Richardson native Shane Carruth is showing his new film this week at the South by Southwest Film Conference in Austin. It’s only his second feature, but it’s one of the buzziest films at this years’ festival. And it’s another step toward Carruth’s goal of rethinking what a movie can be.
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In 2004, Shane Carruth shocked the independent film world by winning the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. The movie that earned him the award is called Primer and cost just $7,000 to make.
After one snowy week in Park City, Utah, Carruth was an indie sensation. Which is why his new film has been so hotly anticipated. People have wondered what he’s been up to for the last nine years.
But Carruth, a J.J. Pearce High school graduate, is genuinely surprised that anyone actually cares.
“It just seems like if that were the case, I should be living in a really nice house or something,” he said Saturday in a hotel conference room in downtown Austin.
The truth is, Carruth tried to make another film right after Primer. To tell the story, he needed a lot of special effects, which meant a bigger budget. He took lots of meetings in Hollywood looking for financing. But nothing ever seemed to happen.
“Basically, no one was saying no, but it was not going anywhere. Everybody met it with a lot of enthusiasm, but after a while, someone has to say no,” he said. “And so I decided I would say no.”
But saying no allowed him to say yes to another movie he’d been thinking about. That film, called Upstream Color, debuted this year at Sundance and is now playing South by Southwest. Carruth shot it in Dallas last year. Several scenes take place along downtown streets, in Victory Park and aboard moving DART trains.
Carruth wrote, directed and starred in Primer, and he does the same with Upstream Color. And also like Primer, his new film asks a lot of viewers. Creating a mood through arresting images and haunting music is more important than plot structure. In fact, the last 25 minutes of the film are dialogue free – a confident and gutsy move. And when the characters do talk, they sometimes say things like, “I have to apologize. I was born with a disfigurement where my head is made of the same material as the sun.”
Carruth’s disregard for the well-established rhythms of conventional movies forces you to lean forward in your seat and lock in on what you’re watching. His films are for people who want more out of a viewing experience than a reason to eat popcorn.
Upstream Color is nominally about a man and woman who are each brainwashed by a thief who controls their minds through a parasite. Once the couple rids themselves of the parasite, they struggle to put their lives back together.
But the setup is really just a mechanism for Carruth to explore larger ideas about how our personal histories shape our lives.
“It’s about everything that we suspect is the reason why I did that thing yesterday and why I’ll continue to do those things tomorrow,” Carruth says. “It gets to really explore big, big, big ideas.”
That ambition has earned him fans inside the film world.
“I think he’s a genius. I don’t use that term lightly,” says David Lowery, a Dallas filmmaker who edited Uptream Color with Carruth. “He’s got such a dedication to his point of view. And he won’t subjugate that to anything. … He makes the movies he wants to make, makes them the way he wants to make them, and his films are 100 percent unique.”
Carruth admits that his unwavering artistic integrity is partly to blame for why he hasn’t been as prolific as other filmmakers. And that the business of filmmaking is something he can’t be concerned with.
“If it touches the story, I’ll just lose it. I’ll just lose my whole mental state,” he said, head in hands.
But that’s because he truly believes he’s on the cusp of reimagining what a film can be. His goal is to make moviewatching as rich an experience as possible. An experience that rewards repeat engagement like other art forms.
“You don’t listen to an album and go, ‘OK, great, I know everything I need to know about that. Let’s compare notes.’ You typically listen to it, and if there’s something about it that’s interesting, maybe you listen to it again. And before long, you come to internalize or know everything you can know about it. And I think I would like to see if that’s possible with narrative, and I think it is.”
Upstream Color will open in Dallas in April.