UPSTREAM COLOR written and directed by Shane Carruth, with Amy Seimetz, Carruth, Thiago Martins and Andrew Sensenig. Self-distributed. 96 minutes. Opens Friday (April 12). For venues and times, see listings.
A conversation with Shane Carruth, the writer, director and star of the Sundance sensation Upstream Color, is heady and complex, because it's a heady and complex film. I imagine a conversation with Terrence Malick about The Tree Of Life would be just as difficult; if you have to ask what the dinosaurs mean, there's no answer that will satisfy you.
In Upstream Color, a young woman (Amy Seimetz) and a slightly older man (Carruth) form a bond based on a mutual experience they don't understand. The movie intercuts their tentative relationship with footage of other characters interacting with orchids, grubs and piglets, establishing the life cycle of something new and disturbing.
"The entire film is basically an assembly of characters who have no idea that the other ones are doing anything," Carruth tells me as he walks through Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood. "And everybody is part of it, following their own motivation and ambition, but not in any way they can speak to."
But for all its convolutions, Upstream Color isn't a difficult film. It's actually pretty straightforward, and inspired by one of the most basic and essential questions: what is left when we're reduced to our most basic selves?
"It's the same question people have had for a long time," Carruth says. "It wasn't just about political beliefs or religious beliefs; it was everything. I was playing with the idea of what happens when you strip that away and you force somebody to regrow that, [to] rewrite their narrative based on potentially the wrong information.
"[And] the more it became about the entire self being stripped away, the more emotional I got and the more emotional it got. The romantic promise that exists when people are stripped and broken to their core was compelling for me, and I really wanted to have that story play out. And then for the rest of it, the weird stuff - the pig-worm-orchid stuff - that's the artifice to shortcut into that material."
It's "the pig-worm-orchid stuff" that makes Carruth's movie seem more forbidding than it is, adding a science-fiction element to the human story. But just as Carruth's first film, the head-spinning time-travel thriller Primer, was really about the impact of a new discovery on flawed human characters, Upstream Color is about people caught in a puzzle they can't solve on their own.
"I shouldn't be worried about the word ‘puzzle,' but for some reason it's become something I shy away from," Carruth says. "But, yes, the conflict in this film, or what's challenging, is the emotional experience, the subjectivity of what the central characters are experiencing. That's the bit to pull apart and definitely explore."
I suggest that Carruth's Primer and Upstream Color are united by the notion that scientific discoveries - a time machine in the former, the mysterious orchids in the latter - are morally neutral. It's what people choose to do with the knowledge that's good or evil.
"I'm not necessarily interested in narrative that pretends to have an answer for something," he says. "I can't really have a bad guy and a good guy, because that's cynical. It's cynical to say that even exists in the world, and an easy way to sum up. The second you talk about good and bad guys, somebody's gotta win or lose, and that becomes your message. And that's not interesting to me."