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'Primer's' Shane Carruth in total control with 'Upstream Color'

Do-it-all filmmaker Shane Carruth is back in the indie spotlight with 'Upstream Color,' and this time he's adding marketing and distribution to his roles.

January 14, 2013|By Mark Olsen, Los Angeles Times
  • "Primer" director Shane Carruth's new movie, "Upstream Color," is entered into competition at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
"Primer" director Shane Carruth's new movie, "Upstream… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

Nine years ago, Shane Carruth burst onto the independent film scene with "Primer," a heady, complex, sci-fi thriller that made time travel seem disturbingly plausible. Shot for only $7,000, the film took the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, beating out more buzzworthy titles like "Napoleon Dynamite" and "Garden State." Carruth — a one-time software engineer — served as director, writer, producer, actor, cinematographer, editor, composer, casting director, production designer and sound designer.

So when Sundance programmers revealed their 2013 competition lineup, many of the film faithful immediately took notice that there among the high-profile names such as Daniel Radcliffe and Rooney Mara, was Carruth, back at last with a new film called "Upstream Color." For a time, "Upstream Color" was trending higher on Twitter than "Sundance" itself.

Part of what made "Primer" so remarkable and Carruth such an intriguing figure was his apparent ability to do it all, a one-man-band approach to the more typically collaborative medium of feature filmmaking. It also made his subsequent nearly decade-long silence seem that much louder.

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With "Upstream Color," Carruth is again director, writer, producer, cinematographer, composer, co-editor and actor. In the movie, a young woman (Amy Seimetz) is abducted and seemingly brainwashed via an organic material harvested from a specific flower. She later meets a man (Carruth) and after the two fall for each other, they come to realize he may also have been subjected to the same process.

Now 40, Carruth still has a boyish handsomeness and quiet, intense charm about him, as well as a certain controlled asceticism — underscored when he ordered a salad with no dressing and a glass of water during a recent lunch. He is somewhat tight-lipped about what he was doing during his time away from the spotlight. He speaks of an ambitious sci-fi project called "A Topiary" as "the thing I basically wasted my whole life on."

The frustration of that unrealized project seems to have spurred his autodidact polymath instinct to learn something new — how to market and release his own film — rather than depend on others to do things for him. So he's adding distributor to his long list of jobs on "Upstream Color."

With a pair of teaser clips already out online, a trailer will be released this week ahead of the film's premiere on Monday in Park City, Utah, with plans for a New York City opening April 5. (A few select additional festival appearances, and a handful of surprise pop-up screenings around the country, will follow the film's Sundance debut; a Los Angeles opening is slated for mid-April.) The film will become available on digital and cable platforms soon after.

"The people that this is for, it will be for," Carruth said of the audience he wants for "Upstream Color," which he describes as "an earnest film," explaining his desire to sell the film for what it is and not what a more conventional distributor might try to make it out to be. "Everything about the choice to do the distribution is about contextualizing" the movie, Carruth said during a recent interview in Los Angeles.

"I think he's not interested in mediators, he's not interested in having people speak for him or in speaking through others," said Mark Urman, who was head of theatrical distribution at ThinkFilm when that company released "Primer" after Sundance in 2004, and is now president and chief executive of the distribution company Paladin. "I think that's his temperament, that's his nature. I don't think he wants to be dependent on apparatuses."

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Born in South Carolina, Carruth moved around the country as a child, his father an Air Force sergeant. He attended high school outside Dallas before studying mathematics at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas. After working for a short time as a software engineer, he dedicated himself to learning filmmaking and creating "Primer."

With its densely layered, thematically rich storytelling, "Upstream Color" 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 a more intimate and moving film than "Primer." "Color" is 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."

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