At a time when art-house and genre cinema are bleeding together – from the installation-art titillation of Spring Breakers to the horror-flick inflections of Neighboring Sounds – South Carolina native Shane Carruth is a vanguard example of a filmmaker who's having it both ways. His influential, shoestring debut feature Primer (2004) imagined the creation of a homemade time machine; his long-awaited second feature Upstream Color features strange biological experiments and biochemically engineered mind control. Both are science-fiction movies, but Carruth – a former software engineer who has emerged as one of the most resourceful DIY directors of his generation – isn't eager to be pigeonholed. "I use science fiction as a tool set," he says. "It's a shortcut to the deeper sub-textual and thematic elements of the story. Hopefully, if you do it right, it's compelling, so you get that sensational aspect and also what's underneath it."
"Compelling" is an apt descriptor for Upstream Color, which is stylistically and narratively ambitious in a way that a lot of so-called "cutting edge" moviemaking wouldn't even dare. A critical cause celebre this past January at the Sundance Film Festival, the film is an imagistic slipstream describing the seemingly random abduction and psychological reprogramming of a young woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) and her tentative reintegration into daily life. Returned from her ordeal with a series of strange scars and no memory of how they got there, she meets Jeff (Carruth), whose similarly wobbly personal equilibrium suggests that he might be a good romantic match, and maybe a fellow victim of whatever shadowy conspiracy had ensnared Kris.
The unique tension of Upstream Color is that even though the viewer knows more than the characters about what's happened to them – for instance, we know that Kris had been hypnotized to empty her bank account, and that she received her scars during a strange surgical procedure involving a pig – we're equally susceptible to the general sense of bewilderment and unease. The film's elliptical plotting and accelerated editing patterns demand and richly reward attentive spectatorship.
"The speed and rhythm at which it's written and edited have to do with two things," says Carruth, who cut the film himself in addition to composing the moody musical score. "I've got some lofty ideas about what film is meant to be: I think of it as literature. So I feel like I have to move quickly. I can't be ponderous. I can't waste a moment of the audience's time.
"The other reason is that this is a story about personal narratives, and so the mode [of the filmmaking] has to change along with them. The first part is locked down, the middle third is more lyrical and floating and subjective, and the ending is different again from that."
As enigmatic as Upstream Color can be, it also feels like a scrupulously controlled piece of work, which its writer-director-producer-editor-composer-star says was his intention in handling so many aspects of the production himself.
"It starts off as a necessity," says Carruth. "I wrote the music while I was writing the story. I'm not the best composer in the world, but I know what I want, and after a while it doesn't make sense to ask a more seasoned composer to come along and add their own music. I always put one foot into some department or arena to test the waters, and then I've gone too far to get back out. So I'm just going to commit to it. I don't know if I've convinced myself or if it's just an excuse, but I hope that there's a cohesiveness when one person is involved in all these different elements."
It's clear how much Carruth prizes his independence. A lot of the hype about Primer was focused on its absurdly low budget of $7,000, which it wore as a sort of indie-film badge of honour. But even though Primer was a critical sensation and has become a cult classic, its success didn't exactly grease any industry wheels for its creator. "I bought into the idea that I could make a bigger movie with a bigger budget, and it took a lot of time and investment to find out that that wasn't true," says Carruth. "[Before Upstream Color], I was working on a project called A Topiary, and I can't think of a more commercial prospect, a really entertaining film. There is no common ground between me and [the people who] finance movies. It took me a while to figure that out."
He's similarly adamant about separating himself from the directors who critics have invoked in their discussions of Upstream Color, including such heavy-hitters as Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick. "If I ever think that I'm doing something that someone else has done, I'll just stop," says Carruth. "But I only know about films from the ones I've seen. So of course I'm adopting, co-opting or stealing from other films. I would never do an homage – that seems so temporary that it's nothing anybody should aspire to. I'm influenced, but not knowingly so."
He shouldn't worry unduly: Upstream Color is an original, and seems destined to be the sort of movie that generates debates between people as they leave the theatre. And while Carruth is wary of saying too much about the film's contents, he hopes that others will take up the discussion. "All I have to do is get this thing out in a big enough way so that it can have a life of its own," he says. "I hope it's compelling enough in a temporary sense that people respond to it. But my end goal is that the movie is the beginning of a conversation that will go on for a while."