“Upstream Color,” with its densely layered, thematically rich storytelling, is in part about the mutual psychosis that can be an essential part of romance, the agreement of a shared madness. It’s intense and hypnotically powerful, and it’s a more intimate and moving film than “Primer.” It’s somehow at once emotionally direct while narratively abstract.
In describing “Primer,” even the normally effusive festival notes called the film “intermittently incomprehensible.” This time around, Carruth seems eager to avoid such labels.
“What I don’t want is this whole concept of it being a puzzle movie, or ‘Primer’ being a puzzle movie,” Carruth said. “That’s not a fun little box to be in.”
Carruth hopes that by releasing the film himself, he can position it as he sees fit. “It’s not necessarily about revenue or that I don’t think it will sell. It’s that I get to frame this thing exactly the way I think it needs to be framed,” said Carruth, who recently moved from Dallas to New York.
“I get to continue narrating through marketing, releasing teasers and artwork that you could make the case aren’t the most commercial ways to sell this but they absolutely are in tune with the way I think of the film and what I want to communicate.”
Urman said that the only other filmmaker he had ever worked with who wanted to maintain as much overall control as Carruth was Vincent Gallo. He recalled teaming with Carruth on “Primer” as “a challenging experience. . . . I remember it vividly.”
“With a lot of independent filmmakers, they need a lot of information,” Urman said of walking a first-time filmmaker through marketing and distribution. “And with Shane, it was more of a tutorial. One definitely had the sense that as he was absorbing the information, he was already thinking of his own way to do it, and a better way to do it.”
Even with “Primer,” Carruth was forward-thinking in his dealmaking, taking less money upfront to hold on to the film’s rights and the possibility of making more in the long term.
“Primer” is now available for download via his own Web site and recently appeared on other digital outlets as he was planning how to release “Upstream Color.”
His mixture of curiosity and resolve has evolved into even rethinking the very purpose and value of a festival premiere.
“What most films would do if they’re going to be in the dramatic competition at Sundance is wait for a [sales] deal,” said Michael Tuckman of mTuckman Media, who is booking theaters for “Upstream Color.”
“I think that’s the real novel part of this: to be able to look in the mirror and say, are we going to wait for a seven-figure deal, or are we going to put our own plan in place and use Sundance not as an auction, but rather as part of a release plan?”
While Carruth acknowledges that he has taken out a loan for the distribution of “Upstream Color” and that he financed the film with his own money and contributions from friends — “it’s definitely money that comes from people that are not in film finance,” he said — he wants to keep many of the specifics of how “Upstream Color” came to be to himself.
“There are a few things I’m trying my best not to talk about,” said Carruth, “and that’s the tech specs on the camera and the workflow and the budget. Last time around, I was grateful to have some praise for ‘Primer,’ but they would say, ‘It’s a great movie for the budget.’ And I don’t ever want to hear that phrase again. It would be shocking, I think, if people knew, but I’m not going to tout it, and I hope it doesn’t ever get out.”
Perhaps just as Terrence Malick went from a period of artistic silence to his recent concentrated prolificness, Carruth now seems energized to enter a phase of new productivity. He plans to be shooting another film, currently titled “The Modern Ocean,” by this summer.
“I now know what I will be doing. I will be doing this,” Carruth said.
“I will be making films, and I’m going to keep working, no matter what I have to do. And I don’t plan to ever ask for permission from anybody.”
— Los Angeles Times