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Shane Carruth, Indiedom's purist, on new movies and old regrets

April 10, 2013|By Steven Zeitchik
  • An image from Shane Carruth's "Upstream Color."
An image from Shane Carruth's "Upstream Color." (Sundance Film Festival )

Shane Carruth has been one of the independent film world’s most interesting enigmas. After bursting on the scene with the time-travel head-spinner “Primer” in 2004, he disappeared for nine years, barely a word uttered about him save for the occasional whisper of a long-simmering sci-fi film called “A Topiary.”

At Sundance this year he finally surfaced --  but with a different film. “Upstream Color,” starring Carruth himself (he also served as actor, editor, cinematographer and in numerous other capacities) is a meditation on love and honesty, told in the form of a relationship between two wounded people. It also involves piglets. As my colleague Mark Olsen wrote in an interview with Carruth before the festival, the movie was an appealing mix of abstract imagery and plot but tender emotion.

In keeping with the overtones of the title and his reputation, Carruth decided to do things his own way and release "Upstream" himself. He hired a publicist and a theater booker but has overseen all aspects of the release. So far, his film has garnered some solid numbers: Playing on one screen at the IFC Center in New York last week, it took in about $30,000, and some of the screenings had an event feel. It's set to expand to Los Angeles and other cities this weekend.

FULL COVERAGE: Sundance Film Festival

With the movie set to arrive in the Southland, we caught up with Carruth, 40, who remains steadfast that making and releasing a film can be a vision of one person and not the collaborative -- some would say crowded -- undertaking it’s now become even in the indie world.

Like a certain kind of DIY band, Carruth believes that art and vision should come first -- and as a result, so should the person who’s behind the art and vision. (Sure, every filmmaker says that. But you'll see that he means it in a...different way.)

Carruth’s position will strike some as naive and others as refreshingly purist. Either way, it's unique. Here’s a piece of our conversation with him.

Movies Now: You're about five days into the self-distribution experiment. What's the main motivation for doing it this way?

Shane Carruth: Well, the big part is wanting to be the person who controls how it is presented and sold to the world. I know it's a lot of work to distribute your film this way. But I would work 24 hours a day for the whole year, for years and years. I don’t mind. I love to work. It's the idea of having someone else tell you how to make your film or how to sell it -- that’s the part I can't really deal with. I would rather do 1,000 things that are work than deal with one thing that's a political problem.

MN: But even the most independent types need a little industry help, don't they? Or do you have an issue with indie film as an industry in the first place?

SC: I worked at a job for years. That was that phase of my life. I came to filmmaking because it's my passion. I decided I can't have it distorted or marred by someone else deciding what it should be.

MN: Did the way "Primer" was retailed [the now-defunct Thinkfilm released the movie to theaters, where it grossed about $500,000] inform your thoughts on film marketing?

SC: I didn’t have a negative experience on "Primer." It's more as a viewer -- I just feel like so many times I'm being sold one thing and shown another. Something is marketed as a horror movie and it’s really a romantic comedy, or whatever it is. The idea here is to be more earnest. I can say with all the material we've put out that it’s just a smaller part of what the film is. We’re showing what you’re going to see when you watch the movie. We’re not shying away from the fact that this is a challenging film. People won't be surprised when they see it because they're seeing a different movie than they expected from the trailer or poster.

MN: How do prospective studio or financing partners react when you try to have a conversation about doing it this way? Filmmaking-as-collaboration is an article of faith in the movie business. So is the idea of a trailer that doesn't fully represent the movie, for that matter.

SC: The problem is that the current system has so much momentum no one even has that conversation. No one talks about the fact that there is this bait-and-switch. Even the filmmaking--People talk about final cut as if it's this rare thing that no one should have. But it's my work. Why should someone else decide what it should be? The established way for me just causes so much anxiety.

MN: But isn't there’s anxiety in doing it your way?

SC: It’s true, it does create anxiety. But it’s a different kind of anxiety. It’s not the kind where you have to worry about fraying relationships. You don’t having to worry about what someone else wants to do with your movie. You’d be amazed how much space  and time that frees you up to think about other things.

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