this very atmospheric, ethereal type of music. At the end [of the film], for example, everything about the very final scene is more or less a “positive experience”—the music, the performance, the cinematography, the setting, everything is trying to punch up that this is a “happy ending” for Kris, and a peaceful resolution and a breaking of the cycle. It may not be, but the music needed to bring all that home as forcefully as possible because we were never going to [have her] talk about it. Every element of film language needed to be working in unison and informing as much as it could.
There's that great moment where Kris and Jeff can't find the source of this low hum. It's almost like a Macguffin in the film. It's interesting in that the score is composed of hums and noise at a lot of points, and then one of those all of a sudden becomes diegetic, and the characters have to discover it. The score there is almost forcing them to get up and examine their surroundings a little bit.
That certainly sounds right. These are things that I haven't actually had to verbalize until I started to do interviews. [That sound] was just one more thing that had to be haunting Kris. She's on a trajectory from the get-go toward a psychic break, and that's going to end with her basically being in a fugue state, where she's reduced to someone retrieving pebbles at the bottom of a pool, repeating lines from this narrative that's been imprinted on her. So, yeah, that scene that you're describing is just yet another thing that's driving her mad that can't be solved.
Upstream Color in one sense concerns a very convoluted process—a cycle—that involves a lot of parties who only see one part of the process. Which isn't unlike filmmaking. I'm wondering if there's a conscious symmetry between the film's obsession with process and the fact that you controlled the process of the film itself, from pre-production to distribution.
Um. Well, to be honest, no. I don't ever knowingly put stuff into a story or film that's somehow reflective of me or the production or anything like that. But that's really funny to hear.
I can tell you where that process came from and why it exists the way that it does. It's more or less because I knew that I had to have these central characters be stripped of their personal narrative and the way that they view themselves and the way that they thought the world viewed them. And I needed some device to make that happen. This [device] just needed to satisfy these criteria I had in my head. It needed to be something that is embedded in the place that we live; it had to be something that is part of the natural world; but it had to something that is just outside our experience. And it needed to be cyclical. [The audience needs] to believe that this could have been around for as long as humans have been around, and that it's just been out there, spiraling.
So that's why the convoluted process is the way that it is. And that's why the three points of the triangle—the thief, the pig farmer, and the orchid harvesters—all need to be doing their little tricks in nature, independent of each other. Because to me that suggests that there isn't a conspiracy, that there isn't something managing this. It's simply something that continues.
But isn't the idea of this natural “something” that strips away personal narrative complicated by the film's use of Thoreau's Walden? The book is…well, it's not exactly a plot device here, but in another movie it might be considered one. Obviously Emerson and Thoreau believed that returning to nature would cut out a lot of cultural noise and provide a kind of clarity of being. Here, nature is perhaps less helpful.
Well, I'm not trying to engage in transcendentalism or naturalism or whatever. I don't know. I want to say that I'm not reacting to anything because that's not my intention. My intention is to build something that's hopefully pure. But at the same time I know full well that I'm informed by everything I've ever read.
I like the idea that both individualism and threats to individualism are part of an ongoing, natural cycle in the movie…because that's not something that you find in transcendentalism, or at least in Emerson and Thoreau's version of it. They had a somewhat more romantic view of the natural world. The film doesn't.
Yeah, but I didn't have the intention of framing anything as “bad” or “good” for anyone. Except for the fact that…well, the thief is meant to be malicious. He's using his “trick” to steal. And then we have the orchid harvesters, who are meant to be much more benign. They're at one with the natural world. Then you've got the pig farmer, the “Sampler.” He's observing…and clearly benefiting from his ability to observe and “sample” these emotional experiences. But he's not necessarily harmful.
The idea that Kris would find him culpable, and make him pay that price for what's been done to her, is hopefully an interesting coda. I mean she's basically supplanting one false narrative with another. But she will never know that, and she can't know that. And it's only for the audience to realize, hopefully, after some reflection, that although the ending felt and looked like somebody finding the culprit, and getting their own peacefulness and resolution—in reality there's almost nothing positive about what we're looking at. The wrong person is “gotten.” Kris is with her piglets at the end, which she feels some connection to, but who will never return that to her. And she's never gonna have children. It's like she's living in her own head, in her own narrative at that point.
I probably shouldn't say much more than that.