The Guide: AGAINST THE FLOW: SHANE CARRUTH IS AN INTENSE DIRECTOR WHO'S ESCHEWED A NORMAL LIFE IN ORDER TO MAKE MOVIES, HIS LATEST IS THE HAUNTING UPSTREAM COLOUR. TOM SEYMOUR IS ENTRANCED
(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Shane Carruth is describing the life of a microscopic parasite that breeds in the guts of a cat. To locate such a cosy nest, he explains, the parasite takes over the mind of a rodent, making it behave like an easy feline lunch. Given half a chance, toxoplasma gondii will live in humans too. Left unnoticed, it can change the way our brain works, causing OCD and schizophrenia, controlling who we think we are. In Carruth's new film, Upstream Colour, these tiny manipulators have a starring role.
A maths graduate who spent his twenties designing flight-simulation software, Shane Carruth announced his change of careers in 2004 with Primer, a wilfully strange sci-fi about two men who accidentally create a time machine. Carruth made it virtually by himself, on a budget of just $7,000, before disappearing. It's been a difficult decade, he admits, pockmarked by promising projects aborted because funding meant compromise. And Carruth doesn't do compromise.
He is also a self-diagnosed recluse and self-declared "full-on, total" obsessive. "I don't have a wife or children. I live in the suburbs alone. I'm isolated," he says, raking his hands over his face. He's elegantly dressed in comfy knits, but he looks strung-out, like a model from Gap's autumn range trying to recover from a particularly bad dream.
Upstream Colour was shot around Carruth's Dallas home in near-secrecy. He directed, starred in, produced and wrote the film, composed the score, operated the camera, lit the scenes and edited the footage. He's now overseeing distribution and marketing, crafting the trailer and making the posters. "In the best possible way, Shane is crazy," says Amy Seimetz, who plays the film's lead character, Kris. "He fights for a lot of things and the set could be an intense environment."
"Upstream Colour began by wondering what would happen if you stripped away someone's identity," Carruth says. We're in a Soho bar on a pewter-grey rainy day, during which his rakish good looks gradually become contorted by the efforts of answering simple questions about his film. It begins with an unnamed man kidnapping Kris as she leaves a nightclub, forcing a strange bug down her throat and turning her into an obedient automaton willing to give her entire life away.
"I decided I wanted to leave Kris vacant of everything that defined her," Carruth explains, "so when she starts to rebuild her life, she constantly wonders what might be missing."
As Kris begins to recover, Carruth himself enters the film as Jeff, a hesitant man who catches the same commuter train as her. Something about Jeff suggests he's suffered a similar ordeal, and the two fall in love. "Do you know this place?" she keeps asking him. "I want to say yes, for you," he says.
It might sound like a highbrow Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, but mostly Upstream Colour is a damaged romance, told through a broken mirror montage, shot with the hazy shimmer of Terrence Malick and filled with the strange symbolism of David Lynch. The film stems from the debates Carruth often has with his family, in which he finds himself questioning whether we can ever truly make decisions when so much is out of our hands. It asks how much our identities are shaped by genetics, nurture, chance - sources that exist "upstream" from us - and whether it's ever possible to swim against the tide. "We're pushed around by things we don't know about," he says. "We're affected at a distance by a world we only think we understand, but really we don't."
Given how deeply embedded Carruth was in the whole process, how did he know when the film was finally complete? "I knew because the film is perfect," he says with dramatic exasperation. We only ask because he looks so stressed out - couldn't he have delegated a few tasks?
"Only I can touch it," he replies. "The film needs to be carried forward of its own volition, so I can't let it be managed by anybody but me. I can't let it be part of a conspiracy."
If Carruth is a bit obsessive, then he is an obsessive capable of imagining a different sort of cinema. Upstream Colour isn't interested in telling just another story. Dredging up all sorts of complex emotions, it's a film that has come from very deep inside a very conflicted and talented man, one who is now struggling with the exposure.
"Shane has taken personal experience from his own life, he's internalised it and then he's abstracted it," Seimetz says. "It makes for great creative work, but it's an extremely stressful process. He doesn't sleep, really. His brain seems to be constantly asking why things are as they are."
Carruth's next film is called The Modern Ocean - he was busy writing the screenplay in his hotel room the night before we meet. "It's a much bigger story, about ships at war at sea, with pirates and privateers and great tragic romances," he says. If he intends to exert the same level of control over The Modern Ocean as he did over Upstream Colour, you fear for his sanity. Yet it's a risk Carruth appears to be willing to take in order to harness the strange currents of his unbridled imagination *
Upstream Colour is in cinemas from Friday
(c) 2013 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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