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Sci-Fi Meets Love In Carruth’s ‘Upstream Color’

The creator of the indie film hit “Primer” puts Thoreau and Walden at the center of his new sci-fi film “Upstream Color.”

Film writer, director, producer, actor Shane Carruth burst on the independent film scene in 2004, grabbing the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance with his mind-bending sci-fi drama “Primer,” beating out hot titles like “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Garden State.”

Carruth is almost one-of-a-kind these days. A film poet. A cinema shaman.

In his new film he puts, as one headline has it, “the trance in Transcendentalist.” Thoreau’s “Walden,” strange orchids, mind-control larva, and love — all in one entrancing movie.

Up next On Point: Film creator David Carruth and his latest, “Upstream Color.”

–Tom Ashbrook


Shane Carruth, writer, director, producer of and actor in the new independent film “Upstream Color” (2013). He also wrote, directed and produced “Primer” (2004), which one the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.

Mark Olsen, film writer for the Los Angeles Times (@IndieFocus)

Collected Show Highlights

You can listen to all the clips here, or see them individually further below:

Individual Show Highlights

Carruth explained the fundamentals of “Upstream Color”:

At its core, we have characters that started off in one place and had their narratives stripped from them. They had their identity and everything that made them them taken away. And they wake up and look around and have to atone for what kind of person they must be to have done the things it looks like they did. And they have to embrace that new version of themselves and try to carry forward with that.

That is the basic core of the story: We are embarking on an exploration of all the things that could be part of our subjective experience. Getting to the question of if you start stripping away these layers and regrowing them wrong, is there anything fundamental? Is there a core underneath all of this that stays true regardless of what you strip away? The film is not interested in answering that concretely, but I think it does a really thorough job of getting to the far edges of that question.

Olsen shared why he thinks “Upstream Color” is more about making the audience feel the movie rather than think about it:

It’s easy to make the film sound a lot more intimidating and a lot more difficult to process than it actually is. For me, one of the things that I find most exciting about “Upstream Color” is simply the fact that it is the film you want it to be — however you approach it, however you want to engage with it. It sort of — almost like a living organism — can respond back to you.

Part of what Shane is doing…I think there’s a storytelling style there that is meant in some ways to go — it maybe sounds over the top — beyond language in some way. I think it’s quite instructive that the last maybe third or so of “Upstream Color,” there’s not a lot of talking in a dialogue sense, but yet you’re still getting lots of story information. A lot of things are still happening. And I think part of what’s being done there is the film is in some ways trying to become something more pure and to, in some sense, become a pure emotion. It’s kind of bypassing the head to try to get straight to the heart so that you’re feeling the movie much more than you are thinking or processing the movie.

Carruth said that he wouldn’t call “Upstream Color” science fiction because he feels that genre has become more of an aesthetic rather than a set of narrative tools. Olsen agreed, but only to a point, saying that the film is as much a romance as a sci-fi film:

We as an audience are sort of reading it as science fiction in part based off of “Primer” which had a time travel aspect to it and was sort of easier to understand through the lens of science fiction. I think with “Upstream Color,” there is science in the film and it is fiction, so it’s hard not to call it science fiction, but it also is so many other things at the same time.

Most specifically, it’s very much a romance, and I think one of the easiest ways to understand the film is simply as a romance. In some ways the story is simply about how when each of us fall in love with someone else, there’s almost like a mutual insanity that you agree to and that the two of you – you and your partner – sort of become crazy together a little bit and go on a sort of a shared journey. Science fiction is tricky; it implies a larger aesthetic that’s just not operating in “Upstream Color.” So it is science fiction, but it also is not science fiction.

Movie Clips

Want to see “Upstream Color” in a theater? See this list of screenings.

“Is there a direction that you are drawn to?”

“I was born with a disfigurement. My head is made of the same material as the sun.”


In addition to writing, directing and starring in “Upstream Color,” Carruth also composed the film’s score.

Carruth explained why he had to go back and recompose half of the movie’s score due to an unexpected discovery:

I tend to write music while I’m writing the script. So that’s what I did this time out. It just sort of helps me; it’s a confidence building exercise because if I have a scene or moment that I’m imagining in my head, and I know what we can do with cinematography and I know something about the story and if I can get a piece of music that supports all that and sort of mix it together in my head, then I know that okay, great, we can get to that moment, we can execute that, so let’s start building on it. So by the end of the writing process, I end up having something that I think of as the score.

On this film, what happened is that as we got closer and closer to production and the cinematic language became more and more specific and we saw how effective things were going to be visually and Amy Seimetz shows up and we see how effective she’s going to be, carrying the lead character through the film — it changes some things.

There was wrong about half of the score I had written, and I couldn’t put my finger on quite what it was until I realized that everything we were doing was doing quite an effective job of conveying the subjective experience of the characters on screen and a tactility that suggests some curiosity. But the half of the music I’d written was way too orchestrated and meant to frame the mind of the audience, which is not the same thing as the mind of the characters on screen. So I had to throw half of it out and regrow it. I rewrote the music and it was more ethereal and more subjective and is essentially what it is now.

We started grabbing sounds from locations and incorporating them. I would turn them into an instrument and then make then make that instrument part of the orchestration of a piece of music. I don’t think there’s anywhere on the score that you can necessarily point out and go “Oh, that’s a sodium light humming underwater.” But that is what’s in there.

The hope is that there is a texture to the score that’s appropriate to just being out of reach, that there’s a sound that’s just familiar enough but not quite to know what it is because all those samples are layered throughout the score.

You can listen to the full soundtrack here:

From Tom’s Reading List

Wired: Buckle Your Brainpan: The Primer Director Is Back With A New Film – “But last winter, seemingly out of nowhere, Carruth resurfaced with word of a new movie, sending film blogs and Twitter feeds into a holy-crapturous fit, the kind usually reserved for superhero sequels. Like PrimerUpstream Color was shot around Dallas in near secrecy, with Carruth again taking on most of the duties himself, serving as writer, director, composer, producer, costar, and main investor.”

New York Times: Worms, A Botanist And Pigs. Sounds Like A Love Story. — “Shane Carruth’s ‘Upstream Color,’ a deeply sincere, elliptical movie about being and nature, men and women, self and other, worms and pigs, opens with two scenes: Two teenage boys biking around a leafy suburb, and elsewhere, a man harvesting little white worms from orchid root balls.”

io9: How Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color Explains Your Dysfunctional Relationships – “It’s hard to sum up Upstream Color, but in a nutshell it’s the story of Kris (Amy Seimetz), who has a terrible encounter with a man known only as the Thief, who implants her with worms that seem to have some kind of mental control. Kris winds up having a mysterious, intense psychic connection with a pig living on a farm, which she doesn’t understand, and she gets into a very dysfunctional relationship with Jeff (played by Carruth himself) who also seems to have a weird connection to the pig farm.”

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  • http://ericsilva.myopenid.com/ Eric

    Primer is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. I can’t wait to see Upstream Color.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ayn.marx Ayn Marx

    Looks intriguing…but it’s no “John Dies at the End” (nor does it wish to be).

  • Wahoo_wa

    Kinda sounds like the Seinfeld of cinema. 

  • http://en-gb.facebook.com/onanov Donald Baxter

    Any Hal Hartley influences here

  • Jim Jim Train

    I really like Shane Carruths style. Sci-Fi Drama is an awesome genre and has so many opportunities to tell a great story. Standing on the shoulders of greats like Vonnegut and following up other great sci-fi dramas like “Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind” we have a opportunity to go watch a few hours of inspired narrative. This type of art makes us more human.
    Good luck with your future films/stories.

  • Jim Jim Train

    A friend recently said to me that Sci-Fi is really a vehicle for philosophy. I agree completely. 

    • Wahoo_wa

      L. Ron Hubbard would certainly agree.

  • gqlewis

    What’s your approach to software design? What languages do you write in?

  • Regular_Listener

    Hardly any comments?  Well this sounds like a very interesting film to me, and although I haven’t seen it yet, I am glad that Carruth is out there putting his heart and soul and sweat into making thought-provoking, off-the-beaten-track films.  We need more like him! 

    Just speaking for a moment as a serious film fan.  I remember a time when creative, interesting films were being released pretty regularly.  A lot of them came from Europe – my friends and I knew about Godard, Truffaut, Bergman, Fellini, Tarkovsky, Imamura, et cetera, and Terrence Malick too.  Of course those filmmakers never got the kind of sales that Hollywood got, but there was a market for them.  And sad to say that market seems to have shrunk.  These days it seems like everything is simplistic SF, typical action-packed thrillers, and mainstream, youth-oriented comedies.   I am glad that there are still some film artists out there – so I salute Mr. Carruth and I will see his films.

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