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The Wondrous World Of Shane Carruth’s ‘Upstream Color’

Amy Seimetz and Frank Crosley in "Upstream Color."

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Back in 2004, “Primer” catapulted young filmmaker Shane Carruth out of the software development department and into the movie business with an award-winning debut at the Sundance Film Festival. After a stalled project and a few notes on time-traveling to Rian Johnson for “Looper,” he’s back with the radically different film, “Upstream Color,” which has an exclusive run April 12-20 at the Brattle Theatre.

Where “Primer,” an elegant science-fiction thriller revolving around time travel, had an overall conventional narrative structure, “Upstream Color” is only slightly rooted in the sci-fi aspect and focuses more on following the core relationship at different stages. The film is brimming with breathtaking cinematography, quotes from Thoreau, and, well, odd scenes on a pig farm, as we watch two broken people (Amy Seimetz and Frank Crosley) attempt to restart their lives together and cope with the scars of their past.

The story is told in a dreamy nonlinear fashion — think Terrence Malick with an even bigger affinity for symbolism. It has that same devotion to incredible scenery and visceral emotion. The incidents, though, aren’t random. The seemingly senseless death of a farm animal becomes the catalyst for a special plant life to sprout. The characters are also on a cyclical path, one that threatens to destroy their relationship.

Shane Carruth directed, starred, filmed, wrote, and composed music for a film with many layers to discover, feel, and soak in. The soft-spoken Renaissance man talked about his style, storytelling tricks, and his colorful use of symbolism.

You might want to take a look at the trailer first:

Monica Castillo: Do you have fun playing with symbolism? It’s used an awful lot in “Upstream.”

I guess I do. I never thought about it in terms of whether I enjoy it or not, because it just seems to be something that’s necessary. If you’re striving to do film literature, then these are the tools that we have that everyone sort of recognizes and you can use. Yeah, it is enjoyable. I’ve gotten to the point where I really enjoy writing.

Do you like to ascribe meanings to those symbols ahead of time or purposefully leave it to the audience to decide what they mean?

Everything is there for a purpose and a reason, and if I’ve done my job well, the meaning of everything will be veiled, but there should be one possible conclusion or solution that would make it all balance out. I’m certainly not throwing up random things and expecting an audience to decide what it means. But at the same time, if you’re telling a story, at all metaphorical, then you’re purposefully being a bit veiled, a bit obtuse, a bit puzzling. If it wasn’t, then it would just be a story, a straight thesis of “here’s what I think of the world and how it works and what I’m interested in.” That would be dry and boring and no one should have to listen to that.

One of the things that stuck with me about the movie is the gorgeous use of color in your film, how do decide on how to get that across? It’s very ethereal.

It starts way early in the writing. We have two primary colors that are very, very important. Without going into any explanation as to why they’re important, it’s blue and yellow. If they were to look at what we were very diligent about, for example, all the things that are blue as the film progresses from folders to scarves and all sorts of other things we would then eventually arrive to the moment where yellow is the dominant color. We needed to know what we were doing so when we had to make decisions like this on a day-to-day or weekly basis, so we’re making appropriate ones.

I knew my lens system, I knew where it needed to be to throw light into the system and let it play around. One of the things that happened in this film is because this guy comes out and he says that his head is made out the same material as the sun, Kris doesn’t know that she’s had that [traumatic] experience. So whatever I want to suggest that she’s having a moment of paranoia of suspicion or feeling like she’s being affected onscreen, one of the tools I can use is to throw a halo of light around her and so I have to technically know that if I put this certain kind of lens up, I will get this green hue comes through. I know how to make it work, to make it come behind Amy’s head, and I know how to make that happen and I know it’s going to be green. You have to be both a storyteller and technician at the same time.

What’s the most personal moment for you?

My favorite is the segment about the shared memories. I know why I wrote it, I know why it’s in there, but I have to admit, it still perplexes me in a way that I can’t point to it yet. We got these characters that are in communion without knowing it. There’s this mix up of the two, they don’t know where one begins and the other ends is the idea. It feels like when you’re in this relationship with somebody there’s this romantic possibility of mixing up your stories. It can be interesting and wonderful and eventually, it can turn into something else or it has moments where it feels like something else. “Well, wait, where’s my identity? How do I contain the things that were me and not us?” That really affects me in some way.

Monica Castillo is a freelance film critic and writer based in Boston. You can usually find her outside any of the area’s movie theaters excitedly talking about the film she just saw.

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